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From Recluse to Scholar: 1506-1507


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.

The Apostle Paul commands us to “comfort each other and edify one another,”
(I Thessalonians 5:11) because one of the ways our gracious God makes His love and care known to us is through the counsel of other Christians. He came in just this way to Martin Luther during his darkest times.

Once Luther had joined the monastery, he devoted himself completely to the false religion of his day. The Roman church taught that you earned God’s merit by your works, especially through outward displays of repentance. Luther so believed and followed this lie that his fervor toward acts of penance distressed and alarmed his fellow monks.

He routinely starved himself and went long stretches of time without sleep. He exhausted his confessors by spending hours rattling off his sins to them only to come tearing back guilt-ridden over sins he had forgotten to tell them earlier. One wintry evening, he sprawled himself out naked in the snow, other monks having to drag him back inside. On one occasion, he whipped himself so profusely with a strap of barbed leather that he was found unconscious in his cell.

While these outlandish behaviors led most to distance themselves from him, there was one man, Johann von Staupitz, who identified with Luther’s anguish and sought to counsel him. Staupitz oversaw the spiritual life of novices in the Augustinian order and was blessed by God with a certain clarity when it came to the futility of outward works as a path to God’s grace.

Seeing that Luther’s burdened conscience came from the inherent impossibility of earning God’s favor by works of the Law, he pointed the young monk to such scriptural truths as the forgiveness of sins found in the Apostles’ Creed, and Paul’s writings on justification by faith.

When Luther lamented that his life had no meaning under a God he believed to be an angry judge, Staupitz’s counsel was nearly prophetic: “You don’t realize, Martin, that these trials are useful, even necessary, for you. God is exercising you so that you should not speak so rashly but come to see that He will make use of you as a minister of great things.”

Staupitz steered Luther away from flagellation, fasting, and other self-torture and advised him to channel his fervor into the study of Holy Scripture. He encouraged him to prepare for the priesthood, earn the degree of Doctor of Divinity in Wittenberg, and preach from the pulpit as a way to clarify his thoughts.

Although Staupitz saw the futility of physical works, he still held that works of the heart (a renewed inner life) were needed to secure the forgiveness of sins. Unfortunately, Staupitz would later reject the Reformation. He saw separation from Rome and justification by faith alone as excesses and exaggerations, believing that Luther’s bold preaching led people to “abuse the Gospel for the freedom of the flesh.”

Our God is truly wise and can use all things to further His kingdom. Staupitz was God’s instrument to liberate Luther from wrestling with repentance and to thrust him instead into grappling with the Scriptures. The Word of God won out in the end, with the return of the public proclamation of the pure Gospel. It is this same Gospel that we, by God’s grace, still have in our midst today.

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