5 Lessons on Mentorship from the Middle Ages

A few weeks ago, on October 31, we celebrated a holiday. And no – I’m not talking about Halloween. While it is often forgotten about, Reformation Day marks an important date in the life of Protestants. Now for those of you who might have slept through your world history classes in high school, let’s refresh:

For much of the middle ages (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.), the Catholic Church dominated both the religious and political life in Europe. It wielded incredible amounts of power, money, and influence, and as what often happens with unchecked power, corruption set in. Eventually, the church turned to selling indulgences (pieces of paper promising that your loved one would be guaranteed entrance to heaven) as a sort of fundraising racket. On October 31, 1517, an incensed German monk named Martin Luther responded by nailing 95 objections to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in an attempt to reform the corrupt practices and doctrines that had become prevalent in the Catholic Church.

What’s important about Reformation Day is not the man, or the fact that his actions were instrumental in spawning the Protestant faith. What matters is that God used Martin Luther in incredible ways to help His people rediscover His Word, and to help His church return to true, biblical Christianity. However, it is not Reformation Day (or even Martin Luther for that matter) that I want to focus on, but Luther’s lesser known mentor, Johann von Staupitz. 

Martin was born to Hans and Margaret Luther in 1483. Hans was a miner by trade and, wanting to spare his son of the same life, encouraged Martin to enter law school. By all accounts, Martin disliked law school and had a natural bent for theology and philosophy, but he nevertheless obliged his father. One day, while on a trip back home, the young Martin was caught in a thunderstorm and was nearly struck by lightning. Terrified that he might die and go to hell, he made a promise that he would become a monk. So in 1505, Martin left everything behind and went to a monastery in Erfurt, Germany to do just that.

It was in Erfurt where Martin Luther met one of the most influential persons of his life – his mentor Johann von Staupitz. Not much is known about Staupitz, but he served as an overseer and superior to young, aspiring monks – including the young Martin Luther. Even though Martin was going through the process to become a monk, it is clear from his own admission that he was still unconverted when he first came to the monastery. Martin was constantly plagued by a guilty conscience and fear of hell. To alleviate his conscience, he frequently made pilgrimages, fasted, prayed, and spent hours in confession.

“If ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’ The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more I daily found it more uncertain, weaker, and more troubled.” -Martin Luther

For much of Luther’s time in “seminary”, Staupitz faithfully mentored and counseled the troubled young man. Seeing Luther’s obsession with his own sin, Staupitz frequently counseled him to look away from his own sin, and towards Christ who was able to forgive sin and grant a change of heart. It was because of Staupitz’s advice, as well as being washed by the scripture, that Martin Luther was finally converted and tasted grace.

Luther had a great respect and fondness for his mentor. By his own admission, Luther said of Staupitz: “If it had not been for him, I should have sunk in hell.”  It was nothing other than the stirring of the Holy Spirit that saved Martin Luther. Nevertheless, Staupitz’s godly advice, mentorship, and personal investment into a young troubled soul made a critical difference – not only for Martin, but eventually for all of Christendom. Even though history remembers Martin Luther, let us not forget that we are benefactors of Staupitz’s faithful, behind-the-scenes mentorship. That said, what can we take away from their examples?

1. Awareness of our sin is a gift of God

Ephesians clearly states our salvation is a gift from God, and that no one has any grounds to boast. Likewise, an awareness of sin – which is necessary for repentance that leads to salvation – is also a gift of God. Luther, for much of his life, saw the deadly reality of his own sin, but he didn’t know what to do with it. He, like many still do today, turned to doing religious things in order to gain favor with God. But, as Ephesians says, there is no way that man can gain favor with God by doing good things. We must be aware of our sins, repent of them, trust that Christ’s death is the only means for God’s forgiveness, and subsequently lead a life of submitting to the Holy Spirit.

What should I do if – like Luther – I am suffering from conviction and an awareness of my sins? First, recognize that God is showing you mercy. God is opening your eyes and ears and granting you godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Secondly, know that although sorrow and fear from conviction are necessary, they do not comprise repentance and faith. As Jesus said to a number of would-be disciples, you are close to the Kingdom of Heaven, but you have not found it yet. Thirdly, and most importantly, because God is convicting you He is giving you the opportunity to repent and believe. Therefore, in light of His mercy, use the opportunity he is giving you to repent and trust in Christ’s death as the atonement for your sins.(After all, there is no guarantee that you’ll get another such opportunity. Only by repenting and trusting Christ do you find the Kingdom of Heaven.)

2. Wallowing in conviction can become an idol

As I said before, Luther was clearly under conviction of his sin for many years of his life.

Instead of turning to Christ, Luther turned to doing empty (albeit good) religious things such as making pilgrimages, fasting, praying, and confessing as a tool to gain favor with God and make atonement for his own sins – an impossible task.

Religious activity is good. God indeed wants us to pray, to confess, to seek Him, and to do good works. However, when they are used as tools to tray to gain favor with God – without trusting and valuing Christ – they too become empty human traditions.

Therefore, don’t repeat Luther’s mistakes. Do not let wallowing in your despair and punishing yourself become an idol to you. Don’t focus so intently on your own faults and sins that they become an insurmountable burden. Don’t try to make atonement for your own sins. Your sins are indeed grievous to a holy God. However, He is also loving and desires to give you only what He can give you: repentance and a new heart that values Him above all else.

3. Being religious is not the same as being converted

A problem that affects every human heart is that we want to be made much of. For many, that involves giving others the illusion that we are more spiritual and  religious than we actually are. We may even genuinely do religious things, like what I have listed previously. However, such “worship” does not honor God. God frequently addresses humanity’s false religiosity. It is a stench to Him. In Isaiah He says that, “they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Likewise, Jesus frequently rebuked the Pharisees (religious leaders of the Israelites) for being “white washed tombs” – having the appearance of being religious on the outside, but on the inside they are spiritually dead.

What is more important than attending church and fasting and praying is having a converted heart that now values God above everything else, and that trusts in Christ’s death as the appeasement for its sins. And as far as doing religious things? “You should have practiced the latter [religious actions], without neglecting the former [conversion].” (Matt. 23:23)

4. Mentorship matters

People often like to make separate little boxes. One for evangelism, one for discipleship, one for mentorship, and so on. The truth is, regardless of what you call it, they are all part of the same scale. The activity and the end-goal is one in the same: to get people to become more like Christ. And so, if the person you are mentoring is unconverted – we happen to call it evangelism. If the person you are mentoring is saved – we happen to call it discipleship.

Mentorship is incredibly important work. The stakes are high, as it is the difference between eternal life and eternal death. We must be serious about grabbing as many lives as we can – unconverted and saved alike – and faithfully help them to treasure Christ. As you mentor people, you are not affecting just one life, but the thousands and millions of lives that would have been touched by that one life. Little did Staupitz know the effect he would eventually have on the course of history by mentoring that young, nervous, German monk.

5. Behind-the-scenes ministry is not meaningless

Generally speaking, mentoring is a ministry that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. There is no spotlight or adoring audiences – as you might find with the preaching and teaching ministries. Instead, it is often a day-to-day, one-on-one kind of work. But just because there isn’t a spotlight, doesn’t mean that there isn’t joy in it or that the work is meaningless.

Not all ministries and gifts are the same. But all are useful for building up the body. So regardless of what ministry you are involved with – please know that your work is not meaningless. 

Dark Watches of the Night

The dark watches of the night. Outside, all is hushed except for the occasional cricket song, croaking frog and distant barking dog. Inside, anxiety gnaws at the pit of their stomach, fear is a ball of fire in their heart and grief crushes like lead weight.

Read between the lines and picture the disciples between chapters 19 and 20 in the book of John. They have locked themselves away to mourn and grieve. Sleepless nights find them gathered in dark rooms, talking in hushed tones about what they have seen and reminiscing about good times with their friend, their teacher, their Lord.

The question of where to go from here is the gnawing anxiety they feel.

Fear for their lives is that ball of fire in their heart.

Grief for their murdered friend and Lord is the crushing lead weight.

Mary Magdalene visits the tomb in the dark early hours of morning after her own sleepless night.  As soon as it was “tomorrow”—at the earliest opportunity—she was up and on her way to the tomb of the Savior she loved. Can you feel her fear as she races to tell Peter and John that she found the stone rolled away from the tomb that morning?  Can you see the worried lines that crease the disciples’ foreheads as they quietly rush to investigate? The moment he saw the empty tomb, John believed. But, surprisingly, John 20:9 says, They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

I have to admit that I sometimes find myself a little annoyed with the disciples. Wouldn’t you think that after sleepless nights, grieving over the death of Jesus, they would be overjoyed to find His tomb empty? Wouldn’t you think they would remember all He had said and know that He had risen? But it is my annoyance and impatience with them that only enhances  the loving picture of the Savior throughout the rest of John chapter 20.

For you see, instead of being angry because of their unbelief, instead of throwing up His hands in frustration and returning to heaven to take His place at the right hand of the Father, Jesus instead appeared to them multiple times. He appeared to a sobbing Mary in the garden where she stayed after the disciples returned to their homes that morning. He tenderly calls her name and her grief is replaced by the joy of seeing the risen Savior, Rabboni, her teacher.

On the evening of the first day of the week He appears to the disciples who are locked away in their fear. He shows them His hands and side and then breathes on them the precious gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thomas wasn’t with them when Jesus came and he wasn’t just going to take his friend’s word for it! It was too far-fetched! Even though he had walked with and been taught by Jesus for three years, he still wanted to see Him with his own eyes before he would believe. And so, one full week later Jesus appears to the disciples again, specifically to Thomas. He is not upset by Thomas’ doubt—He welcomes it. Thomas wanted and needed proof that the Savior had risen and Jesus was more than happy to provide it. He not only appears to Thomas, but He patiently and lovingly invites Him to touch His hands and side.

When they needed visual evidence, Jesus appeared. When just one of them needed tangible evidence, Jesus became touchable for him. He appeared to them so that they would believe beyond any doubt; so that these men, his disciples and friends, would know and emphatically believe that He truly was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior.

I suggest to you that the Savior appeared to them multiple times because of His great love not only for them but also for us!  Looking through time, Jesus saw us and knew we needed to hear this story! The disciples’ unwavering belief and love for the Savior would be the catalyst for their lifelong preaching of the Gospel and the telling of the story for millennia! In order to believe in Him as our own Savior, the story—the Gospel—needed to be told and passed down through all generations.  For …faith comes by hearing [what is told], and what is heard comes by the preaching [of the message that came from the lips] of Christ (the Messiah Himself). (Romans 10:17 AMP)   

Sleepless nights filled with anxiety and fear? Where is it that you need Him to meet you? What is the reason for your doubt? He will meet you at the point of your need and show you what you need to see. He welcomes your questions. Just like the disciples, He wants you to know and emphatically believe that He IS the Christ, He IS the Messiah, He IS your Savior. BELIEVE!

…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10 NIV)