While at Erfurt Martin Luther was captivated by the beauty and power of Scripture and he immersed himself in it day and night. It consumed him to such an extent that sleep was a luxury and mealtimes were a chore. From the monastery at Erfurt, he went to the University of Wittenberg as a professor and here he had the opportunity to study the Bible in the original languages. Like a sponge, he thirstily soaked up every morsel of truth that he encountered and soon he became extremely well versed in the Bible.
Staupitz began to encourage the reluctant Luther to preach and after considerable persuasion, he was prevailed upon to do so. He was a gifted speaker and a brilliant Bible bible scholar, a combination that brought crowds of eager listeners to hear his sermons. God was shaping Luther into a force for good that the papacy would soon have to reckon with.
Despite this Luther still considered himself a true son of the Church and never in his wildest dreams would he have thought to separate from it. Luther wasn’t the only reformer who faced these circumstances. Huss, Zwingli, Calvin, Latimer, Cranmer, Ridley, all these great reformers were devoted Catholics, who would never have dreamed of leaving Rome. But each of them had a desire to pursue truth at any cost and it was this pursuit of truth that ultimately led them to sever all ties with Catholicism. Most great movements begin with sincere people who long to do what is right yet never dream of what might lie at the end of the journey they so honestly and earnestly set out on.
The catalyst that set Luther on his journey away from Rome began in the most unspectacular way. A quarrel broke out between the seven monasteries of the Augustinian order and their Vicar-General, Staupitz and it was proposed that the matter be submitted to the pope for consideration. Luther’s gift for clarity of thought and speech led to him being put forward to present the case before Pope Julius II.
Luther set off for Rome on foot, never dreaming of the disenchantment that awaited him at his journey’s end. On his way through Italy, he was appalled by the vice and excesses indulged in by the priests and monks. Reaching Bologna, he fell ill and was at the point death when a terrible fear gripped his soul at the prospect of what awaited him beyond the grave. It was at this moment that he heard a voice saying to him “the just shall live by faith”. This was the second time this verse had been vividly impressed upon his mind, the first instance being when he had come across the verse while engaged in Bible study at Wittenberg. This time though the words made a deep impression on his mind, bringing before him this simple truth, “that holiness is restricted to no soil, to no system, to no rite; it springs up in the heart where faith dwells”
Luther made a full recovery and continued his journey to Rome, convinced that what he experienced there would make amends for the excesses which he had encountered along the way. Finally, he approached the holy city and, overcome with emotion, fell to his knees with the words “Holy Rome, I salute thee” but as he entered the gates of what he believed to be heaven on earth, he was bitterly disappointed.
Rome was a cesspool. A pit of prostitution, profanity and profligacy, the likes of which he had never seen. He struggled to make sense of what he encountered, writing “No one can imagine what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed. Thus they are in the habit of saying, ‘If there is a hell, Rome is built over it: it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin.
While in Rome and preoccupied with these thoughts, Luther availed himself of a recent indulgence that the Pope had issued to all who should ascend “Pilate’s Staircase” on their knees. While he was ascending the staircase he heard a voice saying to him for the third time “The just shall live by faith”. He jumped to his feet and left the scene in shame and fear, the verse seared on his soul. It was a turning point for Luther, one that would alter the course of his entire life. Soon he would go head to head with the infamous Johann Tetzel, common criminal and indulgence peddler extraordinaire, an encounter that would set in motion the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
The great question that Luther grappled with is one we all grapple with today; “how can a man be just before God?” and it is the answer to that question,“ the just shall live by faith”, that launched the nuclear impact of the Reformation. The mushroom cloud still hangs over Christendom today.