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Travelogue: Persevering in the Christian Life

After his ordination to the priesthood, Luther was selected to make a pilgrimage by foot to Rome, to conduct some business for the monastery. Luther expected to reach a spiritual crest by going to the Holy City where they had relics such as the piece of the bush that was burning without being consumed, hairs from the beard of John the Baptist, milk from the breast of the blessed virgin, and fill his life and soul with indulgences from the church, drawing from the Treasury of Merit. And that by purchasing those indulgences, he could rescue his departed loved ones from purgatory with merit that they lacked.

“The zenith of his experience there was to go up the Sacred Steps of the Lateran church [Lateran Basilica], the Sacra Scala, and he went up on his hands and knees as a pilgrim, reciting the ‘Our Father’ and the ‘Hail Mary,’ up the twenty-some [28] steps, and he got to the top and he stood up and said to no one, but out loud, ‘Who knows if it is true,'” Dr. Sproul said. “And he saw the corruption of the priesthood … consorting with prostitutes, priests selling their services of the mass at brief rates. And they would rush through the mass as fast as their lips could move so they could make more money in this perversion. And so talk about a man’s being disillusioned. It was Luther.”

In 1515 at Wittenberg, Luther was preparing his lectures on Romans. Working on the first chapter, he was reading various scholars, including an obscure essay by St. Augustine. In the essay, Augustine commented on the Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith,'” that Apostle Paul was not referring to the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but he was writing about a righteousness that God provides for people that don’t have any of their own — an alien righteousness, a foreign righteousness, a righteousness that is a gift to those who have no righteousness.

Luther in front of Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy of his 95 Theses, Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels, 1870

Luther in front of Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy of his 95 Theses, Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels, 1870

“For the first time in his life, the gospel broke into the consciousness of Martin Luther,” said Dr. Sproul. “‘I’ve got it. The doors of paradise swung open and I walked through.’ That marked that man’s life until he died in 1546. That made it possible for Luther to stand in front of the princes of the Church and the emperor of the whole world, and stand alone, because nothing could take away from him what he learned of the gospel. And he was willing to stand against the whole world to defend it.”

Following all the controversies that were sparked by his nailing his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther was summoned in 1521 to Worms, Germany, an imperial diet — not an ecclesiastical diet, because he was summoned by the emperor, Charles V — under guarantee that he would not be harmed. The whole country was aware of him at that point, and thousands of people were cheering him like it was a parade, but the church and the emperor were not cheering him. The authorities provided him quarters while he was at Worms for the trial. In April, the first day of the diet, Luther’s principal interlocuter, a man named Eck, laid out his books, preparing to confront his writings. Luther wanted to debate the different books, but the prosecution only wanted to know which ones Luther would affirm and which he would recant — their strategy was to “divide and conquer.” Luther would not play into the trap, but he begged for a continuance of 24 hours, which they granted.

“He went to his cell, and talk about the dark night of the soul. Talk about a man alone in his cell — not jail cell, but a monk cell — feeling abandoned by God, praying a prayer that is one of the most moving prayers of pathos I have ever read,” Dr. Sproul recounted. “Luther on his knees before God, cried, ‘God, where are you? I need you. Are you hiding from me? God, help me! The cause here is Thine, and I am Thine! And I can’t do this without you.”

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