During the Middle Ages, the view of the Roman Catholic Church was that grace was a treasure that was managed and dispensed by the Church and its organization. Believers did not inherently receive grace as believers, but priests taught that if one gave money to the Church, or prayed enough, or did enough good works, one could earn grace. Grace was the result of religious effort and spiritual discipline. It was into this cultural understanding of grace that Martin Luther was born.
As a young man, Luther was almost struck by a bolt of lightning. The terror caused by this incident led him to change his vocation— he chose to become a monk, rather than the lawyer his father had hoped he would be. Luther was scared of God, and becoming a monk was part of a quest to become holy, pleasing to God, and a recipient of His grace.
Luther tried every means of grace that the Roman Catholic Church offered: sacraments, indulgences, attending mass, confession of sins to a priest, pilgrimages, and the intercession of the saints. Yet despite his efforts, he continually struggled with the fact that he fell short of God’s standard of holiness, and he suffered from an overwhelming sense of sinfulness.
Martin Luther wrote, “If ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’ The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more I daily found it more uncertain, weaker, and more troubled.”
Spiritual Depression set in. Extremely aware of God’s holiness, and at the same time understanding that he was completely unable to appease God’s sense of justice with his own religious works and self- discipline, Luther was left to ponder his God as an angry, vindictive Judge.
One story of how he tried to resolve the spiritual depression illustrates the futile nature of trying to earn salvation through human works. During a visit to Rome, Luther visited many of the great churches. It is said that when he visited each church, he got down on his knees and religiously kissed each step that led to the church door. Such actions arose from Luther’s desperate desire to please God.
One thing that bothered Luther was the sale of indulgences. The theological reasoning behind the sale of indulgences was that the Church had a large store of grace available. This grace came from the prayers of the saints. Since the Church had so much grace available, they were able to dispense it at will in exchange for cold, hard cash. This proved to be attractive to illiterate, uneducated peasants across Europe. Some priests taught that people and their loved ones who were destined for purgatory—even hell—could change their destination and get on the fast-track to heaven through the purchase of indulgences. John Tetzel was among those who preached about and sold indulgences. He preached, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” People flocked to Tetzel in order to purchase his indulgences.
It was during this time that Luther studied the epistles of Paul. As he studied Romans and Galatians, He became disturbed by the Church’s emphasis on keeping religious rules. He read in Romans 3:28, “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” As he continued to read, Luther received the revelation that people are saved by faith alone (sola fide) and by grace alone (sola gratia).
Because of his new understanding of grace, Luther began to challenge the religious status quo, writing The Ninety-Five Theses and nailing them to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. Luther’s new theology became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. The core of this theology was that justification and salvation—that is, the place of being made right with God and saved from the penalties of sin—comes through God’s grace, not from one’s own works. Grace is a free gift from God; it is not earned, or purchased, or administered by the Church.
For Luther, discovering grace was the end of a long stormy voyage, and it opened up a whole new spiritual life for him.