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THINK|17: Who is Martin Luther?

Written by Eric Swanson on

 

This weekend, Lord willing, my wife, daughter and I will make a trip to southeast Michigan to celebrate my grandfather’s 98th birthday. It is incredible to think of the life my grandfather has seen and lived. A man who lived through the Great Depression, an Army veteran of WWII, fathered 5 sons and has seen twelve grandchildren grow up and give him great-grandchildren.

He’s seen the world change in his lifetime like many of us can’t imagine, and my family owes a lot to him and his generation.  The same can be said for the life of Martin Luther and the generation that produced the Protestant Reformers.

In 1483, Luther was born into a world where Roman Catholicism was not only spiritual authority but also the governing power of the day. By the time the Lord took him from the earth in 1546, the world had changed dramatically, and the church would never look the same. 

Caught in the Storm of Life

Like many world changers, Luther did not come from means but was brought up in a humble, pious, strict home in Eisleben, Germany.  Luther’s mother, Margarette, used to beat his hands until they bled for taking a nut from the kitchen. This harsh discipline and the rigorous Catholic education created instilled a fear in Luther for all things worldly. Consequently, from a young age, Luther battled periods of depression and constant inner turbulence stemming from his tender conscience that desperately sought peace with God.

In 1505, Luther, an unstable college student, was caught in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm. When a lightning struck close by he cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners (his father Hans was a coal miner), “St Anne, help me! I will become a monk”!1

Luther was true to his vow. Although his time as a monk was characterized by more turmoil and struggle for his tortured soul. He searched high and low to figure out, “How perfect do you have to get to heaven? How do you please a God who is a consuming fire?2 He wrestled for assurance that his confession was real and that God the righteous Judge would truly accept his insufficient plea.

Nearly 8 years after being caught in the thunderstorm, God revealed himself to Luther, not in a thunderstorm, but in the His powerful and precious Word. 

Door Meet Nail

After leaving the monastery, Luther began to teach the Bible in the town of Wittenberg. Slowly but surely as he searched the Scriptures, the Lord opened his eyes to see that the righteousness of God was not only a Character of God, but a gift to be given to sinners (Rom. 4:5) He could not earn God’s favor through endless confessions or rigorous asceticism, but only through the grace of Jesus Christ alone.

Luther reflects on this defining moment,
“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”3 

As the gospel began to penetrate Luther’s life and theology, he began to see that the teaching and practices of the church were incongruent with the good news he understood in the Scriptures. Luther was appalled at the church’s sale of indulgences and use of relics that gave congregants false hope that their sins were covered not by Christ by their own works and payment.

On October 31, 1517, Luther made his formal rebuke of the church known. He nailed ninety-five of his rebukes of the church and the Pope to the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  Luther’s bold rebuke and bombastic personality reached the ears of Pope Leo and set in motion events that would alter history forever.

Captivated by Conscience

The rivalry between Pope Leo X and Luther grew more and more intense as the years progressed. The Pope called Luther a “drunken German who will think differently when he is sober, and Luther responded, “you are the worst rascal of all the rascals on earth!”

Luther’s writings were burned across the empire. In response, Luther burned the papal bull and other decrees from the Pope. This signature act of public defiance made clear his rejection of the Pope’s authority and there was no going back.

Luther was called to face the Holy Roman Emperor Charles Von April of 1521, to either recant his teaching and save his life or defend his beliefs, leaving as a heretic with a death sentence on his head.

On April 16, 1521, before his peers and the Emperor Luther declared, “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”

Difficult Ending

By God’s grace, Luther escaped his death sentence and went on teaching a preaching until his death. Yet, his joy in spreading the gospel was also mixed with much pain and suffering. Luther and his wife Katharina had six children and adopted six others through orphanages that had been filled because of plagues sweeping the country. Luther loved his wife, and called her “my rib” for “there is no sweeter union that that in a good marriage.”4 This union would be tested as they mourned the loss of one child in infancy and a daughter at the age of 14.

The loss of his children also brought familiar feelings of doubt and despair that Luther wrestled against while a monk in search of forgiveness. Yet, his marriage remained strong and his faith remained anchored in the bulwark that never fails.

Luther died in a familiar place, about a half-mile from the church he was baptized in but he left the world much different than he found it. Luther’s life is a testament to the transforming power of the gospel for those who seek and savor the glory of Christ our King.

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.
“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
– Martin Luther

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Sources Cited/Consulted

Lutzer, Dr. Erwin W. Rescuing the Gospel: the story and significance of the reformation. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016.

Nichols, Stephan J. The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world. Crossway Publishing. 14 February 2007.

Luther, Martin. Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 341 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 4


 

[1] Nichols, Stephan J. The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world. Crossway Publishing. 14 February 2007. (26).

[2] Lutzer, Dr. Erwin W. Rescuing the Gospel: the story and significance of the reformation. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016. (42-43).

[3] Lutzer, Dr. Erwin W. Rescuing the Gospel: the story and significance of the reformation. Baker Books. Grand Rapids, MI. 2016. (45-46)

[4] Nichols, Stephan J. The Reformation: how a monk and a mallet changed the world. Crossway Publishing. 14 February 2007. (34).

 


 

Eric Swanson

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