500 years ago, on April 18, 2021, Martin Luther spoke the following words at the Diet of Worms:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”
Many of the people who heard Luther say this probably wondered why he was making such a big deal about his conscience. The prevailing opinion of the church and government leaders of Luther’s day was just to accept whatever the Catholic Church taught. Anyone who questioned church teaching, as Luther was doing, risked severe punishment..
But Martin Luther could not just let things go. There was too much that the church was teaching that was in direct conflict with the teachings of the Bible. As a Doctor of Theology he had taken a solemn pledge to uphold the teachings of the Bible. It bothered his conscience that so many people were being led astray, especially since many were being taught that they had to pay for something that was already free, namely, eternal salvation for sinners through faith in Jesus Christ.
Here is what Martin Luther had to say about a person’s conscience:
“Conscience is not a power designed to act but a power designed to judge, one that judges acts. Its proper work is, as Paul says in Romans 2:15, to accuse or excuse, to charge with guilt or to absolve from guilt, to make fearful or secure. Its office, therefore, is not to do but to sit in judgment on what has been done or is to be done; this makes a person either guilty or innocent before God.”
He also said:
Joy supreme is a good, quiet conscience; and sorrow supreme is the heartache of a bad conscience. For a bad conscience is hell itself; and a good conscience is paradise and the kingdom of God.”
Luther was not going to go against what he felt in his conscience was the truth. As Luther put it, his conscience was captive to the Word of God. His conscience could not be at peace as long as the Word of God was being misinterpreted.
In response to Luther’s appeal to the Word of God and conscience, Emperor Charles V issued the Edict of Worms which, as one historian put it, “was meant to crush all claims to the right of individual liberty of thought and conscience, the very cornerstone of modern Protestantism and of democracy.”
In the following words from Luther one can see the seeds of democracy and freedom of religion being planted:
“A court should and must be very sure and clear about everything if it is to pass sentence. But the thoughts and intentions of the soul can be known to no one but God. It is useless and impossible, therefore, to command or compel anyone by force to believe this or that. The matter must be handled in a different way; force will not do.
“Since, then, belief or unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience and since this does not diminish secular power, this power should be satisfied and tend to its own business and let men believe one thing or another, as they are able and willing, and should constrain no one by force.”
Luther simply wanted the freedom to believe the precious promises of forgiveness, life and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ taught so clearly in Scripture:
Acts 4:12: [Peter said] “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (ESV)
John 17:3: [Jesus said] “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (ESV)
Those of us who know this precious Gospel cannot in good conscience allow it to be changed or ignored from now until the Lord returns.
What Luther Says, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1959.
Luther and His Times, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 1950.