The Gospel Saved Him from Despair: The Story of Martin Luther

by Dr. Michael Whiting, DBU Staff

Day 12 of Advent

He was destined for law school, but a thunderstorm scared him (literally) to death, and he knew he was not ready for judgment. In the time in which he lived, if you wanted to get serious about religion, you joined the most devoted by entering the cloistered monastery – and that’s exactly what he did. So Martin Luther, born in 1483 to Hans and Marguerite in Saxony, defied his family’s wishes and became a monk. This meant no marriage, no children, and no financial resources to support the family. 

Luther was a dedicated monk if there ever was one. He out-fasted, out-confessed, and out-prayed his monastic brethren. No one could understand or keep up with the manic self-deprecation he felt for his sins. The optimism of a pilgrimage journey to Rome left him thoroughly disappointed, and instead of finding the assurance with God he was seeking in taking monastic vows, he instead tumbled helplessly into despair, his soul pierced with the vengeful stare of a holy God.   

It was not until he moved to the town of Wittenberg and became a professor at its new University that he began to read the Bible for himself and discovered in the pages of Paul’s letter to the Romans a kind and benevolent Father who was willing to accept him as a sinner if he would simply receive the gracious gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  

Luther’s life was transformed. He wanted to find a merciful God, and he found him not in popes or councils, in bones and relics of saints, in Hail Marys or monastic tonsures, but there in the Scriptures, and above all, in Christ’s suffering on the cross.

Luther’s fame (and opposition) rapidly spread the more he voiced his theological discoveries in protest to common medieval church practices. From posting 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in 1517, to defending the stand of his conscience upon the sure Word of God before a council of powerful European rulers in 1521, to translating the complete Bible into German by 1534, Luther’s ideas brought religious liberation to so many and transformed the way people fundamentally thought about salvation, the church, and their callings as members of the Christian community.

Luther’s ideas even inspired many nuns to forsake their convents, but where would they go? It was not like there were many opportunities for unmarried women to find work in sixteenth-century Saxony. All but one were married off or sent home, but Katharina von Bora proposed to Luther that he should marry her. Luther, contrary to Catholic church law, believed that as a minister of the Gospel the Scriptures allowed him the freedom to take a wife, but he was also an older man now and one who, technically, remained a wanted and condemned fugitive in a German Empire that was still officially Roman Catholic. 

Nevertheless, Martin and Katie were married in 1525 – a former monk and an ex-nun. It was a scandal that would have gone viral on social media and the Pope’s Twitter account! Though Luther did not marry her for love, their relationship blossomed through the years and she remained his steadfast companion and supporter until Luther’s death in 1546. The former Wittenberg monastery, where Luther made vows to forsake the world, was ironically transformed into the Luthers’ house where they raised their children and provided a haven for many weary travelers, the sick with the plague, and Luther’s adoring university students.

Luther’s despair had reached rock bottom when he encountered the living Christ in the Scriptures. Instead of an angry God who demanded the impossible, He discovered a gracious God who gave the incomprehensible. Today, Luther’s legacy lives on in Christian churches around the world that claim salvation by faith alone, grace alone, in Christ alone on the basis of the Scripture as the infallible word of God alone. 

This Christmas, adore with the Luthers the holy Christkindl (Christ-child) and believe that in that humble manger the seemingly helpless baby was actually the God of the Universe come to do what only He could - save and make new the truly helpless like you and me.

(A little-known fact, or myth, about Martin Luther: some say it was he who invented the cut-down-a-pine-tree-and-light-it-up-in-your-home tradition. But don’t do as Luther supposedly did, and always refrain from using candles!).