A Volcano for God: Martin Luther

November 8, 2010

In his book, “The Unquenchable Flame,” Michael Reeves tells the story of the Reformation, a movement led by people like Luther, Calvin and Zwingli that pitted belief in the authority of the Bible against the authority of Rome and the Pope.
Reeves devotes a chapter to the man he called “God’s volcano.” I like that: Volcanoes change the landscape when they erupt. Martin Luther was working hard to be the best Augustinian monk the world had ever seen, but something inside him was rumbling, bubbling up, threatening to explode. He did all that was required of him in the monastery. He had first gone there when, on his way back to law school in Erfurt, Germany, a lightning bolt had knocked him off his feet. In a panic, facing death without a final confession to a priest, without the benefit of last rites, Martin cried out in terror, “Saint Anne, help me! I shall become a monk!” The life there was hard, and the rules were exhausting. The monks left their tiny cells in the middle of the night for the first service in chapel, then another at 6 a.m., another at 12, and so on. The rigor of the life there was for the purpose of “climbing the steep ladder to heaven: wearing chafing underclothes and freezing in the winter were thought to be especially pleasing to God, and Luther often took no bread or water for three days at a time.” There were rules against letting your eyes wander, poor singing, and even laughter. Luther thrived there but was also troubled by it more and more. Martin was tormented by plaguing thoughts: What if he lagged? What if he was not sincere? What if he got sick and missed a time of prayer? Martin, unlike the other monks, would make up every single thing he missed, using his free time on the weekends. He would later say, “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
Luther wore out his confessor, taking up to six hours at a time to catalogue his most recent sins. That would make him miss chapel, which would add another sin to his list. His priest once famously complained, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive— patricide, blasphemy, adultery — instead of these peccadilloes.”
Luther tried to find forgiveness and peace with God through every work the church required. He even went to Rome and climbed the Scala Sancta, the sacred steps that supposedly Jesus walked up to be tried by Pilate. Everything left him empty. Finally, his confessor told him, in frustration, “Martin, I don’t know the answers to your many questions. Why don’t you read the Bible?”
A better thing could not have happened for Martin Luther … and for us. It was in his subsequent study of the book of Romans that Luther read, “For in it (the Gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘the just shall live by faith.’”
Martin Luther understood then that men and women are saved by the grace of God, through faith, and not through human works. He wrote, “The Christian life, then, could not be about the sinner’s struggle to achieve his own, paltry human righteousness; it was about accepting God’s own, perfect divine righteousness. Here now was God who does not want our goodness but our trust.”
God’s volcano erupted. The Reformation had begun.