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A Young Martin Luther

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An Educated Miner's Son

The “Martin Luther” of Lutherans is not to be confused with “Martin Luther King Jr.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in America. He was an African-American minister who was an outstanding leader in the civil rights movements in the 1960s. “Martin Luther,” on the other hand, was a Roman Catholic monk/priest/professor who lived 500 years ago in Germany. Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany in 1483. He was 9 years old when Christopher Columbus sailed into the Americas (“in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue”). He was aware of that discovery. Martin Luther did not plan to become a reformer. His father, Hans, a miner and city leader, wanted Martin to become a lawyer so that Martin could help him with his mining contracts and allow the Luther family to become more prosperous and move up the social ladder. Since Martin was his brightest child, Hans invested heavily in his son's education. But during his first semester at the University of Erfurt, Martin Luther's life changed. Walking back to the university from a visit to his parents, Martin was caught in a thunderstorm and a feared for his life. Knocked to the ground by lightning, he urgently prayed to Saint Anne (the mother of Mary and the patron saint of miners), “Help me and I will become a monk.” She did...and he did. Surprising his friends and bitterly disappointing his father, Martin Luther sold his law books and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on August 17, 1505.

Scared to Death

Much more was involved in Martin's decision, however, than just a momentary fright. Martin Luther lived in scary times, when most people lived extremely short lives. The storm brought Luther face to face with death and God's judgment on his life. Luther was bothered by the deep, religious question: “When I die, how do I know that I will be saved and go to be with God in heaven?” Life was hard in the late medieval period. All too many children died in birth. Few adults lived past the age of 30. Women often died in childbirth. Most people died if they got a serious disease. The vast majority of money went to the kings, nobles & bishops. Life was difficult and ugly. People's only hope was for a better life in heaven. And so, they turned to the church for comfort, strength and hope. In particular, people had four fears. The first fear was the “Turks” (Muslim soldiers entering from Turkey) who were invading Europe in response to the aggression of the Christian crusades. They were close to Vienna and knocking on Europe's door. The second fear was disease. Shortly before Luther was born, the Black Plague (a disease carried by rats) killed 1/3 of the European population. Towns and families were devastated. Picture of Jesus as the Endtime Judge The third fear was “purgatory.” Purgatory was a place nowhere mentioned in the Bible, but invented by the medieval church. It seemed logical that, after they died, those Christians who did not fully confess or make satisfaction for all their sins should go to a place of “purging” (or purifying) before they finally got to heaven and eternal bliss. Although this wasn't bad, it was like summer school--no one wanted to stay there very long. The fourth fear was the judgment of Jesus. To many Jesus was not the approachable Savior we know today, but rather he was the end-time judge. Like their own kings and princes, Jesus seemed stern, demanding and threatening. In fact, plays, paintings and carvings of Jesus as the end-time judge was the most common depiction of Jesus in that day. The picture on the right is a good example of a common scene: Jesus as the endtime with his mother, Mary, at his right hand and his beloved disciple, John, at his left hand. Below are people being raised from the dead at the end of time and led off to heaven (on Jesus' right) or hell (on Jesus' left). Guarding the entrance to heaven with a key in his hand his Peter on the far left edge of the picture. The message was that Jesus is the endtime judge who is best approached by prayers to Mary and the saints who speak to Jesus on our behalf. And, that the pope (Peter's successor) holds “the key” that unlocks the gate to heaven and the treasury of merit that Jesus and the saints store up on our behalf.

An Excellent, but Troubled Monk

Luther's desire to know for certain that he was saved made him an excellent monk. In fact, he was the top of his class, an A+ student. Like all monks, he took vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. He joined the other monks in common prayer seven times a day. He prayed and memorized the Psalms. He unburdened his conscience to his “confessor” (a superior who listens to you list your sins) and he eagerly did the works of “penance” the confessor assigned to him to show that he was truly sorry. His avid devotion was noticed by his superiors and he advanced quickly. His superiors first had him become a priest, which meant that he could conduct Holy Communion. They sent him on a pilgrimage to Rome to represent them on some official church business. And finally they told him to become a university professor of bible and theology. In 1508, he was assigned to the city of Wittenberg (about 50 miles south of Berlin) and began teaching at the university that Prince Frederick the Wise had recently started there. Luther gave lectures on the bible. Luther made rapid progress as a monk. But his fears and doubts continued. As hard as he tried, he was not sure if he would be saved. The church of his day taught “Do what is in you” (do all the good things that you can) and that God in God's grace would do the rest. But, Luther, being an overachiever, never knew when he had done enough. And so, his troubled mind was not at peace.


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