It happened that one of the exceptionally enlightened and spiritual-minded monks of his time, John Staupitz, was then the vicar-general of the Augustinians in Saxony. On his tour of inspection he came to Erfurt, and there found Luther, a walking skeleton, more dead than alive. He was specially drawn to the haggard young brother. The genial and sympathizing spirit of the vicar-general made Luther feel at home in his presence, and to him he freely opened his whole heart, telling of his feelings, failures, and fears—his heartaches, his endeavors, his disappointments, and his despair. And God put the right words into the vicar-general’s mouth.
“Look to the wounds of Jesus,” said he, “and to the blood he shed for you, and there see the mercy of God. Cast yourself into the Redeemer’s arms, and trust in his righteous life and sacrificial death. He loved you first; love him in return, and let your penances and mortifications go.”
The oppressed and captive spirit began to feel its burden lighten under such discourse. God a God of love! Piety a life of love! Salvation by loving trust in a God already reconciled in Christ! This was a new revelation. It brought the sorrowing young Luther to the study of the Scriptures with a new object of search. He read and meditated, and began to see the truth of what his vicar said. But doubts would come, and often his gloom returned.
One day an aged monk came to his cell to comfort him. He said he only knew his Creed, but in that he rested, reciting, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”—“And do I not believe that?” said Luther.—“Ah,” said the old monk, “you believe in the forgiveness of sins for David and Peter and the thief on the cross, but you do not believe in the forgiveness of sins for yourself. St. Bernard says the Holy Ghost speaks it to your own soul, Thy sins are forgiven thee.”
And so at last the right nerve was touched. The true word of God’s deliverance was brought home to Luther’s understanding. He was penitent and in earnest, and needed only this great Gospel hope to lift him from the horrible pit and the miry clay. As a light from heaven it came to his soul, and there remained, a comfort and a joy. The glad conclusion flashed upon him, never more to be shaken, “If God, for Christ’s sake, takes away our sins, then they are not taken away by any works of ours.”
The foundation-rock of a new world was reached.
Luther saw not yet what all this discovery meant, nor whither it would lead. He was as innocent of all thought of being a Reformer as a new-born babe is of commanding an army on the battlefield. But the Gospel principle of deliverance and salvation for his oppressed and anxious soul was found, and it was found for all the world. The anchor had taken hold on a new continent. In essence the Great Reformation was born—born in Luther’s soul.