In medieval life, belief in the devil and demons filled the hearts of the people with fear – the fear of eternal damnation and the fires of hell. God’s wrath was an ever-present threat to one’s eternal soul. These thoughts plagued Martin Luther.
On a stormy day in 1505, college-student, soon to be lawyer, Martin Luther, was on his way back to the University of Erfurt after visiting his parents. During a terrible storm, a bolt of lightning struck dangerously close. Luther prayed to St. Anne (the patron saint of miners) for protection, promising that if his life was spared, he would become a monk. He survived and two weeks later entered the Augustinian Monastery at Erfurt.
During this period in history, there was the belief that the decisions of this life somehow tainted one’s spirit and the retreat to a monastery could reduce or remove the sins accumulated in the course of daily life. Medieval monasteries controlled much of the lives of the people. Monasteries provided goods, services and education. The rules of the monastery had taken center stage in the life of the monks and nuns who saw their lives as “super-meritorious” thus leading to the belief that those who were dedicated to monastic life we somehow living in a state of “perfection.” Those who belonged to monastic communities were called to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience in which one’s life was controlled by a superior. The Reformers saw that in monastic life, Christ was no longer the center of life. For Luther and the Reformers, no vow could supersede the promise of Baptism, given to all people. It is through Baptism that we are all called into the “priesthood of all believers”. According to Luther, “You cannot use the Gospel to divide people into ‘perfect’ and ‘imperfect Christians. You cannot confuse the promise of the Gospel with the Law.”
The rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone led Luther and the Reformers to a radical reinterpretation of the calling of monks and nuns as being superior to that of other stations in life. For Luther and the Reformers, all Christians acting in accordance with the will of God and providing benefit to the community were doing “good works” when in faith, they performed their work as called and commanded by God. It is not the person doing the work that makes it a good work, rather it is the faith of the person doing the work that makes it good. These good works do not earn us “credit” with God. They do not play into our salvation at all. The good works discussed here have to do with the benefits received by the community from our efforts to do our jobs in accordance with God’s will. This is God-pleasing not God-placating work.
Luther spent several years deeply committed to his duties as a monk. In fact, Luther was so diligent in his prayers, fasting, and constant confession, that his superiors worried about his health. Finally, during a conversation with his mentor and confessor Johann von Staupitz, said to him "Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive - parricide, blasphemy, adultery - instead of all these peccadilloes." In other words, Luther, stop asking for forgiveness for sins you have not committed. This is how worried Luther was with his salvation. Von Staupitz repeatedly reminded Luther of the grace that was his in Christ Jesus. The conversations between Luther and von Staupitz would have a lasting effect not only on Luther the man, but on Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Luther eventually went on to become a priest and Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. What Luther had tried and failed to find in monastic life – peace with God and his own conscience, he found in the Word of God as he studied, preached the Word, and administered the Sacraments, he found what his soul truly needed: the love, grace and mercy of Christ!
Growing in grace,