On April 16, 1521, Martin Luther arrived in the city of Worms to appear before the imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire. The previous year, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull against the German monk for his writings. Now Luther was summoned before Emperor Charles V and the electors, princes, and nobility of the empire to renounce his views. The following day, in the presence of the whole court, he was asked two simple questions: “Do you, Martin Luther, recognize the books published under your name as your own? Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?”1 To the first question, Luther answered yes. To the second, though, he wavered. Offering an answer to this question was more than he could handle at that moment. He realized that if he did not recant, there was a very good possibility that he would be condemned as a heretic, taken to Rome, and burned at the stake. Feeling in over his head, he asked for some time to think about how he should answer. The court granted him one day.
We can imagine the sort of fear that Luther must have felt as he mulled over his options that night. The Reformation was on the line, but so was his life. Where would he find the strength to do what was right and speak the truth in the face of harm?
Fear can be crippling. It can paralyze us when we ought to act and silence us when we ought to speak. This is one of the chief reasons that the Apostle Paul near the end of his life wrote a very personal letter to his trusted colleague, Timothy, the pastor of the church of Ephesus. Like Luther at the Diet of Worms, Timothy faced a situation that caused him to feel that he was in over his head. Persuasive false teachers were launching attacks on the gospel. Some in the church were questioning his authority as a pastor. He was discouraged and probably a little embarrassed about Paul’s imprisonment and declining reputation. He needed to stand up for the truth and faithfully preach the Word of God, but he was afraid of suffering. His flame was burning low. Paul found it urgent to remind Timothy that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and of love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).
We need that reminder too. Our circumstances can sometimes make us feel that we are in over our heads. At times it is quite certain that God has given us far more than we can handle. But it is also true that the Holy Spirit has equipped us in a threefold way so that we can fulfill our callings and persevere in the faith, even in the face of fear. The Holy Spirit has been given to us not to remove every form of suffering in this life but to conform us to the image of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:15–17). He is the down payment of the full inheritance we will receive in glory (Eph. 1:13–14). God’s Spirit gives us power to persevere in this life, even in the midst of the most difficult trials and hardships, providing us with the grace we need to go through them. He provides us with love, the first evidence of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), so that we can use our gifts sincerely not for our personal gain or advancement, but for the genuine benefit of others. He strengthens us with self-control so that we can serve others with self-discipline in regard to our thoughts and behavior, despite the discouragement of suffering or the threat of opponents.
What are those things in life that make you feel afraid and anxious? Do you dread the uncertainty of the future? Are you nervous about your circumstances taking a turn for the worse? Do you fear losing the people or possessions that are most important to you? Are you living as if God were not in control of things? If so, remember that your identity is in Christ. Remember who you are. Your fears, regardless of how strong they may feel, do not define you. The living God has become your heavenly Father. He has adopted you in Christ and given you His Spirit, not a spirit of fear. Because of the finished work of Christ, God is for you, not against you. He is sovereign over all things and will not allow anything to happen to us apart from His will. We can say confidently with the Heidelberg Catechism that God “is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this troubled life, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.”2
Perhaps it is not the uncertainty of the future that you fear but man and his disapproval. Are you afraid of being hurt by people? Do you fear rejection? Do you fear failure? Are you terrified of embarrassment and shame? Are you frightened to lose the high opinion of others? You do not need to be governed by these fears. The Son of God came into this world and took upon Himself our sin, shame, failure, and disgrace. We are now clothed in His righteousness and perfection. This is our true identity. We can say boldly with the psalmist: “the Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6; cf. Heb. 13:6).
This is the same Spirit that empowered Luther during his frightening predicament at the Diet of Worms. Luther submitted his answer to the court on the following day. By the grace of God, he was able to say:
Some of my books are neither sharp nor polemical. They deal with nothing but faith and the Christian life in accordance with the gospel. Even my opponents will be able to find nothing objectionable in them. Other writings are directed against the papacy, which is ruining the church, weighing down the human conscience and oppressing the empire. If I were to recant these, then, I would be doing nothing but strengthening tyranny . . . Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself to be convicted by the testimony of the Holy Scripture, 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. God help me. Amen.3
The same Spirit who strengthened Luther at Worms and Timothy at Ephesus is at work in you today, for He has given you the same thing He gave those men: a spirit not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.
- Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), 38.
- Heidelberg Catechism 26.
- Oberman, 38–39.