The Lightning Rod

Martin Luther — by Matt Richardson

Romans 1:17

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

Each of us has taken comfort at some point in the old idiom “lightning never strikes the same place twice.” Of course the reality of this is very different—lightning most certainly strikes some places repeatedly. Weathervanes, tall buildings, solitary trees, mountain peaks and even people can be subject to repeated jolts of several hundred million volts [with peak current in the order of 20,000 amps]. Some of these people even survive, though it is safe to say that such a shocking experience changed their lives forever.

Martin Luther was one such lightning survivor—one who’s life, and the lives of millions of others, were changed forever as a result. On July 2, 1505, a thunderstorm in the town of Stotternheim Germany changed Martin Luther’s life, and the course of history. Luther left his family’s home in Mansfield to make his way back to Erfurt where he was studying law. Thunder rolled as a sudden storm caught him on the road. Before he could find shelter a blinding flash and a bolt of lightning struck close by, nearly striking him. The carefree law student with the world at his fingertips was gripped with terror and cried out to St. Anne, “Help me! I will become a monk!”

This blast of power and light had a lasting effect. I can only imagine myself in this situation, once terrified and now greatly relieved at having survived unscathed. My experience would likely become just a great story to share with friends or post as a new Facebook status. But this strike did not become a mere tavern tale for a law student seeking a free beer. Martin Luther knew that this bolt had lasting consequences.

I am fond of the movie “Sergeant York.” Gary Cooper plays the WWI war hero Alvin York, a humble man from the backwoods of Tennessee who single-handedly captures 132 German soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France in 1917. In an early scene before the war, York is making his way through a driving storm drunk on whiskey and revenge as he sets out to murder a rival. At a crucial moment he is struck by a bolt of lighting in a blast that leaves his rifle bent and York and his mule senseless and smoldering. A humbled, penitent York then staggers into a nearby church and takes up a gospel hymn with the startled congregation.

An American legend is born on screen, but a dramatic conversion and the power of God is illustrated. One bolt of lightning is good enough for Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York,” but Martin Luther is struck at least three other times in his life.

I am, of course, not referring to actual physical lightning bolts, but a force far more powerful: the work of the Holy Spirit. The next “bolt” came when a monk struggling with the gravity of his calling, Luther encountered the words of Paul in Romans 1:17. Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” became a brick wall that stopped Luther cold. He was struck by his own sinfulness in light of God’s holiness. “How can I stand before the holiness of my judge with works polluted in their very source?” If the “just shall live by faith” then how can such a violator of God’s justice as this befuddled monk be made acceptable?

Luther was distressed in his sinful state so much that he immediately went to his confessor and confessed all of his sins. He began to confess so frequently, every day all day that he nearly drove his confessor, the monk Staupitz crazy with distraction.

You know what it’s like to realize guilt. The moment an icy ball forms in your stomach that you have said or done something to hurt a loved one and the ache to make amends, or the desire to avoid causing more pain floods you.

I recall pushing my four-year-old son on a swing several years ago. It was the perfect father-son moment and as he was laughing, I felt like the greatest dad in the world. But then during one push my son removed his little hand from the swing chain to scratch an itch and my helpful shove catapulted my happy boy out of the swing and onto the ground. I went from father of the year to the source of my little boy’s pain in one heartbreaking moment. Of course he was ok and only bounced a few times on the rubber tire mulch of the playground, but he had ice cream before the hour was out.

As Luther struggled with his sin, little did he know that God had another bolt ready for him. Romans 1:17, the verse that had haunted him suddenly became clear. As he wrestled with the text he discovered the key lay in the word “righteousness.” The Greek dikaios doesn’t mean to “make oneself righteous” or even “make righteous” but “be declared righteous.”

In a flash Luther now saw that it was no longer HIS work but the work of Christ that made him acceptable to a just and holy heavenly father.

This last thunderbolt tore through Luther’s heart and sparked a boldness in him to declare the truth of sola fide or “by faith alone” to any who would listen. This soon had Luther’s lines fouled in prop of one of the largest and most powerful organizations in the world: The Roman Catholic Church.  

The wheels of the ecclesiastical court ground into motion and soon Luther was defending himself against heresy and facing excommunication from the church he had abandoned his life and career in law to love and obey.

In 1521, Luther was put on trial known famously at the “Diet of Worms.” Ordered to recant his assertion that his beloved Romans 1:17 and indeed the Gospel held that salvation came from a source other than the church, Luther knew he could not. It was then that the fourth bolt of “lightning” struck him. He would not recant. He could not recant. To denounce the “alien righteousness” from God that cannot be earned by man but given freely by the father, pleased with the work of His son Jesus simply could not be uttered. Luther could only reply:

“For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

Has holy lightning struck in your life? Has God revealed His will to you in a blinding flash? Luther was struck through by the realization of his guilt and the gravity of his sinful self in light of a just and holy God. But when God revealed to him that his sin was covered, that his own works were useless and that God’s mercy flowed freely to him Luther was made bold to stand for his faith, even as his world seemed to crumble around him. Allow your guilt to be brought into bright relief in the lightning flash of the Word and ride the lightning in bold confidence that “...He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”  — Philippians 1:6

To subscribe to The DEEP click here:

Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.