Why Should April 18 Matter to You?1
In case you missed it, and I hope you didn’t, yesterday, April 18, 2021, was a massively significant anniversary. Of what, you ask? I’m glad you asked.
Yesterday, April 18, 2021, was the 500th anniversary of what may well have been the most significant event in more than 2,000 years of church history. That may strike you as an outlandish statement, but I believe it may well be true. I’m sure we could identify other significant occasions and turning points in church history. But in my humble opinion, nothing compares with the monumental impact of what happened 500 years ago, yesterday.
On this very day, 500 years ago, the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, stood in front of the Emperor Charles V at what is known as the Diet of Worms. The word “Diet” has nothing to do with not eating and “Worms” has nothing to do with slimy earth crawlers. “Diet” is a 16th century term that refers to a formal or official convocation or assembly to decide judicial and theological matters of great importance, which in this case took place in the German town of Worms.
Four years earlier, in 1517, Luther had posted his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, in Germany, an event that some believe launched the Protestant Reformation. In any case, in the four years that had passed, Luther had promoted and published widely his view that our justification before God was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
On this day, April 18, 500 years ago, Luther had been called to stand trial because of what he believed the apostle Paul taught concerning justification by faith alone, together with other subjects such as the fallibility of the Pope and church councils. Although historians debate what Luther actually said on April 18, 1521, we can know with some degree of confidence the essence of it.
On the previous day, April 17, he had been asked two questions. First, are these books that were laid out on a table in front of Luther, his books. Did you write them, they asked Luther? And secondly, do you stand by what you wrote, or will you retract your views and deny that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone? Luther looked at the books and said, “Yes, I wrote them all. In fact, I’ve written far more than what you have here today. But as to whether I would retract anything I wrote, I ask for 24 hours to pray and consider.”
Luther’s response was hardly cowardly, as the events of April 18 would prove. He simply wanted time to pray before giving what would be a historic statement, a statement that in all likelihood changed the world. If he had answered differently than he did, if he had retracted his beliefs about justification, all of our lives would be vastly different from what they are today. All of human history would have been vastly different.
So, what did he say?
It’s important that you understand how remarkably courageous Luther was in even showing up at Worms. He knew that his life would be in danger and that he stood to be arrested and most likely executed. The story of how he escaped capture and what happened in the aftermath is the stuff of which award-winning movies are made. But I digress. Luther looked at the Emperor of the Roman Empire and declared:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
Let me ask you today, on the day after this 500th anniversary of Luther’s declaration: Is your conscience bound to anything other than the Word of God? Mine isn’t. My conscience, my mind, my heart, and all that I am is “captive to the Word of God.” No human being, neither Pope nor pastor nor theologian nor politician has authority over my conscience. I gladly echo what Luther said: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”