A young, newly ordained Catholic priest stood in front of the church, ready to officiate his first mass. These priests were expected to have clean hearts before officiating—no sin unconfessed. No heart of stone unturned.
Martin Luther, the man who sparked the Reformation, began to recite the introductory portion of the mass. With the bread and wine on the altar in front of him, he almost passed out. “I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. . . .Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty?”1
Luther’s fear was not misplaced. He knew he was a sinner, and he couldn’t live up to the cleanliness required of a Catholic priest. Who could? And two other events of his life didn’t help, either. First, when he decided to become a priest rather than a lawyer, his father was furious. He wouldn’t see him again until his ordination day—the day he officiated his first mass. His father, who finally showed an ounce of support for his new path in life, was sitting in the crowd. No pressure!
Second, he had a close encounter with death just a few years earlier. He was torn between what his parents wanted, what he wanted, and where God’s will entered into that equation. While heading back to the university after visiting his parents, he was nearly struck by lightning. To him, this was no accident—he believed it was God’s judgment2. He was running away from ministry, and God wanted to get his attention. He cried out in panic, vowing to become a priest if his life was spared. He went headfirst into ministry, but he was always haunted by his own sinfulness and unworthiness.
We are prone to wrap up our identities in many things. For Luther, it was his father’s approval. He wanted to be a priest, but his father wanted him to be a lawyer. This was the greatest identity crisis of his life—it nearly wrecked him.
But then he had another identity crisis—one we can all relate to as Christians. Being a priest wasn’t enough to satisfy him. It was what God had called him to do. He knew that. He embraced that. But beyond his priestly robe, he was a sinner in need of grace. His sin tortured his soul much more than a bad sermon ever could have. And when he went to the pages of Scripture, he realized that he couldn’t buy God’s grace—God’s grace was a free gift.
I have a habit of identifying myself as a husband, a dad, a writer—all of them are parts of who I am. And as much as I love the different roles I have in this life, they are all temporary. But one thing that doesn’t change for all of eternity is that I am a child of God. This is my true identity. This is your true identity.
May we go to Scripture with confidence that what we will find there is truth. May we recognize that sin is costly but grace is free. May we join Luther in proclaiming, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” In our unbelief, let us quote one of Luther’s favorite passages, Mark 9:24: “I do believe! Help my unbelief.”3 May God define us, and nothing else.
1Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, NY: Meridian, 1995), 30.
2Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 32.
3Timothy J. Wengert, Reading the Bible with Luther: An Introductory Guide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 62.
BRANDON D. SMITH works with the Christian Standard Bible at Lifeway Christian Resources and teaches theology at various schools. The author of Rooted: Theology for Growing Christians and They Spoke of Me: How Jesus Unlocks the Old Testament, Brandon also cohosts the Word Matters podcast. He holds a BA in biblical studies from Dallas Baptist University and an MA in systematic and historical theology from Criswell College. He’s pursuing a PhD in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. Brandon lives near Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Christa, and their two daughters, Harper and Emma.