For the next few days leading up to Reformation Day on October 31 I thought we would go back in Luther’s life to consider his struggle to find the gospel of God. That struggle, of course, did not come by the power of Luther’s own will or wisdom, but by the power of God’s grace leading him to the knowledge of true salvation in Jesus Christ.
We plan to look at three aspects of Luther’s intense, personal spiritual struggle, beginning today with his trip to the heart of Catholicism – Rome, in 1510. This was one of the major events in his life that God used to cast doubt on the way of “salvation” with which he had grown up.
To learn about this, we will quote from that classic biography of Luther by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1940 – this is an older paperback ed. I own. There are many others, including a new hardback copy published by Hendrikson).
Yet all these sorry disclosures (of Rome’s moral corruption -cjt) did not shatter Luther’s confidence in the genuine goodness of the faithful (i.e., the saints with their meritorious works -cjt). The question was whether they had any superfluous merit which could be conveyed to him or to his family, and whether the merit was so attached to sacred places that visits would confer benefits. This was the point at which doubt overtook him. He was climbing Pilate’s stairs on hands and knees repeating a ‘Pater Noster’ for each one and kissing each step for good measure in hope of delivering his soul from purgatory. Luther regretted that his own father and mother were not yet dead and in purgatory so that he might confer on them so signal a favor. Failing that, he had resolved to release Grandpa Heine. The stairs were climbed, the ‘Pater Nosters’ were repeated, the steps were kissed. At the top Luther raised himself and exclaimed, not as legend would have it, ‘The just shall live by faith!’ – he was not yet that far advanced. What he said was, ‘Who knows whether it is so?’
That was the truly disconcerting doubt. The priests might be guilty of levity and the popes of lechery – all this would not matter so long as the Church had valid means of grace. But if crawling up the very stairs on which Christ stood and repeating all the prescribed prayers would be of no avail, then another of the great grounds of hope had proved to be illusory. Luther commented that he had gone to Rome with onions and had returned with garlic (pp.50-51).