Note: This week’s posts share a dramatic reading that I present in character as Martin Luther telling his story of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. To read Part 1, click on Unable to Satisfy God. Click on the following link for a 200-page presentation of Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling.
Recap: When we last heard from Martin Luther, he was sharing with us: “My conscience was terrified. My spirit despaired. I was unable to satisfy God at any point. What could I do?”
B. Standing before God with Filthy Rags and Ashamed
I did exactly what the Church taught me to do. I latched onto every help that the Church had to offer: the monastery, works, sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences—everything. It was only years later that I discovered that all my works of righteousness left me standing before God ashamed of my filthy rags. Walk with me down the foolish road of works. Walk first with me into the monastery where I tried on the garment of the filthy rags of good works.
1. The Filthy Rags of Works: Monkery in the Monastery
I entered the monastery to find peace with God, to earn peace with God. I knew that I could never appear before the tribunal of a terrible God with an impure heart; so I must become holy. What better place to practice good works unto holiness than in the monastery? Here lived heroic athletes rigorously training to take heaven by storm.
One of the privileges of monastic life was that it freed me from all distractions, allowing me to strive to save my soul through works of chastity, charity, sobriety, poverty, love, obedience, fastings, vigils, and mortification of the flesh. Whatever good works a man might do to save himself, I was resolved to perform.
I was a good monk and I kept the rules 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 testify to this. If I had kept on any longer, I would have killed myself with vigils, prayers, fasting, and other disciplines.
For instance, when I was a monk, I was unwilling to omit any of my required prayers. However, when I was busy with public lecturing and writing, I often accumulated my appointed prayers for a whole week, or even two, or three. Then I would take a Saturday off, or shut myself in for as long as three days without food and drink, until I had said the prescribed prayers. This made my head split, and consequently I could not close my eyes for five nights. I lay sick unto death, and went out of my senses. I thought I could save my soul by punishing my body.
Though driven there for soul rest, the monastic life of good works failed to ease my guilt. Bowed down by sorrow, I tortured myself with the multitude of my thoughts. I would say to myself, “Look! You are still envious, impatient, passionate! It profits you nothing, O wretched man, to have entered this sacred order.”
I clearly recognized the futility of my good works when I said my first Mass. I wrote my father about my ordeal.
Here I experienced another thunderstorm, this one in my spirit. I stood before the altar and began to recite the introductory portion of the Mass. Then I came to the words, “We offer unto Thee, the living, the true, the eternal God.” At that very moment, the terror of the Holy struck me like lightning. At these words I was utterly 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? And 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.”
In short, as a monk I experienced the horrors, the shame, and the futility of trying to earn peace with God through good works.
2. The Filthy Rags of the Merits of the Saints: Indulging in Indulgences
I hungered to find assurance of my salvation. However, the rigors of the monastic life could not calm my clamoring conscience. I saw that I was a great sinner in the eyes of God and I realized how impossible it would be for me to please God on my own merits. So I fled to the merits of the saints.
Though I was not good enough, perhaps the pooled goodness of all the saints would be good enough to please God. I believed the Church’s teaching that the combined goodness of the saints, especially of the Blessed Virgin Mary, could save me. Mary, I was taught, was better than she needed to be for her own salvation. The extra merit of her righteousness constituted a treasury that the Church could transfer to my account. In other words, I would borrow her goodness to make up for my lack. Such a transfer or borrowing, the Pope called an indulgence.
Wanting to take full benefit of such a transfer, I felt myself highly privileged when the opportunity arose to go to Rome. Rome, like no city on earth, was richly endowed with spiritual indulgences. I could touch a piece of the very cross on which Christ died and shorten my time of punishment by 17,000 years. Each “Hail Mary” I said before the statue of the Blessed Virgin would earn me ten years worth of good works. I felt truly blessed to be able to climb, on hands and knees, the very stairs Christ climbed in Pilate’s temple. Each “Our Father” said on each step was worth nine years’ forgiveness, and an “Our Father” said on the step with the silver cross was worth double merit. I even kissed each step for good measure.
However, arriving at the top stair, I raised myself to full height and exclaimed, “Who knows whether it is so?” I had gone to Rome with the onions of my good works, and returned home only with the garlic of the merits of the saints.
My chief concern in going to Rome was that I might become a saint through the merits of the saints. Yet, all I found in Rome was the shamelessness, godlessness, and wickedness of all people, so-called saints included. For they, too, were sinners, unworthy of a holy God. How could they possibly offer me anything acceptable to God? I was striving after my own good works and the merits of the saints in order to compensate for my sins, but I could never feel that the ledger was balanced.
3. The Filthy Rags of the Sacrament of Penance: Confessions about Confession
I could not acquire heaven by becoming a saint, nor by the merits of the saints. However, I had one more set of filthy rags to wear—the filthy rags of the sacrament of penance. I was taught that the sacraments—like baptism, communion, confession or penance—actually added or dispensed grace. We may not be good enough, the saints may not be good enough, but the Church can add to our goodness because our participation in a sacrament serves as a reservoir for accumulating more of Christ’s grace.
In particular, I availed myself of the sacrament of penance or confession to a priest. I confessed frequently, often daily for as long as six hours. I believed that every sin, in order to be absolved or forgiven, had to be specifically confessed. Therefore, I had to search my memory for sins of action and sins of motivation. I would review my entire life to be sure to remember everything, until even my confessor grew weary.
The great difficulty I experienced was my lack of assurance that I had recalled everything. My soul would recoil in horror when, after six hours of confession to a priest, a new sin would come to mind that I had not recalled. Even more frightening was the realization that a sinner like me did not even recognize some sins as sins. I went every day to confession, but it was of no use to me. I always thought. “You did not perform that correctly. God has not forgiven you.”
I had recourse to a thousand methods to stifle the cries of my conscience. Yet I despaired because I always doubted that God was gracious to me. I could find no portal of salvation. I could not enter into fellowship with God through the harbor of my own good works. I could not approach God through the window of the merits of the saints. I could not draw near to God through the door of the Church.
I came to realize that the religious answers of my day would never quiet my soul. I came to realize that all human beings and all human institutions were spiritually impoverished. I was a spiritual pauper.
The Rest of the Story
I invite you to return tomorrow as we learn how Martin Luther turned from works to faith.
Join the Conversation
What futile works did you cling to before you placed your faith in Christ’s finished work?