Martin Luther in Eisenach

This is part three of a series written by Rev. Donavon Riley that orginally appeared on the HIgher Things - Dare To be Lutheran website.

Martin Luther, like most people during the sixteenth century, lived during a time of both earthly and spiritual insecurity. Frequent wars, plagues, peasant revolts, and famine meant people had to struggle to secure daily bread. And, at the same time that they were worried about sustenance, the church taught that sins could be atoned for by praying to the saints, making pilgrimages, worshipping holy relics, and the like.

The world Luther grew up in was an apocalyptic time. Death could overcome a person at any moment. The Grim Reaper, Four Horsemen, and other end times figures were popular in literature, art, and music. Images of fire and brimstone occupied the church's imagination, too. Jesus wasn't pictured as a merciful shepherd or suffering servant, but as a judge seated on a rainbow throne, a two-edged sword coming out one side of his mouth and a lily the other. They symbolized judgment and mercy, death and resurrection. This meant that the primary question on Christian's minds was: "What must I do to avoid the sword and receive the lily?"

The church's answer was, "Do what is in you." Then, God willing, the church would dispense grace to penitent sinners.

To this end, at least once a year, people were expected to confess their sins to a priest. Of course, the more often the faithful Christian confessed his sins the better, but at least once a year was required. In fact, before he could go to communion, he was obligated to go to a priest for confession and absolution. However, if the priest didn't feel the sins confessed were sincere, honest, or expressed from a contrite heart, he would ban the offender from communion until such time as he made a proper, sincere confession of sins.

Then there was purgatory. In Luther's day, the church taught that anyone who had not done enough in this life to be purged of all their earthly sins must pay for them in purgatory. As Luther scholar James Kittelson writes: "They would sweat out every unremitted sin before they could see the gates of heaven," unless, of course, a family member or friend could afford to offer a monetary "gift" to the church in return for a loved one's release from purgatory.

The "indulgences" as they were called, were legal documents that came with fill-in-the-blank spaces for the purchaser, for those whom he wanted to buy out of purgatory, how many years off purgatory he wanted to pay down, and so on.

Young Martin Luther came of age in a religious culture that mirrored the world. If he worked hard enough, maybe he received his just desserts. In the same way, if he was devout and earnest about his eternal salvation, he might receive grace and be allowed to walk through heaven's gates at the time of death.

Whether Luther received an earthly or spiritual reward, hard work was the focus. How much he applied himself, how he used the gifts God had given him and how devoted he was to his spiritual development would determine for young Luther where he ended up—not only in life but also in the afterlife.

Next week, we will look at Luther's time in Erfurt.

NOTE: If you've enjoyed these articles and want to know more about Martin Luther, I've been following the work of my professor, James M. Kittelson, in his book Luther The Reformer: The Story of The Man and His Career. Also, in the weeks and months that follow I will introduce you, the reader, to other works by Luther scholars that I believe will help deepen your knowledge and appreciation for Luther's life and work. Enjoy!

Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota. He is also the online content manager for