Why Luther Grasped a Hammer

The Insight That Became a Revolution

Brad J. Gray / 11.1.21

October 31, 1517 was a day of infamy and reckoning for the church — and has been for these five intervening centuries. It marked the beginning of what we now refer to as the Protestant Reformation, when the doctrine and authority of the Roman Catholic Church was markedly dismantled by preachers, teachers, and pastors all across Europe. On that day in 1517, a German monk by the name Martin Luther published a document listing a series of ninety-five theses, or statements, which ran counter to the doctrines of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. And the rest is history, as the saying goes. 

Perhaps you have an image in your mind’s eye of Luther, with hammer in hand, vehemently nailing that document of his theses to the Wittenberg church door. But what drove Luther to get to that point in the first place? The driving force behind the Martin Luther’s censure of the Roman Catholic Church can be boiled down to fact that he was determined to find assurance in his faith.

Luther, as you might know, was originally enrolled in law school when, in 1505, as the story goes, he was nearly struck by lightning during a trek home. In the middle of that terrible storm, he prayed to St. Anne and vowed to become a monk if God would but spare his life. Of course, he was spared. And he promptly lived up to his “eleventh-hour-vow” by ceasing his law studies and leaving the legal profession altogether (to the great disappointment of his father). He soon entered an Augustinian monastery where he began to voraciously study religion.

Luther was insatiably religious monk, zealously pursuing and practicing the righteousness he was bound to study. He understood, through his copious inquiries, the heights of God’s holiness. “Luther,” records the biographer Roland H. Bainton, “was too obsessed with the picture of Christ the avenger to be consoled with the thought of Christ the redeemer.” (p. 45) Following God meant following God’s law. For Christ, in his mind, was an inexorable, unflinching Law-giver. So strongly did he comprehend this divine demand for holiness that he went about confessing every sin. The severity of God’s righteousness wouldn’t allow for even the smallest offense to slip by. Therefore, he made known every blemish, every blight that might stain his record. 

But for all his zeal, Luther’s espoused religion was unable to give him the assurance he so desperately craved. He later recounts that he “wore out [his] body with vigils and fasting, and hoped thus to satisfy the law and deliver [his] conscience from the sting of guilt.” (Fisher, 90) Bainton, likewise, notes that “whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to perform.” (35) Whatever he could do to obtain assurance, he would do wholeheartedly. With every fiber of his being. But it was never enough.

Despite all Luther confessed, he was never able to confess enough. He was never able to pray enough. Fast enough. Pay enough penance. Nothing he did ever quieted his restless soul. So desperate and anxious was Luther that he eventually grew to resent even God himself. Bainton records Luther’s sentiments: “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!” (44) Such words reveal the depths of Luther’s disenchantment with the righteousness of God. How could God demand such rigid and righteous living from creatures who could never meet such demands?

Fast forward to the fall of 1515, when Luther began lecturing through St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans at the University of Erfurt. He had previously been lecturing on the Psalms, where subtle (but notable) shifts in his thinking were already in the works. Even still, Luther began his Romans lectures unprepared for what he would find. He stumbled at the phrase in Chapter 1 of the letter, where Paul refers to “the righteousness of God” (Rom 1:16–17). He had previously believed this verse to refer to “the righteousness that God demands” — a view that drove the obsessively scrupulous monk to despair. But reading these words again, the ambiguous Greek construction revealed something altogether different: “the righteousness that God gives.”

This was a veritable fork-in-the-road moment for Luther. For all intents and purposes, it was his “Damascus experience” (Acts 9), where, like the apostle from whom he gleaned so much, he was made to turn an about-face on the teachings which defined his life up to that point. As Luther discovered and would soon make known, Christianity was not a God-given agenda for sinners to accomplish or achieve righteousness on their own. Rather, God’s Word is the book of God’s promise, a.k.a., the gospel, wherein is found the God-given announcement that the righteousness that God demands is the very righteousness he offers to all on the basis of faith alone.

Your salvation and mine is “revealed” in the person and work of Christ alone. He is the “apocalypse” of his Father’s gospel, the unequivocal unveiling of the righteousness which covers the sins of the whole world. For sinners of all stripes, the “righteousness of God” has already been accomplished by God’s own Son. Such were the words of Luther’s assurance.

In that way, then, Luther wasn’t doing anything particularly remarkable when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. That act, in and of itself, would be similar to putting a flyer on a town bulletin board. What makes this event so remarkable and so memorable were the contents of Luther’s theses and the questions he dared to raise. He wasn’t trying to start a movement. He being provocative, but didn’t intend for his messages to “go viral.” Luther was merely a student of God’s Word who could no longer stay silent in the face of the egregious abuses of the church. “I will not,” Luther wrote in a letter during his trials in 1518, “become a heretic by denying the truth by which I became a Christian: sooner will I die, be burnt, be banished, be anathematized.” For that stouthearted German, nothing could out-volume the truth of God’s Word. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he would later declare. “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise,” runs the apocryphal anthem.

What steadied Luther’s hammer, therefore, was an engrossing enthusiasm and determination for the good news of his assurance proclaimed by scripture. No priest could give him that assurance. Neither could any religious tradition or any amount of zealous discipline or devotion. It was only through the gospel of God’s grace that Luther’s soul was ever made to rest in the gift of holiness given to him in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Faith” Luther writes in his preface to his commentary on Romans, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times.” (xvii) The gospel Luther discovered made a cowering and fearful monk into a reformer. In the chill of an October morning Luther grabbed a hammer and strolled to the church. Little did he know that this hammer would spark a revolution.