Martin Luther was born in Germany. In 1505, he received his Master's degree and proceeded to study Law. Not for long. One day Luther was returning home. As he neared the village of Storterheim, he found himself in the rages of a severe thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground next to him, throwing him off his horse (and killing his friend and traveling companion). Terrified, Luther cried out, "St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!"
He lived. And he kept his word. On July 17, 1505, Luther entered the monastery at Erfurt. In 1507, Luther was ordained as a priest. He was sent from Erfurt to Wittenberg to become a tutor at the university. There he obtained his first degree, a Bachelor's degree in the bible. After one year he was transferred back to Erfurt. There, at age twenty-six, he obtained his second degree in theology. While teaching in Efurt, Luther was sent to Rome on monastery business. While there he was shocked by the city's decadence. He also visited many shrines, including Scala Santa. The twenty-eight marble stairs are said in Catholic tradition to be the steps walked up by Christ on his way to trial before Pilate. St. Helena, mother of the Constantine, was a collector of relics, and the staircase is supposedly among her finds, brought to Rome in c.326 AD.
According to Luther's son Paul (there is no other confirmation of the episode), when Luther was crawling up these stairs he heard a voice saying "The just shall live by faith." It is said that the contradiction of what he was doing (seeking merit from works) and what he heard (the just will live by faith--not even "the faithful will be justified") caused him to get up, turn about, and walk down the stairs. Nevertheless, at this time Luther returned home as a loyal Catholic.
Luther returned to Wittenberg and earned a Doctor of Theology degree. For the rest of his life he would lecture on the bible at the university. In the monastery, Luther lived a life of severe asceticism. It is said that other priests dreaded taking Luther's confessions, for each daily confession, covering only the sins since the previous day, could take up to six hours.
Luther, in spite of the (perhaps apocryphal) insight on the steps of the Scala Santa, was still trying to obtain salvation through his works. But no matter how hard he tried, he could never convince himself that he had done enough.
Some light shone in the darkness
Luther found comfort in the writings of the 12th century cleric Bernard of Clairvaux, who stressed the free grace Christ of salvation and to whom Calvin attributed the doctrine of forensic justification. He was also greatly influenced by the writings of Augustine, so much so that although it occurred over a millennium after his death, some have said that Augustine, not Luther was the father of the Reformation. But most of all, he studied the bible.
Sometime toward the end of 1512, Luther was in his cell studying Romans. There he read:
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH." (Rom. 1:17)He would later say an unspeakable joy flooded his heart and his oppressive burden to prove himself worthy was lifted away. For Luther, Romans 1:17 was "a gate to Paradise".