Luther knew that he was dividing Scripture from tradition in a way that had not been done for a very long time in the history of the church. He acknowledged to the diet that following the Word of Christ would divide the church:
Because of the Word of God, zeal and disputes arise. For that is the course, the manifestation, and the effect of the Word of God; as Christ says: I came not to bring peace but the sword: for I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and so on. That is why we must bear in mind that God is wonderful and terrible in his counsel, so we will not strive to smooth out differences if by doing so we condemn the Word of God. Through this a flood of insufferable evil will most likely pour over us.
As a profoundly biblical Christian, Luther knew that his calling was not to preserve the wealth, influence, or formal unity of the church. Still less was he called to preserve Christendom or Western civilization. He was called to preach the gospel.
In his appeal to conscience and evident reason, he was not standing as a “modern” man, defending individualism and personal freedom to believe whatever he wanted. He accepted the authority of conscience only as it submitted to the Word of God. In referring to evident reason, he was not establishing reason as an autonomous authority but was speaking rather of clear thinking or careful use of the mind in studying the Bible.
For Luther, the Bible was the very Word, the very revelation of God. It is as true as God is true. It is as reliable as God is reliable. It is as authoritative as God is authoritative. We humans must use our talents as made in the image of God to understand that Word, and as we are sinners hoping for salvation we must accept the gospel it teaches.
Luther powerfully described himself and his teaching as “captive to the Word of God.” He was not being creative or self-assertive or reveling in rebellion. Rather, he was driven by the Word, taken and held by the Word. He knew the danger, but he also knew the joy and freedom of teaching as the Scriptures and the Apostles had taught. This was the path that was safe as he stood before God and sound as he hoped for the mercy of Jesus. Luther embraced the cross and whatever it brought to him because he knew from the Bible that whether he lived or died, he was the Lord’s.
Luther’s final words at the diet—“God help me. Amen”—have often been overlooked or treated as just conventional piety. But these words are as important as anything he spoke that day. He committed his cause to God, who alone could help him ultimately. He did not know if he would live or die. But he had confidence that he had served the Lord faithfully according to His Word and had preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. He believed that the Lord would help him accomplish all that He had ordained for him to do. And God did fulfill His purpose as Luther had expected when he had adopted as his life’s motto the words of Psalm 118:17: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.”
God did help him. Luther would preach, teach, and write for another twenty-five years. He would not see the whole church reformed according to the Word of God as he had hoped. But he would see the Word of God restored to its proper place in the true church and would see the gospel preached and believed far and wide. He stood there at Worms and God helped him—and through Luther, God helped us. Amen.