Martin Luther was a man with feet of clay. He was far from perfect. But one thing is undeniable, he was a man of courage. After his 95 Theses went viral, Luther lived with a cloud over his head. He remarked: “I am expecting the curses of Rome any day. I have everything in readiness. When they come, I am girded like Abraham to go I know not where, but sure of this, that God is everywhere.” After sending the Catholic church into a theological tail spin, Luther felt it was only a matter of time before he went the way of his forerunners like Hus and Wycliffe — that is, to the stake.
From 1517-1521, the aftershocks of Luther’s theological quake continued to ripple. Luther wanted an honest debate but never could seem to get one. Rather than debates, he was repeatedly called to simply recant.
In a defining moment, Luther was summonsed to stand before the council at the Diet of Worms. There was some debate as to whether he would go. Luther said: “I will reply to the emperor that if I am being invited simply to recant, I will not come. If to recant is all that is wanted, I can do that perfectly well right here. But if he is inviting me to my death, then I will come.”
He had in mind a recantation, but not the one his accusers wanted: “This shall be my recantation at Worms: ‘Previously I said the pope is the vicar of Christ. I recant. I say the pope is the adversary of Christ and the apostle of the Devil.” Clearly, Luther was resolved to his fate even if it meant his death.
When the day came for Luther to stand and give his answer at Worms, he was confronted by a stack of his books. He was asked if they were his and then asked if he is willing to recant his teaching. Luther differentiates between the books, in a maneuver that gives him an opportunity to make his case. Not being persuaded, the council wants an answer as to whether he would fall into line with the papacy or continue to teach his “heresy.” After asking for a day to think things over, the council reconvenes the next day for Luther’s now famous speech:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen. He was asked to repeat his answer in Latin, and he obliged.
The words, “Here I stand, I can do no other” appear later and were perhaps original (See Bainton’s discussion in Here I Stand, 139).
Despite the condemnation post Worms, Luther doesn’t want to leave Wittenberg. He is kidnapped for his own protection and taken away for 11 months to the Wartburg Castle, where he writes 12 books and translates the Greek New Testament into German in 4 months. After his time at “his Patmos” he reenters Wittenberg where he would teach, preach, and serve until he died in 1546.
Luther’s courage shines through in another instance. It was 1525 and the plague was sweeping across the region. The seminary faculty where he taught was ordered out of town to avoid the plague. Luther refuses. He and “his Katie” turn their home into an infirmary of sorts taking in the sick and dying. Luther recognizes this isn’t the path for everyone. He receives a letter asking whether it is ethical to leave during such a time. While cutting some slack for the populace, he though pastors needed to be resolved to stay: “For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their conscience.”
Courage takes on many different shapes both in the life of Luther and for all people. Some may be called on to make the type of bold, clear, and high stakes confession of the true gospel like Luther, for others, it’s more subtle like choosing to speak for Christ when it would be easier to stay quiet. Or it may be making yourself accessible to someone when you’d rather not. Courageous living for Christ may not look dramatic like it did for Luther, but that does not mean we don’t need to intentionally put ourselves second, perhaps even our own safety, and take a stand for Christ.
“A man who will not help or support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property will never help his neighbor.” Martin Luther