Martin Luther Stumbles Toward the Gospel

Martin Luther Stumbles Toward the Gospelby Charles Fry


Early Years

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.”

It is not hard to imagine, then, the terror that Luther felt from the wrath of God when he was struck by heaven on that hot July day. In response, Luther did the only thing he knew to do. He cried out for a mediator between himself and God, promising good works and self-denial if only he might find a refuge. Specifically, he called out to the patron saint of miners, crying, “Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk.”

In that one cry we can see two of the false beliefs Luther held at that time.

The need for a human mediator. First, the cry suggested that one could not directly approach God without the aid of a created being, such as Mary or Saint Anne—the mediatorial work of Christ on its own was not sufficient to bring one before God. Help was not to be found in the God-man alone as the perfect Savior who gave unmerited favor (grace) to the undeserving and sinful. Rather, a mediator needed to be found even in approaching Christ (the true mediator; cf. 1 Timothy 2:5).

The need for salvation by works. Secondly, we see in Luther’s cry his belief that perfect sacrifice and a complete denial of self were needed to assuage the wrath of God.

Luther, of course, promptly kept his word. Fifteen days after the lightning incident he entered the Augustinian order to begin his life as a monk, hoping to earn eternal life by keeping the Law of God. His decision to leave his legal studies infuriated his father, but he was willing to suffer that fury in hopes of calming the wrath of God in heaven.

Read all the posts published to date in this extended series on the life and theology of Martin Luther, as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the birth of the Reformation.

Luther worked with all his might, plunging himself into the religion of merit, where eternal life was granted to those who earned it. So severe were his personal practices that at times the other monks had to keep him from physical harm, lest he literally kill himself with his religion and penitential strivings.

Doctrinally, this religion of merit was formulated for monks in what was called “the monastic absolution.” This prayer of absolution concisely expressed the system under which Luther labored:

God forgive thee, my brother. The merit of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of blessed S. Mary, always a virgin, and of all the saints: the merit of thine order, the straitness of thy religion, the humility of thy confession, the contrition of thy heart, the good works which thou hast done and shalt do for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, be unto thee available for the remission of thy sins, the increase of merit and grace, and the reward of everlasting life. Amen.[i]

In this prayer, one can clearly see the Roman Church’s teaching of gaining forgiveness by offering to God humility, good works, and love for Jesus. If one drew strength and “merit” from the treasury of the accomplished godliness of Mary, Christ, and the saints, and in so doing, lived a holy life, then one would be forgiven. This search for absolution did include a measure of faith in Christ, yet by itself that faith meant nothing: in order to be effective it had to be paired with one’s most severe efforts. This is what almost drove Luther to insanity; he knew he could never do these things well enough, even with the saints’ supposed merits to aid him. He could never have a good enough heart before a righteous and just God.

This is what almost drove Luther to insanity; he knew he could never do these things well enough, even with the saints’ supposed merits to aid him. He could never have a good enough heart before a righteous and just God.

Luther’s First Mass

A World Upside Down; Four Essays on the Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. FryIn 1507, Martin Luther conducted his first Mass. This may seem to be of little importance unless we are familiar with the theology behind the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that Luther embraced.

The day of Luther’s first Mass was supposed to be one of joy, success, and achievement. He was finally a priest and, as such, supposedly vested with power to change the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ by a process the Roman Church calls transubstantiation. Luther’s father, now somewhat reconciled to his son’s vocation, attended the event, signifying a blessing on Luther’s life.

What was intended to be a day of joy, however, soon became a day of fear, anxiety, and failure. The moment Luther lifted the bread, believing it had just changed into the actual body and blood of Christ, he trembled, fumbled, and faltered. His fear and trembling before a holy God were so great that he was unable to serve the Lord’s Supper properly. Luther was humiliated, and his father left the Mass in disgust, curtly reminding his son of the scriptural injunction to honor his father and mother.

Move to Wittenberg

After four more years of a battered conscience and endless hours of confession to Johann von Staupitz (Luther’s spiritual mentor and father), Martin Luther was transferred to the University of Wittenberg to teach theology and the Bible. This was a young but upcoming school, established by the Duke of Saxony (Frederick the Wise, he of the thousands of supposed relics), with the intent of forming one of the strongest universities of his day.

Staupitz had Luther transferred there in the hope that he could look outside of himself by academic study and thus find relief from his morbid introspection and anguished conscience. Stauptiz also needed Luther’s help in teaching and carrying the academic workload.

Providentially, this move to Wittenberg would be the final event that God would use to bring Luther to the gospel of grace. From 1513 to 1516, Luther lectured at Wittenberg on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians. This study of God’s Word—over against the word of popes, councils, tradition, and the wisdom of the world—would give assurance and comfort to Martin Luther. These convictions, and his increasing understanding of God’s Word, would give him courage to stand for Christ against the entire world.

Part 4 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.

Charles E. Fry

Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.

[i] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Based on Lectures Delivered by Martin Luther at the University of Wittenberg in the year 1531 and First Published in 1535, Philip S. Watson (ed.), A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 156, 157.

1 thought on “Martin Luther Stumbles Toward the Gospel

  1. […] man’s depravity, humble his pride, and free him to produce genuine fruit for the glory of God. Earlier in this series, we observed Luther’s personal encounter with the gospel. We also gave attention to what he […]

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