Thought for the Day by Kevin Ward (St Michael’s)
LUTHER AT THE DIET OF WORMS 1521
Last week we commemorated the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s trial before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms, in 1521. Luther was accused of disturbing Christendom, of being a lawbreaker who challenged the very foundations of church and state. He ended his defence with these words:
“Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
Luther, as a scrupulous monk, had punctiliously obeyed the law, filled with anxiety and dread at his own failures. The crowd waiting at the foot of the mountain for Moses to return with the Ten Commandments, were filled with fear, because they sensed that no one can survive an encounter with a holy and righteous God. Luther was so tormented by his sense of unworthiness in the face of a stern and unrelenting divine legislator, that it led him to despair and mental torment. As Emma wrote in yesterday’s Thought for the Day, ‘If we focus on the letter of the law, there will always be technicalities and pitfalls.’
It was only when Luther came to realise that the holy God is also the loving saviour, whose Son died for our sins, that he was rescued from this vicious cycle. God takes on himself our failures and inadequacies, our despair and hopelessness. Paul urges us, in our second reading, to understand ‘the hope to which he has called you’, and the riches of Christ’s inheritance gained through his death for our sake and the new life obtained by Christ’s resurrection.
For Luther this discovery that we are not justified by our own obedience to the law, our own ‘good works’, but by faith in the work of Jesus Christ, came as an overwhelming relief. Christ’s faithful life, his death on the cross for us and our salvation, and his resurrection to new life, enable humanity to fulfil the destiny which God has intended for us. We are not condemned inexorably to fail. We are freed from the delusion, the self-satisfaction and complacency, that, after all, we’re not too bad, we live reasonably good lives. But, we’re also liberated from the corrosive pessimism of failure and that we can never be better. Faith in Christ releases us from our morbid hopelessness and frees us to act confidently in this world: ‘to boldly go’, as Star Trekkers will remember, recklessly splitting infinitives and confidently changing worlds – hopefully for good: but beware that lust for power and colonial domination to which humans, seeking to be like God, are constantly prone!
In his typical paradoxical language, Luther put it this way in a letter to George Spalatin, ‘Beware, my friend, of aspiring to such purity that you do not want to be classed as a sinner. For Christ only dwells among sinners.’
‘God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above allure and authority and power and dominion’Ephesians 1:20