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OUR MARTIN > The Adventure Begins



Have you ever gone mountain climbing? It's a great thrill to stand on a mountain top and look out over the surrounding countryside. But it takes a lot of strength and effort to reach the top. On the way up you get tired and you wonder if the view will be worth the strain. Then you catch a glimpse of the peak. With renewed zeal, you resume climbing. Reaching the top demands all the stamina you have. So you keep telling yourself that you can make it; you force your muscles to keep working. Then, at last, the top -- the joy of conquest and accomplishment!

Some people think of God as dwelling on some great height. They feel they can reach God if they try hard enough, if they discipline themselves, if they force their minds and bodies to obey all of his laws. They know that the summit where God lives is far away and hard to reach. The spiritual pilgrimage, therefore, will demand their best efforts. To these persons, God is up and man is below. They believe that man can know and be with God only by working his way up to where God is.

For many years, Martin Luther thought this was the way to be a Christian, to work his way up to God. For a long time, he tried hard to climb to God's presence by being good and doing those things he thought would please God. Then he found out, to his dismay, that neither he nor any other man could ever succeed in working his way up to God. But as a result of this painful discovery, he came to know who Christ really was and what faith in Christ meant to the Christian. He felt compelled to share his new understandings with the indifferent church of his day -- and in so doing, he changed the course of history.

Since God chose Martin Luther to remind Christians of some great biblical truths which had been almost forgotten, it is good to know something about this man for whom our church is proudly named. We are indebted to Luther in so many ways. We sing the hymns that he wrote and study the Catechism that he prepared. Most of all we are fortunate in having him to lead us to a deeper understanding of the importance of our faith in Christ.


The son of hardworking peasants, Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben, Germany. When he was a small boy, the Luthers moved to Mansfeld where young Martin went to school. His father Hans, now working in the mines, had high hopes for his son.

Hans Luther's dream was that Martin would someday become a prosperous lawyer. He encouraged his son to enter the University of Erfurt. Four years later, Martin graduated and immediately began his law studies. The future looked secure, and Hans Luther's dream seemed about to come true.

Not long after he started studying law, Luther gave a supper for some of his friends. It was a happy, festive affair. However, as the guests were about to leave, Luther announced that he was leaving the university; he was dropping his law studies. To his friends' amazement, he went on to explain that he was going to enter an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt the next day and work toward becoming a monk. His friends thought he had taken leave of his senses; they could not understand his decision.


Why did Luther want to spend his life behind cloistering walls? He had been a happy, jolly student at the university, well liked by everyone. The life of the monastery would be quiet, lonely, and strict. Luther had a warm, outgoing personality; he enjoyed knowing and being with people. The monastic life was a withdrawal from the world, a breaking of almost all social ties. He would live in a somber cloister, having contact only with a few fellow monks. Luther was not unmindful of his parents' hopes and dreams for him. He must have known that he would be hurting his father particularly. But he had made his decision; he had some very good reasons for doing so.

In Luther's day the people were taught to believe that Christ was not only a gracious redeemer; he was also an angry judge. Escaping the anger of Christ became a great concern of people. Many believed that the persons most able to escape the fierce anger of Christ were monks, who were spending their time in prayer, confession, and good works. Christ couldn't possibly be unforgiving toward men who lived perfect lives like that!

Luther had once seen, over a church altar, a painting which depicted contented monks and priests aboard a ship on its way to heaven. In the waves, laymen of the church were struggling desperately to hold onto the ship as it moved through the waters of life. Many were unable to maintain their grasp and so were drowning in the sea. It was a frightening picture of what could happen to a person who was not a professional worker in the church.

On occasion, Luther had seen Prince William of Anhalt wandering through the village streets like a common beggar. Luther remembered how this royal prince, who was trying to be a holy man, looked. "With my own eyes I saw him... He had so worn himself down by fasting and vigil that he looked like a death's-head, mere bone and skin. No one could look upon him without feeling ashamed of his own life." Luther was haunted by the feeling that he would never be worthy of God's blessing, that God could never accept and love him the way he was.

In the early summer of the year he entered law school, Luther spent a week with his parents in Mansfeld. On his way back to Erfurt, he rode into a severe thunderstorm. Thunder rumbled; lightning zigzagged violently across the sky. One bolt crashed close to the horse he was riding and Luther was thrown to the ground. Terrified, he felt the wrath of God was striking him down. Since his father was a miner, he cried out in terror to St. Anne, the patron saint of the miners, "St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!" When the storm subsided, he was conscious of his promise, which lay like a heavy weight on his shoulders.

These experiences shaped Luther's decision to enter a monastery. He thought he was obeying God. Underlying his decision were many doubts and fears. He didn't know how God felt about him; he feared his life was not pleasing to God. He doubted that he could ever please God unless he did many good works. He thought that by joining a monastery, he would be more likely to get close to God and so escape the terrible punishment of hell.


As a monk, Luther resolved to try all the good works the church had established. He fasted, sometimes going for three days without food. A monk was supposed to spend part of each day in prayer, but Luther daily prayed much longer than was required. Sometimes at night he would throw aside his blankets in the freezing cold to punish himself for his sins. He thought he must please God with his self-control, that he must make God feel merciful toward him.

In later years, Luther commented wryly on his days in the monastery. "I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work."

After a year of this life, Luther was directed by his superiors to study for the priesthood He was only twenty-four years old when he was ordained a priest of the church. A few weeks later he celebrated his first Mass. It was during this joyous occasion that he had a strange experience. As the service progressed, he became more and more terror-stricken. How dare he, a sinner, stand in the presence of the holy God? How could such a sinful man ever stand before the altar and address Almighty God?

Slowly Luther was moving toward the first of two great discoveries in his life. He was finding out that he could not satisfy God. No matter what he did, he was always conscious of his sinfulness. At times he would say to himself, "I have done nothing wrong today." Immediately, questions would arise in his mind. "Have you fasted enough?" "Are you poor enough?" The peace of mind he expected did not come. God was too holy, too far above him; he did not have the capacity to do what God required. Every attempt to reach God, to please God, was ending in dismal failure. Discouraged, he came to the conclusion that flesh and blood can never rise above itself.


When he was twenty-seven, Luther went to Rome on business for the monastery. No planes, no trains, no automobiles! In those days, it was a bit of a walk. But, Martin was delighted to make the six-month journey nonetheless. Going to Rome was a pilgrimage to the "Eternal City"; this was certainly a good work. Filled with zeal to find and please God, he roamed excitedly about the city trying to see all the churchs' treasures. There were many famous, supposedly authentic relics -- among them a piece of Moses' burning bush, the chains of Paul, one of the thirty coins paid to Judas Iscariot, eleven thorns from Christ's crown, a hair from the head of the Virgin Mary.

Of course, he would climb the famous Pilate staircase, the very staircase of Pilate's palace which Jesus had climbed on Good Friday. There were great heavenly rewards for this kind of holy exercise.

There is a story that Luther, hoping to do something that would please God and, at the same time, help his grandfather in purgatory, went to Pilate's staircase. He climbed it on his hands and knees, stopping at each step to kiss it and to offer a prayer. But by the time he reached the top, he was filled with doubts. "Who knows whether it is so," he wondered, "that a man can earn merits doing this?" Troubled, he rose to his feet and walked back down.

Rome, to which Luther had gone with such hopes and aspirations, was a great disappointment in other ways, too. Not only was he bothered with serious doubts, but he was shocked to see the worldly conduct of some of the priests. Their behavior, far from holy, made him question their sincerity. He returned home thoroughly discouraged. Even a pilgrimage to Rome had failed to bring him any closer to God. What could he do to save himself?

Many people have found themselves in the same predicament when they realize their sinfulness and feel that nothing they can do will make it up to God. Perhaps sometimes you feel this way, too.

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Peachtree Road Lutheran Church  •  3686 Peachtree Road NE    Atlanta, Georgia 30319