I walked into our local used bookstore. This place is bibliophile heaven. Stacks of precious volumes line the floor: young and old, fiction and non, familiar and obscure. We're talking a paper paradise. This place has class; well, a certain musty class anyway, the kind revered by librarians, history buffs, and people who'll take a hardback over a Kindle any day.
I visit this bookstore often. Given that we are approaching the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation I threw out a breezy, "Hey, do you have anything laid out on Martin Luther?"
The owner's response didn't shock me, but it was sad nonetheless, "No, but we have a lot of things on Halloween!"
"Halloween!" I wanted to retort. "Halloween. Come on man! Thousands and thousands of books and no Luther!"
Perhaps, like my friend behind the counter, you're wondering, "What's the big deal? So some guy in Germany was ticked off with the church. What's new with that?" But that is the issue, Luther was not advocating something new, but a rebirth or renewal of the old. And his efforts have reverberated throughout history.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther, "a monk with a mallet," registered his grievance on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther drove a nail through a list of ninety-five grievances he wanted to debate with the church. Christendom has never been the same.
As Eric Metaxas notes, "Luther's writing and actions so altered the landscape of the modern world that much of what we now take for granted (personal responsibility for one's self and before God, pluralism, religious liberty, and self-government) may be traced directly to him."
One monk and one list launched a reformation. Today, Luther is one of a handful of souls known throughout the world. His accomplishments are amazing:
- He founded the denomination that bears his name.
- Using nothing but quill and ink, his writings fill 1,000 volumes.
- He preached sermons.
- He wrote songs.
- He developed a catechism.
- He shaped the church.
- He has shaped your church.
- Scholars says he did the work of five men.
What possessed this man? What drove him? In short, it was these words:
As Stephen Nichols notes, "If he said it once, Martin Luther said it a hundred times: 'The church's true treasure is the gospel.'" And it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that put his restless heart at ease.
anfechtungen (soul struggle)
Luther was a troubled soul. As a young man, he was steeped in a religion that reminded him of his inadequacy before God. Biographer Roland Bainton notes, "The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the church." Metaxas adds, "In Luther's day, far more emphasis was put on God as an eternal judge" than as a benevolent and loving figure.
No wonder Luther spoke of his anfechtungen. His shortcomings, coupled with the wrath of God were constants in his life. At twenty-one his angst became impetus for action.
One hot summer day, Luther was returning to the University of Erfurt, where he studied law. As he crossed a field, in the midst of a furious thunderstorm, lightening struck. Luther reacted as if caught in the very judgment of God. He cried out:
True to his word, Luther renounced all, endured the frustration of his disappointed parents, and entered the monastery.
Luther was a good but troubled monk. He renounced worldly goods, he prayed seven times a day, he fasted, he submitted himself to extreme ascetic practices . . . but it was never enough. Commenting on those days, Luther 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.
Luther's leader at the monastery was abbot Johann Von Staupitz. Staupitz "recognized [Luther's] potential for the church if only the young monk could get over his struggles." To ease his restless soul Staupitz sent Luther on a pilgrimage to Rome. It didn't help. There Luther witnessed corruption that did even more to upset his soul. Then Staupitz ordered Luther to study theology. Initially, this study served only to create more angst, but ultimately God used this time in the Word to arrest the anguish of his troubled heart.
Luther's studies took him to Romans 1:17, "For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith." As he reflected on those words, God turned on the light:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night . . . I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
The struggling soul experienced it's breakthrough. As Metaxas puts it, "after tremendous and agonized searching he finally -- by God's grace -- had found that thing for which every human since Eden had pined . . . how to bridge the infinite abyss between imperfect mankind and perfect God.
Luther's struggle is every person's struggle. No matter who we are or where we are, the answer to our spiritual angst, our breakthrough, comes as we rest -- not in what we do for God -- but what God has done for us in Christ. Leaning on Christ we receive the very righteousness we need to stand before Him. This truth anchors our souls for eternity, but also for every day we live.
About this post: October 5-15, Shannan and I are traveling on a 500th Anniversary Reformation Cruise with friends from Lancaster Bible College, our educational partners for their Master of Arts In Ministry in Church Planting, which we offer at Spanish River Church. As part of our dayily activity, I deliver a brief historical devotional with a view to adding value to our minds, hearts, souls.
Notes & Sources:
- "A monk with a mallet" -- I am indebted to Stephen Nichols for this phrase. I borrowed it from the subtitle of his book, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 2007.
- "Luther's writings and actions so altered . . ." from Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. New York: Viking. 2017. Page 1.
- Scholars say he did the work of five men (see Bainton, page 287; Nichols, The Reformation, page 16)
- As Stephen Nichols notes . . . from The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the Word. Wheaton, IL: Crossway. 2007. Page 17.
- Anfechtungen . . . Eric Metaxas has a detailed treatment of this word in Chapter One, "Beyond the Myths"
- "The entire training on home . . ." from Here I Stand, chapter one, "The Vow."
- Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. New York: Viking. 2017.
- "I was a good monk. . . " from Here I Stand, chapter 2 "The Cloister."
- Staupitz"recognized his potential . . ." from The Reformation, page 27.
- Luther's Works, American Edition, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehman (Philadelphia: Muehlenberg and Fortress, and St. Louis: Concordia, 1955-86), 34:337.
- As Metaxas puts it, "after tremendous and agonized searching . . ." from Martin Luther, page 4.
- Christianity Today has an excellent article on Luther, "Martin Luther, Passionate Reformer" which was a great aid in preparing this post.