After leaving Worms to return to Wittenberg, Luther was kidnapped under a ruse by his friends and taken to a German castle called the Wartburg.
Hidden away in the Wartburg, Luther could not be found by a Roman Church that was likely inclined to kill him for his very public and uncompromising stand on God’s Word. It also gave him an ideal opportunity to begin translating the Bible into German, something that had never before been done. Church historian Philip Schaff notes the importance of Luther’s translation:
The richest fruit of Luther’s leisure in the Wartburg, and the most important and useful work of his whole life, is the translation of the New Testament, by which he brought the teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles to the mind and heart of the Germans in life-like reproduction. It was a republication of the gospel. He made the Bible the people’s book in church, school, and house. If he had done nothing else, he would be one of the greatest benefactors of the German-speaking race.[i]
During the period 1513–1516, Luther was lecturing through Paul’s epistles and the Psalms and beginning to understand the gospel. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Leo X was continuing to build Saint Peter’s Cathedral, a project begun in 1506 by Pope Julius II. To help fund that work, a priest named Johann Tetzel was in Germany selling indulgences. For the right price, a person could buy an indulgence that would supposedly guarantee that the purchaser would go to heaven, skipping purgatory entirely. Optionally, the purchase could be used to release a presently tormented soul out of purgatory.
When Luther became aware of Tetzel’s practice, he was furious. One result of his outrage was his 95 Theses, which carry the formal title, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Reading this document, it’s clear that Luther still believed in purgatory and found some value in indulgences. He was essentially respectful of the Pope and the authority of the Roman Church. He simply thought that Tetzel’s methods were trivializing the grace and forgiveness that a “proper” use of indulgences was supposed to produce. He saw Tetzel’s approach as the abuse of a valid doctrine by Rome for the sake of financial gain.
The entire time that Luther sought to please God through his own actions, he was conscious of the fact that he actually hated the righteousness and justice of God, for they require perfect obedience to the Law of God. He knew that even his best performance could never measure up—despite fasting, sacrificing, trying to fully surrender to God (the mystic way), and confessing his sins to Staupitz for up to six hours at a time.
Luther said of this time in his life, “I was myself driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”[i]
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. This would also be the place of his death after a life of unexpected turbulence and joy—a life that would turn the world upside down with the announcement of the good news of God’s gospel.
He was born to Hans and Margaretta Luther. Like the times in which Martin was born, his parents, by today’s standards, were rough, harsh, and stern. Yet they were also religious to a degree and wanted the best for their son. Hans, a copper miner, sacrificed greatly to earn enough money for Martin to study law, the profession of choice and prestige. In 1505, Hans’ dream came true: Luther began his study of law at the University of Erfurt.
The dream would not last long. On July 2 of his first year at Erfurt, a bolt of lightning knocked Luther to the ground as he returned to school following a visit to his home in Mansfeld. His conscience had already been greatly troubling him with the sense that he was not right with God, nor good enough to be accepted by a holy God. He would later write that the soul whose conscience is sensitive, yet dirty and guilty before the justice of God, is driven by fear to the point where the rustling of a leaf would put one to flight. As Proverbs 28:1 (NASB) notes, “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing.”
The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, But the righteous are bold as a lion. Proverbs 28:1, NASB
On January 12, 1519, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Maximilian I, came to the end of his days and his earthly power. To prepare for the life to come, he gave orders for “his body to be scourged, his hair shorn, his teeth broken out,”[i] hoping to appear before God as a penitent. Such instructions revealed the religious thought of his day: man was guilty before God, but if he could demonstrate through suffering, sacrifice, and acts of penance that he was remorseful enough over his sin and earnest in giving God something of his own merit, he might fare better in the afterlife.
Such was the religion that dripped from a medieval and Renaissance Europe saturated with fear and religious superstition. It was in this atmosphere that Martin Luther lived his days. In order to understand Luther, it is important to first consider the context in which he lived, particularly this merit-based religion that permeated society.
Here in the second post in this series, we pause to look ahead, summarizing the content yet to come.
When Lightning Struck: A Brief Life of Martin Luther (Posts 3-8)
These posts will present a brief biography of Luther. To understand Luther’s beliefs, it is important to know the context in which he lived and the religion he knew from first-hand experience. Accordingly, these posts focus on Luther’s life in relationship to the gospel and the religion of merit that was pervasive in his day. Because of this focus, many events of Luther’s life are omitted, such as his marriage to Katherine and their six children (one of whom died as an infant and another who died in her teens). While these events are important to study, for the sake of brevity and focus, such aspects of Luther’s story are not found in this narrative.
Timeline (Post 9)
A simplified timeline will be presented of the main events and writings of Luther’s life as discussed in these posts. This will help the reader more clearly understand how the details of Luther’s life fit into his overarching story and that of the Reformation.
Shortly before Martin Luther died, a piece of paper containing his handwriting was found in his pocket. Among other words on the paper were these: “This is true. We are all beggars.”[i]
During his lifetime, Luther had come to see the holiness and justice of God. He realized he had no righteousness whatsoever to declare him acceptable to God. Luther only had Christ. Yet, in having Christ, he had everything: assurance of heaven, peace with God, and a calm heart before the Law of God. Simply clinging to Christ alone, Martin Luther inadvertently turned 1500s Europe upside down.
“Luther found peace with God through being justified by faith alone. Yet in finding peace, he discovered he was at war with the world. The irony—that the sweet and pure good news from heaven would bring such enormous warfare and destruction—was not missed by Luther. In his later years, he would reflect on how the world has ever been at war with the gospel, going back even to Paradise and the murder of Abel by Cain. He perceived this rage against the promise of grace continuing on through history, up to his own time. ‘Yet I am compelled to forget my shame and be quite shameless in view of the horrible profanation and abomination which have always raged in the Church of God, and still rage to-day, against this one solid rock which we call the doctrine of justification.’”1 (Page 35)
“Luther [recognized] that the law and gospel are two entirely distinct categories: law is not gospel, gospel is not law. The beauty and power of each vanish when they are blended together. The perfection and majesty of the law is compromised, and the announcement of the good news that Christ kept the law for us and suffered the curse of the law for us is entirely lost. Blending the two leads one into suffocating moralism, anguished guilt, or a lofty legalism that destroys everything and everyone in its wake.” (Page 47)
“Luther grasped the fact that sinners were declared righteous by God apart from any of their works, whereas the [Roman] Church in Luther’s day taught that sinners were made righteous in actual conduct as they cooperated with God’s grace. This actual righteousness, the Church taught, was the means by which a person was justified before God. Luther understood the subtle yet damning error in this teaching, for while it acknowledged God’s grace as helping the sinner to obey, it placed salvation back into the efforts of man and removed the objective peace of God that rested entirely in Christ alone.” (Page 51)
Three Problems with Free Will
“Salvation by works. Luther understood free will as being at the very heart of the gospel. He realized that if man’s will is truly free, then man is capable of keeping God’s law perfectly and thus earning a right standing with God. Remember that Luther had tried himself to behave perfectly before God, and failed. Every monk he had ever known had failed. Every Jew in the Old Testament— indeed, every person in the Bible, except Jesus, had failed. To Luther, Scripture itself explained why free will was a false notion, and therefore why every person other than Jesus has always failed and will always fail to behave in a way that God finds acceptable.
“In other words, Luther realized that if man’s will is free, he can save himself through works, without any help from the perfect life and sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.
“Salvation by decision. Luther also recognized a second, separate, fundamental problem: if man has free will he can choose to believe. This means that a person with free will can—indeed, he must—contribute to his own salvation. Such a choice thus becomes a necessary element of every Christian’s salvation. A person’s eternal destiny thus comes to rest in his or her own decision, rather than in the sovereign decree of the Triune God.
“Shared glory. Finally, Luther noted that if one held to the doctrine of free will, glory does not go to God alone. It is shared with man who has chosen God.
“For all these reasons, Luther thought the concept of free will established man as judge and arbiter over God. He keenly observed that Erasmus’s thoughts started with man and not with God. Therefore, in writing to Erasmus he stated, ‘Your thoughts of God are too human.’”2 (Page 61)[tweet “Luther: if man’s will is free, he can save himself through works, without Christ.”]
“Luther’s definition of the words repentance and faith reveal a third integral aspect of his understanding of the gospel. He stood against the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of these words that undercut the free gospel of grace. Incorrect definitions of these terms would ruin the entire gospel message. In our day, as well, the gospel is often lost because we have vague definitions of these terms—definitions that insert works and human effort back into the gospel. Therefore it is crucial to be clear on what repentance and faith actually mean.” (Page 55)
“The promise of the gospel—specifically, being justified by faith alone and not by works—was what Luther considered to be the difference between the true and living God and all other gods, which were merely idols. In his lectures on Psalm 51, Luther noted that all other gods besides the true and living God, no matter their name, are simply one and the same god—a god who masquerades as Jehovah, but is in fact merely a god without mercy, knowing only justice and wrath. He is a god without the promise of grace, a god before whom we could never be justified. To encounter God without his offer of grace is to destroy ourselves.
“Luther’s distinction between god the absolute (the false gods who relate to us by works) and the God of promise was a brilliant observation. All the religions of the world that seek justification through law (no matter what form this law may take) are worshiping a false god. Even those who may belong to a Protestant church but are still seeking to be justified by works are worshiping the ‘absolute god’ (to use Luther’s phrase), who is really no god at all but rather an idol. Only in true Christianity can the living and true God—the God of promise—be found. Only before the God of promise can we stand justified by faith alone. Only by the promise of the gospel can we have goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life and know the sweetness and joy of God’s abiding love. In other words, only in Jesus Christ is the promise of grace found, given, and enjoyed.” (Page 54)[tweet “Only in true Christianity can the living and true God, the God of promise, be found.”]
“Am I of the Elect?”
“Luther knew that the teaching of the bondage of the will, along with predestination (that before the creation of the universe God had already selected specific individuals to be saved) should be handled pastorally. For those who wondered if they were of the elect (that is, predestined), he warned against trying to answer this question by looking at predestination; if one did this, he would be driven to endless despair and caught in a firestorm of anguish and doubt. Rather, look at Christ and the gospel promise. Hear the good news and believe!
“It’s actually not complicated: if you want Christ and the gospel, you are one of his elect. This is how you will know if you are God’s child. To start instead with predestination would be to try to climb into heaven and see the hidden counsel of God, which will crush a person. One should not build his or her assurance on the hidden counsel of God—that is, by starting with the question, Am I elect? Rather, Luther counseled to begin with Christ and his being freely offered and known by the promise of the gospel. It would be disastrous and absurd to build one’s faith and assurance on the secret counsel of God’s predestination. Rather, build on the foundation: Christ. Here the Lord is freely offered and freely known. Only by starting with Christ the foundation can one move on to knowing that one is predestined.” (Page 63)[tweet “It’s actually not complicated: if you want Christ and the gospel, you are one of his elect.”]
“Each Lord’s Day, Christ, the Bread of Life, is to be freely offered through the preaching of the gospel for the forgiveness of sins. Through the forgiveness of sins the Christian is sanctified: ‘[God] imparts, increases, and strengthens faith through the same Word [the preached Word of the gospel] and the forgiveness of sins.’3 Thus, preaching is not so much a matter of training people for spiritual heroics. Rather, for Luther, preaching offers weak and sinful people what they truly need: Christ. Preaching also includes proclaiming God’s law so that a church may be first humbled and then filled with joy in believing the gospel as a result. Then, as men, women, and children return home with Christ alone in their hearts, they go out rejoicing and advanced in their sanctification.” (Page 90)
1. Martin Luther, Lectures on Galatians (Middleton version , Logos Bible Software), 16. 2. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (eds.), Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will 1525 (Westwood, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1957), 87. 3. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (eds.), The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 439.
In this book, Chuck Fry briefly portrays Luther’s life and faith through four chapters. In fact, as Fry shows us, the beginning and end of all of Luther’s theology was simple faith in Christ.
1) The first chapter walks us through many of the high points of Luther’s remarkable life, focusing mainly on the development of his theology. Luther’s faith in Christ and the finished work of the cross gave him great assurance before God, yet placed him permanently at war with the world.
2) Chapter two articulates Luther’s understanding of the gospel—what faith in Christ is, the need we all have for the Savior, and the Christian’s humble dependence on the good news of God’s unchanging grace.
3) The third chapter explores Luther’s teaching that the gospel gives all glory to God: God’s wisdom revealed in the gospel message humbles man’s pride and wisdom, and produces good works in the believer’s life, all of this exalting God alone.
4) The final chapter celebrates Luther’s view that the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ is central to the life of the church. This section summarizes the book, applying Luther’s theology to us in the 21st century and pointing out how much the church at large still needs to grasp and apply Luther’s teachings.
So, who is Chuck Fry? You may know him as organizer and host of the Majesty of God conference held each April. He is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia, and has been in discipleship ministry since 1989.[tweet “500 years after his 95 Theses, we still need Martin Luther.”]
In his Foreword, Jerry Bridges writes that Fry does “an excellent job of summarizing and clarifying for us Luther’s understanding of the gospel….this book will encourage you to live by the gospel every day.” And Bill Walsh, Director of International Outreach at The Gospel Coalition, writes, “The strong, clear articulation of law and gospel in chapter two is by itself worth the price of the book.”