It should have been a fairly simple task. Martin wanted to climb the twenty-eight “Holy Stairs” on his knees just like Christian pilgrims had done for centuries. This young monk hoped the short pilgrimage up the staircase would earn him a small favour with the Almighty God – and therefore a little less time suffering in Purgatory. Martin Luther had already walked over seventeen hundred kilometres south from the town of Wittenburg in Germany to be in the ‘eternal city’ of Rome. Surely he could walk up another twenty-eight steps on his knees.
Ever since Luther could remember he’d had a fear of death. In later years he would compose a list of Bible verses that promised victory over death through faith in Jesus – and these scriptural promises would supress his anxieties whenever that fear of death resurfaced in his mind.
It was only twenty-eight steps, on your knees, pausing on each individual marble stair to say a prayer.
The year was 1511, and and a young Martin Luther had been boyishly excited when asked to go to Rome with a colleague on Augustinian business. When Martin first caught glimpse of the city from a distance he yelled out “Holy Rome, I salute you!” But once in the city itself the overtness and extent of priestly decadence was a shock to Martin’s naïve expectations. He encountered ministers who openly mocked the people they were meant to be ministering to. And he was perplexed at the number of prostitutes working in the city. At the time of Luther’s visit to Rome there was one prostitute for every fifteen people living in Rome at the time. Close to seven thousand prostitutes for Rome’s population of one hundred thousand people. As a young man who’d take a vow of chastity Martin was unable to properly process the hypocrisy.
Despite his disappointment, Martin desperately hoped that climbing these twenty-eight marble steps of the “Holy Stairs” would bring him a little more ‘right’ with God – at least enough to keep him out of Hell and shorten his time in Purgatory when death came calling for him. These ‘truths’ taught by the medieval church were designed to frighten and control – and with Martin Luther it was working.
He knelt on the first step and felt a spiritual rush. These were the stairs that stood in the court of Pontius Pilate fifteen hundred years before. These were the “Holy Stairs” that Christ Himself walked up when called before Pilate to stand trial. Martin gazed at the second step before placing his knees upon it. There it was! The dark stain! Right in the middle of the step!! The stain of blood that had dropped from the tortured body of Christ – or so it was said. To Martin Luther there couldn’t be anything holier than climbing these steps – and so this twenty-seven-year-old monk desperately hoped that climbing these twenty-eight steps would make God less angry with him.
When the famous British author Charles Dickens later visited these stairs in 1845 and watched Christian pilgrims ascending on their knees anxiously trying to win God’s favour he wrote: “I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous and so unpleasant as this sight.”
As Luther reached the middle of his short upward journey on the stairs something unexpected happened. He sensed a heavenly Voice speaking to him. It was a Voice that wasn’t filled with anger as Martin might have expected but a Voice filled with an everlasting love. And that Voice said to Martin Luther: “The just shall live by faith.”
The Voice and its short, biblical message vaulted the young monk to his feet. Martin ran down the stairs, out of the Lateran Palace and onto the streets of Rome.
Martin Luther had come to this city to do something that would please God in some small way. But instead the Saviour had pressed on Luther the reality that salvation doesn’t come from what we do – but from what He has already done. This spiritual reality would have been more obvious to Martin and the wider world had the church allowed the Bible to be freely available – but that would come later.
For now, the young monk from Germany would return from Rome to his homeland and begin to whisper to his colleagues a dawning realisation: “Sola Fide” (Faith in Christ alone). In the next few years this whisper would grow to become a roar ringing in the ears of kings, popes, and people throughout Europe.
The Reformation was beginning.