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Saints Among Us; The Story of Martin Luther
Living a scrupulous, Christian life is hard. Even the most pious are constantly questioning their own good deeds and whether they’re doing “enough” in the eyes of the Lord. Many good and holy people are dogged by their own demons of doubt and fears of failure. They know that they try to be good and righteous, but they also know that they can be even better and more righteous. Some good and holy Christians are haunted by visions of hell and their knowledge that they’re not good enough to stand upright before an omnipotent Creator.
The Righteous will live by faith.— Romans 1:17
Perhaps none felt their own lack of worth more keenly than Martin Luther. Born on 10 November, 1483, in Eisleben Saxony in Germany to Hans and Margerette Luther. Hans and Margerette were born into the peasant class but Hans had managed to find success as a miner and ore smelter. The elder Mr. Luther turned his success as a miner into a position of prominence and became town councilor in 1492. Though he had managed to succeed as a miner, Hans did not wish such a harsh and unforgiving life for his own son. He pushed Martin to become a lawyer. At the tender age of fourteen, Martin Luther went north to a school in Madgeburg, returning in 1498 to Eisleben for further education. Luther was less than impressed by his experience, likening it to hell. He received his Baccalaureate degree in 1502 and his Master’s in 1505.
With his Art’s Degree safely secured, Martin Luther was now free to tackle a graduate degree in law, medicine, or theology. An obedient son, Luther followed his father’s direction and pursued a law degree—a path he managed to follow for an entire month and a half. On 17 July, 1505, Luther severed his ties to law school and joined the monastery of the Order of the Hermits of St. Augustine. By all accounts, Luther had no problem with becoming a lawyer. He had been groomed for the profession his entire life without any known objection, so what happened?
Even flagellation wasn’t enough for Luther to feel saved. He was a rat stuck on a treadmill: his legs were pumping, he could see the reward, but he couldn’t reach it. His effort left him no better than before. He felt only cold and empty, discouraged and disillusioned. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t reach God.
According to Luther, the impetus for the change was a violent thunderstorm that besieged the village of Stotternheim. The tempest terrified poor Martin to the point where he vowed before God and man that if he made it out alive, he would join the monastery and live his life in obedience to God. God may have been pleased by Luther’s commitment, but Hans was surely disappointed by Luther’s decision. In those days life was often ruthless to those without wealth, and Hans wanted better for his son than that he live a life of poverty and obedience to God. And surely, one can be just as devoted to God living a comfortable life as a lawyer than living a life of hardship as a monk. The monastery provided Luther with a sparsely furnished, unheated cell. None of this deterred a determined Martin, however, his commitment to the monastery could not be shaken.
A commitment to God is good and noble, but Luther’s motivation was less about serving God and more about fear of His eternal wrath. Proverbs 9:10 says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” When he wrote that verse, King Solomon did not mean that we should fear the wrath of an angry creator who, at any moment would cast us down into the fiery bowels of a flaming Hell. Rather, to Solomon, the word “fear” didn’t mean terror, but respect and awe. Solomon, in his own world-renowned wisdom, was saying that the wise start with a reverence for a Divine, Heavenly Father. Solomon intended that we have a desire to love and serve God, not slavishly fear Him, but rather have a faith that is pleasing to the Lord. Solomon came to that conclusion by drawing on previous Biblical law and commentary.
Unfortunately, for Martin Luther, he didn’t seem to get the memo. Luther didn’t have the awe and reverence for a loving God, he had a real fear of a vengeful God. Luther didn’t want to stand before such a God with his sins laid bare before him, he knew enough to know that he wasn’t worthy. Luther had hoped that by becoming a monk and living a life of service and obedience to God, that it would help him to find the salvation that he craved.
Luther dove into his life at the monetary with a fervor. He prayed and fasted, but that wasn’t enough. He went without sleep, even eschewing a blanket to endure extremely cold temperatures, and it still wasn’t enough. Even flagellation wasn’t enough for Luther to feel saved. He was a rat stuck on a treadmill: his legs were pumping, he could see the reward, but he couldn’t reach it. His effort left him no better than before. He felt only cold and empty, discouraged and disillusioned. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t reach God. His fear of eternal damnation continued to haunt him and weigh him down. In Romans 1:17 Paul quoted the Old Testament book of Habakkuk 2:4 “The Righteous will live by faith.” Luther grew to hate those words. He felt that he could never have faith until he was righteous, and all of his efforts to become righteous only left him feeling unrighteous and unworthy before a righteous God.
Through prayer and meditation, Luther finally understood the meaning behind Romans 1:17. The verse that had so often mocked and tormented him had finally come to make sense.
Salvation at Last
Luther struggled through his time in the monastery, but still managed to earn his Doctorate in Theology, even while he still felt disillusioned with God. In 1513, he was employed as a professor at Wittenberg University. During a lecture of the 22nd Psalms the first verse jumped out of the page and hit him like a lightening bolt. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” The verse hit him too close to home. Over a year later, he had to teach on the book of Romans. He meditated day and night, while Romans 1:17 worked itself around in his head. “The Righteous will live by faith.”
Through prayer and meditation, Luther finally understood the meaning behind Romans 1:17. The verse that had so often mocked and tormented him had finally come to make sense. In his words “I began to understand… that the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were born again and entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.” After years of bitter torment, Luther was finally at peace.
This newfound understanding allowed him to realize that the sacraments of the Catholic Church would not lead to salvation. He finally learned that the fear of God is not enslavement to Dogma, but rather a desire to serve and worship God. The doctrine of Faith Alone will bring salvation. Faith, not works, will get us right with an Almighty God. With the burden of spiritual failure finally lifted off of his shoulders, Luther was able to see that the church was in need of reform. He had some ideas on how to fix it, so to spark a conversation, Martin Luther famously nailed the 95 Theses to the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg. He had no way of knowing that that small act would kick off a massive revolution, lead to his excommunication, and the eventual formation of a new denomination which would later bear his name.
The Death of Luther and His Continuing Legacy
In 1533, Luther became the Dean of Theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he served there until his death thirteen years later. In his later years he suffered numerous health problems; arthritis, gastrointestinal distress, and coronary disease among them. His illnesses worsened, but despite that, in 1546 he traveled to his hometown, Eisleben, two settle a dispute between two young nobles. The trip proved his undoing and he died on 18 February. He was 62. He lies interred at Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Some people are on this earth for a short while and they accomplish much. Some are here for a long while and they accomplish little. Some people cast small pebbles into ponds and they make little ripples that spread out over the water. Other people plunge stones into rivers and make a big splash. Luther thought he was tossing pebbles when he nailed the 95 Theses to that chapel door that fateful Halloween in 1517. He had no idea that from that simple step he would spark a revolution that would ultimately lead to countless denominations, revolutions, and even wars (obviously, that last one is a bad thing). Luther had no idea that his simple act would change the entire face of Christianity and help people to see that they could study the scriptures for themselves. The only thing that Luther knew was that he had finally been saved, and it was his desire that others attain that same salvation. It was that knowledge that led to much needed reform within the church. Luther died nearly 500 years ago, but his legacy is everlasting.
© 2018 Anna Watson