A Milestone in History

October 31 Remembrance

In the year 1483 in Eisleben, Saxony, a baby boy was born to a poor coal miner. As he grew up and observed the poverty of his father, this boy, named Martin, chose to pursue a different vocation. He decided to become a lawyer and, in 1501, entered the University of Erfurt, where he excelled in his studies.

As he came to the end of his schooling in 1504, an event took place that changed his life. He was walking the campus grounds when a storm broke so forcefully that Martin fell on his face in fear. The thunder was deafening and lightning struck all around him.

Instinctively, he cried out to the patron saint of coal miners, whose name he had heard invoked during his childhood, Saint Anne! Save me from the lightning. If you save me I will become a monk. Shortly thereafter the storm stopped.

Being a man of his word, Martin withdrew from law school and entered an Augustinian monastery, where he applied himself so diligently that he obtained a Doctorate of Theology within a few years. But the more he studied, the more troubled his heart became; although he was becoming an expert in theology, he lacked peace personally. The question he repeatedly wrote in his diary was: How can a man find favor with God?

In search of such peace, Martin devoted himself to an exceedingly pious lifestyle. He would fast for ten to fifteen days at a time. When temperatures dropped below freezing, he slept outside without a blanket. Between his studies, he beat his body until it was black and blue and bleeding, hoping that somehow by punishing his flesh he could rid himself of the thoughts and motives that he knew were not right. (These were typical practices of the medieval church.) He went to confession so many times a day that finally the abbot said, Martin, either go out and commit a sin worth confessing or stop coming here so often.

Martin was plagued continually by what he knew of his own depravity and sinfulness. Once, while sitting at his desk writing theology, he felt the presence of Satan so tangibly that he grabbed a bottle of ink and hurled it across the room to where he thought the devil was standing. The bottle crashed against the wall and left a mark that can still be seen today.

Finally, in 1509, Martin decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in hopes of finding the elusive peace for which he longed. He set out on foot and crossed the Alps. On his descent, he almost died of a high fever before making his way to a monastery at the foot of the mountains. There the Brothers nursed him back to health. While there, a wise monk approached him and said, You need to read the Book of Habakkuk. And so Martin did just that. He read Habakkuk.

It was a good suggestion. Habakkuk was a struggler just like Martin, and just like many of us today: If God is good, why does He allow suffering? If there really is a devil, why doesn't God just obliterate him? One verse captured Martins imagination: Habakkuk 2:4, The just shall live by faith. He couldn't get it out of his mind.

Having recovered sufficiently to continue his journey to Rome, he went to the Church of St. Johns Lateran, a typical cathedral of that day. There, pilgrims mounted the staircase painfully on their knees, a step at a time, saying prayers as they went. (The pope had promised an indulgence to all who would undergo this rite.) As Martin repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, Hab 2:4 suddenly came into his mind-he ceased his prayers, returned to the University of Wittenberg, went on to explore the revolutionary idea of justification by faith, and, on October 31, 1517, he nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church which started the movement known today as the Reformation––the single most important event in modern history.

His name, of course, was Martin Luther. The leadership didn't like the implications of his views and ultimately, at the Diet (council) of Worms (a town) they excommunicated him as a heretic. But he went on to write commentaries and hymns, and he translated the entire Bible into German, a classic which remains the literary masterpiece in the Germanic tongue.