When Lightning Struck In Luther’s Study

I’ve been trying to zero in on the heart of the Reformation. Good luck, I hear you saying. This is what so many capable writers are doing, books and articles all over the place, especially over the last couple of years leading up to the 500th Anniversary. How can you imagine getting your head around this sprawling, unruly, complicated, pivotal moment in history. Even the great Reformers disagreed on what it was all about.

But still, I want to know what that live nerve was that Luther originally put his finger on? And why was there so much pent-up energy, a force, when unleashed, that shook the foundations of the Western world? We are sometimes told it was likely political, economic, social, cultural in nature. But I don’t buy it. There was something far deeper going on.

The week of the 500th Anniversary in October, George Weigel, a Catholic intellectual I respect so much, talked about why things had gone awry:

True ecclesial reform is thus always re-form. It is not something we make up by our own cleverness. It does not mean surrender to the spirit of the age. It does not involve substituting our judgment for God’s revelation. True Christian reform always involves bringing into the present something the Church has laid aside or misplaced, and making that Christ-given something into an instrument of renewal. Read More

And what had the Church “laid aside or misplaced”? Well, it was grace. For all his faults, and there were many, Luther’s great accomplishment was to release grace back into the church and into peoples’ lives. Whenever this happens, something always explodes. What Luther did was open to the world the long buried notion that God loves every one of us. Simple as that. The world tasted once again that amazing thing we call grace.

The epicenter of the Reformation for me goes back to Luther sitting in his study in the tower of his Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. This was 1513, years before he nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. There he sat, studying the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, preparing lectures, beginning his writings. Yes, there he sat, intensely reading the Bible.

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” Luther reflected later,

and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.

This was spiritual anguish. God is huge and perfect. How could I ever measure up to what God expects of me? I deserve judgment. I’ve been working hard at it, trying to gain acceptance, trying to be loved, but all I get is more anguish over my own limitations and failures.

Then came the bolt of lightning that changed Luther’s life and literally changed the world. Just when we reach rock-bottom, this is exactly when grace strikes:

Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.

This is it. This is the nerve center of the Reformation. Let’s not lose the power of this incredible discovery by engaging in abstractions of theology, things like righteousness, justification, sanctification, or even conversion. This is real life experience: You mean, I don’t have to keep clamoring up some ladder of acceptance? I am accepted already? You mean, all we have to do is open up to “a gracious God” where “faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.”

People in the streets were desperate for just this explosive message. We are all desperate for it. What Luther opened up was the life-transforming power of sheer, beautiful Gospel-grace. This is precisely what the Church had set aside, misplaced. This is exactly what needed recovering. It always needs recovering.

And notice, in this moment, Luther is “reborn,” transformed, utterly changed. His view of everything, including the Scriptures, was radically spun around. Did he shape up suddenly into a perfect person? He did not. But he opened the door to walk into living paradise–through grace. I’ve been searching for that kind of grace all my life. You mean all I have to do is believe it’s true?

P. S. For those who are interested, I have compiled a list of my recent readings on the Reformation. Just click on “Books” on the homepage, then open the page to “Recent Reading On The Reformation.”