Friday, October 9, 2020

Martin Luther: A Courageous Man of Faith

One last time Luther mustered strength to take on death and the devil by announcing his confidence in the triumphant Christ. Had not his Savior defeated both of these horrendous foes at the Cross and through the Resurrection? With faith unwavering, toward 3:00 A.M. on February 18, 1546, the battle-worn German Reformer left his earthly travails for his eternal home “steadfast in Christ.”

To study the Protestant Reformation without reflecting upon Martin Luther’s own personal faith is like researching the architectural splendor of Paris while neglecting to pay a visit to Notre Dame. Despite secular historians’ concerted efforts to explain the Reformation’s genesis by emphasizing social, economic, and political “causes,” they still confront the irreducible fact that Martin Luther, the principal German Reformer, often acted out of motives of conscience and faith.

Paradoxically, Luther, who died loving God, as a young man murmured against and hated Him. What changed Luther from an angry person who viewed God as a vengeful tyrant into a courageous Christian who daily wanted to pray the Lord’s prayer? To gain perspective on this spiritual transformation, we should briefly trace the early career of this remarkable Saxon.

On November 10, 1483, Luther was born in Eisleben into the family of Hans Luder, a successful miner. He was named Martin after Saint Martin, whose feast day was celebrated on November 11, the day of Luther’s baptism. For nine years he attended the Mansfeld Latin School before entering the school of the Brethren of the Common Life in Magdeburg. He also studied at St. George Latin School in Eisenach and then matriculated in 1501 to pursue a curriculum of liberal arts and law at the university in Erfurt.

Hans Luder, Luther’s father, apparently wanted his brilliant son to become a master in both Roman and Canon law. This learning would open doors into the higher echelons of German public life. In September 1502, young Luther passed his bachelor’s examination, and in February 1505, he finished his master’s examinations. It looked as if he would become a lawyer just as “Big” Hans Luder had intended.

Suddenly, on July 16, 1505, Martin Luther entered the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. What had provoked this dramatic change in Luther’s plans? Two weeks earlier, on July 2, 1505, Luther had been walking from Mansfeld to Erfurt, when he was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm. Life-threatening lightning bolts hurtled down around him, one throwing him to the ground. Thinking he was going to die, a terrified Luther cried out, “Help, St. Anne! I will become a monk.” Surviving the deadly electrical barrage, Luther pondered the significance of espousing a life of self-mortification. He wrote, “Afterwards I regretted this vow and many counseled me against it. Nonetheless, I remained steadfast … I never thought that I would leave the cloister. I had died unto the world.” Hans Luder believed that the devil or witches must have deluded his son.

In the Erfurt monastery, Luther tried to be a good monk, but he remained deeply troubled in spirit. He later explained: “In the monastery I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow His grace on me.” He confessed that he had strayed from the faith, thereby angering God who could only be appeased “by doing good works.” Through repeated vigils, confession of sins and acts of self-mortification, Luther attempted, to try to appease God. But still, he experienced no peace of soul. Brother Martin was a very anxious and fearful monk.

John von Staupitz, the vice-general of the Augustinian order in Germany, advised the fretful Luther to think of God more in terms of Christ’s love than of a vengeful judge. He also urged Luther to read St. Augustine. Staupitz even suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of penance might not have biblical warrant. He commented that in earlier times, Matthew 4:17 had meant, “Be repentant in your heart,” not simply “Do the prescribed penances.” Luther was fascinated by this insight and later wrote to Staupitz: “Then it sounded like a voice from from heaven when we heard you say that true repentance begins only with the love of righteousness and of God; and that this love, which others hold to be the final end and consummation of penitence, is rather its beginning.

Staupitz, then, played a major role in Luther’s life. In 1508, he invited the young scholar to come to Wittenberg to teach philosophy. In 1511, Staupitz sent Luther to Rome on business for the Augustinian order. Luther described the trip this way: “In Rome I was a frantic saint. I ran through all the churches and catacombs and believed everything, their lies and falsehood.” On one occasion, Staupitz said to Luther: “Master, you should work for a doctorate; that will give you something to do.…” Luther was reluctant to do so, suggesting he might die in the process. However, on October 21, 1512, Dr. Martin Luther became a full professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.

As a professor of Sacred Scripture between 1512 and 1519, Luther lectured on Psalms (1513–1515), Romans (1515–1516), Galatians (1516–1517), Hebrews (1517–1518), and Psalms (1518–1519). Sometime during his studies of Scripture, he experienced a “spiritual new birth”:

As a monk I led an irreproachable life. Nevertheless I felt that I was a sinner before God. My conscience was restless, and I could not depend on God being propitiated by my satisfactions. Not only did I not love, but I actually hated the righteous God who punished sinners.… Thus a furious battle raged within my perplexed conscience, but meanwhile I was knocking at the door of this particular Pauline passage [Romans 1:17b; he also pondered Psalm 31:1b], earnestly seeking to know the mind of the great apostle.

Day and night I tried to meditate upon the significance of these words: “The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Then, finally, God had mercy on me, and I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that gift of God by which a righteous man lives, namely, faith, and that this sentence—The righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel—is passive, indicating that the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Now I felt as though I had been reborn altogether and had entered Paradise. In the same moment the face of the whole of Scripture became apparent to me.

Luther had recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace. He had also been “born again.”

Conversion for Luther meant a complete reorientation of his thoughts about God. Now for Luther, the all powerful God whom he once hated, became his loving heavenly Lather. He wrote:

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 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, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see Him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across His face.

The Lord’s Prayer became a treasure trove for Luther. He tried to recite it every day. Now he could pray sincerely, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

With the belief that his heavenly Father was loving and yet all powerful, Luther could not be intimidated by ecclesiastical or political opponents. In his battles for God and against the forces of the devil, he knew that he ultimately held the upper hand no matter how ominous outward circumstances appeared. After all, had not St. Paul written, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Despite some rounds of deep depression and resentment against God, Luther more generally believed God was on his side.

Luther’s childlike faith in the strong arm of his heavenly Father apparently lay behind his capacity to confront challenges, which most of us would have found daunting in the extreme. First, his posting of the Ninety-five Theses in October 1517 caused a furor throughout Germany. Luther thought himself to be a good papist defending the pope’s honor when he condemned the selling of indulgences for monetary gain. At first, Pope Leo X’s response was flippant: “Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober.” Later, the ecclesiastical establishment became determined to excommunicate and arrest Luther.

Second, Luther was demanded to recant his beliefs at Worms in 1521. At Worms, the brilliant disputant Johann Eck challenged him: “Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of Scripture: Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?” Before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, princes, hundreds of clerics, and politicians, Luther boldly replied: “Unless I am convinced 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 will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” According to some accounts, Luther also added these words: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” Frederick the Wise, one of Luther’s protectors, commented about the dramatic events at Worms: “Dr. Martin spoke wonderfully before the emperor, the princes, and the estates in Latin and in German, but he is too daring for me.”

Third, Luther broke a long-standing ecclesiastical tradition by marrying a former nun, Katherine von Bora, on June 13, 1525. He wrote to a friend that he wanted to marry Katherine “in defiance of him” [the evil one] who was robbing contemporaries of the joys of marriage.

Fourth, during the writing of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the summer of 1527, Luther experienced some of the worst bouts of sickness and depression of his entire life. These are just a few illustrations of Luther’s remarkable courage which brimmed over from his deep faith in his loving heavenly Father.

Certainly, Martin Luther was very human. He displayed all-too-obvious warts: Outbursts of scatological speech, very unfortunate anti-Semitic comments, a fiery temper. “The Charioteer of Israel,” as some of his friends called him, drove himself and others hard. Luther knew he was a flawed vessel. He realized he was engaged in an all-out struggle with the evil one who had gotten in his diabolical licks in Luther’s own life: “Don’t argue with the devil. He has had five thousand years of experience. He has tried out all his tricks on Adam, Abraham, and David, and he knows exactly the weak spots.” Luther also understood that daily prayer and Bible reading were indispensable for him, engaged as he was in spiritual warfare. He was in desperate need of divine help and protection. He often ended his letters, “Remember to pray for me.”

According to Luther, Christ is the only salvation for us who are locked in a no-holds-barred combat with the evil one. But the Christian should recall Christ’s victory over Satan has already been achieved at the Cross. Luther, the songwriter, celebrates this victory over Satan in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

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.

What is that wonderful “little” word that fells the evil one? Christ.

When Luther lay dying in Eisleben, the very town in which he had been born, he was asked, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” One more time he rallied the strength to give the clarion reply, “Yes.” Luther had served a faithful and loving heavenly Father in life; now through Christ he could commit himself to his loving heavenly Father in death.

Today’s evangelical church is in great need of courageous men and women of faith. May we covenant to be Christians who live out our own earthly pilgrimages like Luther “steadfast in Christ.” And like the German Reformer, may we remain confident not in the arm of the flesh but in Christ, who has already won the ultimate victory over the evil one at the Cross and through the Resurrection.