With his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther clearly had opened a can of worms. Four years after publication, he was called to face an Imperial assembly to eat not worms, but words.
The Diet of Worms (SEE BELOW NOTE) took place in an atmosphere of intrigue and political maneuvering. Though Pope Leo X had issued a letter of excommunication against Luther, the young Emperor Charles V was reluctant to enforce it. To do so would have alienated the powerful Frederick the Wise of Saxony and the restless German princes. Charles therefore, convened a hearing in the German city of Worms, at which Luther would appear and speak for himself.
The dignitaries in attendance included Emperor Charles V, the Electors of Germany, archbishops, bishops and other high-ranking churchmen of the Empire, in addition to noblemen, knights, and distinguished townsmen.
On April 17, 1521, Luther appeared before the assembly. Pointing to a stack of books, the presiding officer asked Luther if he would acknowledge authorship of the books and revoke the heresies they supposedly contained. Luther claimed authorship, but requested time to consider the rest of his answer, as it touched on matters of faith and salvation.
The next day, Luther’s answer rang boldly and clearly. After summarizing his reason, Luther declared: “I am neither able nor willing to recant, since it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Luther’s speech in defense of the individual conscience grounded in God’s Word against unbiblical regulations of church and state reverberates in Western society to this day.
After Luther made his world famous statement, cheers and boos disrupted the proceedings. The Emperor adjourned the court, and Luther went into hiding for his own safety. Later, the Diet issued the Edict of Worms, which declared Luther an outlaw and banned his writings.