Fortress Press, 2015 264 pages (hardcover), $16.99
Protestant non-Lutherans tend to know Martin Luther the way they know their own great-grandfather: they can give the highlights about him, but that’s about it. But when it comes to knowing the most important Christian Reformer of the past five hundred years, for lots of reasons, highlight knowledge is not good enough. To give just one reason, history is meant to inspire. Bare-bones facts about a person’s life do not give new energy to flagging hope and zeal. Well-written biographies, however, do inspire, and Danika Cooley’s When Lightning Struck: The Story of Martin Luther is a well-researched, well-narrated biography that will grip young adult readers in a generation starved for worthy heroes.
Here are the highlights most Protestants tend to know. Martin Luther was born in 1483, just a decade before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. Despite his family’s humble circumstances, Luther received a good education and prepared for a law career. On one of his trips home during his school years, Luther panicked during a thunderstorm and promised St. Anna that he would become a monk in return for deliverance. (As she does so often, Cooley excels in narrating this scene with which she opens the book. Readers can feel the “fat raindrops [that] fell to the hot dirt road sending up little puffs of dry dust” as the angry storm gathered. They too can “feel the wrathful hiss of the sky as the earth shook with the force of each clap of thunder.”)
Life as a monk only intensified Luther’s dread of an angry God, until he found in Scripture the good news that had become buried under mountains of ecclesiastical law and tradition: In the gospel, God gives the very righteousness that he requires. For Luther ”as for all believers ”the gospel changed everything. Luther began a quest to unearth this good news.
In his fifth year as a theology professor, on October 31, 1517, Luther posted on the castle church door in Wittenberg ninety-five theses, or propositions, regarding indulgences. According to the Catholic Church, an indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment for sin granted by the church. Initially, Luther was simply calling for a debate regarding the abuse of indulgences, not the practice itself. His request was denied. Instead, Rome deployed its theologians to reinforce its position and attack Luther for his “heretical” views. He was excommunicated and hunted as a heretic.
Luther did not back down. He continued writing against abuses, still with the intention of reforming the Roman Catholic Church. However, after much opposition, Luther published the Babylonian Captivity of the Church in which Rome was identified as Babylon. After reading this treatise, the Dutch scholar Erasmus (against whom Luther would later write The Bondage of the Will) predicted that the breach between the reforming church and the Roman Church had become irreparable. His prediction proved true. The Reformation would continue to spread, although not from within the established church but from without.
Luther spent the rest of his life as a scholar and pastor defending the purity of the gospel. In his sixty-two years, God used him to change the church and the world. Sadly, five hundred years later, J. I. Packer observed that “much modern Protestantism would be neither owned nor even recognized by the pioneer Reformers.”
We need Luther again. Not Luther exactly, but Luther-like Christians, even Christians who are deeply flawed. (Cooley makes her readers wince at Luther’s struggles with pride, chauvinism, anger, and fear; he is persistently haunted by the “drumbeat of [the] distant wings [of a dragon] whirring toward him.”) But much-needed Luther-like Christians will also be passionate, loving, truth-invigorated young men and women thoroughly captivated by the pure gospel of Christ, emboldened to live for him in every arena of life.
A Roman Catholic scholar said a hundred years ago that “the religious problem today is still the Luther problem.” Insofar as Luther’s ministry was rooted in the gospel, our own religious problems call for a “Luther solution.” Danika Cooley’s When Lightning Struck is just what the church needs to inspire a new generation of believers who can help recover the evangelical church’s birthright.
William Boekestein is pastor of Covenant Reformed Church (URCNA) in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Faithfulness under Fire: The Story of Guido de Bres (Reformation Heritage, 2011) and The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism (Reformation Heritage, 2011).