It was just over 500 years ago, in the fall of 1510, that a desperate Roman Catholic monk made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime.
He had become a monk five years earlier, much to the surprise and dismay of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. In fact, it was on his way home from law school, that this young man—then 21 years old—found himself in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. The lightning was so intense he thought for sure he was going to die. Fearing for his life, and relying on his Roman Catholic upbringing, he called out for help. “Saint Anne,” he cried, “Spare me and I will become a monk!” Fifteen days later, he left law school behind and entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.
The fear of death prompted him to become a monk. And it was the fear of God’s wrath that consumed him for the next five years—so much so, in fact, that he did everything within his power to placate his guilty conscience and earn God’s favor.
He became the most fastidious of all of the monks in the monastery. He dedicated himself to the sacraments, fasting, and penance. He even performed acts of self-punishment like going without sleep, enduring cold winter nights without a blanket, and whipping himself in an attempt to atone for his sins. Reflecting on this time of his life, he would later say, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” Even his supervisor, the head of the monastery, became concerned that this young man was too introspective and too consumed with questions about his own salvation.
But the haunting questions would not go away.
This young monk became particularly fixated on the apostle Paul’s teaching about the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans, and especially Romans 1:17. In that verse, Paul says of the Gospel, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
But this young man’s understanding of that verse was clouded. Reading it through the lens of Roman Catholic tradition, he twisted its meaning, thinking that he had to somehow become righteous through his own efforts in order to live a life of faith. But therein was the problem. He knew he was not righteous. Despite everything he did to earn God’s favor, he knew he fell short of God’s perfect standard.
And so, as he would later recount, he came to hate the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he saw in it his own condemnation. He realized that if the perfect righteousness of God is the standard (which of course it is), and if he as a sinful man could not meet that standard (which of course he couldn’t), then he stood utterly condemned. So, out of frustration and despair, he plunged himself all the more fervently into the strict practices of monastic life, trying his hardest to work his way to salvation. And he grew more and more discouraged and desperate.
So it was, five years after he became a monk, in the year 1510, that this desperate man made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime. He and a fellow monk travelled to the center of Catholic thought and power—the city of Rome. If anyone could help him calm the storm that waged in his soul, surely it would be the pope, the cardinals, and the priests of Rome. Moreover, he thought that if he paid homage to the shrines of the apostles and made confession there, in that holy city, he would secure the greatest absolution possible. Surely this would be a way to earn God’s favor. The young man was so excited that when he came within sight of the city, he fell down, raised up his hands and exclaimed “Hail to thee, holy, Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.”
But he would soon be severely disappointed.
He tried to immerse himself in the religious fervor of Rome (visiting the graves of the saints, performing ritualistic acts of penance, and so on). But he soon noticed a glaring inconsistency. As he looked around him at the pope, the cardinals, and the priests, he did not see righteousness at all. Instead, he was startled by the corruption, greed, and immorality.
As the famous church historian Philip Schaff explained, the young man was
shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of [the] Pope . . . , [and] he heard of the fearful crimes of [previous popes], which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans. . . . He was told that "if there was a hell, Rome was built on it," and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, VI:129)
A desperate man on a desperate journey, having devoted his life to the pursuit of self-righteous legalism and finding it empty, went to Rome looking for answers. But all he found was spiritual bankruptcy.
Needless to say, Martin Luther left Rome disillusioned and disappointed. He reported that, in his opinion, “Rome, once the holiest city was now the worst.” Not long afterward, he would openly defy the pope, calling him the antichrist; he would condemn the cardinals as charlatans; and he would expose the apostate tradition of Roman Catholicism for what it had become: a destructive system of works righteousness.
Luther’s journey to Rome was a disaster. Yet, it played a critical part in his journey to true, saving faith. A short time later, the fastidious monk discovered the answer to his spiritual dilemma: If he was unrighteous, in spite of his best efforts, how could he be made right before a holy and just God?
In 1513 and 1514, while lecturing through the Psalms and studying the book of Romans, Luther came to realize the glorious truth that had escaped him all those years before: The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not merely the righteous requirement of God—of which all men fall short (Rom. 3:23)—but also the righteous provision of God whereby, in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who believe (Rom. 5:1-2, 18).
Luther’s own remarks sum up the glorious transformation that discovery had on his heart:
At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open. An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me . . . and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term “the righteousness of God.”
After a lifetime of guilt, after years of struggling to make himself righteous, after trying to please God on his own, and after a disappointing trip to Rome, Martin Luther finally came to understand the heart of the gospel message. He discovered justification by grace through faith in Christ; and in that moment, he was transformed.