Responding to Political Turmoil

1. Model humble repentance.
Christians should be humbly honest about our sin. There’s too much handwringing over the state of our nation and too little honest examination of how the church has drifted from submission to God’s Word as supreme. We scream across the fence about the rusty car in our neighbor’s backyard while the ceiling in our kitchen is caving in. We tend to feel more in common with non-Christians who share our politics than with fellow Christians who view this political moment differently than we do. While Christians decry identity politics, far too many of us identify by our politics. 

2. Anchor your identity in Christ, and don’t let go.
Identity is a struggle for all of us at some point, and identity is a combination of who we are and our framework for understanding who we are. A person who succeeds in almost every area of life yet has a failed marriage can feel like a failure—because his identity is anchored in his family. Alternatively someone who fails in almost every area of life—dad, husband, church member, friend—yet succeeds at work can feel fulfilled because he identifies with his work. A right orientation to life comes from being rightly oriented to God through Jesus Christ. We must identify ourselves primarily as children of God through Jesus Christ. The gospel becomes the primary orienting reality in our lives because we’re children of God loved by a Heavenly Father, declared righteous through the perfectly lived life and sacrificial death of Christ.  

3. Lean into the faithfulness of Christ, and pray.
Hebrews 4 tells us how to approach God: Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens … Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace. When we lean into the faithfulness of Christ, we can be bold, even fearless. We can grab ahold of the legs of our Heavenly Father and plead with him. And he will hear us, because Jesus has gone before us.

4. Commit to grace-fueled, white-hot spirituality.
The so-called casual Christian is increasingly just a non-Christian. In my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, people walked away from Jesus’ church but said they still knew Jesus. My generation doesn’t even pretend to hold onto Jesus. The cultural Christianity of our parents has given birth to non-Christians—what statisticians call the “nones.” I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind (Romans 12:1–2). Pursue God with your whole heart and life. The greatest threat to our world isn’t a virus or a political party. It’s that millions of people are dying and entering an eternity in hell without Christ. And our most urgent mission is people filled with the good news of Jesus telling the people going to hell that they don’t have to. 

5. Remember the King of kings still reigns!
No matter who the president is, we know who our King is. And he is King of kings and Lord of lords.

  • Proverbs 21:1: Our God holds the king’s heart in his hand.
  • Isaiah 45:7: Our God forms light and creates darkness.
  • Job 42:2: Our God can do all things, and no purpose of his can be thwarted.
  • Lamentations 3:37: Our God speaks, and it comes to pass, and it can’t come to pass, unless he commands it. 
  • Colossians 1:17: Our God is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
  • Revelation 19:11–16: Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True … His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many crowns … On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Our God is the eternal king. Our King reigns, and our King is coming back!

Tips on Prayer

Do you ever pray, other than before a meal or a quick breathed prayer before or a big test or job interview? Prayer is one of the simplest, yet most difficult, Christian practices. Here are some thoughts that may help in establishing the discipline of regularly talking to God in prayer:

1. Pray.
Don’t overcomplicate it. Don’t wait until you’ve got the perfect system. Get into the habit of talking with God, rather than just talking with yourself about what’s going on. Set aside time in your schedule to help make this happen.

2. Find places you can go and things you can do to help you pray.
It might be taking a walk or riding your bike. Perhaps it’s getting alone in a quiet place. It might be riding in the car, leaving off the music and podcasts, and talking to God.

3. Use written guides in prayer.
Start a prayer list or prayer journal. “PrayerMate” is an app that can be quite helpful.  Create categories for prayer on different days of the week. Pray for extended family one day; pray for friends another day; pray through your church membership another day. Find something that helps you pray.

4. Use Scripture.
The Bible is full of prayers. Take a walk sometime and pray a psalm back to God. Study the prayers in the Old and New Testaments, and let those guide your prayer time.

Prayer can be hard, but the fruit is worth the effort: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working!” (James 5:16).

A Better Path

In a world that’s characterized by increasing polarization, with both ends of the spectrum complaining about how terrible the other is, we can choose a different, better path.

Rather than interacting with people who annoy us as if they annoy us, what if we caught a vision for how Jesus treated people that seemed like an inconvenience? What if we begin to treat irritations with mercy and grace?

And then imagine that our actions have the power to affect the way others interact. If there’s ever been a day that needs people to show mercy to those that don’t deserve it, it’s our day. Instead of viewing differences as obstacles, view them as opportunities for mercy and grace.

Sometimes people can’t hear the truth, because of our lack of mercy. If people reject Jesus, let it be because they reject him and his message, not because we’re so pugnacious or politically-affiliated that they can’t even hear the words of good news.

Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 3: Luther’s Flaws

Personal Struggles
Martin Luther is known today as a rather crass man, but it’s worth noting that he reflected his generation. As Roland Bainton notes, “Life itself stank. One could not walk around Wittenberg without encountering the odors of the pigsty, offal, and the slaughterhouse. And even the most genteel were not reticent about the facts of daily experience.”

Luther also enjoyed a good drink. He was rather proud of his ability to hold his beer. He had a large mug that had three rings around it. The first ring down he named “the Ten Commandments,” while the second was called “the Apostles’ Creed,” and the third “the Lord’s Prayer.” Luther reveled in the fact that he could drain the mug down through the Lord’s Prayer, while his friend could only get to the 10 Commandments. That being said, there’s no record of Luther’s ever getting drunk.

Luther struggled his whole life with severe depression. He tended to get physically ill, but the physical battles paled in comparison to his emotional and spiritual illness. In 1527, Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.”

To those who struggle with depression, Luther offers help. He believed that intense struggles are often the only way to press through to genuine answers for major religious problems. He also commended various strategies for fighting darkness: (1) faith in Christ, (2) anger at the darkness, and (3) the love of a good woman. He also looked to music for help: “We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues. Getting outside in creation was a great source of encouragement, and he loved to get outside and work with his hands as well as a way of fighting anxiety and depression.”

Above all, Luther looked to Christ. On the cross, when Jesus was most desperate, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luther noted that in Christ’s abandonment, his cry was a cry of faith. In the middle of the worst year of his life, the year in which he suffered his deepest depression, Luther wrote these words:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth;
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Glaring Faults
As we’ve already noted, Luther had more than his fair share of faults. Nevertheless, it’s the last period of his life in which his most notable issues arise. The strain of life took its toll on Luther, making him prematurely miserable and petulant. He grew harder in his views toward other Reformation movements, especially the Anabaptists. Luther wrote, “Although it seems cruel to punish (the Anabaptists) with the sword, it is cruder that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.”

The biggest criticism of Luther is that he was a racist, because of his view toward Jews. He said that all Jews should be removed from Germany and sent back to Israel, that synagogues should be burned, and that their books should be taken away from them. That being noted, Luther’s condemnation of the Jews—while extremely regrettable—wasn’t for racial reasons but for reasons of faith. The worst sin that anyone can commit, in Luther’s view, is the rejection of Jesus. So Luther condemned the Jews harshly for their lack of faith in Christ.


Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 2

The posting of Luther’s theses led to a series of debates and trials, culminating in the Diet of Worms in 1521. There were a number of conflicting powers at work within the church and outside that church that protected Luther. First, the pope asked the Augustinian monks to deal with Luther, since he was a member of their order. However, many Augustinians were sympathetic to what Luther had to say. This is, in part, because there was also a conflict between two of the most powerful orders of monks—the Dominicans and the Augustinians.

The Dominicans sided with Tetzel and hastily conferred on Tetzel a doctorate, so he could be permitted to publish and respond to Luther. Soon more capable opponents arose. Cardinal Cajetan, a brilliant scholar and respected churchman pressured Luther to recant at the Diet of Augsburg. Eventually, Johann Eck emerged as Luther’s primary nemesis and debated Luther at Leipzig for 18 days. One of the chief accusations he made against Luther (and what ended up firmly driving the stake between Luther and the church) was that Luther agreed with Wycliffe and Hus: “I see that you are following the damned and pestiferous errors of John Wycliffe, who said, ‘It is not necessary for salvation to believe that the Roman Church is above all others.’ And you are espousing the pestilent errors of Jan Hus, who claimed that Peter neither was nor is the head of the Holy Catholic Church.” It was when Luther admitted to agreeing with Wycliffe and Hus that his fate was sealed. Johann Eck tagged him with a moniker that Luther couldn’t shake: Luther was the “Saxon Hus.”In all this, Prince Frederick the Wise protected Luther. His motives weren’t so much that he agreed with Luther but that he wanted his legacy to be one of true justice and wisdom. He was thus concerned that Luther should receive a fair trial.

Diet of Worms
Eventually, Luther appeared before the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, at the Diet of Worms. He wasn’t given the opportunity to debate but was shown copies of his works and asked if he would recant or retract what he had written. Realizing the stakes were incredibly high, he asked to sleep on the matter. The question of recanting was posed to Luther again the next day. In reply, Luther said that much of his writings contained basic doctrine that all agreed on, and he couldn’t recant these things.

His interrogator pressed him: “Do you recant, or do you not?” Luther now replied in German (rather than the usual Latin, departing from the accepted norms of debate): “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The earliest published record of the diet also added these words: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Luther in Exile
After the Diet of Worms, Luther was “captured” by some of Frederick’s men and taken to Wartburg Castle. His abduction was so secretive that not even Frederick himself knew his whereabouts (and didn’t want to know, so he could truthfully claim ignorance of Luther’s whereabouts). Luther dressed as a knight and grew a long beard to disguise himself.

This enforced exile was a blessing in disguise, as Luther made the most of his time away. In just three months he produced a German translation of the New Testament. His translation is brilliant by any objective standard and formed a foundation for the German language for centuries to come. It’s said that his work advanced the standards of translation by 1000 years. It took Luther some time to translate the Old Testament, and the complete Bible was published in 1534. Though he first translated the New Testament in 1522, he continued revising, updating, and improving it until his death in 1546.

The Word forms the beginning and end of Luther’s theology. By rooting authority in the Word, he changed the entire conversation around church doctrine and all of life.

Luther’s Return
Luther went to the Wartburg on May 4, 1521. Seven months later he returned, beard and all, to Wittenberg on December 4, 1521. The Reformation had progressed in his absence; on Christmas Day, 1521, Luther’s colleague, Carlstadt spoke the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper in German, rather than Latin. One of the worshipers was so overcome by the moment that he trembled and dropped his bread on the floor.

Carlstadt had emerged as leader in Luther’s absence and saw that many of Luther’s reforms were implemented, but he also led the Reformation to grow more radical in some unhealthy ways. As the Reformation movement in Wittenberg grew more radical, it led to increased tensions between the Reformers and Prince Frederick. In the midst of the conflict, the town council invited Luther to return home. By this time, Luther was seen as a reasonable, moderating influence, in comparison to the more radical Carlstadt and his colleague Zwilling.

Luther’s return, without Frederick’s official invitation, meant that the Prince couldn’t offer Luther protection from the pope and emperor as he had previously done. Though he didn’t intervene to stop Luther, neither could he truly protect him. Nevertheless, in spite of the risks, Luther opted to return.

Roland Bainton tells the following story of Luther’s journey home recorded by a Swiss traveler:

“The host brought (some) bedraggled travelers into a room where sat a knight with a bushy black beard clad in a scarlet cloak and woolen tights, his hands resting on the hilt of a sword as he engaged in reading. The knight rose and hospitably invited the muddy wayfarers to sit and share with him a glass. They noticed that his book was in Hebrew. They asked him whether he knew if Luther were in Wittenberg. ‘I know quite positively that he is not … but he will be.’ Then he inquired what the Swiss thought of Luther. The host, observing that the pair were well disposed to the reformer, confided to one that the knight was Luther himself. The Swiss could not believe his ears, thought he must have mistaken the name for Hutten. On parting the next morning they let the knight know that they took him for Hutten. “No, he is Luther,” interposed the host. The knight laughed. ‘You take me for Hutten. He takes me for Luther. Maybe I am the Devil.’ Within a week they were to meet him again in Wittenberg.”

Luther returned to chaos. He urged the people to remember that true faith can’t be coerced. In his absence, the leaders of the Reformation had turned to violence, destroying churches, smashing altars, dragging priests out by the hair to shame and ridicule. Luther urged peaceful persuasion: “Give men time. I took three years of constant study, reflection, and discussion to arrive where I now am, and can the common man, untutored in such matters, be expected to move the same distance in three months? Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wine and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God.”

Under Luther’s leadership much of the chaos settled, but the conflict among segments of the Reformation was not one that would easily go away. Luther attempted to articulate a “middle way.” He harshly condemned the abuses and false teachings of the Catholic Church, but he called for a relatively peaceful resistance. During this period Luther continued to fight the for the authority of Scripture over the church. The new pope, Pope Hadrian condemned Luther: “Be not beguiled because Martin Luther appeals to Scripture. So does every heretic, but Scripture is a book sealed with seven seals which cannot be so well opened by one carnal man as by all the holy saints.”

While Luther had many gifts, diplomacy wasn’t one of them. In challenging King Henry VIII of England, Luther wrote to the king, referring to himself as “minister at Wittenberg by the grace of God” and to “Henry, King of England by the disgrace of God.”

Radical Reformation
By far the biggest blow to Luther came when his own followers began to defect from the movement he was leading.  Andrew Carlstadt and Thomas Muntzer led the way. While many of Carlstadt’s ideas actually had biblical warrant (like rejecting infant baptism), he was personally unstable and lent his section of the movement a chaotic, violent tone. Muntzer went even further than Carlstadt, rallying an army “to slaughter the ungodly.” Fortunately, all he accomplished was the burning of one chapel. Though Carlstadt condemned Muntzer, the two were lumped together  and banished from Saxony, the province in which Luther ministered. Muntzer continued to foment rebellion against church and state. As unrest grew, the common people rose up against the princes in the Peasants’ Rebellion. Muntzer attempted to lead the people into battle, but the combined forces of the princes proved too much. The peasant army was surrounded, 5000 were violently slaughtered, and only 600 taken prisoner. Muntzer initially got away but was later captured, tortured, and beheaded.

Diet of Augsburg
Luther and his colleague Phillip Melanchthon led the way in formally articulating the theology of the German Reformation (a theology that would eventually become Lutheranism). They first drafted the Articles of Schwabach in 1529. Emperor Charles V, however, was growing increasingly concerned for the unity of his empire. Germany at this time was a collection of provinces ruled by princes. One of the great unifiers of the Holy Roman Empire had been its religion. Now that some princes were Protestant, while others were Catholic, the empire threatened to rip apart. So Charles called for the Diet of Augsburg, to encourage the Protestant princes to adopt a statement of belief. That statement from June 25, 1530, is largely the work of Phillip Melanchthon and is known as the Augsburg Confession. It forms the basis of Lutheran doctrine to this day.

When the statement was first read, the emperor required that it be read in a tiny chapel, to attempt to exclude the people from hearing what was articulated. But the influence of the princes allowed the dissemination of the document. It was written in both Latin and German. The German reading lasted two hours and was read so clearly that every word could be heard both inside and outside the chapel.

Though Luther initially questioned whether Melanchthon’s irenic spirit would produce a suitable document (he was concerned that the confession would “defang” the Reformation), he gladly approved of the finished document. Though other Protestant confessions would arise, the Augsburg Confession formalized and finalized the theological division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation.

Family Life
In 1523 Luther helped some nuns who had recently escape their convent. A merchant who delivered barrels of fish to the nunnery shipped out twelve nuns in empty barrels. Three returned to their homes, but the task fell to Luther to find places for the other nine. A student wrote: “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town, all more eager for marriage than for life. God grant them husbands lest worse befall.”

Since Luther was still a bachelor, it was suggested that he solve the problem of a home for one of the nuns. Luther resisted the suggestion because he feared that he could die a martyr’s death at any moment. Yet two years after the dramatic escape in the fish barrels, one nun still remained unaccounted for. Her name was Katherine von Bora. Luther chose a husband for her, a Dr. Glatz. Katherine was completely unwilling to marry Dr. Glatz, but she proposed to Luther that she be matched to another doctor, Dr. Amsdorf, or to Luther himself.

Luther still had no intentions of marrying, but upon returning home to visit his parents, his father was excited at the prospect. What Luther shared as a good joke, Hans took seriously, because he wanted his son to carry on the family name. Martin and Katherine were married—not for love but for pragmatic reasons. Luther gave three reasons for marrying: (1) to satisfy his father, (2) to defy the pope and the devil, and (3) to validate his witness before martyrdom might come.

Marriage did bring some positive changes for Luther: “Before I was married the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat. But I worked so hard and was so weary I tumbled in without noticing it.” Katie kept the house clean. Luther never received a single payment for any of his writings, though he was by far the best-selling author of his day. Therefore, he and Katie often struggled to make ends meet. He grew to love Katie, eventually paying her the highest of compliments, calling the book of Galatians, “my Katherine von Bora.” Katie and Martin had 6 children, the eldest of whom was named Hans.

In addition to their children, the Luthers took in all kinds of guests, from folks fleeing persecution to students eager to learn from Dr. Martin.

Reformation: Martin Luther (1483-1546), Part 1

No personality dominates the Reformation quite like Martin Luther. He looms large over the rise of the Reformation and still dominates both Protestant and Roman Catholic conversation about the 16th century. His life reads like a fantastic novel, needing no embellishment. He’s a larger-than-life figure that dominated his era while he was living and has grown larger since his passing.Over the last few decades, many Protestants and Catholics have attempted to gloss over the issues that led to the Reformation era. In Roland Bainton’s magisterial biography of Luther, he recounts singing “A Mighty Fortress” in a Catholic mass. And in an age of growing political correctness and increasing discomfort with the foibles of our historical heroes, Luther has been the brunt of much recent Protestant criticism, because he had some glaring faults.

There are few heroes of the faith that are quite as relatable as Luther. This is, in part, because he was so raw—he wore his feelings on his sleeve almost all the time, so he’s simpler to connect with than someone who keeps his cards closer to his vest. And Luther’s greatness is something we can aspire to, while also identifying with his weakness, anxiety, depression, and battle to persevere in the faith. Luther: “Many have taken the Christian faith to be a simple and easy matter, and have even numbered it among the virtues. This is because they have not really experienced it, nor have they tested the great strength of faith.”

If you’ve walked with Christ for any length of time, you know the truth of that statement.

Lightning Bolt Experience
Acts 9 tells the story of Saul on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the church. As he traveled, the Lord Jesus dramatically appeared to him in a blinding light and spoke to him. As a result of this, Saul turned from his persecution of the church to faith in Christ.

One of the most significant events in Luther’s life is similarly dramatic. While it didn’t result in his immediate conversion, it did change the course of his life forever. Medieval theology is filled with superstition. People in the Middle Ages saw spiritual explanations for everything. It’s in this context that we find Luther, a university student at the time, traveling near the village of Stotternheim. As he traveled, it began to rain and then storm. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck so near Luther that it cast him to the ground. In desperation he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”

Roland Bainton offers this comment on this experience: “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of the saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist. For this young man was Martin Luther.”

St. Anne is the patron saint of miners, and this points us back from 21-year-old Luther to his early life.

Early Life
Nine years before Columbus sailed the ocean in search of the “new world,” Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, some 120 miles southwest of Berlin. 1483 was about three decades after the printing press began changing the world (Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1456). Luther’s parents were Hans and Margaret Luther. Hans, in particular, is a somewhat dominant figure in Luther’s life. He made his living as a miner, first working in a mine and then working his way up to owning multiple foundries. In many ways, he was a medieval version of the American dream. His hard work opened doors for Martin that wouldn’t have been open otherwise. That being said, Hans and Margaret were severely strict parents (not at all uncommon in that day), and Luther bore mental and emotional scars from his early childhood for the rest of his life.

Hans sent young Martin to school to get an education, a privilege that wasn’t afforded to many children in his day. His school masters, like his parents, were harsh, and his later writings recall with some resentment whippings for failures at his lessons. The boy who did the worst on his lessons in a given morning was forced to wear a donkey mask for the afternoon and called the asinus. Poor behavior earned demerits, and demerits were accumulated throughout the week and then punished at the end of the week. Boys sometimes received up to fifteen lashes with a birch rod for failures and misbehavior.

Luther recalls this period with some pain but also with fondness. He loved music, played the lute, loved the German countryside, and was a fun-loving boy. That being said, he struggled with wild mood swings from an early age—from the heights of euphoria and joy to the depths of darkness and depression.

Roland Bainton explains one of the major reasons for Luther’s emotional struggles: “The explanation lies … in the tensions which medieval religion deliberately induced, playing alternately upon fear and hope. Hell was stoked, not because men lived in perpetual dread, but precisely because they did not, and in order to instill enough fear to drive them to the sacraments of the Church.”

At age thirteen Martin went to the University of Erfurt to become a lawyer. He soon graduated with an undergraduate and master’s degree and in the meantime proved his prodigious skill in public debates.It was in this period of his life that he encountered the storm that created such fear in his heart that he promised to become monk.

The truth is that Luther never really wanted to become a lawyer. It was his father’s dream that his son would create a career in law that would enable him to provide for his parents in their old age. Hans and Margaret saw Martin’s brilliance and thought a strategic marriage and good vocation would end many of their worries. In a day when parents were mostly free to dictate the lives of their children, Martin’s decision came as a shock to Hans. He got very angry and took a number of years to forgive his son for this betrayal of trust. It wasn’t until two other sons died that Hans reconciled with Luther, believing that God was punishing him for his resentment.

In July of 1505, at the age of 21, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. The people of the day believed that while all should live in dread of God, if anyone were to get into heaven, it would be a monk. Luther became a monk for the salvation of his soul.

Augustinian liturgy describes the process Luther would have gone through to be accepted in the monastery: He fell prostrate on the ground, and the prior of the monastery asked him this question: “What do you seek?” To which Luther answered, “God’s grace and your mercy.” The prior then describe what Luther’s life would look like: renouncing his right to his own decisions, little to eat, poor clothing, night watches, work during the day, denying his normally fleshly desires, poverty, begging, and living in isolation in this monastery. After an initiation ceremony, he was accepted into the monastery with these words: “Not he that has begun but he that endures to the end shall be saved.”

The rebellion against church authority came from one who desperately trying to obey to earn his salvation. Only after exhausting every possible avenue would Luther reluctantly become the Luther we know today.

First Mass
The time came for Luther’s first mass, and Luther invited his father to come. Hans made a great show of his arrival, bringing a train of 20 horsemen and making a large contribution to the seminary. Yet when it came time for the mass, Luther spoke these words—“We offer unto you, the living, the true, the eternal God”—and was petrified. He later recalled his feeling in that moment: “At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, ‘With what tongue shall I address such Majesty. … For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.’”

Martin was unable to complete the mass. He froze, and someone else completed the service. Afterward, he approached his father as the monks and guests were eating together. There Hans exploded in anger, all his resentment at Martin’s choice to become a monk boiling over.

Luther, however, remained a devoted monk. He would fast for three days at a time, without eating a single bite. He would sleep at night with no blankets, at times almost freezing to death. He later said: “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.”

He was a conscientious confessor of sin. He went to confession almost daily, sometimes confessing his sins for up to six hours. Catholic theology teaches that only those sins that are confessed can be forgiven. So Luther agonizingly sought to categorize every sin. At one point his mentor, Staupitz, said to him: “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive … instead of all these little sins.” At times he would leave the confession booth, only to immediately return because another unconfessed sin occurred to him.

While this was a very painful process, God was revealing something vitally important to Luther: the Catholic system of confession is directed toward individual sins. The problem is that man is corrupt to his very core, in every part of his nature. It’s not merely individual sins that need to be forgiven. Our entire being needs forgiveness.

Trip to Rome
In the midst of his struggles, his monastery selected him for a pilgrimage to Rome in the year 1510. As a devoted son of the church, Luther was delighted and honored. When he first saw the city from a distance, he cried out, “Hail, holy Rome!” But when he arrived in the city what he saw was disgusting and disillusioning.

He went to confess his sins, but the confessor wasn’t competent in confession. The Italian priests were party animals, running through masses as quickly as they could recite the words. They could perform a half dozen masses in the time it should take to say one mass. If he took too long, they’d say, “Move on!” Some priests were publicly flippant unbelievers. The Roman clergy were flagrantly immoral. The more chaste of the priests considered themselves holy because they restricted themselves to women.

Luther’s view of salvation began to crumble. He was trying to atone for his sins and also accumulate good works for his salvation and the salvation of those he loved. While in Rome he climbed Pilate’ stairs on his hands and knees, kissing each step, and saying a prayer at each step. Tradition taught that this process would release a soul from purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from a person’s soul. Yet when he reached the top of the stairs, Luther turned and said, “Who knows whether it is so?” His doubts were increasing.

When Luther returned from Rome, he was transferred from Erfurt to Wittenberg, where he’d become famous and spend most of the rest of his career. The town was less than a mile in length, with a population around 2000 people. It was built on a hill of sand and was thus called Wittenberg, or “White Hill.”

The crown jewel of Wittenberg was its university, carefully cultivated by Prince Frederick the Wise who sought to build an academic bastion that rivaled the great institutions of the day. The move to Wittenberg also led Luther into a close relationship with his mentor, Johann von Staupitz. Pained monk that he was, Luther later wrote, “If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”

Staupitz recommended mystical theology as a possible cure for Luther’s woes. While still submitting themselves to the Roman Catholic pentitential system, mystics also saw that man’s problems were greater than could be atoned for by confessing individual sins. Luther must surrender to the enveloping being and love of God. But this introduced an ever greater problem for him. How could he surrender to a God who would punish men for their sins? “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!”

In desperation, Staupitz was casting about for any solution to help his beloved and tortured student. He informed Luther the he should study for his doctorate and would become a professor at the university. As Roland Bainton comments in his biography: “A young man on the verge of a nervous collapse over religious problems was to be commissioned as a teacher, preacher, and counselor to sick souls. Staupitz was practically saying, ‘Physician, cure thyself by curing others.'”

Staupitz knew that Luther, by studying particular subject matter, could help himself.

Professor Luther & Conversion
Luther devoted himself to becoming an expert in the Word of God. In August of 1513 he began lecturing on the Psalms. His years reciting the Psalms as part of the liturgical calendar affected his interpretation. The liturgical year is built around events in the life of Christ, so Luther interpreted the Psalms through a Christ-centered lens. By fall of 1515, he was teaching from Romans and Galatians in 1516-17. In the end, it wasn’t his Damascus Road experience with the lightning that saved him. It was the Gospel Road through the Word of God.

In the Word Luther discovered God the All Merciful, and it’s at the cross that God’s justice and mercy meet. God doesn’t overlook sin, because he is God the Just, but God has made reconciliation possible through Christ. Somehow, some way, God takes the immeasurable sins of mankind and deals with them.

While lecturing from Romans in 1515, Luther found the solution to his dilemma. A little phrase in the first chapter of Romans did it for him: “the just shall live by faith” (Romans1:17). Yet this discovery wasn’t a simple one for Luther. It was the result of lengthy and agonizing study. How could Paul say that the righteousness of God was good news? Then it hit Luther. The righteousness of God isn’t given to sinners because they become righteous but because of the free grace of God through faith in Christ. God gives his righteousness to those who believe simply because he wishes to. Both faith in Christ and justification for our sins are the free gift of God to sinners who don’t deserve it. Luther remarks, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his 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.”

Prince Albert & St. Peter’s
We now come to the conflict that would eventually fan the sparks of the Reformation into a full-fledged inferno. Simony (the acquiring of a position of influence in the church through bribery) was a common practice in the medieval church. Prince Albert of Brandenberg was of a master of simony. His aim in life was to become the most powerful church figure in all of Germany, and he did this buy buying influence. Albert already held two bishoprics and was thus 2X a breaker of canon law. First, he was too young to be a bishop in the first place, and secondly, church law forbade one person from holding multiple bishoprics.

Money talks loudly, though, and Albert thus had access to power. When the seat of the archbishop of Mainz came open, he knew that acquiring this position could fulfill his dream of being the leading churchman of Germany, as Mainz was the most important archbishopric in Germany.

The pope at this time, Leo X, was raising money for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In an era of corrupt popes, Leo X stands out as one of the worst. Roman Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor: Leo “was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church.” While constructing this magnificent edifice, Leo began running short on money. So when Prince Albert contacted him to purchase the archbishopric at Mainz, Leo was excited. He set a price of 12,000 golden ducats—1000 for each of the apostles. Albert countered with 7,000 golden ducats (one for each of the 7 deadly sins). They eventually compromised on a price of 10,000 ducats—1000 for each of the 10 Commandments.

Because Albert was out of money and didn’t have 10,000 golden ducats, Leo authorized the sale of indulgences for Albert to pay off his debt.

According to Roman Catholic theology, the pope holds the keys to God’s kingdom (Matthew 16—Jesus gave the keys to Peter and the apostles), and these keys open the most important treasury in the church—the Treasury of Merit. The Roman Church distinguishes between mortal sins—those that result in eternal damnation (murder, rape, incest, adultery, etc.)—and venial sins—lesser/ordinary sins that still must be atoned for. If you’re unable to do enough penance in this life, you may spend some time in purgatory, where the remaining sins are purged from you.

These sins are paid for by acquiring merit, and this merit is held in the Treasury of Merit. This treasury is the superabundant storehouse of righteousness belonging to Jesus Christ, to his parents Joseph and Mary, to the apostles, and to canonized saints throughout history. Humans can access this storehouse of merit by giving a gift to God that’s greater than the deficit caused by our sin.

An indulgence is transfer of merit from the Treasury of Merit to an individual. You can obtain indulgences through pilgrimages or church relics. A visit to a coin for which Judas betrayed Jesus could obtain a reduction of time in purgatory of 1400 years. Luther’s own protector, Prince Frederick, had a remarkable collection of relics. At times, the church makes possible the sale of indulgences, and Roman Catholics still practice this today. Indulgences can’t be purchased for the living, but you can shorten the time of loved ones in purgatory.

Johann Tetzel was an early church marketer, known for his effectiveness in selling indulgences. He’d enter a town with great pomp and pageantry. A train of attendants entered with him, one holding a cross on a pole, another carrying the papal bull authorizing the sale of indulgences on a pillow.

He was creative in his marketing, coming up with the jingle (translated into English): “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” It’s said that he claimed the purchase of an indulgence could remove sin even from a man “who had violated the Mother of God.” He also purported that “the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ.”

Luther ministered in Saxony, where the sale of indulgences was illegal, but people from his region streamed over the border to purchase them in a neighboring province. Church doctrine taught that indulgences would only be effective if they were purchased with a sincere and contrite heart. Tetzel threw that teaching to the wind, and this infuriated Luther.

95 Theses
Thus, Luther wrote a series of statements against the sale of indulgences. He was assuming that both Prince Albert and Pope Leo were unaware of Tetzel’s unethical tactics, not realizing Tetzel was fully authorized to raise money by any means possible.

Luther’s theses were written in Latin, and they served as an invitation to debate. His expectation was that a member of the clergy or academia would respond and engage him in a debate about the current practices regarding the sale of indulgences. The theses didn’t address anything like the doctrine of salvation or the authority of Scripture. Luther was likely surprised that his theses were met with silence. He also sent a copy to Prince Albert with a very respectful cover letter, informing him about Tetzel’s poor representation of the church. Albert then forwarded the letter and theses to Pope Leo.

The spark that set off the Reformation was some students who apparently made copies of the theses and translated them into German. Printers got ahold of copies, and the 95 Theses soon spread like wildfire through all of Germany.

I love Roland Bainton’s description of what happened (with an illustration borrowed from Karl Barth): “Luther … was like a man climbing in the darkness a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”