Essential Luther - Lesson 2

Road to the Reformation

Some of the historical milestones that took place in Luther's life as he began to develop his reformational theology.

Gordon Isaac
Essential Luther
Lesson 2
Watching Now
Road to the Reformation

I. Introduction
    A. Describing Luther's theology based on contemporary historical realities.
    B. Describing Luther's theology is challenging because he was such a prolific writer.
II. Historical events
    A. Meeting with Martin Luther and his vicar general, John Staupitz. 1512
    B. Luther became an Augustinian monk.  1505
    C. Luther went to Rome. 1510
    D. Luther's doubts
    E. Luther's search for a gracious God through penance.
    F. Luther was particularly interested in understanding St. Paul.
    G. Luther's tower experience
    H. Luther's pastoral response

  • The joy and promise of reading Luther. Luther has keen theological insights and expresses them using wit and lively word pictures. Luther's innovative thoughts are a result, not only of profound wrestling with theological ideas, but with Scripture itself. Luther uses polemic language, which was common in his time.

  • Some of the historical milestones that took place in the life of Martin Luther.

  • Luther has an unusual presentation of the nature of the theological task and a unique way of going about it. When discussing sin, Luther says that our problem is not just a moral lapse, but it's our spiritual presumption that is our greatest and worst of sins. Theology for Luther is our being grasped by the Word of God, not just a speculative academic pursuit.

  • Justification by faith is the central, foundational doctrine of Christianity and is unique compared to other religions. It is the manner in which we continue to walk with the living God. To Luther, it is more than just a doctrine, it is a death and a resurrection joining us to the living Christ. 

  • Luther presents his view of the atonement in the form and shape of the theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection, God is bringing about something new. Christ did not come to give us a new law. Christ came into the closed circle of law and death by being born under the law, then dying and being raised from the dead to redeem those who were under the law. We get what Jesus has to offer by going through the cross ourselves, not just accepting theories about the cross.

  • Luther's treatise on Christ's Passion was used by common people to focus their meditation on the significance of this period of Christ's ministry. Luther urges people to be sensitive to what the Spirit might speak to them as they pray through Scripture passages. Luther's writings are sprinkled with short dialogues that help us deal with everyday matters according to the gospel.

Martin Luther used wit and lively word pictures to communicate his keen theological insights. His innovative thoughts are a result of his wrestling with Scripture as well as thoughtfully considering current theological teachings.

Essential Luther

Dr. Gordon Isaac


Road to the Reformation

Lesson Transcript


Thanks for clicking on the Essential Luther Part two and this session entitled Luther's Road to the Reformation. What I'd like to do is set forward before you some of the historical milestones that took place in Luther's life as he began to develop his Reformation theology, and as the break with Rome began to appear, it said that Luther's theology is really tied to the very specific question of his own day in his response to the Roman Catholic Curia and the kind of piety which had developed during the 16th century. So to describe Luther's theology, it's really necessary to move to those historical realities that were a part of his life. It's interesting to note that in the most recent expositions of Luther's theology, different ones have talked about how that's possible. Helmut Young Hans, the editor of the Luther Book for a number of years and a distinguished Luther scholar of some decades, has talked about the center of Luther's theology. And there he talks about the different ways that Luther scholars have set forward Luther's theology. Some have attempted to put Luther's theology into a systematic picture, but by doing so, they have quite often pressed Luther into their own confessional points of view. So, for example, Frederico Garten, as he tried to describe Luther's theology, presented it out of the existential philosophical background that he was very familiar and comfortable with. On the other hand, there were others who had their own particular confessional points of view that seemed to gain greater emphasis as they presented Luther's theology. There is a special issue in trying to present Luther's theology because he wrote so much. There are 55 volumes in the American edition and in the Weimar Edition, the German and Latin edition of his writings.


There are many, many more volumes than that. So because he wrote so extensively, it's not particularly easy to summarize Luther's theology. And that is the special problem that comes to Luther Scholars. And it's our special problem, too, in trying to present the essential Luther to you in 3 hours. It's very difficult to select precisely those things that are most important. Bernard Lowe is another very important Luther scholar, has just published a work entitled Martin Luther's Theology, its historical and Systematic Development. And here, Bernard Llosa, instead of choosing between an historical exposition of the development of Luther's theology or a purely systematic presentation of Luther's theology, has joined those two approaches into one volume. And in the first half, he talks about the historical developments which led Luther in his conflicts to his particular theological insights. In the second half of the volume, He then presents and summarizes Luther's theology by way of systematic presentation. So you see that even the most profound Luther scholars have had to scratch their heads over how to do this. And so in our essential Luther here, we want to move to some of the historical events in Luther's life that were critically important as Luther was musing back over his own life. He made this comment, but perhaps you will say to me, Why do you buy your books teach throughout the world when you are only a preacher in Wittenberg? I answer. I have never wanted to do it and do not want to do it now. I was forced and driven into this position in the first place when I had to become doctor of Holy Scripture against my will. Then, as a doctor in a general free university, I began at the command of Pope and Emperor to do what such a doctor is sworn to do, expounding the Scriptures for all the world and teaching everybody.


It was sometime in the fall of 1511 or in the spring of 1512 that the young Augustinian friar Martin met with his Vicar general, John Stupids. The meeting took place under a pear tree in a garden just north of the Wittenberg Black cloister, where monks were permitted to spend their prescribed recreation time. Hare Magister, You must become a doctor and a preacher. Then you will have something to do. Stop. It's told Luther. Luther objected, citing no less than 15 reasons why he should not be called to preach and teach. Stop it. Reproached him. Do not be wise. Or my friend. Then the whole convent and the friars. A frightened Luther burst out hairstyle. Hits you will bring me to my death. I will never endure it for even three months. But stop, Pitts persisted. Don't you know that our Lord God has many great matters to attend to? For these He needs wise and clever people to advise him. If you should die, you will be received into his Council in heaven because he too has need of some doctors. Now, this encounter that took place underneath a pear tree depicts for us Luther's reticence in moving into the public sphere. It was not his desire to do that. He had entered the cloister precisely to have a blessing from God and to be assured of peace, of mind and eternal salvation because he had taken monastic vows. He was not interested in being a public figure. So this encounter underneath the pear tree where style pits challenges Luther and directs him into a life of expounding the scriptures really is an important turn in Luther's life, and thus it's an important chapter in the unfolding of the Reformation. I would not exchange my doctor's degree for all the world's gold.


Luther declared 20 years later, for I would surely in the long run, lose courage and fall into despair if I had undertaken these great and serious matters without call or commission. But God and the whole world bears me testimony that I entered into this work publicly and by virtue of my office as teacher and preacher, and have carried it on hitherto by the grace and help of God. Luther's sense of vocation was deeply grounded in his academic training, and it carried him through many moments of uncertainty and self-doubt. There were many times when he asked himself, Am I the only one who sees Scripture in this way? Am I the only one who has these theological insights? Or is it simply the devil who is tricking and deceiving me? And so Luther's work as a reformer in the 16th century is really firmly grounded on this matter of calling the calling of the church for him to use the gifts that he had been given for the benefit of the church and stop its was one who led him in that. Now, as you might remember from well, actually, maybe you don't remember, but in 1505, Luther had been studying law at the university. His father had wanted for him a very productive and lucrative career. And if one was in law, one could take a position at the court, do many things that are common, peasants simply could not. So Luther's father had in mind that Luther would gain his degree and thus bring honor to his family and also wealth to himself and also to his mother and father. But while returning to school on a July afternoon, lightning struck very near to Luther, and it frightened him. So it knocked him to the ground.


And he was full of the terror of death. And in that moment, he cried out to the patron saint of the miners. And his father was a miner. So he cried out, Satan, say die and save me. If you do, I will become a monk. And so his life was spared in that moment. And true to his word, he gave up the study of law, sold his law books, which were quite expensive, and entered into the Augustinian monastery. He had a party with his friends a couple of weeks later and in a kind of a formal moment, then entered into the barns. The monastery Luther's life there was very rigorous. Luther had a grueling schedule during those early years in the monastery, besides the terrible living conditions. There were spiritual exercises and a tough academic program to follow. A monk lived in a small cell with one window and no heat and was cut off from communication with the world. He had to obey the strict dress code of the Augustinian friars, which was to wear a long white dress with a black cowl and a hood girded by a leather sash. Even during their short sleeping hours, the friars were not permitted to undress. Hourly prayers and daily masses. In addition to academic work, were intended to keep the Friars constantly alert and prepared for a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. The two simple meals a day were supposed to be endured, not enjoyed. And Luther, being quite a serious young man, was determined to do his best. He studied hard. He tried to mortify his flesh by fasting and praying and fulfilled his priestly duties of celebrating mass and hearing confession. He was praised by friend and foe alike as an exemplary monk.


His own words best depict the spiritual and academic pressures that he was under. When I was a monk, I was unwilling to admit any of the prescribed prayers. But when I was busy with public lecturing and writing, I often accumulated my appointed prayers for a whole week, or even two or three weeks. Then I would take a Saturday off or shut myself in for as long as three days without food and drink until I had said the prescribed prayers. This made my head split and as a consequence, I couldn't close my eyes for five nights, lay sick unto death, and went out of my senses even after I had quickly recovered and tried again to read, my head went round and round. Thus, our Lord God drew me as if by force from that torment of prayers to such an extent. Had I been captive, Luther describes then his his routines and those special pressures that were brought to bear on him as a monk. He was forced in the Augustinian monastery to say the canonical hours, and he had to center on those daily offices of prayer, the Sacrament of Penance. And quite often he would go to his father confessor. And Luther was such a scrupulous monk that his confessor style Pitts would often say, Luther, you have piled up so many sins. I'm convinced that God is not so much angry with you, but that you are angry with God. And he chided Luther for rehearsing again and again what he called puppy sins mere peccadilloes, things hardly worth remembering. But Luther was so earnest, and because of the piety of the time, he felt himself forced and obligated to give a full confession. You see, according to 16th century theology, one could be assured of absolution.


That is the word of forgiveness. Only if one had remembered all sins committed during the previous time between times of penance. So that put a great deal of pressure on a person, didn't it? You had to remember each and every one of those sins. What if you forgot one or two? What if you did not remember that foul thought that you had against your mother or father, or against the PRI or of the monastery? Luther was in a terrible situation there, and so he felt really quite up against it. And so in his moments of confession with his prior, there were many conversations that they had. And Luther was really quite guilt ridden in these years. When looking back on these years of study, Luther was thankful that he'd been forced to become well acquainted with the Bible. The rules of the Augustinian hermits required frequent reading of the Bible, and Luther had been given a personal copy bound in red when he entered the monastery, and later he boasted that he was one of the few monks who read the Bible frequently and with care. Yet the hermits great emphasis on ascetic discipline and their attempts to appease God, the judge of life in the world of flesh, evil and death obscured for Luther, the biblical message of mercy and redemption in Christ. I shuddered all over that word and at the name of Jesus Christ, he told his students during his lectures on Genesis four. I thought that he had been represented as my judge, not as my savior. I admired and respected a priest arrayed in his long vestment or bringing a sacrifice for the living and the dead. More than I admired and respected the doctrine concerning Christ. Together with the promises and the sacraments, I thought that this doctrine was of no concern whatever to me.


Luther went beyond the requirement. He memorized whole portions of the Bible and diligently used existing exegetical methods. I read the Bible diligently, he recalled. Sometimes one important statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day. Whereas, Luther's teachers stressed a study of the Bible seen in light of the church's commentaries. Luther's wrestled with biblical texts in order to get answers to his own spiritual questions and was frequently plunged into despair. On the 18th of January 1518, he wrote to his friend George Spartan. It is absolutely certain that one cannot enter into the meaning of Scripture by study or innate intelligence. Therefore, your first task is to begin with prayer. You must ask that the Lord and His great mercy grant you a true understanding of His words. Should it please Him to accomplish anything through you for His glory and not for your glory or that of any other man? You must therefore completely despair of your own diligence and intelligence and rely solely on the infusion of the spirit. Believe me. For I have had experience in this matter. In 1510, the young Luther was sent on an errand for the Augustinian monasteries in Germany. They had a conflict with some of the other monasteries also in Germany. And so Luther was sent with two others to go down to Rome in order to have the matter adjudicated. It took them approximately 40 days to travel the 585 miles, approximately so down to Rome. And when he got there, he was appalled at what he saw the moral laxity, the spiritual turpitude, the trade in money with respect to the masses. The Italian priests did not impress them at all, as a matter of fact. He, as a very pious priest, was performing a mass at one of the special sites in Rome, and there were some priests lined up at the side and they were saying, Hurry up, hurry up, it's our turn next.


And Luther was really put off by what he saw as the decadence of the Christianity that he saw represented in Rome. So he came back and this caused him to turn to his studies all the more diligently in order to find what was true and what was not. This set Luther on a path where he had many doubts, and throughout his life, Luther was subject to bouts of anxiety, ranging from simple doubts to deep depressions, which he labeled on festering in these unfortunate, especially those he suffered while in the monastery, have tempted some Luther interpreters to engage in long distance psychoanalysis. But research has made it clear that Luther's interpersonal experiences cannot be separated from his theological perceptions in his scholarly work, and especially his study of the Bible. He says this I didn't learn my theology all at once. Luther said I had to ponder over it ever more deeply. And my spiritual trials. That is unfair to ignore tentativeness. We're of help to me in this. For one, does not learn anything without practice. Luther was a child of his age, sensitive to the inexplicable trials and tribulations besetting medieval society, and he saw many complaints that could be raised against God who can serve God as long as he strikes people down right and left, as we see that he does in many cases involving our adversaries. There were plagues for which there was no medical help. There was magic and sorcery. Concrete evidence of the devil's work. And there was the fear of a life after death subject to God's wrath. Such fears made Luther feel like a soldier in a panic stricken army, frightened by the sound of a driven leaf. God appeared to be an unjust judge, mysterious in his predestination of people and in his toleration of the devil's work style pits and other Father Confessors attempted to help Luther find some consolation.


And when Luther asked him, Why does God seem so unjust? Stop it, answered dear fellow, learn to think of God differently if he did not treat people in this way. How could God restrain those blockheads? God strikes us for our own good in order that He might free us who otherwise would be crushed. Luther's search for a gracious God was through the sacrament of Penance, and theologians like Stopit helped Luther to see that he needed to hear the word of absolution that came from the priest and receive it as though it was a word come from God himself. Luther says it this way with respect to stop. It's his father confessor. I accepted you as a messenger from heaven, he told Star Pitts in a letter dated May 30th, 1518. When you said that PO in a ten year or penance is genuine, only if it begins with love for justice and for God, and that they, the Alchemist theologians, consider to be the final stage and completion, namely the love of God is in reality rather the very beginning of point attention. Your word pierced me like a sharp arrow of the mighty. As a result, I began to compare your statements with the passages of Scripture, which speak of poor in a tense year. And I found something which was very sweet indeed. All Scripture supported your comment in this regard. So the commandments of God become sweet when they are read not only in books but also in the wounds of the sweetest savior. So, Luther, in struggling with this God that he found to be judgmental and wrathful, he began to come around recognizing that penance was not something that he did in such a manner so as to coerce God, but rather penance was the beginning of seeing that God in Himself was gracious and turned toward the person rather by way of what God had already done in Christ.


So Luther is coming to an important insight here, which will become full fledged a bit later on. Luther continued his struggle and Luther's struggles took him back to the text of Scripture again and again. Luther was particularly interested in understanding Saint Paul, and in so doing he turned to the book of Romans, and he tells us in his writings, in reflections later in his life, he begins to describe his experience of this wrestling with Saint Paul in the epistle to the Romans. He says, At this way I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then, it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single word in chapter one. In it, the righteousness of God as 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 act of righteousness, as they called it, with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner. 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 He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love. Yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners and secretly, if not bless famously 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 by the Gospel and also by the Gospel, threatening us with His righteousness and wrath.


Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat Inopportune Italy upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what Saint 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. 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. Here I felt that I was all together, born again, and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There are totally other faiths of the entire scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the scriptures 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, for me, truly the gate to paradise. This recollection, written by the 62 year old Luther, may not be as precise as some scholars want it to be, but it's a wonderful insight into how Luther saw his own progression from a monk troubled by the terrors of death and by a case of scruples, as they called it, and moved from that place of guilt and trembling before God to a place where he recognized the difference between God's wrath and judgment and the gracious gospel given in Christ Jesus.


The wounds of the Sweet Savior then became the Rosetta Stone, by which Luther came to understand the significance of the all embracing goodness of God for men and women, boys and girls, sinners all alike, but those whom God has desire to save. So this wonderful passage of Luther's experience in that tower, he tells us elsewhere in his recollection that this event took place while he was studying hard in the tower of the cloister, the black cloister of the Augustinians. And it was in that time of study and deep reflection that Luther came to this profound insight. I'm struck whenever I read this passage, and I've read it a few times now. I'm struck with the fact that there are many elements in here of the monastic disciplines that Luther was taught. It speaks of the fact that he meditated day and night, and it was through this insight that he came to a clearer understanding of the nature of Scripture. This, in some ways is a paradigm of the Reformation. You know, during the 16th century, one piece of common piety was this There were people who would go on pilgrimages and they would go to special sites, said to have powerful spiritual significance. There was a cathedral in Spain, the Compostela, and that was a favorite place for pilgrims to journey to. Perhaps you've heard of the Canterbury Tales. In England, there were special sites where people would go to visit. There were other sites where it was said visions of holy individuals had taken place, and if one were to go there, one would receive merits, and these merits could be transferred to the pilgrims. If the Pilgrims would simply pay a bit of money. So it was that in the 16th century, your desire to receive the blessing of God could be transferred into something of a business transaction.


And so there were many that went on pilgrimages. But what Luther says, interestingly enough, is that now the true pilgrimage is not to these holy sites where one supposedly receives merits, but rather the true pilgrimage is to return to Scripture, to feed on its wisdom, to learn its profound truths so that human life could be changed into the image of the living Christ. So this tower experience, this is one important piece of the road to the Reformation. Now, this insight into the righteousness of God led Luther into a significant pastoral response. There were many in his parish who were going across the river to another district in which they could purchase indulgences and indulgence was a remission of penalties exacted by the church for sins. If you had committed a sin, you would go into the Confessor and you would confess. Your son and your confessor would say, You must do the following things in order to achieve satisfaction. And then you can come back for the word of absolution after that. And you might have to say 150 our fathers. Or he might recommend that you do some other act of penance or satisfaction in the case of indulgences. These individuals go across the river, they would pay their money and oftentimes they would pay their money in an attempt to gain merit for their departed parents or loved ones, and they would get time off of purgatory. Those individuals have been sent to purgatory that need to be purged of sins in some way. And so the loved ones would pay money to reduce the number of years that they would have to suffer in purgatory. Luther was really angry when he saw this practice. And so in his rage, he formulated a certain number of theses to be discussed on the academic level.


He posted these theses on October 31st, 1517, and one of the leading theses reads In this way, when our Lord and master Jesus Christ said Repent, he. Will the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. This term repent in the Latin is agitate, point attention, or to do penance. And so in the 16th century, many people thought that to do penance meant to do these acts of satisfaction in order to come into the good graces of God. But Luther, in taking a look at the Greek text later on in his career, realized that the Greek term here means metta Noyer. It means the changing of one's mind to turn around. It did not have to do with the action of satisfaction, but it has to do with the changing of one's mind, leading of a new life granted through faith. And so Luther's insight into this led him and drove him to his past. Our response in this issue. Theses 42 reads In this way Christians are to be taught that the Pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Theses 62 The true treasure of the Church, is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. Theses 91. If therefore indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the Pope. All these doubts about the real power of indulgences would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist. Thesis 94 Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ their head through penalties, death and hell. Thesis 95 and thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace. So Luther went after the indulgence traffic and thus created a tremendous stir.


And so there was quite a fight about this. And Luther overnight became a public figure. The faculties at Cologne or Kern and Laval, the French faculty, reviewed Luther's 95 theses and roundly condemned them. And this skyrocketed Luther into public prominence. The 95 theses were translated into German, and a number of editions were printed out so that the common people began to enter into this theological dialog. Luther became the spokesperson of the common people and of a new theology. This new theology also was set forward in the Heidelberg disputation, and this was a moment where Luther had a chance to win over many of his Augustinian friends. So this road to Reformation has very many specific touch points in history, and the essential Luther cannot be understood without understanding his own personal struggle and that struggle that led to his public ministry.