Luther Is My Homeboy: The Life of Luther (Part 1)

“Wir sein pettler hoc est verum” (We are beggars, this is true). At the end of his life Luther penned these final words. They were found at his very deathbed, but they were words of hope and thanks at this point in his life. Luther saw himself as a beggar, but a beggar saved by God’s grace. Earlier in his life he would have said the very same thing, but those words would have brought dread to his heart and terror to his soul. For much of his life before Christ Luther was plagued by doubt and despair.

In just a few days we will mark the 528th birthday of Martin Luther. He was born on November 11th, 1483 in Eisleben. We know little of his parents Hans and Margarethe, but the family moved only a year after Luther’s birth to Mansfeld where Luther was immediately enrolled in grammar school. Here he would have learned singing, writing, a little arithmetic, and monastic Latin (naturally, all the basic essentials). Quickly the young “beggar” established himself as bright student. He had something, perhaps, that he could give. At the University of Erfurt Luther established himself as a much-praised debater, and demonstrated great ability in philosophy. So sharp was he, in fact, that he enrolled in 1501 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1502, and then a Masters in 1505. Needless to say he did not do the ten-year program like some college students these days! Luther was brilliant.

This brilliance would pay off later in life as he was forced to go toe to toe with some of the brightest minds in the Catholic church. And Luther loved to learn and study. In fact he was so proud of his doctorate that when he later renounced all the rights he had earned from the Roman Catholic Church he retained that one. “When Christ returns He will call out, Dr. Luther, come forth!” He said. But for all his ability and all his skill in philosophy and for all his intellect and comprehension Luther was plagued by doubt and despair. He could not help but question the fate of his own soul before God. In other words, his education had not given him the peace with God that he desperately sought.

Luther’s distress and anxiety was brought visibly to the foreground in a seemingly rare occurrence. Having started law school, Luther decided to come home for a quick break. While walking along the road back to school he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning struck the ground so close to him that the force of the shock threw him to the ground a few meters from the initial contact. Luther was terrified by the thought of dying and in a moment, in utter desperation, he called out for salvation to the only source he could think of: St. Anne.

St. Anne was Jesus’ grandmother and the patron saint of miners, the profession of Luther’s father. It is likely that Luther had grown up hearing about this saint, his parents probably had statues of her in their home. His cry went up, “St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk.” It was surely the plea of a desperate man.

But Luther’s desperation was not solved by joining the Augustinian monastery on July 17th, 1505. In fact in some ways it compounded his frustration. Through participation in the religious practices of monastic life, Luther sought relief from his guilt. He didn’t find it and so he increased his asceticism. Slowly he began to torture himself in order to find relief, but it never came. J.I. Packer writes:

Here, in spite of fasting, scourging, the minutest of self-examination and every form of self-discipline known to the strict order he had joined, he failed to find peace. The awful consciousness of the majesty and holiness of God which almost crushed him as he celebrated his first mass (in May 1507) never completely left him. He was tormented by the recognition of his own sin, and by the question, “Have I fasted, watched, prayed, confessed enough?” (The Bondage of the Will, 20)

That assurance and that peace would not come for him…not yet.

For young Luther the reality was that neither his intellect nor his religious practices could grant him peace with God. God himself was going to have to intervene into his life. God was going to have to rescue Luther from himself. Such, of course, is the way that it is for all of us. God must intervene into all our lives and rescue us. In fact that is precisely what Jesus did when He came to this earth; He entered our mess to rescue us from our-self destruction and the consequences of our guilt. Luther’s early life points us to look beyond ourselves (beyond our intellect, ability, or religious devotion) and to look to the one true source of hope that any of us has: Jesus Christ! Luther had nothing to offer God; he was a beggar, and so are we!

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