On April 18, 1521, Martin Luther stood to answer the questions put to him by the Roman church inquisitor Johann Eck, the secretary to the Archbishop of Trier (not the Eck whom Luther had debated in Leipzig). It had not gone well for him the day before. The result of this day’s proceedings, in Luther’s mind, was likely to be a painful death at the stake.

Luther was in Worms for the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, a periodic meeting of the emperor, the various electoral princes, representatives of free imperial cities and of the Roman church, and whatever apparatchiks were needed to make these things go off with minimal hitches. The business of the empire was taken up at diets, including raising funds and armies, quelling dissent, and dealing with an upstart teaching friar from an unheralded university in Nowheresville, Germany.

The reformer was in trouble. The previous September, he’d received the papal decree that demanded he recant his teaching lest he be excommunicated. He refused (and, indeed, burned a copy of the papal bull), and in January, Pope Leo declared him a heretic to the whole church. Luther was officially excommunicated ten days before the Diet began on January 28, but Emperor Charles V had already written to Elector Frederick, Luther’s prince, demanding that Luther appear at the Diet.

Luther was officially excommunicated ten days before the Diet began on January 28,

Since Luther’s excommunication was a done deal, the main reason for demanding that he travel across Germany to the city on the Rhine was managing the political implications of the Luther furor. In his report to Rome about conditions on the ground, the papal ambassador Jerome Aleander said, “At the present, all of Germany is in a decided uproar. Nine-tenths put up the battle cry, ‘Luther!’ and the other tenth, ‘Death to the Roman curia!’” The princes gathered in Worms told the emperor that not giving Luther a hearing could result in violent unrest.

Luther was given assurance of safe passage to and from Worms and may have assumed he’d get the honest hearing he’d been asking for since 1517. He told Johan Staupitz, the head of his monastic order, “This is not the time to be timid but raise the voice loudly.” The crowds at the city gates of Worms put Luther in mind of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Given their raucous support, we might expect that Luther would stomp boldly into the diet’s chambers for his hoped-for disputation. [For a full account of the proceedings, see “Luther at the Diet of Worms” in Luther’s Works, vol. 32, 103ff.]

What Luther saw there the afternoon of April 17 was an array of pomp and royal circumstance, with the emperor, princes, and bishops spread around the room and a pile of books on the table in the middle. An envoy described him this way: “… Martin Luther, about age 40 (give or take), rough in body and face with not particularly good eyes, his expressions moving, shifting lightly. As clothing he wore a robe of the Augustinian order with his leather belt, the tonsure large and freshly shorn, the hair cut off” [Andrea van Dülmen, Luther-Chronik, 75].

Lacking all hubris, Luther apparently wasn’t prepared to act on his earlier declaration that the pope “is the opponent of Christ and the apostle of the devil.” He had been warned to say nothing until he was asked. Nor did Eck, his Roman prosecutor whom Luther would later lampoon as Dreck (the German word for manure), have any interest in a debate with Luther. He put two questions to the German monk: First, do you recognize these books as yours and, second, will you stand by them or recant? With that, Luther’s hopes for a debate to determine the truth were shattered.

The judgment had been rendered months earlier, and this was to be a mere seal on the whole mess. The truth that he could be cast on the fire as his books had in Köln and Mainz must have dawned on Luther. It’s no surprise that Luther’s response was so meek that those in the room could hardly hear him.

Luther, who was equally fluent in German and Latin, used both languages in his response, but he spoke first in German as a subtle dig at imperial and ecclesiastical officialdom who did their business in Latin. To the first question, he answered, “The books are all mine, and I have written more.” To the second, Luther confessed he was worried about affirming or retracting anything without a chance to consider whether things were truly tuned to Scripture. He asked for time to consider things further lest his salvation be endangered. After a two-hour debate among the princes, Luther was given the requested time and ordered to return the next day at 4:00 pm.

The next day, Eck declared, “It is generally agreed that the obligation of faith is so certain for all that anybody, whenever he is asked, should be able to give his certain and constant reasons, not least of all you, so great and so learned a professor of theology. Come then; answer the question of his majesty, whose kindness you have experienced in seeking a time for thought. Do you wish to defend all your acknowledged books or to retract some?”

Luther responded by verbally sorting the stack of books on the table before him. Some of the books he was being asked to recant, he said, were actually pretty good stuff that even his opponents approved of. Revoking those just wouldn’t do. Another set of his writings were attacks on the entire papal apparatus in Rome that had “laid waste the Christian world with evil that affects the spirit and the body.” A recantation would just encourage tyranny. The third group comprised things he’d written against supporters of the papacy (though, he said, he’d perhaps dissed them too virulently) and couldn’t be retracted. He added that “Once I have been taught, I shall be quite ready to renounce every error, and I shall be the first to cast my books into the fire.”

This was Luther’s opening volley in a debate, but Eck shut him down. He accused Luther of quibbling about matters that had long been settled by church councils. This wasn’t the time for the accused to present syllogisms and sophisticated theological arguments. Eck said it was time to fish or cut bait: “Answer the question: do you recant or not?”

Luther answer was “neither horned nor toothed” but entirely straightforward: “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.”

In spite of the fact that you can buy socks in Wittenberg that say, “Here I stand; I can do no other,” the sources don’t agree that Luther said the line. The account friendliest to Luther includes it, but the one that leaned toward Rome doesn’t. Either way, we do know he ended by saying, “May God help me. Amen.”

To recant meant turning his back on the Lord himself.

Luther’s famous speech hinges on the question of conscience. It doesn’t mean what we think it does. For Luther, the conscience is your understanding of your relationship to others, especially to God. Christ came to quell the consciences of sinners with his grace and mercy. For Luther, all those present were demanding he turn his back on Christ’s promise given in Scripture. To recant meant turning his back on the Lord himself.

Today in most people’s understanding of the day, that ended things. But it wasn’t over. Eck began to tear Luther’s statement apart. “You have made various distinctions among your books, but in such a way that none of them contributes anything to this investigation.” Again, he asked for Luther to recant. Luther responded by saying that Eck was attempting to entangle him in the nets of so-called errors. If his accusers couldn’t free him from those traps, it meant his conscience was no longer free. He said he couldn’t retract what Scripture said: “God help me!”

At that point, the light in the windows had dimmed, and the Diet couldn’t continue. Luther left to the jeers and unseemly gestures of Spaniards, and everyone went to their quarters. The stage was set for what would be called the Edict of Worms, in which the emperor condemned Luther, called for his books to be burned, and threatened anyone who aided him. But for Elector Frederick’s wily move in keeping the Edict from being made official in Saxony, Luther was effectively wanted dead or alive in the rest of the empire.

Now the real work of the Reformation would begin: reforming the preaching of the church, establishing a structure to support such preaching, creating works the built faith, revising the liturgy, and continually battling those who would oppose the free proclamation of the gospel. Luther stood there as a witness to that gospel and still stands today ready to point to Jesus.