We said earlier Martin Luther struggled to find peace with God but did not find it initially. Just how difficult was his struggle? Read on.
Apparently well on his way to acquiring the formal training he needed to become a lawyer, Martin Luther made a decision that compelled him to take an abrupt and sharp turn. In 1505, in the midst of a life-threatening thunderstorm, Luther cried out to the patron saint of miners, “St. Anne, please save me! If you do, I’ll enter a monastery and become a monk!” Luther may have been contemplating this possibility for some time, but this event turned out to be pivotal in his life. He greatly feared divine judgment, hell, and the Almighty Himself; and he hoped he could find salvation—a peace with God that would allay his fears. The Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany became Luther’s new home. He took his monastic vows in 1506 and was ordained a priest the following year.
Life as a monk presented a great many challenges for Luther. Catholic theology at the time taught—or at least strongly implied—that while Christ had suffered and died to provide salvation as a free gift, one nevertheless could, through works of righteousness, bring himself or herself more closely to the bull’s eye of God’s grace. The fact that these two ideas were mutually contradictory didn’t seem to matter. Prayers, acts of penitence, confession, fasting, and other avenues of self-discipline, along with faith in Christ, were seen as means to eternal life with God.1
Luther prayed for hours on end. He fasted, went without sleep, and subjected himself to great physical discomfort in order to make his body subservient to spiritual principles and truths. He even would flog himself; yet Luther found no peace. He still was afraid of God and felt farther away from Him than ever.
Luther also would confess his sins to his mentor, Johann von Staupitz. He was so obsessive about the matter he nearly drove Staupitz crazy.
Once, Luther actually continued confessing for six consecutive hours, probing every nook and cranny of every conceivable sin and then every nook and cranny within each nook and cranny, until Staupitz must have been cross-eyed and perspiring just listening. When would it end? But Luther didn’t care. He was simply determined to keep digging until he got to the bottom of it all. But he never did. He did not yet understand that there really was no bottom, that we were sinful all the way down. All Luther knew was that as soon as he left confession, there likely lurked sins he had not ferreted out, despite his digging like a terrier after a rat.2
What advice did Staupitz give Luther? He essentially said, “Martin, you’re making religion far more difficult than it is! God loves you! Accept His love. Rest in His grace. Love Him, and lose yourself in Him.” Yet to Luther it wasn’t that simple. He remained tormented and fearful. Doubts plagued him. Recalling this period in his life, Luther later said, “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
Stauptiz would not give up. He sent Luther on a trip to Rome, where the Church was headquartered. Luther found no solace there, either; he instead became discouraged at the corruption he witnessed. Staupitz also encouraged his protégé to study and teach at the newly established University of Wittenberg. Luther did so, and it was in this role that, through his own study of the Scriptures, he began to see truths that led him out of his spiritual bondage.
It was in studying Romans that Luther at last found the peace he so long had sought. In Romans 1:17, Paul declared, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’”
I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,[a] for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.
—the apostle Paul to the Christians at Rome, in Romans 1:16-17—
Luther had encountered this Scripture before and wondered how he, an unrighteous man, ever could live by faith. Now, with fresh spiritual eyes, he saw that a person receives a right standing with God when he or she exercises faith in Christ for salvation, not after he performs a long list of good deeds on his own. Relying on Christ—nothing more and nothing else—is all God says we must do. This is not salvation by works, for declaring one’s helplessness before God is admitting one cannot save oneself.
Let’s put it another way. Righteousness before God comes from God as a gift to the individual who trusts in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. Here is a portion of Luther’s own testimony.
I lived without reproach as a monk, but my conscience was disturbed to its very depths and all I knew about myself was that I was a sinner.
I could not believe that anything I thought or did or prayed satisfied God. I did not love, nay, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.…
At last, meditating day and night…by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’”
Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is…a gift of God, namely by faith…
Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.
At last, Martin Luther had found the peace he so long had sought.
Against this historical and biographical backdrop, I’d like to highlight five principles that ring true down through the centuries to our day.
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1Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, (New York: Viking, 2017), 42-43.
Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.