by Rev. Donavon Riley
As Luther began to prepare himself to travel to Rome, at which time he would appear before papal lawyers to be charged with heresy, a letter arrived in Wittenberg. Luther was informed that he would not be required to show up in Rome after all. Instead, he was instructed in the papal letter to appear before Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg. Martin was to offer his confession to Cajetan, repent of his heretical teachings, and then be led to Rome in chains.
Fortunately for Luther, Frederick the Wise also received a similar letter from Rome. Frederick was unimpressed by the papacy’s demand that he turn over Luther or bring “everlasting shame” on himself. The elector also happened to be in Augsburg with Cajetan at the imperial diet when the letter reached him, along with everyone else of political power and influence in Germany.
What Luther didn’t know until much later is that Frederick and the other German politicians were stirred up about Rome’s endless fund-raising campaigns in their lands. At the diet, Frederick, on behalf of all the nobles gathered in Augsburg, read aloud their grievances and stated they would in no way compromise or bend to papal pressure until something was done to relieve the financial burden put upon the German people by Rome. This also meant, then, that Frederick was not in a mood to allow Luther to turn himself over to the papal authorities for any reason, especially since no one had yet proved the elector’s favorite theologian was guilty of an actual heresy.
However, to put on a show of faithfulness for the papacy, Frederick ordered Luther to appear in Augsburg at the same time that the elector was drawing up plans to rescue him from being dragged off to Rome for execution.
Luther, when he received the message that Frederick was ordering him to appear before Cajetan, was overcome by despair. Even though Frederick promised Luther would not be arrested upon appearing before the diet, this did little to reassure Luther that his life wasn’t soon to meet a grisly end. Luther knew from his history lessons at school what awaited him at the diet.
A century before, the reformer Jan Hus was promised safe passage to a diet at which he was to defend his teachings. What Hus failed to note though is that the Pope did not promise him safe passage home from the diet. When Hus left the diet he was immediately arrested and executed as a heretic. Luther had no hope that the outcome at Augsburg would be any different.
This weighed heavy on Luther as he made arrangements to travel to the diet. Thus, he prepared himself not so much to defend his teachings against the false accusations of Cajetan or papal theologians, but to go to his death.
Next week we will examine Luther before the diet at Augsburg.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for Higher Things.