Martin Luther was responsible for the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, to look at his life gives a wonderful insight into God’s Salvation provided for us by Him. Martin was brought up in a family where his father was mean and cruel to him, but his father did have the money to give Martin a chance for a very good education to become a Lawyer. In his early studies for his bachelor degree, he found a copy of the Bible and began to read it avidly. Much of what he read he had never heard before in a sermon. This reading made hell and unrighteousness very real to him. Also at that time in churches it was taught that if you made pilgrimages to see holy relics, did penance, and paid the church a sum of money, your sins would be forgiven. Martin was very confused about what he was reading.
One day as Martin was traveling through the forest on the way back to the university he was caught in a terrific thunderstorm with lighting. Remember this was before the renaissance. In the dark ages people were scared to death of goblins, witches, and ghosts. There were few books around because the printing press had only been on the scene since 1466. Books were very expensive; at that time most of them were still hand written. Most people were illiterate and imaginations ran wild. At that time in history, mankind believed God was righteous, holy, and just. The people would try anything they were told to try to appease this angry righteous god. The clergy rarely mentioned that the creator was a God of love.
In the thunderstorm, lightning was dancing all around Martin. Finally a lightning bolt hit the tree he was taking shelter underneath and knocked him to the ground. Martin was terrified! He knew that he was doomed hell unless he did something, so he made a vow to God to become a monk to try to appease this angry god.
Becoming a monk raised more questions and he just could not find relief for his conscious. He did all kinds of things to try to pay for his sins himself but found no relief – Martin was miserable. However Martin persevered in his studies, and with the kind encouragement and friendship of one of his superiors Staupitz, Martin kept digging. Very few people if any at that time had a good grasp of the doctrine of Salvation, they by faith - just kind of floundered around in the dark and hoped for the best, they hoped for God’s mercy.
Martin was so driven by his own sense of unrighteous, that he turned out to be the vessel that God would use to bring the dark ages to a close. Once again mankind would be refreshed with the true doctrine of Salvation – Simple childlike trust in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary to pay for the penalty of our sins. The following excerpt is from the book Martin Luther by Mike Fearon. This information that follows in his book is priceless!
“The breakthrough occurred one very ordinary day, when Martin was in his private office – a room on the second floor of a tower attached to the Augustinian monastery at Wittenberg. He was preparing to preach and lecture on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Methodically reading through the letter, he came upon the passage that was to put an end to his fears forever.
“I am not ashamed of the Gospel”, Martin read, pondering the words of the apostle Paul. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed, through faith, for faith. As it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith’ “(Romans 1:16,17).
Well, thought Martin, the first part is easy enough to understand: it simply says that God’s Word, the gospel, shows the way of deliverance from eternal death. But what about this bit: the righteousness of God?
The very idea filled him with panic! Still a guilt-obsessed sinner, Martin felt a deep fear and hostility toward those words. Surely if God is just, then Martin Luther is damned, he thought. He had confessed his sins, repented – turned from the thing that he had done wrong- and confessed again; but there was no way he could make God forgive him.
When Martin had lectured on Psalm 31, he had quickly passed on when he reached the line “Deliver me in thy righteousness.” Every night for years, though his students had not realized it; their professor was battling in this tower room with the Devil.
“The righteousness of God” had tormented Martin from the very beginning of his studies. What did it really mean? When he talked to Staupitz about the matter, sitting under the old pear tree, his mentor told him “repentance is not genuine unless it begins with a love of righteousness and God.”
Stanpitz’ words struck Martin like a “sharp arrow of the Almighty.” And he began to compare them with the rest of the Scriptures that teach penitence. Where his knowledge of Greek had improved sufficiently, he realized that the actual meaning of the word was “to repent, or turn one’s back on wrongdoing,” rather than “to do penance-by fasting, pilgrimages, praying to saints, etc.”
But God shows His righteousness by punishing sinners ever time that they do wrong, Martin kept saying to himself. He shows His righteousness by punishing me, sinner that I am! The only way a man can become righteous is to do all that God wants him to do…. isn’t it?
Martin stopped, suddenly.
No, that can’t be right!
Then he realized he’d been wrong all those years! God wasn’t cruel and harsh at all!
St. Paul says that man is made righteous - or just - by believing in something that God has done for him. But what has God done for man to make his righteous or holy?
He sent Jesus Christ to make us holy! Jesus kept the law perfectly, and yet He was punished by being put to death. He had not done anything wrong, but I have!
That’s it! God punished Jesus in my place, by letting His own son be punished by death. Now I am holy in God’s sight because I know and believe that Jesus is righteous and holy for me, and He has taken my punishment!
Yes, martin had finally realized how he could be sure that God would forgive him. Whereas he had previously thought of God as a stern father, like his own natural father, Martin now saw Him as loving and gracious, ready to reach out and forgive him-if he only had faith and believed with a confident surrender and a firm reliance.
I feel as though I have been reborn and gone through open gate into paradise, Martin thought.
If God had been prepared to forgive sinful man with without requiring some penalty, He would have been very undependable, and that lack of steadfast resolve would have made Him a very frightening and unpredictable deity. He would have been like an unpredictable schoolmaster who rewards or punished a pupil depending on how He feels at a particular moment, rather than because of the pupil’s performance.
One of the clearest illustrations of how God combines justice and mercy can be found in an old story about an important judge who presided at the trial of a man who had committed a serous crime. As the trial progressed, it became more and more obvious that he accused was guilty. Then it became known that the accursed was a childhood friend of the judge.
Everybody expected the accused to get let off with a light sentence, because of the long friendship, but when the judge finally pronounced judgment, the whole court was stunned to hear the most severe sentence possible! The convicted man would have to pay a very large fine, or spend many years in prison. There seemed to be no way in which he could raise enough money, so prison seemed to be the only option.
Then the judge rose before the court. He took off his powdered wig, his ermine robe, and all the trappings of his office. He left his place of honor at the head of the court and walked down to the lowest station. There, he walked up to the clerk of the court and paid, with his own money, the enormous fine that he himself had imposed only a few moments earlier!
If he had let off the guilty person, he would have been a corrupt and unworthy judge. But by paying the fine himself the letter of the law had been upheld and his love for his childhood friend had been expressed in the most costly and loving manner imaginable.
That was precisely what Martin Luther had discovered about god. The righteousness of God had demanded that a sinner could not be let off unpunished. But God’s abundant love had required him to pay the penalty himself. All Martin had to do was to have faith that God had indeed paid the price, and he could be forgiven. Not only that, but God’s righteousness would become the sinner’s righteousness. Martin Luther could be righteous!
How the tears must have trickled down Martin’s face when he reached that revelation. God was no longer a terrifying, vengeful figure, but a kind, wonderful person. Martin remembered the elm tree in the thunderstorm that had caused him to take his vow to become a monk. But it was no longer a vision of terror and wrath. Martin seemed to see it instead -in the lightning flash, asserting its life in every shining leaf - echoing the thunderclap’s proclamation: “The righteous shall live by faith!”
“We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but having become righteous we do good works.” Martin started to preach to the people of Wittenberg. His students began to sense the spark of faith that glowed brighter and brighter in his heart, and they flocked to his lectures until other professors complained. Martin seemed to be on fire for God. He startled all who heard him by the way he applied the words of the Bible, written more than 1,400 years earlier, to the lives of the people of his own day. Christianity suddenly seemed more alive and relevant than it ever had before.