This article is about the calling of Luther, superstitions in the Middle Ages, Luther in the monastery, and Luther in Worms.

Source: Clarion, 1995. 5 pages.

Let's Hope It Was Not a Ghost! Some Remarks on the Calling of Luther

When Martin Luther was ordained as a priest in the great cathedral of Erfurt in 1507, it was a festive occasion. Friends came from Eisenach, and his parents, Hans and Margareth Luther also attended in a stylish retinue. Luther's father Hans had never been happy with Luther's decision to enter a monastery, but at Luther's ordination he was determined to abandon all resentment, and make the best of it. Still harbouring misgivings, at some point after the official ceremonies he asked Martin if he was sure that his new position was a divine calling. Luther resolutely replied that it was a divine call, to which absolute obedience was required. Hans replied, with characteristic medieval piety, “Let's hope it was not a ghost!”

These words did not sound strange to Luther. In fact they were characteristic of his youth and family situation. Like any other family of the time, the Luther family lived with the vivid superstitions dominant in the medieval period. If there was a thunderstorm outside, Hans would say, “The devil is loose!” If there was an unnatural sickness or tragedy, Margareth would say: “What witch is responsible for this?” So it is also understandable that the calling of Luther reflects this kind of world. At the same time, Luther went through a complete mental transformation in the space of fifteen years, a transformation which resulted in a whole new view of what it meant to be called by God. In this article we will briefly trace this development in Luther, showing that He who called Luther was not a phantom or ghost but the living God, who is known in His Word.

The Thunderstorm🔗

Why did Luther enter the monastery? Actually his father had directed him to pursue a career in law, and in those days one did not question the will and directions of one's father. After he graduated as Master of Arts in 1505, Hans made the necessary arrangements for Martin to enter the Faculty of Law. He even had a wealthy young girl picked out for him, since he was afraid that his son would not maintain the continence required of an upstanding youth. Thus he looked forward in anticipation to the progress of his gifted son which would also bring him some material and social advancement.

In the summer of 1505, Luther had returned home for a week, and was on his way back to Erfurt by horseback when suddenly lightning struck directly in front of him. So forceful was the bolt that he was thrown off his horse. In fear and dread he cried out, “Help me St. Anne! I will become a monk!” From that moment there was no turning back for Luther. He did not tell his parents about his decision, but immediately prepared himself to enter the monastery. As was to be expected, Hans was beside himself with rage. He wrote a very angry letter to Martin, rebuking him for his rebellion. But Martin placed the call of God above the duty he owed to his parents.

The invocation of St Anne, known in medieval piety as the mother of Mary, was also not out of place. St Anne was the patron saint of miners, and Hans Luther was first a miner, later an entrepreneur involved in mining. Luther's entire livelihood came from the mines. Perhaps we can see in his invocation an expression of the sentiment that occupied his mind. It may well be that he saw the entrance into the monastery as the only way for him to pursue an independent path, contrary to the wishes of his fathers, and at the same time, receive a blessed life, that is, a life free from God's wrath. Invoking St. Anne would only seal that wish.

The invocation of St Anne, which must have happened more frequently in the Luther home, may also have contributed to the choice of the monastery which Luther entered. He had several to choose from but he presented himself to the monastery of the Augustinian Friars in Erfurt. St. Anne was a patroness of a Brotherhood closely connected with these Augustinian Friars. Here, too, the motivation of appeasement for making a decision contrary to parental directives may have contributed to Luther's turn to the Eremite order in Erfurt. This was a very strict order, and Luther immediately took all its rules and regulations very seriously.

Remarkably, Luther remained resolute about his calling, even though he did not know the Scriptures, the love of God or His mercy as he later spoke of it. He entered the monastery to find a gracious God. This was also considered a normal action in the context of the time. God spoke in lightning and thunderstorms, and His call was absolute.

In the Monastery🔗

Once he entered the monastery Luther was plagued with temptations and struggles far greater than those he had ever experienced before. These struggles, which because of their unique character are called Anfechtungen, had a very deep and dark character. Basically they concerned Luther's search for a gracious God. They can only be understood within the context of Luther's time. He practiced all the rules of his order very strictly. He engaged in self-flagellation, and was often weak and hungry. He confessed every sin, to the point that the confessors could hardly keep up with him. Still he was filled with fear, doubt and remorse. Yet he persevered in his calling. He saw his decision as a vow which could not be revoked. He also began to climb the ladder to the priesthood, and each step along the way involved a new vow.

In 1503, the Augustinian friars received a new vicar general in the person of Johann von Staupitz. He lived in Tubingen at the time, but later moved to Wittenberg where Frederick the Wise had opened a new university. Von Staupitz was professor of Biblical Studies at Wittenberg. But his duties as vicar general also led him to visit the many monasteries under his charge. He also visited the Erfurt monastery, and met Luther for the first time there in 1506. He heard of Luther's immense interest in biblical studies, and once he learned how quickly he applied himself to the memory of the Scriptures, he began to watch him closely, seeing in him a likely successor for his own position in Wittenberg. Von Staupitz brought Luther to Wittenberg in 1508, for one year. He also encouraged Luther in his spiritual conflicts, directing him to see the predestination of God only in Jesus Christ. He also encouraged him to pursue his Doctor's degree in Biblical Studies. When Luther protested that all this would be too much for him, and that he would die doing it, Von Staupitz said: “Don't worry about that. God can use a good advisor in heaven, too!” – a statement that reflects the confidence he had in Luther. So Luther was directed back to the task at hand, and driven to pursue it with that much more acumen!

Doctor of Biblical Studies🔗

Luther obtained his doctorate in 1512. Von Staupitz immediately earmarked him for the position of professor of Biblical Studies in Wittenberg. Luther took his new position very seriously. Indeed, he saw it as a calling received from God. He was still troubled by spiritual turmoil, and still driven by the search for a gracious God. But he saw the task he was appointed to do as given to him by God. There is one line from the monastery to the lecture room of Frederick the Wise's new university in Wittenberg: Luther sees himself as directly called by God.

Later, after the years of struggle with the Roman church, Luther spoke about his calling in this way:

However, I, Dr. Martinus, have been called to this work and was compelled to become a doctor, without any initiative of my own, but out of pure obedience. Then I had to accept the office of doctor and swear a vow to my most beloved Holy Scriptures that I would teach them faithfully and purely. While engaged in this kind of teaching the papacy crossed my path, and tried to hinder me in it. How it has fared is obvious to all, and will fare still worse. It shall not hinder me. In God's name and call I shall walk on the lion and dragon, and tread on the young lion with my feet.1

Initial Confrontations🔗

After the explosion which attended the publication of the 95 theses in 1517, Luther began to be called to appear before various ecclesiastical and civil authorities concerning his way of teaching. His first appearance was before an Italian legate by the name of Cajetan. The hearing was held in Augsburg in 1518. Luther was very depressed on the way to Augsburg. He thought he would be no match for the Italian, and that he would soon be burned at the stake. “What a disgrace I will be to my dear parents!” he said. And why wouldn't he think in this way? His parents had hoped the best for him as a monk and priest, and now they would hear that he stood diametrically opposed to the leading figures in the church!

Cajetan said that Luther only has to say one word of six letters, revoco, the Latin for I revoke. As well as recanting his errors, Luther had to promise not to teach them again, and had to promise to refrain from activities which destroyed the peace of the church. Luther asked: “Of what then do my errors consist?” Cajetan replied by pointing to two of the ninety-five theses, one dealing with indulgences, the other with the mass (Thesis 7 and 58). We will not go into the content of the theses here, but only listen to the exchange between the two men on these points. With respect to thesis seven, Luther said “On this point I cannot recant.” Cajetan said: “This you must do today, or you will be condemned!” It sounded as if the stake was already being erected. But Luther recalled his doctor's vow. He said that the words of Scripture stood higher than any Bull of the pope and that therefore he could not recant unless his theses were proven wrong by Scripture. Cajetan replied that the pope stood above Scripture, and above the councils. This was the end of the matter for Luther. The next morning, he got up and left, without facing Cajetan again. He left a letter for him telling him he could not recant, since he could not do anything against his conscience. 2

A year later, in Leipzig, Luther was called to a public debate with John Eck, the principal defender of the Romanist position. In this debate Luther rejected blind obedience to Rome, and also maintained that Pope and council could err. All the articles of faith could only be established on the basis of Holy Scripture. Hearing his stand on Holy Scripture, Duke George of Saxony cried out: “The plague is upon us!” and from that point on Luther had another fierce enemy, one that was powerful indeed. Yet he could not be moved to change his position by virtue of his vow to uphold Scripture.

At Worms🔗

The period after the Leipzig disputation was a very busy one for Luther. He published his three famous pamphlets on the need for reformation, and this only added fuel to the fire. At last he was called by the Emperor to appear before the Diet at Worms in 1521. There Luther was called to acknowledge that he was the author of his books, and to retract their contents. Stalling for time, he demanded that the titles of the books be read. Then he asked for more time to consider the second demand. The next day Luther returned to the Diet with his speech, which contained his famous closing words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of Scripture or clear reason (for I do not trust either the pope or the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against my conscience. God help me, Amen!

How did Luther come to this point? It is the same idea of calling which sustains him throughout this turbulent pilgrimage. Yet, his idea of calling has undergone a marked change. Whereas before he heard the voice of God in lightning and thunderstorm, he now hears the voice of God strictly in the Scriptures. Whereas before the God who spoke was a God of fear and dread, the God of the Scriptures was the God of mercy and love, the God who gives His Christ to the world.

Indeed, this is why the Scriptures were so very dear to Luther. They represented the vehicle to meet his salvation and his God. His time in the monastery and in Wittenberg was a struggle with the message of the Scriptures. At the same time it was a rediscovery of the riches of the Scriptures. This rediscovery basically has one form: to hear the voice of God in the words of Scripture speaking directly to the heart of man. In the Scriptures, Luther discovered the Christ who gave His life for the salvation of sinners. That glorious message, so long buried under the dust of the Romanist system of righteousness by works, compelled and drove the priest to take a stand different from those before him.

It is a long road from the entrance into the monastery in 1505, to the dramatic stand at Worms in 1521. Yet one line ties all these years together. Luther was called by God Himself to be an instrument for reform. God used the means of lightning and thunderstorm, father and prior to drive Luther to the Scriptures, and to the Christ of the Scriptures. Then He gave a new perspective to that Word, one determined not by the philosophy or theology of the day, but by those Scriptures themselves.

History has then proven that it was not a ghost that spoke to Luther around the time of his ordination. Neither was he a disgrace to his parents. Indeed, his father died in the confession of the new doctrine Luther had taught.

In fifteen short years there is a sudden change from one world to another, a transformation from the medieval to the modern world. Luther introduced a new view of calling, determined not by saints, demons and fear, but determined by the Christ of the Scriptures, and a life that demands undivided service, devotion and obedience – all out of gratitude to Him. In 1520, he wrote one of his most treasured works, called The Freedom of the Christian Man. In this short treatise, Luther's new view of calling shines through like a newly found pearl of great price:

Although I am unworthy and a condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with His inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered Himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see as necessary, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.3

Luther's language breathes the joy of a new freedom! But it was for him, the freedom of renewed and devoted service. In the light of this Reformation in thought and life we may carry out our calling and duty today, with humility and obedience before God and man, so honouring God's work in reforming His church. For all this was not man's work, but God's! A new wind blew over the whole of life, shaking the existing order to its very foundations. It was a divine work, and “the thing came about suddenly,” as the Scriptures say (2 Chronicles 29:36). This divine work was most aptly expressed in the words of a poem of the common man, shortly after the Reformation:

Still today at this very hour
God saves His poor from the abyss
of tyrant, no matter how terrible,
And from profiteering merchants.
And makes them whole again,
Just as he ended spiritual hypocrisy
As soon as they believed his Word
For he remains true to his covenant.4


  1. ^ Quoted in B. Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Word, Translated by Robert C. Schultz (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986), p. 93.
  2. ^ For the conversation, see W. Von Loewenich, Martin Luther The Man and His Work Translated by Lawrence W. Denef (Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1986), p. 138.
  3. ^ H.J. Grimm, (ed.) Luther's Works, Volume 31, (Muhlenberg Press, Philadelphia, 1957), p. 367.
  4. ^ Quoted in S. Ozment, Protestants The Birth of a Revolution, (Doubleday, New York, 1992), p. 131.


  • Brecht, Martin, Martin Luther. His Road to Reformation, 1483-1521, Translated by James L. Schaaf, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1985.
  • Brendler, G. Martin Luther Theology and Revolution, Translated by Claude R. Foster Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford/ New York, 1991.
  • Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1982.

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