The following is a Reader’s Digest version of what led Martin Luther to the discovery of the gospel. It introduces Luther’s upbringing, education, and life as a monk before turning to the nature of the gospel he discovered in the writings of St. Paul.
Luther was the second son in a family of eight children. His father and mother were sturdy German Bauern (peasants): coarse, credulous, and devout. Often in the beliefs of these untutored folk, elements of old German paganism blended with the Christian story: woods, winds, and water were peopled by elves, gnomes, fairies, mermen and mermaids, sprites and witches; and witchcraft was taken for granted throughout Europe. Young
Luther had ample opportunity to witness the mischief and grief of evil spirits, soon learning the marvelous power of the church to control the demons. As a result, Luther carried over many typical German peasant superstitions of his day.
Scholars tell us that there was nothing remarkable about Luther’s home life. His parents were God-fearing but not unusually devout, and the children were subjected to a stern upbringing. Typical of the age, the switch and beatings were the most common way to raise a family, and young Martin
received his share. But as Luther began to show academic promise, he became highly esteemed at home.
In his classic book, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1987), Yale University historian Dr. Roland Bainton summarizes these early years: “We know this much. Luther imbibed a religion in which one had to strive for future salvation, just as one had to work for material survival.”
School education reinforced the training of the home. Children were instructed in sacred song, singing Psalms and hymns, and they attended Mass and Vespers. Bainton writes that “the entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the church.”
Schools of that day were not tender, but neither were they brutal. Teaching was by drill and punctuated by the rod. Luther remembered being soundly beaten for failing to conjugate a Latin verb he had not yet learned! But he knew Latin was useful: it was the language of the church, of law, of diplomacy, of international relations, of scholarship, even of travel. Luther was therefore devoted to his studies and became highly proficient in Latin and German grammar.
By age seventeen, Luther was a student at the University of Erfurt. As the university was yet untouched by the Renaissance, Luther remarked that the most popular courses were those offered in the inns and taverns (many students, including Luther, referred to the university as “a bawdy house and a beer house”). Luther’s first year was nothing special. In 1505, however, he was one of seventeen students (out of an original three hundred) who graduated as a “master” of arts. During that time, he built a reputation among his fellow students as one of the finest disputants, and they dubbed him “the philosopher.”
In many ways, Luther as a young man was an ordinary, although gifted, student: sociable, musical, popular, pious. He was rollicking, fond of music, proficient on the lute, and enamored of the German landscape.
In one respect, however, Luther stood apart from his fellows: his inner bouts with the Anfectungen that plagued him throughout his life. The word has no English equivalent, but it is stronger than “temptation” or “trial.” Closer would be “assault” or “attack”‘terrifying ordeals, bouts of depression, despair, perhaps what people of earlier centuries called “melancholia.”
Luther often wondered if God held good intentions toward him or not’his anxieties stemming from late medieval Roman Church theology. Luther feared God and everlasting condemnation; he sensed deeply the stare of Christ the Judge standing over him, demanding of him an impossible level of inner purity. At times, he could not help fearing that these feelings were evidence that he was not one of God’s elect, but rather among those destined to be damned.
After two months of attending lectures in law, Luther went home for a visit. We don’t know why, but he later wrote that it was because of fear over the condition of his soul. During his return to university, a sudden storm arose, lightning flashed, and the air pressure of a bolt suddenly knocked him to the ground. In terror, he cried out, “St. Anne, save me! I will become a monk!” The thought of sudden, unexpected death terrified every medieval Christian, because it would not allow a last confession to a priest.
It was no easy vow to keep, and Luther carefully considered his obligation to it. Though his father was angry and several of his teachers thought his vow was not binding, Luther could not avoid keeping his promise. He threw a farewell party for his friends and gave away his musical instruments and Roman law books. Then, in the fall of 1505, with heaviness of heart, he arrived at the Augustinian Order’s monastery in Erfurt’the most rigorous of the local monastic groups.
Like everyone else in the Middle Ages, Luther knew what to do about his plight. The wise and secure course was to “take the cowl.” But why did Luther drop out of law school and join a monastery? For exactly the same reason thousands of others did’to save his soul!
Medieval monasticism reflected the deepest insight of the Roman Church concerning the relation of the holy God to man the sinner. In the last analysis, a holy, righteous, and just God could have fellowship with and could accept only a holy, just, and good man. But how could such a God of perfection accept a sinful man as his own? The real problem was to make a man sufficiently holy, so that his acceptance by God, if not certain, was at least highly probable. As Bainton explains, “[Luther] set himself to the pursuit of holiness. Monasticism constituted such a quest; Luther looked upon the cloister as the higher righteousness.”
His teachers, following the Bible, taught that God demanded absolute righteousness (as in Matthew 5:48, “Be ye perfect”). People needed to love God absolutely and their neighbors as themselves; and they should have the unshakable faith of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son’hence the demand that the monk fulfill all the laws and commands of God, including poverty, chastity, and obedience.
The life of a monk was terribly hard, but people of Luther’s day “knew” that it was pleasing to God. Its benefits were “certain.” Were the monastics aware of the great gulf between God and man? Absolutely! They also knew that the fluctuation between despair and hope, between unbearable demand and partial fulfillment, would produce doubts and spiritual torment in many of the good brothers’but this served to keep them from complacency and self-righteousness. Once their sinfulness was fully exposed, there were ample ways to reassure the weak in times of trouble. At the center of this assurance was the sacrament of penance. The sinner confessed to a priest, was forgiven (absolved), and then performed penitential acts that completed the process. People were to repent in a fully contrite manner’not for the purpose of saving themselves. But Luther knew that in the midst of this most crucial act, he was at his most selfish. He confessed his sins and performed his penance out of the intensely human instinct to save his own skin. Yet because of the human tendency to sin, one could hardly confess enough. This critical issue remained vivid in Luther’s mind. He later commented, “If one were to confess his sins in a timely manner, he would have to carry a confessor in his pocket!”
When Luther tried to avail himself of this comfort, it failed to produce the desired results: “Yet my conscience would never give me assurance, but I was always doubting and said ‘You did not perform that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.'” How then could he stand before God?
Monasticism provided a variety of ways in which man could wash away his sin and improve his spiritual estate. The monk could fast, pray, meditate, perform Mass, beat his body, and engage in other physical/spiritual exercises. Through this, the body and pride would be defeated.
In addition to an acute sense of the holiness of God, Luther had a brutally honest picture of himself as a creature. He knew all too well that it is easy for man to see himself “in the best possible light.” Man is usually willing to forgive himself and then rest assured that God has also forgiven him. “So long as one does the best that is in him,” man is sure it is enough. But Luther was too sensitive to be satisfied with such “answers.” What Luther saw was a self-centered sinful man holding sway under the pretense of monastic holiness. So serious were the mounting struggles that Luther began to think he may be one of those predestined for damnation.
A critical moment came when Luther’s superiors ordered him to take his doctorate and become a professor of Bible at Wittenberg University. Although he initially resisted going'”It will be the death of me!”‘he finally relented. As one historian famously notes, this command that Luther pursue theological study “was one of the most brilliant or stupid decisions in the history of Latin Christianity.”
Although Luther’s fears and anxieties drove him into the cloister, they only intensified during his time as a monk. But the command to study academic theology meant he could now also investigate his struggles intellectually. He soon acquired his mature self-identity as a professor and a doctor of Sacred Scripture.
Luther’s early doctrine of justification was a form of self-torture. The problem was how to love God unselfishly, to reach a state of pure love of God for God’s own sake’which he learned from St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Still, Luther knew that we children of Adam are “curved in on ourselves” and that we seek only ourselves. For Luther, the remedy for the evil self-love was self-hatred. This was the essential road to salvation: agree with God’s verdict and the rightness of his wrath against us, even be willing to be damned. (Justification is the opposite: we agree with God’s wrath against us, feeling that in our hearts; the just man always accuses himself.)
This thinking, however, led Luther to a deeper fear of God rather than greater love for him, thus setting up a vicious cycle of fear, resentment, and despair, which led to anger and a hatred of God. What was missing was the gospel as God’s kind Word of promise.
Luther felt compelled to turn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, particularly to wrestle with the phrase “the righteousness of God”: “The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16’17 and Hab. 2:4). Luther’s first understanding of the verse was that the gospel merely confirmed the dreaded juridical interpretation of “God’s righteousness” as demand’a revelation of the punitive righteousness of God, God’s means of further tormenting men who are already fearfully burdened with original sin and the Ten Commandments. Still, he would not let go of the passage. He struggled and raged against the demands of a God who kept demanding that which man cannot give and then damns him for not giving it!
Then the breakthrough came. God by the Holy Spirit finally cracked open the passage to Luther’s understanding. In my paraphrase: “The one who gives up on his or her supposed, but really icky ‘righteousness,’ who shifts instead to trusting only in the Messiah’s righteousness freely given or imputed to him, that sinner will live.” Gratuitously (freely) that sinner is forgiven all of his sin, reconciled to God, adopted into the family of God as his child and heir, and given eternal life. “Being turned away from” obsession with our “icky” righteousness to Jesus Christ’s (genuine but “alien”) righteousness as the only hope we have is, what Paul calls, “faith.” (Think of the old King James translation of the verse in Jeremiah: “Turn Thou me and I shall be turned.”) So we get no credit for saving faith whatsoever. Like Peter’s confession as to who Jesus was, it is a gift to us from heaven: “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven.” As a result, the sinner is made alive to God and begins to walk in his way.
In grasping the meaning of “justification,” Luther saw that the heart of the gospel has to do not with what God demands but with what he gives to man in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here Luther leaned heavily on St. Paul. The “righteousness of God” that saves sinners is not an active one (something man does), but is rather entirely passive. A man is not righteous because of what he achieves, but because of what Jesus Christ did for him in his death and resurrection. Man simply trusts God at his Word and hopes in the inscripturated promise of God. He trusts that God in Christ has completely accepted him while he was still a sinner, has forgiven his sin, instantly judged the sinner as completely acquitted, and given him eternal life’and all this based solely on what Christ has done outside of him and for him, not “in him.”
For the first time in his life, Luther discovered what “peace” meant. It was not some self-induced tranquility of mind or even a profound resting secure in an ancient and hallowed tradition, but rather a childlike trust in God’s own promises in Scripture, in texts that spoke of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ. It rested not on personal vision or ecstasy, a miracle, or on the adjustment of Luther’s personality to the tensions he experienced. Finally, the gospel is not about man at all (except in the sense of the God-man, Jesus Christ); it is not about merit or effort, but about Jesus’ struggle with wrath and judgment, and with Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil. This is what drove Luther’s hammer.