Here we stand.
Why Luther grasped a hammer and how it led him to discover the insight that became a revolution.
This article has also appeared on Mockingbird.
October 31, 1517 was a day of infamy and reckoning for the church — and has been for these five intervening centuries. It marked the beginning of what we now refer to as the Protestant Reformation, when the doctrine and authority of the Roman Catholic Church was markedly dismantled by preachers, teachers, and pastors all across Europe. On this day in 1517, a German monk by the name Martin Luther published a document listing a series of ninety-five theses, or statements, which ran counter to the doctrines of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. And the rest is history, as the saying goes.
Now, to be sure, the “Reformation proper” did not “start” with Luther in the early 16th century. Church history accounts for countless avowed preachers and theologians who spoke out against the nefarious doctrines of the Church of Rome in centuries prior. Others well before Luther risked (and lost) their lives because of their defense of the truth of God’s Word. But there is a reason Martin Luther endures as the “hero of the Reformation,” as the historian George P. Fisher calls him1 — and that’s because Luther’s involvement in the Reformation movement is one which speaks to each and every sinner.
Perhaps you have an image in your mind’s eye of Luther, with hammer in hand, vehemently nailing that document of his theses to the Wittenberg church door. But what drove Luther to get to that point in the first place? The driving force behind the Martin Luther’s censure of the Roman Catholic Church can be boiled down to the fact that he was determined to find assurance in his faith.
Luther, as you might know, was originally enrolled in law school when, in 1505, as the story goes,2 he was nearly struck by lightning during a trek home. In the middle of that terrible storm, he prayed to St. Anne and vowed to become a monk if God would but spare his life. Of course, he was spared. And he promptly lived up to his “eleventh-hour-vow” by ceasing his law studies and leaving the legal profession altogether (to the great disappointment of his father). He soon entered an Augustinian monastery where he began to voraciously study religion.
Luther was an insatiably religious monk, zealously pursuing and practicing the righteousness he was bound to study. He understood, through his copious inquiries, the heights of God’s holiness. “Luther,” record the biographer Roland H. Bainton, “was too obsessed with the picture of Christ the avenger to be consoled with the thought of Christ the redeemer.”3 Following God meant following God’s law. For Christ, in his mind, was an inexorable, unflinching Law-giver. So strongly did he comprehend this divine demand for holiness that he went about confessing every sin. The severity of God’s righteousness wouldn’t allow for even the smallest offense to slip by. Therefore, he made known every blemish, every blight that might stain his record.
But for all his zeal, Luther’s espoused religion was unable to give him the assurance he so desperately craved. He later recounts that he “wore out [his] body with vigils and fasting, and hoped thus to satisfy the law and deliver [his] conscience from the sting of guilt.”4 Bainton, likewise, notes that “whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to perform.”5 Whatever he could do to obtain assurance, he would do wholeheartedly. With every fiber of his being. But it was never enough.
Despite all that Luther confessed, he was never able to confess enough. He was never able to pray enough. Fast enough. Pay enough penance. Nothing he did ever quieted his restless soul. So desperate and anxious was Luther that he eventually grew to resent even God himself. Bainton records Luther’s sentiments: “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”6 Such words reveal the depths of Luther’s disenchantment with the righteousness of God. How could God demand such rigid and righteous living from creatures who could never meet such demands?
Fast forward to the fall of 1515, when Luther began lecturing through St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans at the University of Erfurt. He had previously been lecturing on the Psalms, where subtle (but notable) shifts in his thinking were already in the works. Even still, Luther began his Romans lectures unprepared for what he would find.7 He stumbled at the phrase in chapter 1 of the letter, where Paul refers to “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:16–17). He had previously believed this verse to refer to “the righteousness that God demands” — a view that drove the obsessively scrupulous monk to despair. But reading these words again, the ambiguous Greek construction revealed something altogether different: “the righteousness that God gives.”
This was a veritable fork-in-the-road moment for Luther. For all intents and purposes, it was his “Damascus experience” (Acts 9), where, like the apostle from whom he gleaned so much, he was made to turn an about-face on the teachings which defined his life up to that point. As Luther discovered and would soon make known, Christianity was not a God-given agenda for sinners to accomplish or achieve righteousness on their own. Rather, God’s Word is the book of God’s promise, a.k.a., the gospel, wherein is found the God-given announcement that the righteousness that God demands is the very righteousness he offers to all on the basis of faith alone.
Your salvation and mine is “revealed” in the person and work of Christ alone. He is the “apocalypse” of his Father’s gospel, the unequivocal unveiling of the righteousness which covers the sins of the whole world (Rom. 1:17; cf. John 1:18). For sinners of all stripes, the “righteousness of God” has already been accomplished by God’s own Son. Such were the words of Luther’s assurance.
In that way, then, Luther wasn’t doing anything overly remarkable when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. That act, in and of itself, would be similar to putting a flyer on a town bulletin board. What makes this event so remarkable and so memorable was the content of Luther’s theses and the questions he dared to raise. He wasn’t trying to start a movement. He was being provocative, but didn’t intend for his messages to “go viral.” Luther was merely a student of God’s Word who could no longer stay silent in the face of the egregious abuses of the church. “I will not,” Luther wrote in a letter during his trials in 1518, “become a heretic by denying the truth by which I became a Christian: sooner will I die, be burnt, be banished, be anathematized.”8 For that stouthearted German, nothing could out-volume the truth of God’s Word. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he would later declare. “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise,” runs the apocryphal anthem.9
What steadied Luther’s hammer, therefore, was an engrossing enthusiasm and determination that Scripture alone contained the good news of his assurance (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:12–19). No priest could give him that assurance. Neither could any religious tradition or any amount of zealous discipline or devotion. It was only through the gospel of God’s grace that Luther’s soul was ever made to rest in the gift of holiness given to him in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the same is true for you and for me.
Your assurance and mine is found as we recognize in faith that our sin — every last speck of it — was already paid for by the blood of Christ. When Jesus died and rose again, he accomplished righteousness for one and all. All that’s left for us to do, therefore, is repent and believe this good news, entrusting our faith and our lives to this finished salvation. “Faith, in Luther’s view,” notes W. H. T. Dau, “thus becomes an assurance that this imputation has taken place, and man accordingly need not give himself any more trouble about his salvation.”10 “Faith,” Luther writes in his preface to his commentary on Romans, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times.”11 The gospel Luther discovered made a cowering and fearful monk into a reformer. In the chill of that October morning, Luther grabbed a hammer and strolled to the church. Little did he know that this hammer would spark a revolution.
“The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17; Hab. 2:4). This is an affirmation that, while easy to affirm, is much more difficult to put into practice. If, like Luther, you’re given to doubt and anxiety over the assurance of your salvation, you are likely prone to turn to some external evidence to give you the reassurance you so desperately seek. There must be something we can do, right? There much something good we can accomplish that will quiet our restless souls, right? Such is when we tend to fall back on ourselves and our own abilities. There’s a part of us, I think, that assumes that this salvation is only partially done. That when Jesus hung dying on the cross, he said, in effect, “There, now you do the rest.” But what were Jesus’s words? “It is finished” (John 19:30). The lesson we are compelled to learn, then, like Luther, is that nothing we can ever do, achieve, or accomplish can ever give us the assurance of our faith. Only Christ can do that.
No amount of spiritual disciplines will ever give us the assurance of our faith like the Lord Jesus our Redeemer does in his Word of gospel. Which, to be sure, doesn’t render our works for God useless or pointless. By all means, we should be about the Lord’s business. St. Paul even says in that incandescent chapter on the gospel of grace in his letter to the Ephesians that this grace that saves apart from our works, saves us “unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8–10). The only way these good works are ever enjoyed is if they follow the faith that redeems. Otherwise, our efforts and endeavors to please God with our doing only end up haunting us as our obliged duties owed to a tyrannical creditor. Our work “for God” while important in our life with God isn’t what keeps us in his favor. Our works do not save us. We are Christ sons and daughters not because of what we do, but solely because of faith alone. “The just shall live by faith.” Period.
Perhaps, though, you are haunted by a different anxiety. Maybe you would call yourself a believer but you often despair at the thought. “How could salvation be true for someone like me? There’s no way a sinner like me could ever be saved. There’s no way someone with my record could ever be cleared, ever be forgiven.” But that’s precisely the point — it is the guilty God in Christ has determined to save (Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). When thoughts of fear, shame, and guilt attempt to seize your mind, God’s Word alone is your assurance. When you are tempted to think you are too far gone for God, God’s Word alone is your assurance. When you are given to assume that your activity for God is winning his favor, God’s Word alone is your assurance.
And why is that so? Because God’s Word proffers “the righteousness of God.” And how real is this comfort? How true and sturdy is this assurance? It’s as real as Jesus’s blood hitting the ground beneath the cross. There is much, to be sure, to fret about in these last days. The news of the world, the political charade, the oscillating economy, etc. But there’s one thing we ought never fret over and that is the salvation revealed to us in Christ (Rom. 1:16–17). Here we stand, on this our abiding assurance, both now and forever.
George P. Fisher, History of the Reformation (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 87.
See Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Meridian, 1995), 15ff. See also Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 31ff.
Bainton, Here I Stand, 45.
Fisher, History of the Reformation, 90.
Bainton, Here I Stand, 35.
Bainton, Here I Stand, 44.
See especially Bainton, Here I Stand, 45–50.
Fisher, History of the Reformation, 96.
Fisher, History of the Reformation, 110.
W. H. T. Dau, Luther Examined and Reexamined: A Review of Catholic Criticism and a Plea for Revaluation (St. Louis: Concordia, 1917), 95.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, translated by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1976), xvii.