Let There Be Light - Part III
This article, excerpted from the book, Light of Liberty, is continued from the October issue, and will continue in the December issue of The Evangelist magazine.
On November 10, 1483, Martin Luther was born to Hans and Margaretta Luder in the small town of Eisleben, Germany. Having been born into the Holy Roman Empire, Luther was immediately ushered into the strict Catholic lifestyle. Martin Luther’s father, owning a nearby copper mine, saw his profession as harsh and often dangerous. He aspired for his son to ascend to a greater calling. He sent a young Martin Luther away to a highly regarded school. At the age of seventeen, he entered the University of Erfurt, a premiere university in Germany, where he received his bachelor’s degree in only two years and his master’s by the age of twenty-two. Obeying his father’s wishes, young Luther went on to study law.
Luther became increasingly drawn to theology and philosophy. He was determined to seek out the meaning of life through these avenues, but he soon found little satisfaction in the ideals of philosophy. His concentrated studies made him aware of the need for divine intervention, spiritual truth, and salvation, but this did not mean he understood the true grace of God. In reality, Luther was attempting to be righteous in God’s sight through works. Martin Luther became increasingly eager for a change in his life that would fill the void in his heart.
Martin Luther had been attending law school for only a few weeks when his father sent for him to come home and celebrate his recent graduation from the university. On his journey home, Luther found himself in the midst of a tumultuous thunderstorm. The night sky lit up in a magnificent display of nature. The rains poured. The thunder crashed. Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck near him. Stricken with panic, terrified, and desperate, he cried for help: “Help, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” In times of great adversity, a true believer knows to call on the name of Jesus, but for Martin Luther, he knew no better.
After this declaration, the storm quickly subsided, and Luther emerged unscathed. To him, a bolt of lightning was a sure sign of God’s judgment. Having been spared of his life and seeing this as divine intervention, Luther kept his bargain with St. Anne, dropped out of law school, and immediately entered an Augustinian monastery, much to the chagrin of his father. His joining of this religious order began a journey that would lead him from a confused, young monk to a man who would defy an empire.
Feeling haunted by the insecurity of his salvation, he felt the monastery to be a perfect venue to seek assurance. Life as a monk was not simple, and Luther did not haphazardly undertake his devotion to the boundaries of monkhood. Every waking minute was dedicated to rigorous amounts of fasting, prayer, confession, and pilgrimages—even flagellation.
His room was small. It contained one chair, a candlestick, and a straw bed. There was no heating, which made the winters nearly unbearable. He would beg for food in the streets, not for economic reasons, but for spiritual humility. Eating only once a day, he became brutally thin, practically flesh and bones. His fragile, bony figure was distinctly visible through his gown.
Yet, after all of this self-inflicted torment, peace with God escaped him. The more he tried to do for God, the more he became aware of his sinfulness. Nothing he did could suppress his spiritual turmoil. The assurance he so longed for evaded him. Luther would later describe this part of his life as one of great spiritual despair. “I lost touch with Christ the Saviour and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
He found limited encouragement in Johann von Staupitz, vicar general of Luther’s monastery. Staupitz decided that Luther needed more work to distract him from constantly mulling over himself. He ordered Luther to pursue an academic career, and in 1507, Luther was ordained into the priesthood.
Three years later, Luther was given the opportunity to be a delegate to a church conference in Rome. Staupitz believed this trek to Rome would revitalize Luther’s devotion, not only to God but, also, to the Catholic Church.
Upon Luther’s arrival in Rome, he witnessed nothing less than a hotbed of debauchery. There was witchcraft in the streets, luxury and apathy among his fellow clergymen, priests soliciting prostitutes, and ignorant clerics with no compassion for the spiritually broken. He became more disillusioned than ever. Discouraged by the immorality, wickedness, and corruption he witnessed among the Catholic priests in Rome, Luther decided he wanted no part of this deliberate abuse of authority.
Upon his return to Wittenberg, Luther lay hold on the Word of God and continued his meticulous study of Scripture. He went on to receive two bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies and a doctorate of theology, subsequently accepting a teaching position on the theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg. The demands of preparation for delivering lectures drove Martin Luther to study the Word of God in even greater depth.
In the book of Romans, the apostle Paul tells of the “righteousness of God.” Luther had always understood that phrase to mean that God was a righteous judge who demanded human righteousness. Now, Luther was beginning to understand righteousness as a gift of God’s grace. This discovery set Luther afire. He had discovered, or recovered, the doctrine of justification by faith.
A spark ignited.
His awakening to the understanding of justification opened the divide between the Roman Catholic Church and himself. It led him to a fresh understanding of the doctrines of salvation. Luther finally found the assurance that had evaded him, and his critique of the theological world around him was beginning to take shape.
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