September 23, 2014

The Monk Who Wasn’t Good Enough

by Nathan Busenitz

Martin_LutherIt was just over 500 years ago, in the fall of 1510, that a desperate Roman Catholic monk made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime.

He had become a monk five years earlier, much to the surprise and dismay of his father, who wanted him to become a lawyer. In fact, it was on his way home from law school, that this young man—then 21 years old—found himself in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. The lightning was so intense he thought for sure he was going to die. Fearing for his life, and relying on his Roman Catholic upbringing, he called out for help. “Saint Anne,” he cried, “Spare me and I will become a monk!” Fifteen days later, he left law school behind and entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.

The fear of death prompted him to become a monk. And it was the fear of God’s wrath that consumed him for the next five years—so much so, in fact, that he did everything within his power to placate his guilty conscience and earn God’s favor.

He became the most fastidious of all of the monks in the monastery. He dedicated himself to the sacraments, fasting, and penance. He even performed acts of self-punishment like going without sleep, enduring cold winter nights without a blanket, and whipping himself in an attempt to atone for his sins. Reflecting on this time of his life, he would later say, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.” Even his supervisor, the head of the monastery, became concerned that this young man was too introspective and too consumed with questions about his own salvation.

But the haunting questions would not go away.

This young monk became particularly fixated on the apostle Paul’s teaching about the “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans, and especially Romans 1:17. In that verse, Paul says of the Gospel, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’”

But this young man’s understanding of that verse was clouded. Reading it through the lens of Roman Catholic tradition, he twisted its meaning, thinking that he had to somehow become righteous through his own efforts in order to live a life of faith. But therein was the problem. He knew he was not righteous. Despite everything he did to earn God’s favor, he knew he fell short of God’s perfect standard.

And so, as he would later recount, he came to hate the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he saw in it his own condemnation. He realized that if the perfect righteousness of God is the standard (which of course it is), and if he as a sinful man could not meet that standard (which of course he couldn’t), then he stood utterly condemned. So, out of frustration and despair, he plunged himself all the more fervently into the strict practices of monastic life, trying his hardest to work his way to salvation. And he grew more and more discouraged and desperate.

So it was, five years after he became a monk, in the year 1510, that this desperate man made what he thought would be the spiritual pilgrimage of a lifetime. He and a fellow monk travelled to the center of Catholic thought and power—the city of Rome. If anyone could help him calm the storm that waged in his soul, surely it would be the pope, the cardinals, and the priests of Rome. Moreover, he thought that if he paid homage to the shrines of the apostles and made confession there, in that holy city, he would secure the greatest absolution possible. Surely this would be a way to earn God’s favor. The young man was so excited that when he came within sight of the city, he fell down, raised up his hands and exclaimed “Hail to thee, holy, Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here.”

But he would soon be severely disappointed.

He tried to immerse himself in the religious fervor of Rome (visiting the graves of the saints, performing ritualistic acts of penance, and so on). But he soon noticed a glaring inconsistency. As he looked around him at the pope, the cardinals, and the priests, he did not see righteousness at all. Instead, he was startled by the corruption, greed, and immorality.

As the famous church historian Philip Schaff explained, the young man was

shocked by the unbelief, levity and immorality of the clergy. Money and luxurious living seemed to have replaced apostolic poverty and self-denial. He saw nothing but worldly splendor at the court of [the] Pope . . . , [and] he heard of the fearful crimes of [previous popes], which were hardly known and believed in Germany, but freely spoken of as undoubted facts in the fresh remembrance of all Romans.  . . . He was told that “if there was a hell, Rome was built on it,” and that this state of things must soon end in a collapse. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, VI:129)

A desperate man on a desperate journey, having devoted his life to the pursuit of self-righteous legalism and finding it empty, went to Rome looking for answers. But all he found was spiritual bankruptcy.

Needless to say, Martin Luther left Rome disillusioned and disappointed. He reported that, in his opinion, “Rome, once the holiest city was now the worst.”  Not long afterward, he would openly defy the pope, calling him the antichrist; he would condemn the cardinals as charlatans; and he would expose the apostate tradition of Roman Catholicism for what it had become: a destructive system of works righteousness.

Luther’s journey to Rome was a disaster. Yet, it played a critical part in his journey to true, saving faith. A short time later, the fastidious monk discovered the answer to his spiritual dilemma: If he was unrighteous, in spite of his best efforts, how could he be made right before a holy and just God?

In 1513 and 1514, while lecturing through the Psalms and studying the book of Romans, Luther came to realize the glorious truth that had escaped him all those years before: The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not merely the righteous requirement of God—of which all men fall short (Rom. 3:23)—but also the righteous provision of God whereby, in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who believe (Rom. 5:1-2, 18).

Luther’s own remarks sum up the glorious transformation that discovery had on his heart:

At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. . . . Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open. An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me . . . and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term “the righteousness of God.”

After a lifetime of guilt, after years of struggling to make himself righteous, after trying to please God on his own, and after a disappointing trip to Rome, Martin Luther finally came to understand the heart of the gospel message. He discovered justification by grace through faith in Christ; and in that moment, he was transformed.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Amen. What a great testimony and reminder of the evil that abounds in this world in the name of religion.

  • vinas46

    God is sovereign. He, at the right time exposed its heresies. Roman Catholicism is devilish. Unfortunately a dear cousin sister of mine is an ardent follower of it along with her siblings and her mom. Praying for their salvation daily.

  • tovlogos

    Excellent, Nathan.

    The true believer can never receive enough of the faith/grace versus works, rudiment. I can personally relate to his frustration in my early days; as well as later in life. I remember, after a monday night Bible fellowship, which I ran for several years, some one walked over to me and wondered why I seemed “distant.” (After all, it was an amazing night; one female was even healed of an absolutely crippling pinched nerve, instantly. Every thing was perfect that night.) Then I began thinking, that if Jesus were here, He would have done things differently. So, I responded, the one thing I am most disturbed about is my indelible, inescapable lack of perfection. (Admittedly, I was young, and the ministry was very new to me.) I saw embers of that dissatisfaction for years, on occasion. Now, I don’t mind admitting it because I have been crushed a hundred times; and I believe I have learned enough to see it coming at all times.

    “Yet, it played a critical part in his journey to true, saving faith,”

    Moreover, Jewish people have it bad — “Jewish Guilt” is a virtual pseudonym; which makes sense for a people who has become legalistic right to the DNA.

    Thanks Nathan


  • chrisleduc1

    Thanks Professor.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed the 2 hour special that PBS did on Luther in their Empires Series. I found them fascinating and entertaining. I might just re-watch it while I some work around the house (of course I have no other free time with all this homework 🙂

    It’s his bio and a lot of quotes and historical info about the reformation. Been a few years since Ive seen it, so I can’t say its 100%, but from what I remember, it’s really good. It’s definitely not as bad as the History Channel type “Bible Secrets Revealed” type trash. It’s pretty scathing toward the Roman “church” (and rightfully so).

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    I’d be curios to know, if anyone watches, what historical inaccuracies they spot, if any.

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  • Ken Miller

    The BEST book that you can read to encourage your soul (at least that I’ve found) is Martin Luther’s commentary of Galatians. Martin Luther always preached grace in such a way that his critics accused him of anti-nomianism. That’s exactly how grace should be preached. Definitely my #1 hero from church history!

    • chrisleduc1

      John Bunyan said Luther’s commentary on Galatians was the the greatest book he’d seen after the Bible. Pretty strong coming from the guy who THE #1 after the Bible.

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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Martin Luther was the right man for the Reformation. Certainly a great debt of gratitude is given to him.

    Having said that, there were some aspects of Luther’s theology that needed to be corrected by later Reformers.

    #1. Baptismal Regeneration and Infant Baptism. Luther believed that baptism was salvific. Many Lutherans today express it this way: “Baptism is Gospel.”

    #2. Physical Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Luther taught that Jesus Christ was physically present in the Cup and the Bread. They call it the Sacramental Union. Others call it Consubstantiation.

    And later Reformers also repudiated his angry anti-Semitism.

    • why

      if he was wrong in these points how can the rest be trusted to be true?

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        I trust Obama when/if he says that 2 + 2 = 4.
        Doesn’t mean I trust him on other matters.

        • why

          not the same thing. your staking your eternity on a man known to be in error. might s well just believe in what ever comes to your mind or her mind or his minnd or anybodies

          • Truth Unites… and Divides

            I’m trusting in Christ for my eternity.

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