Johann von Staupitz. Have you heard his name? Unless you’re a church historian, probably not. But as we’ll see, he’s a hero. And his unsung influence 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!
Notice, however, Luther’s response in the last sentence of the account above: “Be that as it may, Luther found no lasting peace, though he began to see certain things more clearly.” So, did these truths from Staupitz deeply affect Luther? No. Well, at least not right away…
Was Johann von Staupitz insignificant? In the eyes of many Christians today, the answer is yes. We don’t even remember his name! Especially if you compare him to Luther, he looks insubstantial. But God used him, like an important link on a great chain, to spark this reformation returning to the gospel.
As seen above, such truths didn’t affect Luther right away. But there’s no doubt that these truths were stirring around in him for the years to come. As Packer and Johnston say, “He began to see things more clearly.”
If Not For Staupitz, Would There Have Been a Reformation?
Yet an even more pointed question would be to ask: If Staupitz didn’t teach Luther what he did, would the Reformation had begun? Without this unknown man, would Martin Luther still had been the Martin Luther? In answering, we don't even need to get hypothetical. We have an answer—from Luther himself! Luther would later say,
“If it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I should have sunk in hell.”
Luther later recognized that Staupitz’s speaking of truth mattered drastically. Without Staupitz, Luther wouldn't have ever comprehended the gospel, and the Reformation wouldn’t have begun (at least not by Luther).
Yet we do well to remember that when it all happened, Luther didn’t see it. And the average Christian today has no idea who Johann von Staupitz is.
But he is significant. His speaking truth about the gospel is one of the main reasons Luther grasped what he grasped. His influence had ripple effects beyond what he ever could’ve imagined.
We’re Called to Be Like Johann von Staupitz
This brings us to a great lesson for you and I: In many ways we’re called to be like Johann von Staupitz.
God often has us influence others in ways we won’t fully see. And it’s okay that this is the case: the Lord knows all; he sees the significance of our actions; he knows the effects they will bring. And he’ll use them for his glory, not ours (Psalm 115:1).
We can admit, on the one hand, this is humbling. “I don’t want to be like Johann com Staupitz. I want to be like Martin Luther!” But let’s be honest: like Staupitz we’ll be.
But on the other hand, this is encouraging. Every conversation, then, has weight. 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.
It All Counts
But we do know that it all counts. It all matters. It all has effects. And this is true for Staupitz and for us because we worship a God who isn’t chained down to minuscule moments, but who threads everything together like a master Weaver. Just ask Martin Luther.
So, let’s be humbled: we’re not mainly called to be Luthers. But let's also be encouraged: we can be unknown heroes, unsung influencers, for the glory of God—like Johann von Staupitz.
And what a privilege it'll be to find out one day from the Lord himself the Staupitz-like effect we had.*
*It is important to note that Johann von Staupitz, after the Reformation began, was not in favor of it. Staupitz died in 1524, seven years after the Theses were posted in 1517. And during those seven years, he first was sympathetic to Luther, but eventually was against him. You can do more research yourself, but his main reason for disagreement was he didn't like the disunity it was bringing to the church. So, I acknowledge this man wasn't perfect, but I don’t think this changes any of his influence listed above. Moreover, to give him grace on the issue, the Reformation was still in the early stages and many people were striving for unity. And furthermore, he apparently was more against the Catholic church than we might first think when we hear that he was against Luther because some of his theological works were added to the Index of Prohibited Books by the Pope later in 1559.