This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.
Like the ale, the conversation flowed freely. The host of the gathering, a stout, middle-aged man named Martin, became more animated and opinionated as the night went on. Martin’s formidable intellect was on full display, alongside his penchant for scatological humor. His students soaked up every word—the profound and the crass—recording what he said for posterity. He was a man who had changed the world more profoundly than he or his students could know. They loved their rambunctious, insightful, and inspiring teacher. But Martin had not always been this way. He had once been a timid, rigidly-devout, overly-pious, anxiety-ridden young monk. What brought about this change? To tell the story of Martin’s transformation, we must travel back to the year 1505 AD.
A Young Man’s Fearful Vow
In 1505, the young Martin Luther was studying law at the University of Erfurt. Though it was far from his family, he regularly returned home. On July 2, after a routine visit with his parents, he was heading back to school when a violent thunderstorm rolled in. Caught in the open, surrounded by lightning strikes and the deafening roar of thunder, Martin truly feared for his life. In his panic, he made a vow to St. Anne, the patron saint of those stuck in thunderstorms (and also of miners). He promised that if she spared him he would become a monk. Martin survived the storm and he kept his word. Just over a month later, on July 17, Martin asked the prior of the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt to accept him into the order.
The Obnoxious Monk
Luther was welcomed into the monastery as a novice and was inducted into the Augustinian order a year later. He was ordained on April 3, 1507. While his welcome may have been warm at the start, church historian Robert Godfrey tells us, “Luther’s very enthusiasm for monasticism made him in some ways obnoxious in the monastery.” Why? To become a monk, the first and most important question that a candidate would be asked was: “What do you seek here?” In response, the candidate was supposed to say, “The gracious God and your mercy.” The grace and mercy of God were indeed things that Martin desperately longed for, but this made him acutely aware of every sin he committed. Sin—even the most minor and seemingly insignificant of sins—deserved the wrath of God, not grace or mercy. And so, Martin would continually confess his sins to the point where his confessor would send him away out of frustration, assuring him that such paltry sins did not need to be confessed!
This exhortation didn’t ease Martin’s conscience. He knew God demanded perfection itself, not a close approximation. How could he experience the grace and mercy of God if he was a sinner? This is one of the fundamental questions that haunted him, and his quest for an answer would transform not only himself but the world.
The Search for the Gracious God
Martin struggled to find the gracious God in the teachings of church, the monastery, or his confessor who urged him to relax his overactive conscience. There remained one place to look: the Bible. As he studied and taught the Scriptures, Martin was deeply impacted by passages that challenged his assumptions and changed his theology. He concluded that the medieval church was in serious need of both theological and practical reform. At the core of Martin’s call to reform the church was his understanding of God’s grace—something he couldn’t find in the medieval church’s teachings but did find in the pages of Scripture.
His convictions didn’t appear overnight; they developed and grew over several years as he studied and lectured on the Psalms, Galatians, Hebrews, and especially, Romans. One verse in particular stopped Martin dead in his tracks, Romans 1:17: “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed.” In fact, it was really one phrase in this verse that confounded him. Martin said, “I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically regarding the formal or active righteousness… with which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.”
The medieval church taught that God is perfectly righteous and therefore we must be perfectly righteous to enter his presence. We need a formal or active righteousness. If we’re unrighteous in any way, then there is only judgment from God and no hope for mercy. This fact tormented Martin because he was acutely aware that he didn’t possess active righteousness. He confessed, “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”
Discovering the Grace of God
Martin’s conscience was tortured as he scoured the Bible for the answer to his heart-wrenching question: How can an unrighteous sinner ever stand before God and receive grace when they deserve wrath and punishment? He poured his heart and soul into the search for an answer. As he studied the Bible, Martin became increasingly vexed by what Romans taught about God’s righteousness. But one day he had a breakthrough. He described it like this: “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’’”
By looking at the context of Romans 1:17, Martin could see the Bible teaches the righteousness God demands for our salvation is not something we earn on our own, but something we receive by faith. Martin said, “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.” Contrary to what the medieval church taught, the Bible says that our salvation rests upon the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus, the believer receives his righteousness as a gift. Martin called this passive righteousness because it is not actively attained by a person; it’s accepted as a free gift from God.
In a lecture about Galatians, Martin said that passive righteousness is something “which we do not perform but receive. We do not have it but accept it, when God the Father grants it to us through Jesus Christ.” It’s on the basis of passive righteousness that God can accept a sinner into his presence because we could never have enough active righteousness to be worthy of God’s love.
The Waves of Luther’s Discovery
In the years leading up to Luther’s life, we can imagine medieval Europe like a still pond which is being increasingly disturbed as pebbles are thrown into it. The status quo was being challenged on philosophical, political, technological, and theological fronts in too many ways to explore here. Society felt the ripples of these pebbles. They were unsettling, but they were nothing compared to the impact Martin Luther would have. He was no pebble, he was more like a giant boulder! He crashed into the medieval world and produced waves so large that we still feel their effects today. If the fires of change were smoldering, he was a gust of wind that set off an uncontrollable blaze: what historians call the Protestant Reformation.
At the heart of the Reformation was Luther’s rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of salvation: We are saved by the grace of God, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Every Protestant church, Lutheran or not, can trace their origins back to this one medieval monk who searched for the grace of God, only to find the grace of God had already come to him in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
 These records of Martin Luther’s dinner table discussions were eventually compiled and published under the title Table Talk. Selections from Table Talk can be accessed online for free here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9841/9841-h/9841-h.htm
 Robert Godfrey, Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions: Reformation Sketches (Phillipsburg, NJ, P&R Publishing, 2003), 7.
 Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989), 128.
 Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, Wittenberg, 1545, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Second Edition, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 8.
 Ibid, 9.
 Martin Luther, The Argument of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 1535, in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Second Edition, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 20.