Theology Learned in the Flames of Adversity
In 1527, Martin Luther experienced a trial so severe that church historian Philip Schaff described that year simply as “the disastrous year.” It was the time of Luther’s “severest spiritual and physical trials.” As the leading figure of the Reformation, Luther paid a high price in the struggle for truth, and his physical condition deteriorated under the movement’s mounting demands. On April 22, 1527, Luther was so overcome by dizziness in the pulpit that he stopped preaching and was forced to retire. Other physical problems followed for the Reformer, including severe heart problems, digestive ailments, and fainting spells. He also began to wear down emotionally, suffering bouts of discouragement and depression.
On July 6, another attack struck Luther. He was entertaining friends for dinner when he felt an intense buzzing in his left ear. He had to be carried to bed, where he frantically called for water or else, he believed, he would die. Luther became so chilled that he was convinced he had seen his last night. In a desperate prayer, he surrendered himself to the will of God and prepared to meet his Maker. Though Luther remained seriously ill for days, he eventually regained his strength.
In August, the Black Plague rapidly spread among the people in Wittenberg. Many died, and others fled for their lives. The University of Wittenberg moved to Jena, Germany. Frederick urged Luther to escape to spare his own life. Adding to the danger, Katie was pregnant and they had a one-year-old child, Hans. Luther, however, considered it his moral duty to remain and minister to the sick.
Weighty trials rested heavily upon Luther’s shoulders. Death surrounded him on every side. He watched people die in his house and in the streets. He chose to transform his spacious house into a hospital to care for those suffering from the plague. Hans became desperately ill, and Luther became so heavily burdened that he could not eat for eleven days. He was deeply concerned for Katie’s safety and grew weak with despair.
In a letter to his trusted friend and coworker Philip Melanchthon, Luther acknowledged his increasing bouts of depression:
I spent more than a week in death and in hell. My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble. Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God. But through the prayers of the saints God began to have mercy on me and pulled my soul from the inferno below.
In November, Luther wrote a theological tract titled Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. He argued that a spiritual leader must stay with the community of believers under his care during a time of extreme duress. Certainly, the outbreak of the plague qualified as such a crisis, as extreme stress weighed heavy upon his heart and drained his body of strength. But in his weakness, Luther found new strength in God.
During these difficult years filled with controversy, death, and trial, Luther penned his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This magnificent work is based on Psalm 46, a worship song of unshakable trust in God. For years, Luther had translated and taught the Psalms, a book he deeply loved. This inspired collection of ancient worship songs was, in fact, the first book of Scripture that Luther had taught in the classroom. An exposition of selected penitential psalms was the subject of his first printed work.
In hard times, when Luther often found himself terribly discouraged and downcast, he would turn to Melanchthon and say, “Come, Philipp, let us sing the forty-sixth Psalm.” They would sing it in Luther’s original version:
A sure stronghold our God is He, A timely shield and weapon:
Our help He’ll be and set us free From every ill can happen.
Concerning the singing of this favorite psalm, Luther said:
We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh and sin.
Out of Luther’s dark distress shined this brightest light of confidence in God. Philip Schaff marvels that this monumental hymn could issue from such deep travails, saying, “The deepest griefs and highest faith often meet.” This was the case with Luther, as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was “born of deep tribulation and conquering faith.”
The 1520s proved to be a turbulent time for Martin Luther, one in which he found himself engaged in many battles. In the face of mounting struggles, Luther fought the good fight and remained unwavering in his devotion to the truth of the Bible. Through these sufferings, he grew deeper in the truth and stronger in faith.
Luther recognized that these conflicts came by divine design to make him the theologian God desired him to be. In commenting on Psalm 119, the Reformer expressed this conviction when he wrote about what he saw as the correct way to study theology. He affirmed three non-negotiables for learning biblical doctrine: “Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and thus: Oratio, meditatio, tentatio.” These three Latin words translate as “prayer,” “meditation,” and “trial.” It is this third prerequisite that should arrest our attention. Luther calls tentatio “the touch-stone” for learning the truth.
Luther believed that trials in the life of any believer, especially a theologian, are necessary in order to grow in the truth. He said that affliction “teaches you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is, wisdom beyond all wisdom.” In other words, Luther maintained that theology is not learned only in the safety of a lecture hall, but in the flames of adversity. In fiery trials, one is humbled and broken. It is then that a leader is made most teachable. In difficult times, the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit often shines brightest. Broken hearts make for receptive minds.
Such affliction increases in intensity as the servant of God ministers the Word. Luther explained, “As soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the devil will harry you, and will make a real doctor of you, and by his assaults will teach you to seek and love God’s Word.” Luther thanked the devil and papists for “beating, oppressing and distressing” him to the point that they turned him into “a fairly good theologian.”
Amid his mounting conflicts, Luther stands as a towering example of the steadfast loyalty to the gospel that is required by God. Ministry is never without its difficulties. There are no easy places to serve the Lord. In perilous times, Luther demonstrated the unwavering devotion needed to persevere.
This excerpt is adapted from Steven Lawson’s contribution Legacy of Luther edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols.