Editorial: Faith—The Spark of the Reformation

In 1505, Martin was returning to Erfurt when a violent thunderstorm broke out, causing him to fear for his life. Instinctively, he cried out to Saint Anne, the patron saint of coal miners (Martin’s father was a miner). His prayer was that if she would help him, he would become a monk. The storm subsided and Martin kept his word. He withdrew from his university studies in law and entered an Augustinian monastery.

In his quest for God’s favor, Martin Luther did all that was humanly possible to achieve it. He fasted for days at a time. He refused blankets at night and nearly froze to death doing penance. He often beat his body thinking that such suffering would gain the favor of the Almighty. He went to confession so many times that finally the priest told him to either go out and commit a sin worth confessing or stop coming. Later he wrote, “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.”[1]

One day in 1508, in his tiny room, he was reading the book of Romans and came to 1:17: “The just shall live by faith.” He pondered the possibility. Was faith alone enough?

In 1510, he was sent to visit Rome to appeal for reform among the Augustinian monks. Luther was ecstatic. Surely visiting the holy city would bring the peace he sought. He visited every shrine he could find in the city. He even climbed the Scala Santa, the famed staircase brought to Rome in the fourth century, reputed to be the very steps which Christ climbed in Pilate’s judgment hall. Luther knew that indulgences had been promised for each step climbed by a pilgrim on his knees. But his Rome visit ended and Martin Luther departed still without peace.

While on the faculty at the University of Wittenberg, Luther gave lectures on Romans, where he was confronted by that text again – “The just shall live by faith.” But now he had to teach what it meant. Soon the light of God’s truth struck him, far more powerful than the storm which had earlier struck him to the ground. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone, not by human efforts (Eph 2:8-9). Later he wrote, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Luther obtained the peace he sought because justification is by faith (Rom 5:1) and not by works.

And so was ignited the spark of the Reformation. Soon Luther’s 95 theses would be posted on the door of the castle church, and all Europe would be set on fire with his exposure of a false gospel and his biblical understanding of justification by faith. Let us never surrender the precious truth that Luther and others recaptured, that salvation “is by faith so that it may be by grace” (Rom 4:16).


[1] Quotations and biographical material are adapted from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1995).