If ever one was spiritually born out of the crucible of personal struggle, it was Martin Luther.  That struggle prompted him to join an Augustinian monastery in his native Germany (Augustine was the bishop of Hippo, North Africa; 354-430 A.D.;  Luther lived from 1483-1546).  

Within mankind, there is an insatiable thirst for certainty, belonging, and love.  Luther longed for the sense that he was God’s.  The stark reality of Jesus’ requirement that the mind be pure terrified him.  But his absolute honesty refused to let the cry of his conscience be stilled.  

He was not at war with gross temptations of the flesh; normal fallen nature supplied enough to worry about. The struggle was in his mind. 

His Problem is Our Problem   Luther’s whole life, since he first felt the call of religion in boyhood, was the problem of how could the holy God of the universe accept him, a guilty sinner?  He believed so thoroughly in the perfect righteousness and justice of God and felt so completely his own sinfulness that he saw no way anyone could be justified in the sight of God. 

The prevailing view at the time was that man could attain righteousness by his own will and action. Luther was taught that he could rely on earnest, rigorous obedience and an ordered life to produce a sense of assurance in his life.  

Luther’s monastic life was moving steadily toward the conquest of fleshly desires.   He and his fellow monks fought diligently against worldly thinking, attitudes, and values, calling forth heroic denial of all things fleshly. By means of poor food, a hard bed, a simple life, an uncomfortable cell (private room), and austere clothing were entered into enthusiastically and assumed to put to death attitudes which opposed holiness.  

In his student years (1506–1510), he examined his conscience severely and with relentless honesty. But again and again the desires of the world found good soil in Martin Luther. 

His monastic routine was intensified in an effort to bring him the release and peace he longed for.  Day after day he prayed, so much that he sometimes slipped unconscious to the cold floor.  But a cleansed soul continued to elude him.

Lacking peace, Luther drove himself still harder.  He fasted to the point of becoming weak. In his effort to understand God, judgment and fear loomed large. Hell terrified him.  

When he did this, he was functioning within accepted monastic practices; the “way the saints have trod,” the normal way one sought to be holy. He fasted until the hours seemed unreal and strength was so far gone that he could hardly move.  In this weakened condition, intense thoughts loomed large. In his struggle to understand God, judgment and fear were dominant.   He locked himself in his unheated cell and remained there to pray until exhaustion overcame him and his brethren broke down his door. 

The Catholic order was not abusing him. He was following to the extreme the counsel of his order and his church, seeking to know that his life was acceptable to God. 

John von Staupitz, Luther’s superior in the monastery, was a significant help to him.  He told the younger man, “Look not on your own imaginary sins, but look at Christ crucified, where your real sins are forgiven, and hold with deep courage to God.”[1]  Time after time he unburdened his soul to Staupitz. 

Approaching full priesthood in 1507 and leading his first mass, Luther was both terrified and elated.  He later wrote, “God, glorious and holy in all His works – me, wretched and unworthy sinner.”[2]  This gulf between the righteous God of eternity and sinful mankind was prominent in the middle-ages. 

The day he sang his first mass–May 2, 1507–he was nervous. Being introduced by his superior was encouraging to the young man, but the thought of addressing God personally terrified him. Edwin Booth, author of Martin Luther: TheGerat Reformer, claims the words almost stopping in his throat and he felt an almost uncontrollable desire to turn and run from the altar, every nerve trembling while the words came slowly from his lips.  

Luther lectured on Psalms in his first year on the faculty of Wittenberg University; then moved to Romans

At the same time he began to read Bernard of Clairvaux, which reduced his terror about God and the doctrine of predestination. The winters of 1507–1512 passed over him as he warmed to the historic work of Christ. 

Reading Augustine and re-reading Bernard helped him. He marshalled their positions and remembered the constant advice of Staupitz to look to the cross of Jesus Christ.  

Could Luther find release from the burden of his sinfulness through greater trust in the cross of Jesus Christ?  The Spirit of God was bringing to Luther a growing sense of rightness through God’s grace. 

Only grace could rescue people from the depths of depravity to which all had sunk. So grace occupied his thoughts.  Luther found in the liturgy of his church kernels of God’s grace coming to humanity through the atonement of Jesus Christ. They had been there all along, but Luther had not been aware of them. 

What, then, did the Apostle Paul mean when he wrote, “The just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17)?  The apostle had pointed out his own sinfulness (“Oh, wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24)?  Paul had written about the warfare between the flesh and spirit (Romans 7:15-25). He had believed in the immovable and eternal will of God operating in human affairs. 

Luther reasoned that “by faith” meant the acceptance of the work of Christ. He must have meant that God had, through Christ, justified sinful men who would trust in the Redeemer.  

Could even he, Martin Luther, by the sheer act of acceptance of the historical work of Christ, find that mighty gulf between himself and God bridged? Was it true that God’s righteousness was not the righteousness protected by condemning all sinners, but the rightness transferred from Christ to him the moment he believed? 

Sometime during the year of 1512–1513, Luther–for the first time–focused his conflicting thoughts. He finally saw them as being in harmony.  Clarity broke through to him, so much so that he called this experience the “birthday” of his faith. Romans 1:17 freed him.  

Luther stepped into the mighty rhythm of Pauline thought, wherein his sinfulness was ever present; yet God’s justification, likewise, was ever present. Life ceased to be battle to force God’s recognition of his good deeds, for God was on his side. He stood steadfast by faith in Christ and knew the pressure of his sin was offset by the endless mercy made possible in Christ!

Yes!  YES!   YES!   YES!  

The deep intensity of his religious struggles of the years at Erfurt resolved into quiet strength. 

This was the moment of Luther’s freedom; his great illumination.   He lectured at Wittenberg University secure in the conviction that he had found the key to understanding Scripture.  

He saw–as it were–in one great vision–the whole sweep of human history from its sin in Adam to its redemption in Christ. Martin Luther was a redeemed man. Are you redeemed?  Have you discovered freedom from guilt and anxiety that comes from the God-Man, Jesus Christ?   

Source:  Martin Luther; The Great Reformer  by Edwin P. Booth, Thorndike Press,  
               © 1995. 

[1] Booth, Page 65

[2]  Booth, page 50