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Life of Luther — School Days


In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we are
presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series will culminate
in the October 2017 issue with an account of his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses.

Once Martin Luther was old enough, his parents sought to provide him with an education that would give him a better life, sending him off to several different schools throughout his childhood, first to Mansfeld (in the German province of Saxony), then to Magdeburg, and then to Eisenach.

Your parents provided for your education, too; and you may think well of your schools. Luther had no such fond memories. He said his teachers “belonged to the uncouth class of schoolmasters” who treated children “no different than a jailer treats a thief.” He described his experience as a “hell and purgatory” where nothing could be learned due to constant “flogging, tremor, anxiety, and grief.”

If this sounds like Luther’s monastic life, you are correct. He attended a variety of schools, but they were all run by the religious orders of that day, which were riddled with false doctrine that resulted in false practice.

The spiritual care he received mirrored the way he was treated physically. Their teaching had no comfort of the Gospel, but was filled instead with terror toward God and His Son: according to Luther “As soon as a child was old enough to put shoes on and had scarcely come out of the baptismal waters, he had it stolen away again by such preaching, ‘Oh, you lost your baptism long ago and have defiled your garments in sin such that you must now think only of making penance for them and doing enough through fasting, prayer, pilgrimages, and orders, until you make atonement to God and come again thereby into His grace!’ ”

Luther said that any time the name of Christ was mentioned, he would become pale and frightened, because even little boys were taught to regard Him as a terrifying judge. Jesus was “so abominably depicted that we dreaded Him more than Moses” and came to think “that Moses’ teaching was actually easier and friendlier than Christ’s teaching.”

Luther further characterized his school experience this way: “The unspeakable blessings of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension were denied, His holy Gospel blasphemed and condemned, and faith destroyed in this idle workshop of darkness.”

It sounds horrible, and it was.  Luther grew up in the dark days of the papacy, days filled with the devil’s lies.  All of this, however, was part of God’s way of preparing him to become the blessed Reformer of the church.  In his youth little Martin was steeped in the error of work-righteousness, so that later he would be able to adore the magnificence of God’s grace from the perspective of his childhood pain under the law.

What a blessing it is that God has given us the Gospel of justification by grace through faith in Christ!  When Jesus went to the cross for our sins, He suffered the terrors of hell in our place so that little children as well as adults might know the peace of forgiveness, rather than face the horrible prospect of deserved damnation.  All thanks and glory be to Him Who loved us, and gave Himself for us.

Timothy Daub is pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Hecla, South Dakota.