- “In most big libraries, books by and about Martin Luther occupy more shelf room than those concerned with any other human being than Jesus of Nazareth.” (1)
- [Martin Luther] revived the Christian consciousness of Europe…Religion became again a dominant factor, even in politics, for another century and a half. Men cared enough for the faith to die for it… If there is any sense remaining of Christian civilization in the West, this man Luther in no small measure deserves the credit. (2)
At the turn of the millennium, Time, Life and other prominent publications listed Martin Luther and the Reformation in the top 3 of the 100 most important events in the last 1000 years, yet many believers today are unaware of the important impact of the Protestant Reformation.
Not only did the Reformation bring about “the reviving of the Christian consciousness of Europe,” as Roland Bainton points out, but it also set the foundation for the coming revivals that followed in its wake:
From Hernhutt in Germany, to the Great Awakening in the American Colonies, to John Wesley and the revivals in England, all these revivals, as well as others, were directly linked to, and in the end a product of, the Protestant Reformation.
But there is something more here than just a mere understanding of the historical impact: There is a remarkable story in the events and central figure used to initiate the Reformation. It is the story of one person’s wrestling to find peace with God until he finds that “amazing grace” that liberates the soul, as Luther experienced.
A Miner’s Son
Martin Luther had been a simple miner’s son, an unknown monk, a man without power or influence in the world, who would, in the end, stand up to the establishment in both church and state that had become inconceivably corrupt and in the course change the course of Western history.
Luther was a simple Catholic monk with nothing to back him, nothing but his faith in God and the revelation of God’s grace he’d come into. In spite of the overwhelming onslaught launched against him, he stood upon the faith and revelation of grace that had come over his life. That grace sustained him through all the trials and tribulations he’d face, as a fierce attack was unleashed against him for daring to question the unbiblical practices the Catholic church had embraced and instituted.
As historian Kenneth Scott Latourette and missiologist Ralph Winter point out, his was an experience like many in Christian history, a story of the minority, the one without backing, a man at the bottom, without worldly power, without means, without money or access to any, one who goes outside the establishment.
Like Moses before Pharaoh, with nothing more than simple faith in God, Luther stood up to the powers of his day when he was brought to defend himself before the Diet, in Worms, Germany, as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the V sat listening in judgment of what he would have to say.
In that day and age, dispensing of alleged heretics, as Luther was accused of being, was no problem. The Inquisition was in full swing, having been birthed by Catholic fanatics in Spain and the inquisitors took strange pleasure in torturing and burning to death those that did not tow the line of Medieval Catholicism.
Knowing that he was facing probable death and torture, Luther would still not recant when pressed by the diet to do so but proclaimed: “My conscience is captive to the word of God.... I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand, so help me God.” A poignant and important moment in all history to be sure, yet a deeper story is underneath it all.
The Transformation: From Tame to Tiger
Luther never intended to stand up to anyone or anything in the beginning at all. In fact, Luther had actually been quite a tame soul.
After entering the monastery, he unquestioningly went along and devoutly followed all the prescribed rituals the Catholic Church laid out. From penance, to fastings, to long dead prayers, to confession of his sins before the priests, he did it all, willingly, hoping…hoping to find salvation and peace, yet none of it brought him close to God whatsoever. In fact he felt further from God now and was worse off than when he started with all these rituals.
He kept at it though, hoping to persevere and finally arrive at the peace with God he was supposed to find through all the prescribed Catholic Church rituals.
He began, however, to drive the other priests mad by his frequent confessions, obsessively confessing for hours at a time, trying to expunge every possible sin in his life he could think of—after all, this was what he was supposed to do according to Catholic teaching—and he felt he must find each and every sin and confess it.
His superior Staupitz, however, was getting annoyed and told him: “Why don’t you go out and commit some real sins and come back when you have something to actually confess.”
The Revelation of God’s Grace
He was then basically sent away to study the Scriptures to get him out of the priests’ hair. Thus, Luther began to read the Bible, which was a first for him; priests did not read the Bible. Most couldn’t anyways since very few knew Latin and it was the only language in which the Catholic Church allowed the Bible to be translated into. Such edicts of the church were enforced through pain of death.
Interestingly enough, even though he had been raised in the Catholic Church his whole life, Luther pointed out later that he hadn’t even seen a Bible until he was about twenty years old.
Nevertheless, Luther had been educated and studied law before joining the monastery, and Latin was the language of law. It was while reading the Scriptures that his eyes would be opened.
As Luther read the Scriptures he began to wrestle with Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians. The words, “the just shall live by faith” perplexed him until, like a ray of light shining down on him from heaven, the Holy Spirit revealed its meaning:
Christ had taken our sins upon Himself at the cross. He took upon Himself the punishment due each one of us. Now he offers, through belief in Him and His work, complete forgiveness to those who turn to Him in faith. He justifies by faith the sinner who believes upon Him, having died in the sinner’s stead.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, yet in His mercy He went to the cross for us.
Luther saw the connection: Jesus Christ paid the price man could not pay through his own works, or law-keeping, or attempts at goodness—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God—one is justified freely only though through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:21-22)
However, it is by faith through grace alone that this free gift of eternal life is bestowed on each one who will accept it. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Christ died that we might be justified, that is, made right with God, through simple belief in the work He did for us.
Suddenly he was given that life-changing revelation that Jesus died for him. Here he had been trying all this time to pay for all his own sins through all kinds prescribed rituals, trying to justify himself through his works, when Jesus had already done the work for him on the cross. This revelation broke on him like a wave crashing onto the shore. He now understood it.
In his own words he describes his experience:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistles to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression ‘The justice of God.’ Because I took it to mean that justice where…God deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that though [I was] an impeccable monk, I still stood before God as a sinner, troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement ‘the just shall live by faith.’
Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.
Thereupon, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate [and dread], now it became to me a gate to heaven.
If you have a true faith that Christ is your savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart…” (3)
Having come into the revelation of God’s grace and being liberated from the condemnation of the law and dead works, Luther’s heart was transformed.
He had come to know the love and grace of God and he would not back down on the knowledge of that truth so clearly laid out in the New Testament, even when push came to shove, even when the shoving came from the pope and the emperor.
He took his stand on God’s Word and the grace and truth it revealed to him. It changed history then and shall do so again!
(1) James M. Kittelson’s preface in Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, quoting John Todd in Luther: A Life
(2) Yale scholar Roland H. Bainton, from the book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther
(3) Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton.
Video: Martin Luther and the Reformation (Direct link: https://youtu.be/WDr66ITavlI)
Video: Martin Luther's Conversion (Direct link: https://youtu.be/AUncn84rr48)
Video: Martin Luther's Conversion (Direct link: https://youtu.be/AUncn84rr48)