Luther and the storm that remade the world

Posted on November 30, 2017


I encourage you to attend a celebration on Monday, Oct. 30, of the life and times of Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. The event, at the University of Alabama Moody Music Building, begins with a reception and book exhibit at 5 p.m. and follows with a program at 6 p.m. on “The Protestant Reformation, 1517-2017, 500 Years of Faith, History, and the Arts.”

Brief lectures and musical performances by faculty will bring to life some of Luther’s profound contributions to the making of modern Christianity.

On Oct. 31, 1517 — almost precisely 500 years ago — the Augustinian friar Martin Luther pinned to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany, ninety-five complaints against certain Roman Catholic Church practices. He really didn’t expect the firestorm that followed. But this action led to the birth of the modern Protestant denominations, like the Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals and dozens of others that broke off from the Roman Catholic Church and changed the course of Christianity dramatically.

Luther was born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Saxony, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, and part of Germany. Luther’s father was an ambitious man and wanted Martin, his eldest son, to become a lawyer and bring prominence to the family.

But Luther was driven more to Scripture and philosophy, searching for what was significant to him, more than to the study of law. He, in fact, was turning to God to try to understand his world, his God, and, ultimately, his fate as a human being within God’s order and will.

Then, on July 2, 1505, while traveling on horseback, he got caught in a thunderstorm.

A lightning bolt struck near him and he had what has been described as a “fox hole conversion.” The blast of light and clap of thunder terrified him. What if he was to die right there without having his spiritual life in order? He cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk.”

He later came to view his cry for help as a vow he could never break. He devoted himself as a friar and member of the Church for the rest of his life.
And while this devotion and searching eventually set Christianity afire in the 16th century, all was not well.

Luther kept coming back to the central issue in his life: was he saved? How could he be sure that the salvation promised in Scripture, or life forever after death, would be spent with Jesus in heaven, or in hell? Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair.

“I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”

The Church taught that God demanded absolute righteousness. Matthew 5:48 read “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” (NIV).

As Luther pondered the nature of God, he found himself unable to be good enough, contrite enough, selfless enough to satisfy this righteous God. Luther had been trained in the medieval scholastic tradition, which interpreted Paul’s phrase in Romans 1:17 “the righteousness of God” as shorthand for the awesome holiness of God, before which sinners can only quake in fear.

How could one please such an awesome God? Luther was obsessed because he could not figure out why God was so merciless.

But then he received a lightning bolt of inspiration. This is how Luther described it: ‘I grasped that the righteousness 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.’”
Luther had in fact come to understand that God’s grace, and salvation, could not be earned in any way by good works, penance, or formal acts of sacrament. Salvation came freely from God through grace, which is defined as the “unmerited favor of God.” God through his immense love for man offers us salvation. We have but to receive it by faith.

When Luther came to this understanding, he next took aim at Church practices, which had corrupted the Church in the past thousand years. As he targeted the sale of indulgences, he unwittingly started the split in the Church that eventually led to a major schism in Christianity, which goes generally, as we know, by the name of the Reformation.

Tune in next week for his attack on indulgences and how the Church responded.

Published as “Luther and the storm that remade the world,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Oct. 22, 2017