This article was first published in the October 15, 2017 issue of the Standard Bearer, a special Reformation issue commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation and Luther's 95 Theses.
Luther's Struggle for Assurance
God in His wise and wonderful providence raises up special men and women for His church in special times. One such man was Martin Luther, as we well know.
What was special about Luther was not just his intellectual gifts and abilities, though they were outstanding, but also his acute spiritual sensitivities. Luther was a man through whom emotions rolled like great tsunamis at times, but emotions that were tied to an overwhelming God-consciousness, an awareness that afflicted his conscience in his early life to the point of despair again and again. Was there no way out for a damn-worthy sinner?
A God-consciousness with an acute sensitivity to sin that Luther never lost. A man raised up by God whose intense spiritual struggles with their resolution resulted in determining the very course of history and of Western civilization from the sixteenth century onward.
When it comes to the Reformation, our attention usually focuses on Luther nailing his Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg on All Hallows’ Eve of October, 1517. The controversy that followed set in motion an avalanche that brought down not only Rome’s domination in ecclesiastical affairs, but changed the whole civil and social landscape of Europe, fragmenting Europe into Protestant versus Romish camps of loyalty. Nothing was ever the same in Europe once the fires of controversy sparked by Luther’s Ninety-five Theses began to burn across the continental landscape.
But we must understand that the controversy unleashed by the Ninety-five Theses was the result of a deep spiritual struggle, a ‘controversy’ that had taken place in Luther’s own heart and soul in the years prior to their posting.
The Ninety-five Theses drawn up to challenge Rome’s abuses and man-invented doctrines (largely meant to profit Rome’s financial interests) were preceded by another event that had taken place in Luther’s soul some four years prior, the exact date of which is not known (sometime in April or May of 1513 scholars think), known as the ‘tower experience.’
It was as he was studying Scripture, sequestered in a tower in Wittenberg, confronted again by that dread phrase “the righteousness of God,” a phrase found so often in the Psalms and Romans, that Luther, as if struck by a bolt of lightning from heaven, suddenly grasped the gospel significance of Paul’s statement in Romans 1:17 that “the just shall live by faith”, and that “therein is the righteousness of God revealed.”
Luther later described the event in these words:
Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven….”1
That Luther would describe the proper understanding of the phrase “the just shall live by faith” in terms of “rebirth” and “paradise” and a opening of the “gates to heaven” indicates just how deep his prior struggle with his own sin and guilt had gone, as well as with God’s holy, righteous character and just wrath. So deep as to despair of the possibility of his own salvation, and so overwhelming that he acknowledged later that he came not only to dread the phrase “the righteousness of God,” but that in time he came to hate it. It was a righteousness so high that it was bound to find fault with and defeat all of his attempts to please God by his most zealous, ardent labors of obedience and penance and contrition. Why even try?
A God, a so-called ‘Father,’ impossible to satisfy or please. And having required the impossible, this Al mighty God then judging one to have failed and punishing one for the failure. And then, evidently, taking pleasure in casting the guilty one into eternal torment. Who could speak of any hope for mercy to be found in such a demanding, even heartless, God?
Luther the monk, a tormented soul.
As we know, what drove Luther to seek refuge in a monastic order was a great thunderstorm that broke over his head as he traveled on an open road to Erfurt. As the lightening strokes crackled around him, he pled with St. Anne (the virgin Mary’s mother) to petition God to spare him, and if she would, he would take the vows of a monk. Luther’s dread certainty was that if he died at the age of 21, he would be consigned to eternal damnation, that was all.
Spared, Luther per his vow, entered an Augustinian order.
Whatever Rome’s theological weaknesses in Luther’s day might have been, challenging the truth of God as the almighty and righteous Judge, and calling into question the reality of everlasting punishment were not among them.
Roland Bainton has it nearly right when he states that under Rome’s influence “The entire training of home, school, and university [and monastery] was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the Church.”2 It would be more accurate to say that Rome intended a child’s entire training “to instill a [dread] fear of God primarily in the interests of reverence for the Church and unquestioned submission to her bishops.”
Who will save a man from this dreadful, most righteous, judging God? Only mother Rome, mother Church. “You will do as we, the magisterium, say, or else we will turn you over to this God!” The whole emphasis of Rome’s theology was in the service of her own supreme authority and enrichment. Lack of assurance profited her. How much money will a man not give in exchange for his own soul when death looks him in the face? And in the late Middle Ages incurable diseases and death loomed like a specter over the whole of life, from the cradle on.
To use the wording of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 12), the great error of Rome was not her insistence that “…by the righteous judgment of God, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment.” Rome drove that home. The great error of Rome was her answer to the question, what is “…[the] way by which we may escape that punishment and be again received into favor?”
Rome’s prescribed ‘way’ had precious little to do with Christ and the mercy of God through His Son as the Mediator and sacrifice for sin and sinners.
To be sure, Christ by His blood and atoning suffering (as made by and taught in the mass) obtained a treasury of forgiveness and pardon. But now the great question: what had one done to deserve (merit, earn the right) to lay hold on that forgiveness and sacrifice for oneself?
For Rome, it was and is a matter of penance, and penance is a matter of doing. Have you done all that is required of you? And have you ever done enough?
This is why the conscience-stricken Luther (and many other earnest seekers of forgiveness and deliverance from hell fire) entered monasteries. There, through the discipline of their monastic order, they could devote the whole of their waking hours to prayers and devotions, to penance and afflicting oneself for one’s sins. There one could avoid the fleshly temptations that loom so large outside the cloister walls. There, free from worldly intrusions, lay the best possibility for doing what Rome required for earning forgiveness and being free of the corrupting influence of the fleshly appetites stimulated by the world. There a man’s righteousness could be obtained at last, or at least the assurance that God at last was satisfied with one’s sincere endeavors.
So Luther hoped.
It was not to be, not with Rome’s system of penance and merit, and not for a man with as acute a sensitivity to sin as Luther’s, and his knowledge of how holy and righteous God was.
Just how acute his spiritual sensitivities were is revealed in Luther’s account of his experience as he presided over his inaugural mass as a newly ordained priest in 1505 (age 23). He related:
When I read the words, “Thee, therefore, most merciful Father,” etc. and thought I had to speak to God without a Mediator, I felt like fleeing….
At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince? Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? …Shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say, ‘I want this, I ask for that?’ For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.”3
For a man with such an acute awareness of his own deep-rooted corruption and of God’s high righteousness, Rome’s system of penance offered no solace.
Lifting his analysis from Luther’s Table Talk, Bainton makes the following commentary about Luther and the inadequacy of Rome’s sacrament of penance, a sacrament that required that the penitent
…should confess all their wrongdoing and seek absolution. Luther endeavored unremittingly to avail himself of this signal mercy…. He confessed frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours on a single occasion. Every sin in order to be absolved was to be confessed. Therefore the soul must be searched and the memory ransacked and the motives probed…. Luther would repeat a confession, and to be sure of including everything, would review his entire life until [his] confessors grew weary [of his recitation]….
…Luther’s question was not whether his sins were big or little, but whether they had been confessed. The great difficulty which he encountered was to be sure that everything had been recalled. He learned from experience the cleverness of memory in protecting the ego, and he was frightened when after six hours of confessing he could still go out and think of something else which had eluded his most conscientious scrutiny.4
With those who would speak critically of ‘this’ Luther, asserting that such a burden of guilt and fixation on failures ‘to measure up’ were simply the psychological residue of a man having been raised by a demanding and austere father (labeled a “father-complex”), we sharply disagree.
We do not deny that God used Luther’s upbringing to mold and shape facets of his character (as God uses every man’s upbringing to this end to some degree), but to relegate Luther’s conviction of his own deep-rooted corruption and unrighteousness before a just and holy God to the category of a “father-complex” is mistaken to the extreme.
The simple fact is that Luther’s fierce struggle with his guilt and unworthiness was not an indication of some lamentable psychological disorder, but was nothing less than the workings (stabs) of the Holy Spirit on the acutely sensitive conscience with which God had formed Luther from the womb. Luther was exactly correct in his self-appraisal, where every man, left to himself and his own labors, stands before God, worthy of eternal damnation.
And it was this deep internal struggle, bordering on despair at times, that drove Luther to go back to ponder again and again Paul’s statement that “the just (the righteous) shall live by faith.” Paul, the former blasphemer, seemed to ground all of his comfort and assurance, all his hope and joy in that truth. How could that be?
And then, when the Holy Spirit determined “The time is now!”, the gospel truth suddenly dawned on him. Suddenly, the scales fell from his eyes. Paul was not talking about the righteousness of God as God judges a man, but the righteousness that God grants to one who simply believes and puts his trust—the whole of his trust—in the atoning blood and sacrifice and perfect obedience of Christ.
And what righteousness is that? Nothing less than the “righteousness of God!” God’s own righteousness is granted and imputed to one who comes in faith. And if it is God’s own righteousness that is granted to one’s account, how can God ever find fault with that righteousness?
The just (those justified by God) shall live (escape the sentence of wrath and death, and go free) by faith. No need for meritorious works or trying to do enough, which will always fail. Simply believe God’s Word and work in Christ the Righteous one, and by faith lay claim to the righteousness God worked through Christ’s suffering, death, and obedience. No wonder Paul gloried not in his own works but in the cross, Christ crucified, and in Him alone. By faith alone means trusting in Christ’s atoning work alone.
All this God accomplishing in a most righteous and unassailable way. God’s own righteousness provided by God Himself for sinners standing in the need of mercy and grace.
That God had provided for sinners a perfect righteousness to make their very own in this manner was a revelation to Luther. This God, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, was a most merciful Father after all.
Scales of blindness fell from Luther’s eyes. Peace and assurance flooded his soul. The gospel was made plain. Righteousness and mercy have kissed.
Luther had to tell others, which he did, in Wittenberg for four years as a Bible lecturer.
But it was this “tower experience” that drove him in the end to nail the Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, not only to refute and expose the monstrous errors of Rome that obscured and mutilated that liberating gospel, but also to begin to publish what had set his own soul free from its bondage of guilt and torment, so that others might glory in the same gospel of almighty God that he now did.
Thanks be to God for a man so spiritual as Luther.
1 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950), 65.
2 Bainton, Here I Stand, 27.
3 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 28.
4 Bainton, Here I Stand, 54, 55.