Luther’s Struggle to Find the Gospel of God (2)

HereIStand-RBaintonAs we take a brief look at Luther’s struggle to find the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ during this Reformation remembrance week, we move on from Luther’s trip to Rome (yesterday’s post) to his time at Wittenberg, where he was transferred (from Erfurt) in 1511. Keep in mind that at this point Luther is still a staunch Roman Catholic monk, loyal to the church and striving to use all her means to soothe his soul and find peace with God. In Wittenberg he lived in an Augustinian cloister and had begun to teach at the University, which Roland Bainton describes as “the darling of the elector,  Frederick the Wise”.

Now let’s return to the narrative of Bainton in Here I Stand as he describes Luther’s continued struggle:

Luther’s difficulties persisted. A precise delineation of their course eludes us. His tremors cannot be said to have mounted in unbroken crescendo to a single crisis. Rather he passed through a series of crises to a relative stability. The stages defy localization as to time, place, or logical sequence. Yet this is clear. Luther probed every resource of contemporary Catholicism for assuaging the anguish of a spirit alienated from God. He tried the way of good works and discovered that he could never do enough to save himself. He endeavored to avail himself of the merits of the saints and ended with a doubt, not a very serious or persistent doubt for the moment, but sufficient to destroy his assurance.

He sought at the same time to explore other ways, and Catholicism had much more to offer. Salvation was never made to rest solely nor even primarily on human achievement. The whole sacramental system of the Church was designed to mediate to man God’s help and favor. Particularly the sacrament of penance afforded solace, not to saints but to sinners. This only required of them, that they should confess all their wrongdoing and seek absolution. Luther endeavored unremittingly to avail himself of this signal mercy. Without confession, he testified, the Devil would have devoured him long ago. 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. As an aid the penitent ran through the seven deadly sins and the Ten Commandments. Luther would repeat a confession and, to be sure of including everything, would review his entire life until the confessor grew weary and exclaimed, ‘Man, God is not angry with you. You are angry with God. Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?’

And yet Luther still had no peace – why?

There is, according to Luther, something more drastically wrong with man than any particular list of offenses which can be enumerated, confessed, and forgiven. The very nature of man is corrupt. The penitential system fails because it is directed to particular lapses. Luther had come to perceive that the entire man is in need of forgiveness. In the course of this quest he had wrought himself into a state of emotional disturbance passing the bounds of objectivity….

In consequence the most frightful insecurities beset him. Panic invaded his spirit. The conscience became so disquieted as to start and tremble at the stirring of a wind-blown leaf. The horror of nightmare gripped the soul, the dread of one waking in the dusk to look into the eyes of him who has come to take his life. The heavenly champions all withdrew; the fiend beckoned with leering summons to the impotent soul. These were the torments which Luther repeatedly testified were far worse than any physical ailment that he had ever endured (pp.54-56).

Can we understand and even appreciate this soul struggle of this man of God? Can we see how God was leading him – painstakingly – to the true gospel of forgiveness in His Son? Of that final step we will learn tomorrow, D.V.