Sinners do not progressively render themselves righteous before God through works, but are instantaneously declared righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. The penalty for our sin is not gradually purged through a mixture of man’s works, saintly merit, and time in Purgatory, but instantly forgiven through faith in Christ’s sin-bearing death on the cross. Righteousness sufficient for my assurance of heaven is not accumulated through careful keeping of the church’s sacraments, but is instantly credited by trusting in the righteous Christ alone as my mediator. Luther understood that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. The result is that there is not one ounce of condemnation from God towards the sinner.
It was a saying frequently heard in those days. As they would make their way up to the doors of the monastery, history records that those daring to enter the Augustinian ranks chanted the following: “In thy holy name we have clad in the habit of a monk, that he may continue with thy help faithful in thy Church and merit eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
With the hope of accumulating that merit, the monk candidate then stepped foot into a life of austere devotion to Roman Catholic tradition. It would not be easy, but with enough rigor and exertion, the candidate could move himself that much closer to the possibility of heaven.
There was one such man who dared enter the Augustinian ranks at the age of 22. After nearly being struck by lightning, Martin Luther vowed to abandon his secular studies to become a monk. Two weeks later, on July 17, 1505, Luther presented himself at the monastery of Erfurt.
No Assurance, Necessary Torment
As he read Scripture, Luther came to grasp God’s towering standards. He knew that man’s moral and spiritual condition was simply too depraved to satisfy God. Commenting on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther wrote, “This word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfill it. This is proved, not merely by our Lord’s word, but by our own experience and feeling.” Thus, Luther was faced with the dilemma of the ages: how can sinful man be permanently in right standing with holy God?
So, Luther devoted himself to solving that dilemma. He gave himself fully to gaining the assurance of righteousness before God. For example, he would often fast for multiple consecutive days, supposing to inch himself closer to God’s favor. In an effort to cast off the guilt of sin, Luther would whip himself, cast off his blankets, sleep in the cold, and nearly freeze to death with the hope that the self-atonement would suffice. Moments when Luther supposed to have obeyed enough, his conscience would fire back: “But have you fasted enough? Prayed enough? Impoverished yourself enough?” He spent hours upon hours in confession, hoping to appease his conscience and God’s wrath that way. One of his mentors, Johann von Staupitz, once remarked, “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes.” But Luther was bringing something in need of forgiveness: failures to perfectly love God from the heart at every moment. Under Rome, he had no assurance.
An Achieved Catholic
Yet, he far exceeded the monastery’s requirements of prayers, discipline, fasting, confession, and piety, for he knew full well that such rigor still landed him short of God’s requirements for righteousness. Neither was Luther indulging in secret, flagrant sin. He was a chaste man. Even so, he was tormented with the awareness of falling short of God’s requirements. Luther was not plagued with hallucinations of his sin, but a well-oiled conscience being made aware of his undealt-with sin. And his diligent attempts at killing his sin only kindled it. Luther, like so many under Rome, had no assurance that they could ever stand righteous before God.
Some scorn Luther for such behavior. But contrary to what some Romanist theologians claim, Martin Luther was not a psychopath engaged in self-abuse because he was deranged in the mind. Rather, he was of sound mind. Sound in the sense that he grasped his own sinfulness, and, consequently, his condemnation. In a system like Rome’s where eternal life must be earned, Luther was not a bad Catholic, but one of the best there ever was. Like a smoke alarm that fires off in response to smoke undetectable to the average human nose, so Luther’s conscience fired off in response to his violations of God’s law which were undetectable by most. Luther wrote:
I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.
Luther knew that such rigor was the only way make ground on the assurance of heaven under Rome. As Roland Bainton remarked of Luther: “The man who was later to revolt against monasticism became a monk for exactly the same reason as thousands of others, namely, in order to save his soul…Monasticism was the way par excellence to heaven.”
But Luther realized something profound in his Romanist devotion. One might work to merit righteousness by confessing all known sins, but that does not deal with man’s deeper problem. We are not condemned only by various sins we commit. We are condemned because of the sinful nature we possess. We sin because we are sinners. So, Catholic confession is merely clipping leaves on a bursting-forth willow tree. You cannot keep up with the leaf-clipping. Something more needs to be done for assurance.
And then, it happened. Luther writes: