In Martin Luther’s introduction to the 95 Theses which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church 500 years ago on October 31, 1517, he begins:
Out of love for the truth, and the desire to bring it to light…
Truth had been supremely important to Luther, prompting him to leave law school and a promising career to enter the monastery. It was while he was teaching that he came upon a profound truth. He tells us of his conversion some 30 years after the fact in 1545, as an introduction to his collected Latin writings. Luther recounts how between 1513 and 1518 he had been lecturing at the University of Wittenberg on several books of the Bible — Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews — when he started his second series of lectures on Psalms in 1518.
Between 1515 and 1518 Luther grappled with his religious understanding. His decisive spiritual enlightenment or Durchbruch (breakthrough) came during his intensive study of St. Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans. He came to the realization that people receive justification through the grace of God, not through good works.
Luther himself stated that he came to this decisive realization and the answer to his despair while in the study room of the Wittenberg monastery. When this actually happened is disputed; it is called the Tower experience, Turmerlebenis.
Years earlier when he had left law school to enter the Black Friars Augustinian monastery at Erfurt in 1505 (see Part 1), he became a very sincere and dedicated monk. He desired to know “Christ the Savior and Comforter,” and not “the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” He studied the Scripture earnestly, holding for the first time in his hands a Bible while in the monastery. He rose at 3 am each morning for hours of prayer, and undertook frequent fasting and confession. His superior and confessor John Staupitz, after repeatedly hearing Luther’s ardent confessions, urged him to turn his mind from reflection on his sins and focus instead on the merits of Christ, not penance but repentance, a change of heart.
After Luther was ordained in 1507, he was soon called to teach theology by Staupitz, the first dean at the new University of Wittenberg. This university was the jewel of Luther’s later patron, Prince Frederick III, Duke of Saxony, the Elector, later called “the Wise.” There he continued his studies and was awarded his Doctor of Theology in 1512, an earned doctorate not an honorary one, rare at that time. He succeeded his superior Staupitz, as Chair of Theology. Three years later, as vicar of Saxony and Thuringia for the Augustinian order, Luther was now in charge of 11 monasteries.
In 1510 in his official role as vicar he and another monk walked 800 miles to Rome on Order business to resolve a particular controversy among the Augustinians. For a monk traveling to Rome — the very seat of the faith in which Saints Peter and Paul had died — it was the pilgrimage of a lifetime. When he arrived in the Eternal City, he fell to his knees and said:
“Be greeted, thou holy Rome, truly holy because of the holy martyrs, dripping with their blood.”
While in Rome, the 27-year-old monk climbed the famous Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs, across the street from St. John Lateran basilica, which were said to have been the very marble stairs of Pontius Pilate’s pretorium in Jerusalem where Jesus was condemned to be crucified.
It was widely believed that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, had brought this relic back from the Holy Land. If a pilgrim to Rome climbed the steps on their knees and said a prayer on each of the 28 steps, it was believed that one of their relatives would have their time in Purgatory cut short.
But the excited monk, upon reaching the top of the stairs, wondered to himself “Who knows if this is really true?” He was further discouraged as he watched the local Italian priests saying Mass sloppily, mocking the words of the liturgy, and so quickly that they finished each Mass in less than the minimum 12 minutes. And they blasphemously twisted the Latin words of the Lord’s Supper of bread and body, wine and blood into:
“Panis es et panis manebis, vinum es et vinum manebis…”
“Bread thou art and bread shalt thou remain, wine thou art and wine thou shall remain…”
He left Rome discouraged and in despair. He later recounted what he had heard said openly in the streets “If there is a Hell, then Rome is built upon it.” His Anfechtungen — what he described as overwhelming times of spiritual trial, terror, and religious crises — continued after he had returned to Germany and through his time of teaching at the University of Wittenberg until he wrestled with Romans 1:17.
Luther’s own words, three decades after the event, describes his experience:
“It was… but a single word in Chapter 1, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ that had stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness, as they call it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.”
Luther had said “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” He had lived without reproach but still felt that he was a sinner before God.
“I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God… Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place [Romans 1:17], most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.”
In the Tower, he then looked more closely at the context of the words, namely:
“In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'”
Luther felt utterly transformed, his Durchbruch, a “breakthrough,” a born-again experience:
“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates… And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.'”
Thus Luther concluded that it was not through the traditions of the Roman church that one was justified before God, but by faith alone, sola fide. This is where he began to think how he could Reform the church. He returned to St. Augustine’s teaching on monergism, that God alone acts in salvation, in the same way that Augustine had echoed the words of St. Paul on justification by faith not works.
To be continued in Part 3.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian