Standing before the castle door at Wittenberg, Martin Luther—the man once so terror-stricken that he called out to a dead saint for physical salvation1—was unknowingly witnessing his last day of obscurity. It was on the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517,2 nearly thirteen years after he had vowed to become a monk in exchange for his life. He had written 95 statements that he desired to argue in academia, mostly against the sale of indulgences. Nailing his Theses to the door was nothing out of the ordinary; that was how one signaled the desire for a debate.3 However, even written in Latin, something in Luther’s words were explosive. Something in what Luther had to say was worth wide distribution, printed in the language of the German people. “Luther’s Theses differed from the ordinary propositions for debate,” states Bainton, “because they were forged in anger.”4 In his Theses, Luther attempted to verbally cut down the indulgence sellers; but in the process, he provided a glimpse of salvation through the gospel of faith and grace—a gospel most had never heard.
As Luther walked away from the castle door, he could not likely have predicted the eruption that was soon to ignite. He likely did not suspect that he eventually would be excommunicated from the Catholic Church, for much of his life condemned to live as a wanted man or die by the flames reserved for heretics.5 All he knew was that he was justified to confidently stand before God, saved by grace through faith, because the Word of God declares it so. The Martin Luther that entered the Augustinian cloister at Erfurt, trembling at the fear of his Creator and Judge, confessing for hours, was not the same Martin Luther that walked away from the castle door on October 31, 1517. The change came through God’s Word, over time. In what follows, this post will examine Luther and his clarification of theology leading up to the Ninety-Five Theses.
Turning to his friends before entering the Black Cloister, Luther proclaimed, “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”6 It was July 17, 1505. He was 22 and a student of the law. Two week before, Luther was traveling outside of Stotternheim when a great storm overtook him. Bainton writes, “A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground.”7 Alone in a field, Luther cried out not to God, but to St. Anne, the patroness of miners and the preferred saint of Hans Luther, his father. “St. Anne help me!” pleaded Luther, “I will become a monk.”8
Friends speculated the cause for sudden change of course in Luther’s life. One friend believed it was rooted in “the melancholy he displayed after the death of two friends.”9 Another acquaintance believed a supernatural spirit had visited Luther.10 Hans, furious that the investment in his future security via his son’s education, said of his son’s decision, “God grant it was not an apparition of the Devil.”11 Years later, Luther told his father that it was out of fear of death and of God’s judgment that forced the monastic vow. He called it a ‘calling by the terrors of heaven.’12
It is no wonder Luther would fear death and judgment, turning to bargain with St. Anne and the religion of the day—a hybrid of German paganism and Christian mythology.13 As already mentioned above, Luther’s father, an ore worker, regularly turned to the patroness of miners. His mother, Margaretta, although a woman of prayer, believed that pagan spirits “played such minor pranks as stealing eggs, milk, and butter.”14 The “untutored folk” of the German countryside unquestionably held superstitious notions. “For them,” writes Bainton, “the woods and winds and waters were peopled by elves, gnomes, fairies, mermen and mermaids, sprites, and witches. Sinister spirits would release storms, floods, and pestilence, and could seduce mankind to sin and melancholia.”15 Bainton argues that Luther was never fully free of such ideas.16
The religious fervor of environment and pagan practices also contributed to the superstitious understanding held by Luther upon his entry into the congregation of Augustinian monks. Even from childhood, Luther was taught sacred songs. He “learned by heart” says Bainton, “the Sanctus, the Benedictus, the Angus Dei, and the Confiteor.”17 Luther was taught to sing psalms and hymns, he attended mass, and he took part in processions on holy days. Every town resided in the shadows of tall steeples and spires, churches and cloisters; they lived in the echoing rings of church bells. Priests and monks were everywhere. Religious processions cut through the streets. Priests proclaimed indulgences and superstitious relics of Christian folklore proliferated daily life. People sought cures at shrines.18 “Daily at Mansfeld the sick were stationed beside a convent in the hope of a cure at the tolling of the vesper bell. Luther remembered seeing a devil actually depart from one possessed.”19 Even in light of the Renaissance, Luther’s university had yet been affected by its grip. Luther still learned that storms, earthquakes, and other natural events still might hold to a divine cause.20 Regardless of the degree, all training worked through a religious monocle. According to González, “The theme of salvation and damnation permeated the atmosphere in which [Luther] lived.”21 Bainton contends, “The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the Church,” and this training found tremendous success in the life of Martin Luther.22 So the vow of a young man believing he was a dead man should come at no surprise.
In light of Luther’s institutional fear of God, he committed to a rigorous monastic lifestyle in an attempt appease God’s justice. Luther had been known to suffer bouts of depression and melancholy; however, his first year in the monastery brought him peace and happiness.23 He lived a daily routine of prayer and study. Given that he was accepted into the order after the initial one-year probationary period, it can be assumed that he indeed adapted to the monastic lifestyle.24 Eventually, his abilities were recognized and he was granted the opportunity to become a priest.25 But alas, his terror of God’s wrath returned. Of Luther’s first mass, González states, “he was gripped by terror upon thinking that he was holding and offering nothing less than the very body of Christ.”26 The power of the priesthood in this ritual was ultimately the key to the power of the Church over the state, the people, and even the angels. Luther recalled his thoughts after the moment he said, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,”
At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such Majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod, the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that?’ For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.”27
And so began what might rightly be called Luther’s Anfechtung, a word with no English equivalent. An anfechtung is something of a trial used by God to test a man, or “an assault by the Devil to destroy a man.”28
Luther found himself in great despair, wrecked by fear. To overcome his Anfechtung, Luther engaged in a works-based salvation attempt of fasting, prayer, withholding comfort and joy, and rigorous contemplation. He would confess often, fearful that he may overlook a sin, maybe even one he was unaware he had committed. Bainton writes, “Whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to perform.”29 For Luther, God’s justice seemed too much for him to bear. And the more he toiled, the worse his Anfechtung became. Luther would never be good enough to safely stand before God.
In the winter of 1510-11, Luther was called upon to represent the Augustinian order in Rome.30 Given so many relics and ritualistic opportunities for grace, Luther was hopeful he would finally feel worthy of God’s Kingdom. Upon entry to the city, he shouted, “Hail, holy Rome!”31 But over the months he was there, Luther witnessed enough to ensure still more trial and mental anguish. His Anfechtung was still well fed. A sign of his doubt is seen in his words at the top of Pilate’s Stairs, which he climbed on his knees, repeating the Pater Nosters on each step before kissing it, all hoping to spring Grandpa Heine from purgatory. Upon the top of the stairs he said, “Who knows whether it is so?”32 For Luther, the Church was losing its claim as a means of grace. About the entire trip, Luther commented “that he had gone to Rome with onions and had returned with garlic.”33 Upon his return to Erfurt, Luther was sent to Wittenberg to teach at a new university. Although he already held a doctorate of Bible, his father confessor felt that the answer to his Anfechtung may be found in deeper, regular study and teaching of the Scriptures.
In the late summer of 1513, Luther began lecturing on the Psalms. During the fall of 1515, Romans became the topic of his lectures. And in 1516-17, it was Galatians. “These studies,” according to Bainton, “proved to be for Luther the Damascus road.”34 It was gradually throughout this period (1513 through 1517), not in some lightning-strike moment as some would like to think, that Luther’s understanding of God’s justice began to incorporate grace and faith. It is here that salvation by faith alone found deep meaning for Luther.
First, Luther began to understand that Christ too had Anfechtung. Surely as a monk, Luther would have memorized most, if not all of the Psalter. However, his deeper study of the Psalms was Christological, meaning that at every point the text was speaking from the first-person, Luther took this to be Christ’s words. While this hermeneutic might face challenge in the light of other Psalms, it found traction with Luther at the point of the twenty-second Psalm. It is written in verses 1-2, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (ESV). Suffering was not what Luther had believed it to be if indeed Christ too could be forsaken. This was the beginning of Luther’s discovery, but in and of itself, it did not offer him much relief.
More than likely, Luther’s peace was found in 1515 in the book of Romans. Luther’s most challenging struggle came from his understanding of the ‘justice of God.’ But Romans 1:17 reads, “For in the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (ESV). As Luther has told the story, he struggled to resolve the conflict that the gospel could be both the revelation of God and the justice of God. How could the good news of the gospel be of justice? It did not fit within his understanding of God’s justice or his observations of salvation as taught by the Church. González writes, “Luther hated the very phrase ‘the justice of God,’ and spent day and night seeking to understand the relationship between the two parts of that single verse, which, after declaring that in the gospel, ‘the justice of God is revealed,’ affirms that ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’”35
Luther found his answer when he looked at God’s justice differently. Justice, it seemed to Luther, was no longer seen as the punishment of sinners, as he had always been taught. In fact, justice and righteousness—nearly synonymous terms—are given as a gift from God to those who live by faith, not because they are faithful but because God grants it as he so desires.36 Regarding this breakthrough, Luther said, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”37
Most of what is known about Luther’s history comes from Luther and others, written years after the actual events. It is difficult to view Luther’s understanding of God’s justice, grace, and faith before October of 1517 outside of everything following the Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg door. How firm was Luther’s understanding on grace by means outside of the Church. Did he believe that any grace came by way of relics or ritual? How about his position of Sola Fide, that is, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone? In his book, The Facts About Luther, O’Hare attempts to vilify Luther and repeatedly projects the later-Luther into the early events of Luther’s life. 38 While one might find fault with O’Hare’s methods, it is often the case that this too occurs in favorable treatments of Luther. Hollywood has found it entertaining to paint Luther as a reformer from strike of the lighting bolt rather than a young man trying to fit within the norms of the Church but running into struggles. Many authors have committed this error as well. Wilson raises this issue even within Luther himself, writing,
[W]e do have a problem in understanding Luther’s monastic career. His later writings on the religious life are utterly condemnatory and he came to consider his Augustinian years as worse than wasted. ‘In the cloister I lost both the salvation of my soul and the health of my body.’ But such statements were made after he had turned his back on monasticism. His memories were coloured by that rejection and his combative teaching undoubtedly involved exaggeration.39Therefore, this study will now briefly turn to three early documents in an effort to seek Luther’s understanding of grace and faith prior to his fame: Luther’s earlier ninety-seven theses, the Ninety-Five Theses, and The Leipzig Disputation.
The Ninety-Seven Theses. Only a couple months before Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses, he penned another list of matters for debate called Disputations Against Scholastic Theology. He had hoped they would create a stir but they untimely fell upon deaf ears.40 Reading the ninety-seven statements designed for academic debate among students, one should notice the surfacing of grace. Numbers seven through nine deal with man’s sinful nature and inability to bring himself to salvation outside of God’s grace. Number twenty-five hints at a works verses grace arrangement, reading, “Hope does not grow out of merits, but out of suffering which destroys merits. This in opposition to the opinion of many.”41 The twenty-ninth statement argues that the sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election of God, and number thirty reads, “On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.”42 It is false notion to think that man can remove the obstacles to grace, this according to number thirty-three, and thirty-four argues that man does not in himself alone contain the ability to have good will. Forty, which might give the greatest insight into Luther’s understanding by 1517 says, “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds.”43 And most compelling is that statements fifty-two through the remainder of the document deal with grace and the law. Noteworthy, eighty-nine states, “Grace as a mediator is necessary to reconcile the law with the will.”44 It is clear from reading Disputations Against Scholastic Theology that Luther’s theology was driving strong roots deep in his life, especially considering that the bulk of his Ninety-Seven Theses deal with grace and God’s justice. What is difficult to ascertain from this work is how Luther feels about faith in Christ alone for salvation.
The Ninety-Five Theses. Much of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is targeted at indulgences; however, his thirty-second point states, “Those who believe that, through a letter of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.”45 Clearly, Luther is stating that the paper pardon offers no grace, but given what we know of Luther’s position before October 31, 1517, it is a safe assumption that Luther would also condemn many other Church instituted means of grace. Thirty-four argues, “For grace conveyed by these pardons has respect only to the penalties of sacramental satisfaction, which are of human appointment.”46 Fifty-two calls the hope of salvation from letters of pardon “vain,” and sixty-eight says that in no way should indulgences be compared to “the grace of God and the piety of the cross.”47 While again, much can be seen of Luther’s idea of grace, at this point, he speaks little if anything about faith alone for salvation.
The Leipzig Disputation. The Liepzig Disputation is Eck’s account of his debate with Luther in 1519. While little from Eck’s perspective demonstrates Luther’s ideas of grace or Sola Fide, Eck does offer one hint of Luther’s faith in Christ over men or the Church. (It is for this reason that it is included in this analysis.) At one point, Eck reports to the Church that Luther denies that the Church was built upon Peter or any man, instead, according to Eck’s report, “[Luther] would stand alone against a thousand, though supported by no other, because Christ only is the foundation of the Church, for no other foundation can man lay.”48 Clearly, Luther’s faith was in Christ alone.
We cannot know what Luther was thinking while he was nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door at Wittenberg, but we can speculate that he was confident in his understanding of grace and faith. Through years of struggle and study of God’s word, Luther found security in not only his salvation, but also in his ability to approach his Creator as a beloved child would his perfectly just and perfectly loving Father.
There have been volumes written by and about Martin Luther and his theology. Given the massive amounts of material, there is much room for more study on Luther’s understanding of grace and faith before his fame. And it might prove interesting to examine his understanding over the course of the reminder of his lifetime. It is the hope and prayer of this author that more research will be conducted and offered to the Church so that there will be continued growth and understanding through the struggles and discoveries of Martin Luther.
Bainton, Roland Herbert. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Meridian, 1995.
Bettenson, Henry Scowcroft, and Chris Maunder. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol I. San Francisco: Harper Row, 1984.
Luther, Martin. Basic Luther. Springfield, Ill: Templegate Publishers, 1994.
Luther, Martin, Timothy F. Lull, and William R. Russell. Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2005.
Marty, Martin E. Martin Luther. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004.
Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
O’Hare, Patrick F. The Facts About Luther. Rockford, Ill: Tan Books, 1987.
Wilson, Derek A. Out of the Storm The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2007.
1 Roland Herbert Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995), 15.
*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.
** "Martin Luther" by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted in 1529, is in the public domain.