Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Spark Of Conversion That Lit The Wick Of The Protestant Reformation - Reflections Upon Martin Luther's Conversion In 1513

Image result for martin luther
Romans 1:16-17 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”

Introduction: The Spark That Lit The Fuse Of The Protestant Reformation

How powerful are the words found in the 66 books that comprise our Bibles? Nothing can turn a soul to God except the Holy Spirit working through the nearly 775,000 words in our Old and New Testaments. I rejoice in hearing conversion stories from people who have by grace through faith trusted in Jesus Christ for their salvation. Whether reflecting upon my own conversion, or reading about other people's conversions, such accounts stir the heart to give praise to God for all He has done through Christ. The 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther's story and conversion is the focus of today's post. 

In the 16th century, Europe and the Roman Catholic Church were poised on a knife's-edge. The need for moral and spiritual reform was recognized a century before Martin Luther had come on the scene. The political, religious, moral and economic climate was ripe for reform. God's hand of providence was at work. Martin Luther would be His instrument for reform and reigniting of the Gospel.

Martin Luther was born in 1483 to a copper mining owner and worker. Martin's father, Hans, desired to see Martin get a good education. When young Martin acquired his Bachelor's degree and Master of Arts degree in Law, he began to practice law per his father's wishes. However, when traveling through the woods, a sudden lightening-storm startled Luther, with a near-by lightening strike evoking a rash vow from Luther's lips to serve as a monk. Author James Edward McGoldrick notes of this episode:1

"(H)e encountered a severe lightning storm in which he thought he would perish. In anguish he appealed to St. Anne, the patroness of miners, to intercede with God, and he promised that he would reciprocate by becoming a monk. Much to the dismay of his parents, Martin passed through the gates of the Black Cloister to become a friar. In doing so, he had chosen the lifestyle which his church extolled as the best means to obtain salvation."

Once Luther pledged his life of servitude to St. Anne - the patron saint of miners - he entered into the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, Germany in July of 1505.

He quickly excelled in all things religious. As time marched on, Luther's incessant desire to quiet his sensitive conscience through religious ritual kept falling short. Luther was as a candle in the dark, with no inner light of his own. The wick that began the Protestant Reformation in Germany on October 31, 1517 would be Luther's nailing to the church door of Wittenburg, Germany his 95 challenges or "theses" against the abuses of the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences (that is, "get-out-of-purgatory-free-cards"). However, for October 31, 1517 to become the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, there first needed to be the conversion of the Reformer - Martin Luther. That spark that began in Luther's heart was his so-called "Tower-Experience". 

Martin Luther's Testimony Of Conversion - The Needed Spark From God 

Thankfully, Luther's life was recorded in detail either by his own recollections or the eye-witness testimonies of friends and foes alike. Apart from Jesus and the Apostle Paul, many scholars have noted that no figure in all of church history has had more written about his life and writings than the mighty Reformer from Germany. Luther's "Tower-Experience" was the process through which he struggled to understand the relationship between God's just role in having the right to punish sin and Luther's own need for forgiveness. Erwin W. Lutzer makes the following observation about Luther's struggle:2

"When Luther began to teach the book of Romans, he trembled at the phrase 'the righteousness of God' (Rom. 1:17). Though he says he was an 'impeccable monk', he stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience. The righteousness of God struck fear into his heart because he knew that it was because of God's unbendable righteousness that sinner's were cast away from His most holy presence."

He was brought to the breakthrough of the doctrine of "justification by faith" in reading Romans 1:17 and upon reflecting on Augustine's commentary on the same-said verse of scripture. In Luther's own words, we find the following testimony that led him to finally discover peace in his heart and with God, from his so-called "Tower-Experience" in 1513:3

"I greatly longed to understand Paul's epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression "the righteousness of God," because I took it to mean that righteousness 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 angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him. 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 righteousness of God and the statement that "the just shall live by faith." Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith."

Now comes Luther's description of his conversion... 

"Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before "the righteousness of God" had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven...".

As a monk serving in the Augustinian order of the Roman Catholic Church (so-named from the 5th century theologian, Augustine), Luther had consulted Augustine's commentary on Romans while making his epochal discovery about how a person is truly made right with God - by grace alone through faith alone. The final sentences of Augustine's commentary on Romans 1:17 was instrumentally used by God in aiding Luther to connect the dots between God's righteousness and saving faith:4

"We have now the principal point or the main hinge of the first part of this Epistle, — that we are justified by faith through the mercy of God alone. We have not this, indeed as yet distinctly expressed by Paul; but from his own words it will hereafter be made very clear — that the righteousness, which is grounded on faith, depends entirely on the mercy of God."

Clearly, the doctrine of justification by faith alone has its roots reaching back a millennium to Augustine, who in turn derived it from the Apostle Paul in the first century. Justification by faith is that Divine, legal declaration of the sinner's innocence with respect to the law of God. At the moment of conversion or saving faith, I as a sinner am credited with Christ's righteousness. To help convey the meaning of the word "justification", the sinner is regarded by God to be "just-as-if-I-never-sinned" or put positively: "just-as-if-I-always-did-rightly". The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the core of the Gospel. Luther's conversion came as a result of the Holy Spirit's working in his heart through the scriptures to reignite the flame of the Gospel. 

Closing thoughts and applications

One thing I find fascinating about Luther's testimony is that we find a man giving credit to the Spirit's work through the scriptures in bringing about his heart-change. The work of salvation is a miracle-work brought about by the Spirit of God through the Word of God operating upon and in the human heart (see Romans 10:8-10; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). What about you dear read today?  Have you experience such a saving faith? Have you trusted upon the finished work of Jesus Christ? Luther's explanation of salvation as the "opening of the gates of paradise" cement in the mind's eye a clear understanding of what salvation is all about: namely, reconciling sinners such as myself to a holy righteousness God through faith in Jesus Christ. This month of October celebrates the 501st anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and more importantly, the reigniting of the flame of the Gospel. Were it not for the Holy Spirit's intervention through the scriptures in the heart of a troubled soul named Martin Luther in 1513, the wick of October 31, 1517 might not had been lit. Let us celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel which alone can save the soul which yields in response to His call by faith.  


1. McGoldrick, James Edward. "Introducing Martin Luther". Reformation and Revival. Vol 7, part 4. Fall 1998. Page 20.

2. Lutzer, Erwin W. Rescuing The Gospel: The Story And Significance Of The Reformation. Page 45. Baker Books. 2016.

3. Quotation derived from the website: This well-known testimony of Martin Luther is cited in volumes that contain his main works. 

4. St. Augustine's Commentary On Romans.