This Reformation article on Martin Luther's stand at the Diet of Worms (1521) first appeared in the November 1, 2021 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.98, No.3) and was written by Karl Dykstra, a teacher at Covenant Christian High in Grand Rapids, MI.
The Swan’s Triumphant Song: From Worms to the Wartburg
Martin Luther was not the first ‘heretic’ to stand before the collective might of church and state. He was just one of the few who lived to tell the tale.
Already some one hundred years earlier, the Bohemian pre-reformer Jan Hus, who endearingly referred to himself as “the goose” (the meaning of “Hus” in Czech), was similarly summoned to the Council of Constance in Germany and condemned. Just before his burning on July 6, 1415, Hus made a stirring declaration: “Today you cook a goose, but in one hundred years you will hear a swan sing—and him you will have to hear!” 1
Though he could not have known it, Hus was nearly a prophet. A century after the goose was cooked, a swan began to sing in the German town of Wittenberg. That swan’s name was Martin Luther.
In Luther’s day, the cooking of “the goose” Hus was well remembered. By it, the Holy Roman Church had set the precedent for what she did with heretics. In early 1521, and in Hus-like fashion, the excommunicated heretic Luther had been summoned to the imperial Diet of Worms.
Now it was the swan’s turn to sing.
Already at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, Luther had publicly identified himself with the Bohemian hero, Jan Hus. There at Leipzig the God of the Reformation used the skilled Catholic orator, John Eck, to back Luther into the corner of sola Scriptura. “A simple laymen armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it,” argued Luther. “For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils!” 2
But exactly that was the “Bohemian virus,” maintained Eck, and he charged Luther with “espousing the pestilent errors” of Hus.3 Initially, Luther vehemently denied the charge. But having studied the works of Hus during a break in the afternoon session of the eighteen-day long debate, he came back and shocked all in attendance by boldly proclaiming: Ich bin ein Hussite! 4
With that proclamation in 1519, Luther stood exactly where God wanted him to stand: on the firm foundation of Scripture alone.
Next would come his stand at Worms.
The swan is summoned to Worms
Pope Leo X had officially excommunicated the swan of Wittenberg on January 3, 1521, declaring him to be a heretic outside of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” With that the “German problem” became the prerogative of the young, new emperor Charles V, who was under oath to remove all heresy from his vast realm.
The grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain was all too eager to deal with the heretic in Wittenberg. On March 26, 1521, a letter from Charles V arrived in Wittenberg announcing the imperial diet, including an invitation to Luther that was all too similar to what Hus had received. “Come to Worms under safe conduct to answer with regard to your books and teaching,” the summoning read. And should Luther try to turn down the imperial invitation, Charles added the thinly veiled threat, “You have twenty-one days in which to arrive.”5
The situation for Luther was heating up, condemnation and death the inevitable outcome. Yet none of these things moved Luther. He had set his face toward Worms, willing to offer himself in defense of the gospel before some of the most powerful men on earth.
On April 3, 1521, Luther, accompanied by several friends and imperial dignitaries, began the three-hundred- mile journey to the Diet of Worms confessing that “He who saved the three men in the furnace of the Babylonian king still lives and rules.”6 Luther knew his outcome might mirror the fate of his fiery forerunner Hus.
Perhaps then Luther was spurred on by the confession of Hus: “It is better to die well than live badly.”7
The swan’s triumphant entry
Luther’s travel to Worms was not without high drama. Everywhere Luther stopped on his way to the diet he was greeted by throngs of people who wanted to see the monk who defied the pope and would stand before the emperor. Luther had become the German hero. Not only had his writings “spread as on angel’s wings” throughout Europe, but his portrait did too, thanks to illustrations created by Lucas Cranach, the artist of Wittenberg. Luther’s face was as recognizable as his writings. The nation wanted to see their hero in the flesh. As Luther entered German towns and villages, he found the streets packed with admirers, many even scampering up on rooftops to get a look at their hero.
But Luther became convinced that his ancient foe was attempting to hinder him from reaching Worms. When Luther preached in Erfurt—the place where he had studied to become a monk—the church was so packed with throngs of people that the balcony creaked, threatening to collapse. Farther along, when Luther preached again, massive stones crumbled off the church tower crashing to the ground. Luther chalked these up as the devil’s attempt to hinder the gospel.
In Eisenach, Luther became so ill that his travel companions were concerned for his life. This too Luther credited to Satan: “I know your tricks, you bitter enemy!” Then adding, “But Christ lives and we shall enter Worms in spite of all the gates of hell and the powers of the air!”8
Luther was a man on a mission. And he was going to Worms, even if he were threatened by as many devils as shingles on a roof.9
Luther rode into Worms on the morning of April 16, 1521. If Luther received a hero’s welcome in the various German cities along the way, his entrance into Worms became a spectacle for the ages. Trumpets blared from the cathedral top as two thousand people thronged to greet Luther with praise and singing. Their hero had arrived. Luther, descending from his carriage, triumphantly assured the throng, “God will be with me!”
The reception Worms gave Luther dwarfed what she had given the emperor. The Roman curia were more than a little annoyed; it seemed the whole world had gone after Luther. “I suspect he will soon be said to work miracles,” crankily commented one cardinal.10
The swan goes missing
By the time Luther stood before the Diet of Worms, the hype surrounding his triumphant entry had quieted. Just as the Council of Constance had ordered Hus to recant, the dignitaries of both church and state assembled at the Diet now demanded that Luther retract his writings. But with God’s help the swan of whom Hus prophesied boldly took his stand and could do no other.
Charles V was not impressed with Luther’s stand. As Luther was escorted out of the chamber, the emperor’s Spanish guards audibly chanted what everyone, including Luther, expected to be his imminent fate: “To the flames, to the flames.”11 Later, one cardinal spitefully sneered, “When [Luther] left, he no longer seemed so cheerful.”12 It seemed the swan would soon be cooked.
With Luther out of the diet’s chamber, Charles V declared Luther a heretic and outlaw in every corner of his empire. Luther was granted 21 days of safe passage back to Wittenberg before the sentence fell. “When the time is up,” Charles declared, “no one is to harbor him. His followers also are to be condemned. His books are to be eradicated from the memory of man.”13 The hope was that Luther would soon be eradicated as well.
Luther left Worms as a man with a price on his head. As an enemy of the empire, many suspected he would never make it back to Wittenberg. The route was long and winding, and it would not take much for an assassin lying in wait to put an end to Luther. Several days into his journey, as Luther’s party passed through a ravine, an eerily stillness settled over the dark forest. Without warning, horsemen armed with fearsome crossbows surrounded Luther’s wagon. The horsemen dragged Luther to the ground, tied a sack over his head, and then hoisted him on to a horse. While Luther’s companions ran for their lives, Luther’s captors whisked him away—but not before he had grabbed his New Testament and Hebrew Bible.
News of Luther’s disappearance made waves throughout Europe. The anguished artist Albrecht Durer lamented, “I know not whether Luther lives or is murdered…. If Luther is dead, who will henceforth explain to us the gospel? What might have he written for us in the next ten or twenty years?”14
Luther, renegade monk, the “wild boar” of Wittenberg, the hero of the gospel, the so-called swan, was missing. And as much as anyone knew, the swan was dead.
The swan sings from the mountaintop
But Luther was not dead. Perched high above a sea of sprawling German forest rests a mighty fortress known as the Wartburg Castle. This would be the hiding place of Luther, after the “kidnapping” orchestrated by Frederick the Wise and friends who feared for Luther’s life. In the Wartburg, Luther took on a new look and new identity, “Knight George.” No one must know he was the Reformer of Wittenberg. His very life depended on it.
In the “realm of the birds,” however, the swan was restless. Luther was a man of action, and being holed up in the Wartburg was maddening. Longing to be down in the heat of battle, he regarded the island in the sky as his “Patmos.” And had he even done the right thing, he wondered? “I have withdrawn from the public and thus obeyed the advice of friends,” he lamented. “I am uncertain whether with this action I have done something which is pleasing to God.”15
Though above the fray, Luther was not necessarily out of the thick of it. Writing to a friend, Luther admitted, “I am both very idle and very busy here; I am studying Hebrew and Greek and writing without interruption.” 16 For the first seven months, Luther busied his quill hurling ink at the attacks of the devil on the Reformation. Assaults against the Reformation came from both without and within, and Luther determined to save the church from Catholicism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other.
But in December of 1521, the swan’s song rose to a crescendo as Luther took up a mighty work that symbolizes his work and stay at the Wartburg refuge. Luther released the New Testament from its Latin prison. Though Luther himself was locked up behind a fortress, it did not mean the Word of God had to be. Opening his Greek New Testament that he had snatched from the wagon before being “kidnapped,” Luther translated all twenty-seven books of the New Testament into German in a shockingly short eleven weeks.17 Luther’s superb translation, simple and powerful in its literary style, still today is regarded as the principal German translation.https://cdn.rfpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/27145356/map-768x525.jpg 768w, https://cdn.rfpa.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/27145356/map.bmp
Taken from Martin Luther by Simonetta Carr (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 4. Used by permission
From the mountaintop, the swan trumpeted God’s Word to the hearts of God’s people, arming simple laymen with the triumphant song of the Reformation, sola Scriptura.
Ten years after he descended from his mountaintop fortress, Luther reflected on the work of the Reformation. He saw himself as fulfillment of his fiery forerunner’s prophecy. “Jan Hus prophesied of me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia: They will now roast a goose…but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing; him they will have to tolerate.
And so it shall continue, if it please God.”18 And so the swan’s triumphant song does continue 500 years after Worms and the Wartburg. For it pleases God that His Word stands forever.
1 Stephen Nichols, “The Goose and the Swan” in 5 Minutes in Church History (October 4, 2017). Ligonier Ministries: https:// www.5minutesinchurchhistory.com/the-goose-and-the-swan. 2 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 103. 3 Bainton, 102. 4 Herman Hanko, Portraits of Faithful Saints (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing, 1999), 112. 5 Bainton, Here I Stand, 201. Emphasis added. 6 Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 201. 7 Steven Lawson, Pillars of Grace (Orlando: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2011), 380. 8 Metaxas, Martin Luther, 206. 9 Metaxas, 206. 10 Metaxas, 207. 11 W. Robert Godfrey, A Survey of Church History, DVD, episode 3, "Martin Luther and the German Reformation" (Ligonier Ministries, 2012). 12 Metaxas, 212. 13 Metaxas, 230. 14 Bainton, Here I Stand, 188. 15 Metaxas, Martin Luther, 251. 16 Metaxas, 247 17 Upon his return to Wittenberg, Luther took up the sizable task of translating the Old Testament, completing the work in 1534. 18 Quoted in John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000), 11.