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:
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him…Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. 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.
With that, the once tormented monk rested in the righteousness of Christ. Christian assurance had been rescued from the dark dungeon of Roman Catholicism. Luther realized that truth which every Christian has embraced and celebrated: the sinner’s assurance of right standing with God depends not on man’s moral proficiency before God, but on faith in the Person and finished work of Christ. 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. And where there is an absence of condemnation, there is a presence of assurance.
But, the sad reality is that Roman Catholicism still plagues its adherents with the lack of assurance. The promise of heaven is something that Rome simply cannot give her devotees. Rome’s doctrine confirms this: “No one can know with a certainty of faith…that he has obtained the grace of God” (Council of Trent, 6th session, paragraph 9). Cardinal Robert Belarmine wrote, “The principle heresy of Protestants is that saints may obtain to a certain assurance of their gracious and pardoned state before God” (De justificatione 3.2.3). Christ’s sacrifice opens the possibility to heaven, but the sinner must rigorously work towards that possibility. And even then, the possibility remains only that.
Rome has many other teachings which demonstrate her heresy of jeopardizing assurance. Purgatory, for example, is a teaching that must exist in a system of progressively earned righteousness. Though heaven is possible for those who “die in God’s grace and friendship,” they must yet be purified, or purged, in Purgatory for an indefinite amount of time. Some learned Catholics you speak with today will portray a nervousness over that indefinite duration.
If you listen carefully to contemporary Roman Catholic theologians, you will hear of assurance only in relation to those who have been canonized as saints. For example, when pope John Paul II and John XXIII were declared saints in April of 2014, one Catholic official said that the declaration affirms that these men are in heaven. For Roman Catholicism, saints are individuals who have been canonized by Rome’s official declaration. They are said to have possessed heroic virtue, performed two miracles (one after their death, which is said to confirm their place in heaven), and are nominated by the church. The saints, then, are usually the only individuals who are said to be in heaven. “The title of saint tells us that the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by the universal Church.”
Tragically, Roman Catholic teaching on assurance differs radically from that of Scripture. For example, the Apostle writes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). To be justified here refers to having been declared in an absolute, unalterable state of perfect righteousness by God through Jesus Christ. Faith alone accesses that sufficient righteousness. Peace with God, or Christian assurance, is the consequence. No wavering. No wondering. No purging needed. Justification by faith alone in Christ alone renders us in a state of assurance. Christ proclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Later, Paul wrote, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Notice something amazing here. The consequence of union with Christ (“in Christ Jesus”), is a state of no-condemnation. The instant a sinner enters into union with Christ by faith, at that moment, there is no guilt, no penalty, and no remaining sentence for sin. It’s over and done. If the Christian dies with unconfessed sin, not to worry. They will awake, and stand before Christ in complete righteousness. Christ’s atoning death on the cross absorbs all of the Christian’s condemnation with the result that not one ounce of sin remains for expunging. Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God. And we would not dare suppose that our puny, imperfect human acts of righteousness could ever add to Christ’s one, colossal, perfect act at the cross. Simply put, Rome offers assurance as a mere possibility to the highest moral heroes. God offers assurance as an absolute certainty to the lowest moral failures.
Because Roman Catholicism maintains the heresy of a lack of assurance, its teaching must be vehemently opposed. The true gospel offers to sinners tormented with a guilty conscience the real peace through the assurance of Christ’s work, not theirs. Contrary to Rome, God offers sinners the free, instant gift of assurance through faith in Christ. That no-condemnation status can belong to any sinner because Christ took our condemned status on himself.
During this 498th official Reformation season, let us celebrate the rediscovery of Christian assurance: the certainty of right standing with God and entrance into heaven through faith alone in the Person and substitutionary atoning death of Jesus Christ.