We don’t know the myriads of causes and effects that will come from what we say and do. We don’t know the chains we’re linking in others. And even for us personally, we don’t know how our actions are forming ourselves to be different people a decade from now.
Johann von Staupitz. Have you heard his name? Unless you’re a church historian, probably not. But as we’ll see, because of his influence, he’s a hero. And his unsung impact can teach us an encouraging lesson.
The Story of the Gospel Discovered by Martin Luther
Christians know the tale about Martin Luther and his 95 Theses he nailed to the church door. We’ve heard how Luther discovered the gospel afresh, finding peace in justification by faith alone through Christ alone.
But honestly, we often oversimplify the story. It’s okay that we do—we usually don’t have time to dig into the minute details of history. Yet it is helpful to see more fully what happened.
Martin Luther, as many people know, was a man who for years was weighed down by his sins. He entered a monastery to be as devoted to God as possible, but he still could not find peace. He didn’t know how devoted was enough, and he knew his sins made him deserve judgment.
Many of us assume that Luther was like this because he never heard gospel truth until 1517 when he nailed those 95 Theses. But, nope. That’s just not accurate.
Enter stage right: Johann von Staupitz.
A Man Who Showed Luther Gospel Truths
About a decade before Luther nailed the 95 Theses, this pastor instructed Luther in gospel truths. Yes, you read that right: about a decade before. Here’s the account told by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Note the gospel truths Staupitz taught Luther:
“[Luther] knew he deserved condemnation and hell. The Vicar-General of the Order in Germany, Johann von Staupitz, spent much time with Luther in his spiritual torment. He could not fully understand the young monk’s difficulties, but he gave him some wise advice. He seems to have shifted the emphasis from sins to sin, from acts to the very nature of man, and at the same time to have suggested to Luther that poenitentiam agere in Matt. 4:17 meant ‘to be repentant in the heart’ rather than ‘to do prescribed acts of penance,’ which was the standard interpretation. Staupitz was a man of real faith with a strong leaning toward mystical religion, and [church historian T.M.] Lindsay affirms that he spoke to Luther concerning personal trust in God, the righteousness of Christ which is accessible to faith, and similar topics. Be that as it may, Luther found no lasting peace, though he began to see certain things more clearly.” (Bondage of the Will, 21, emphasis added).
So, years before the nailing of the 95 Theses, this man, Johann von Staupitz, taught Luther:
The main issue isn’t sins, but indwelling sin.
A sinful nature is more critical than sinful acts.
The right interpretation of Jesus’ command “repent” is “be repentant in the heart” not “do penance.”
Personal trust in God is of utmost importance.
The righteousness of Christ is accessible by faith.
Isn’t that surprising!? All those—especially the final three listed—are Reformation cornerstones. Many of them became main points in the 95 Thesis. And Luther was taught them years before by a man no one remembers!