“The just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4). These are powerful words! In the early 16th century they brought light into the dark and desperate soul of a young German monk who in turn sparked a fire which spread throughout Europe and changed history forever. This monk was Martin Luther.
Before Martin Luther became a monk, he was a successful law student at the University of Erfurt. However, the course of Luther’s life took an unexpected turn one afternoon in 1505 when he was riding back to the university after visiting his family. The sky grew dark and soon Luther found himself caught in a terrible storm. Fearing for his life, he cried out to St. Anne, his family’s patron saint, to save him and promised to become a monk if he survived the storm.
Luther did survive and kept his promise. He exchanged his potentially successful career as a lawyer for the hard work of a monk at a monastery in the German town of Wittenberg. For several years, he lived and worked there. He had an overwhelming sense of guilt for his sin and he tried everything to make himself right before God. He would starve himself, beat himself and sleep in the cold without a blanket, hoping that these things would pay for his sins. But in spite of all this he found no peace before God and remained terrified of God’s judgement.
Years went by and Luther became more and more confused. He travelled to Rome for a church conference but was disappointed by the hypocritical behaviour of the monks and priests there. After returning to Wittenberg, he enrolled in the University of Wittenberg and earned a doctorate, becoming a professor of theology at the university. Still he had no peace.
Until this time, Luther had not actually studied the Bible; but now his position as professor forced him to do so. As he prepared lectures on Romans and Galatians which both quote and explain Hab 2:4, the light gradually began to dawn. The words, “the just shall live by faith,” penetrated his dark soul and he realized how wrong he had been in believing that his own works could make him righteous before God. It became clear that only faith in Christ could save him. As he wrote later in ‘The Heidelberg Disputation’: “the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated…but it is imparted by faith…For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow.” (Tappert, Vol 1, 81)
The Beginning of the Reformation
While Luther studied and taught, Pope Leo X was building the magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. To fund this project, he sent out a monk named Tetzel to sell ‘indulgences’. The crowds who flocked to buy these pieces of parchment were told that if they bought them they would receive forgiveness for their sins and the sins of their family members.
Of course, this teaching shocked and angered Martin Luther. He wrote out ninety-five statements explaining why indulgences and some other Catholic teachings were wrong. At noon, on October 31, 1517, he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This event, five hundred years ago, marked the beginning of the Reformation.
Before the Emperor
Not surprisingly, Luther soon found that he had become an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church. Many people began to question the teaching of the Catholic Church and the ideas of the Reformation spread across Europe. In 1521, Luther stood before the emperor in the council or “Diet” at Worms and was commanded to deny all the things he had been teaching. Luther knew that if he refused to recant, he could be burned alive at the stake. We still have a record of his reply to the emperor and this is some of what he said: “I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture … I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me! Amen.”
There he stood, a man saved by faith alone. The truth that Martin Luther had found was so precious that he was willing to die for it.
Empowered by the Word
Luther was condemned as an outlaw but God protected him from the punishment he could have received. Duke Frederick, who supported Luther, hid him in his castle in Wartburg for several months. Here Luther began to translate the Bible into German so that people would be able to read and discover the truth for themselves just as he had done. After Luther returned to Wittenberg he continued to write and teach for the rest of his life.
In the second of a series of eight sermons that Luther preached after returning from Wartburg, he made this powerful statement about his work: “I opposed indulgences and all the papists but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing…when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses (Satan). For it is almighty and takes captive the hearts…” (Tappert, Vol 2, 242). Martin Luther was a brilliant and courageous man but it was not his boldness and ability alone that changed history. The message he taught and suffered for, the truth of the Bible, was what changed and is still changing the hearts and lives of generations of people.
Tappert, Theodore G. Selected Writings of Martin Luther, Fortress Press, Canada, 2007
Davey, Cyril Martin Luther, Hero of the Reformation, Hunt&Thorpe, U.K., 1992
Martin Luther’s Speech at the Imperial Diet in Worms (18 April 1521)