The Lutheran Difference: The Light Bulb Moment

Last week, we talked about the theological world that Martin Luther lived in. That’s important, because it helps explain why Martin did what he did and why he believed what he believed. But before we can really get to what you might call his “light bulb moment,” we have to talk about how he personally got to that point.

Martin Luther was born into a relatively poor family. His father was a miner and, from all accounts, his parents were strict but loving. Hans, his father, had high plans for Martin. He sent him off to school and then university with the hopes that Martin would one day become a lawyer. The reasoning was pretty simple: lawyers made a lot of money, and if Martin were to join that profession, he would be able to care for his folks in their old age.

luther lightningBut that’s not what happened. Sure, Martin was able to get his degrees, but in the middle of his legal studies, he had an experience that changed the course of his life. According to the story, as he was traveling to school one day, he was caught in a horrific thunderstorm. Martin was so frightened and convinced that he was going to die that he called out to St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary) and promised her that, should he survive the storm, he would become a monk. Survive he did, and so he kept his word.

Now most biographers of Luther don’t believe that this moment was as dramatic a catalyst as it may seem. Luther was already struggling with what he believed about God. Remember what we talked about last week? Well, Luther had a hard time believing that he could ever do enough good to offset the sin in his life. He was convinced that he wasn’t on the path to heaven, but was instead firmly marching down the road to hell. Since it was taught at the time that monks could earn even more favor with God by their lives of devotion, it makes sense that Martin would renounce his academic career and become a monk.

Only this change in vocation did little to help Martin. If anything, it made him even more terrified. According to the stories we have, he would spend hours in confession, confessing every possible sin he could think of. And then, when he was done, he would remember a sin and then go back for several more hours. It got so bad that his confessor accused him of making stuff up, because no one could possibly be that wicked!

His superiors decided that the best course of action was to distract Martin. If he were to be made a priest, he wouldn’t have the time or energy to be so freaked out about God. And since priests earned even more favor than monks, it would have a double benefit. But the plan backfired on them. Martin was even more terrified of God because he knew that he wasn’t worthy of being a priest, of carrying out the holy duties of that office.

Once again, his superiors decided it might be best to keep Martin busy, only this time, they figured that the best way to do it would be to utilize his prodigious intellect. They would send him back to university with the intention that he would become a professor of theology. And this plan actually worked, but not in the way his superiors intended and it had some unintended consequences.

Part of his studies included delving deep into Scriptures, seeing what was truly contained in God’s Word. And it was because of that study that he had what you might consider a “light bulb moment,” although it’s usually referred to as his tower experience. Although that’s a polite way of putting it, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

One day, Luther was reading from the book of Romans and, as he did, he came across Romans 1:17, where Paul talks about righteousness. According to the Roman Catholic Church at the time, righteousness was something that had to be generated by the Christian. It was up to us to create that righteousness by doing good works. But as Luther read Romans, he realized that what Paul actually said was that righteousness is a gift from God through Christ.

What Martin realized in that moment was that reaching heaven wasn’t up to him. He didn’t have to do good works to move him closer and closer to God. Instead, his salvation was a free gift from God by grace through faith. The righteousness that Paul spoke of came from God, not from human beings. In other words, there was nothing left for Martin to do because God had done it all for him already.

Or, to use the crude illustrations from last week, Martin realized that God basically gave humanity a shortcut, bypassing the road to heaven and bringing them right to the very gates:

Martin corrected teaching

It was this revelation that lifted the heavy burden off of Martin’s shoulders. This was the truth that set him free from fear. And it was this truth that was going to rock western Christianity to its very roots.

Now here’s a fun little detail that usually gets left out of the story because…well, I think you’ll understand. By calling this Luther’s “tower experience,” it makes it sound like Luther was sitting in…well, a tower, right? A tower in a castle, a high and isolated study where Martin could be alone with God’s Words and his own thoughts. And that’s mostly true.

Except the tower in this case was actually a bathroom.

We know that Luther suffered from a number of gastrointestinal issues for most of his life. And, if you read Luther’s account of what happened carefully, it becomes clear that Luther was reading the Bible…well, in the bathroom.

I don’t think this detail adds any significance to the story. It’s just an interesting side note. Sometimes the greatest moments happen in the most unusual of places.

But like I said, regardless of where Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel took place, it was bound to have a far reaching impact on the Church. And we’ll see how that impact started next week as we tackle the subject of indulgences and what Martin’s 95 Theses were all about.


  1. I love how Martin Luther basically serves as the archetypal example of Christian scrupulosity. People who knew Martin must have thought that he was obsessively neurotic and fanatically hyper-analytical, unable to settle down with whatever passed for assurance in those days, unable to believe that the system truly reflected spiritual reality. His example offers some consolation to those of us afflicted with an unshakable sense of spiritual doom. Please don’t ruin the hope that Luther offers us by implying that if we could only believe in the same way that Luther did, the neurotic over-thinking spiritual cloud would be lifted.

    • I would never dream of suggesting that! Luther himself continued to struggle with doubt after his Tower Experience. I think the stronger your faith becomes, the more you wrestle with God. Because how else can we become stronger?

      • I’ve seen that one Luther movie from 2003, so I guess that movie showed him in a relatively deep way regarding faith struggles even after he began the Reformation—such as the scene where a boy committed suicide.

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