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Luther’s Life and How He Became Justified through Faith, Midweek Lenten Message for February 20, 2013 at ORLC

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Midweek Lenten Message for February 20, 2013

Luther’s Life and How He Became Justified through Faith

Martin Luther was born on November 10th in 1483 in Eisleben and died there too in 1546. He was baptized on the Day after he was born, on St. Martin’s Day, and thus named after the great Bishop of Tours of the fourth century. His mother, Margarete and father, Hans were up and coming burghers, because the father went into mining in Mansfeld and they could afford to send him to good schools hoping that he would one day study law and bring them fortune.

Luther was a good student and soon began his law studies in the University of Erfurt in Thuringia. On his way back to school from a trip to his parents at home, he was caught in a thunder and lightning storm near the village of Stotternheim. A flash of lightning struck beside him, knocked him down and he injured his leg.[1] In his fright he shouted, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!” To the dismay of his fellow students, he turned his back on the world and entered the observant and very strict Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt. There, he says, that if ever there was a monk that could have been saved by his monkery, then it was he. He fasted in his cold cell and used all kinds of self-inflicted disciplines. He would confess his sins for four or five hours in the minutest details and leaving, he would run back remembering something else he forgot to confess. His exasperated confessor shouted at him something like, “Don’t come back unless you’ve killed your mother or some other real sin.” His abbot, Johann von Staupitz, was helpful to Luther and understanding and realized he had to give Luther something to do. He made him become an Old Testament professor, despite Luther’s objections, giving him fifteen reasons why he should not. “And I will soon die!” he remonstrated. “If that is so, it’s all right. God has plenty of work for doctors to do in heaven.” said Staupitz. Luther had to prepare the services for the other monks, especially after he was ordained a priest in 1507. He seemed to have become an assistant to Staupitz, who then sent him to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the sake of the Augustinian order. Luther and a companion from the monastery walked all the way. There Luther tried to pray kneeling on every step of one shrine, but the crowd made it impossible, so he sat down and ate a wurst, a sausage on a bun, instead. He was dumbfounded by the corruption he saw in Rome.

Back in Erfurt, he made his doctorate and was called to become a professor of the Old Testament in Wittenberg, the new university that Fredrick the Wise had just founded in 1502. He lectured on the Psalms and he had to teach Aristotle’s ethics as well. He wrote to a fellow monk that he would rather teach theology, “that theology which searches out the meat of the nut, and the kernel in the grain and the marrow of the bones” [2] Luther wanted to get to the bottom of things, to the heart of things.

His parents had been very strict and his mother had once beaten him for taking a nut from the table without asking. Christ to him was a wrathful judge with a two-edged sword coming from his lips. Thus you prayed to Mary’s mother, St. Ann, or to Mother Mary, to intercede for you. Then he had his celebrated Tower Experience. You have to know that the Tower was cloaca, that is, the outhouse.

Luther was trying to interpret the scripture Romans 1:17:

For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

when he experienced a kind of conversion, which we call his justification by faith. This is how he remembers it as an old man:

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that God was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punished sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with God’s righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless I beat importunately upon Paul at this place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘One who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous live, by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, the passive righteousness by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “One who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

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 that place in Paul was truly the gate to paradise.[3]

This is the experience Luther had in his encounter with the Word of God. Justification by faith becomes most explicit in Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift from God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (2:8-9)

Meanwhile, in 1516 Pope Leo X needed funds for building St. Peter’s in Rome. A young Albrecht of Brandenburg, from the Hohenzollern, who was already the archbishop of Magdeburg at the age of 23 and the administrator of the Diocese of Halberstadt, now wanted to become the archbishop of the lucrative See of Mainz as well. Now cumulus, that is to accumulate sees is strictly forbidden by the canon law and simony, meaning to purchase church offices is as well, but money could remove all obstacles for a Renaissance pope who had used three complete papal treasury allowances: the surplus his predecessor, Julius II had left him; his own, and that of his successor. The pope spent money like there was no tomorrow. So long as he would receive half of the proceeds, Pope Leo allowed Albrecht to launch a St. Peter’s cathedral indulgence campaign to repay the 21,000 ducats he had loaned from Jacob Fugger. Other amounts must also have been involved, because Joseph Lortz notes that the pope received 14,000 florins for ratifying Albrecht’s bishop’s chair and 10,000 more overcoming the obstacle of cumulus.[4] Churches were closed as Tetzel came selling the indulgences, which disgusted Doctor Luther.

The little advertising jingle went: “As soon as the money in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!” “Now how heartless can you be? Will you leave your mother and father languishing there in purgatory, if this small purchase can lift them right up into heaven? What about buying an indulgence for a sin you are planning in the future? Come and get them!” It was all about revenue disguised as purchases for doing penance, much like parking tickets today that are used for the purposes of revenue.

Thus Luther wrote 95 Theses and nailed them on the castle church door of Wittenberg in protest. He sent a copy to Albrecht, not knowing he was behind the indulgence campaign. A professor tried to come up with a hundred points or theses in order to have a debate, a disputation, to which all were invited. Luther came up with 95. But the new printing presses, which had been printing the indulgences, now printed the broadsheet, which traveled like wildfire all through Europe. Albrecht had sent Luther’s 95 theses directly to Rome saying he was a heretic. At 28 years of age, Albrecht was made the cardinal and elector of Mainz. Oh, sorry, they forgot to ordain him!

To understand what was going on, think about what it would be like if California were an ecclesiastical principality and the position of governor could be purchased from the pope, who would make him a cardinal to rule our state, like Cardinal Richelieu over France.

Luther had hit the church in its political power and fabulous aspirations for wealth. When the young Charles the V came to the Diet of Worms, the parliament of the Holy Roman Empire in 1521, Luther was called upon to recant.

Inquisitor Eck: We do not want you to hem, haw, or backbite. Will you or will you not recant?

Luther answered: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust in either the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against [one’s] conscience. May God Help me. Amen.

The emperor turned and said, “No monk is going to make a heretic out of me!”

When Luther returned to his room, he threw up his fist in the air, like a knight who had just won a joust. He thought he was going to be a martyr. The emperor pronounced the imperial ban against Luther making him as free as a bird for anyone to kill. Thereafter he was soon excommunicated. Meanwhile Frederick the Wise had his knights kidnap him on his way back to Wittenberg. But they whisked him out of his oxcart only in order to give him protective custody, we could say in Frederick’s “witness protection program,” there at the Wartburg Castle, where he took the identity and disguise of a knight, Junker George. While Frederick’s knights arrested Luther, he had enough time to snatch his Greek New Testament, which in hiding, he translated in seven weeks. [5]

Let’s stop there for questions and discussion.


[1] Martin Brecht writes that Luther was probably knocked down and injured his leg. This incident with the lightning took place on July 2, 1505. It was on his way home for Easter in 1503 or 1504 that he cut an artery in his thigh with the student’s sword he was carrying and almost bled to death. A companion summed a surgeon from the city. Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: his Road to the Reformation (1483-1521), (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 46 and 48.

[2] Preserved Smith, editor and translator, Luther’s Correspondence and other Contemporary Letters: Vol. I (1507-1521). (Philadelphia: the Lutheran Publication Society, 1913), p.24.

[3] Walter von Loewenich, Martin Luther: the Man and his Work, Translated by Lawrence W. Denef, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1982), Page 84.

[4] See Joseph Lortz,How the Reformation Came, (New York: Herder and Herder, Inc, 1964), p. 93. And Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 189.

[5] Some of these last words come from a Luther play I wrote in 1994.


Written by peterkrey

February 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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