A gracious God and a neurotic monk

Books | Martin Luther’s understanding of sin in the singular
by Stephen J. Nichols
Posted 10/28/17, 11:41 am

One classic fable tells of a competition between the north wind and the sun: Who is stronger? Who can make a passing traveler remove his cloak? The north wind blows hard, but the traveler only wraps his cloak tighter around him. When the sun shines, though, the traveler takes off his cloak. Moral of the story: Persuasion is better than pressure, which is often true when humans are concerned. But Martin Luther knew that God uses both. Stephen J. Nichols, in The Legacy of Luther, a book he co-edited with R.C. Sproul (Reformation Trust, 2016), describes Luther as neurotically fearful and God as omnisciently gracious. God knew what pressure would get Luther’s attention, and make him understand that our problem is sin, not “sins in the plural. … If sin is quantified, then we look to merits or graces as the remedy.” Why is that so? Please read on. —Marvin Olasky

Erfurt: Becoming a Monk

During the course of his early studies, young Martin excelled, distinguishing himself from his classmates. These accomplishments opened the door for him to study at Erfurt. By the time Luther started there, the university was already more than a century old. The town, with a population hovering around twenty thousand, had industry, trade, and an extensive network of monasteries and churches. By 1502, Martin had earned his bachelor’s degree. Three years later, he took his master’s degree. He also took a Latinized form of his last name. He was now Martin Luther. He stayed in Erfurt, preparing for his doctorate in law.

Amid all of these academic accomplishments, Luther experienced intense struggles in his soul. No matter how much he experienced success, he could not escape the anxiety he felt. The German word for this anxiety is Anfechtung. It could be translated as “trial” or “affliction.” Roland Bainton expresses the difficulty in grasping this word when he observes, “There is no English equivalent.” Anfechtung refers to a deeply seated soul struggle. Bainton adds, “It may be a trial sent by God to test man, or an assault by the Devil to destroy man.”1 For Luther, we need to use the plural, Anfechtungen, as these crises of the soul came often. As his contemporaries did, Luther looked at spirituality and salvation as a contest between sins and merits. And it was a contest he nearly always lost.

In the summer of 1505, Luther traveled to his family’s home in Mansfeld for an extended visit. On his way back to Erfurt, he got caught in a violent thunderstorm. He presumed the storm to be God’s judgment on his soul. While at his family’s home, he more than likely spent time before the family altar, the shrine to St. Anne. Now, in the clutches of the storm, he cried out to her, “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!” She was the only mediator he knew.

A stone to the east of Stotternheim marks the place. Luther’s appeal to St. Anne is carved in the face of the granite. When Luther survived the storm and made his way back to Erfurt, he kept the words of promise. He turned his back on the law and became a monk.

Writing many years later, Luther confessed that if ever a monk could get to heaven by monkery, he was that monk. He did not leave his soul struggles behind when he entered the monastery. They followed him and, in fact, intensified. He later testified, “I tortured myself with praying, fasting, keeping vigils, and freezing—the cold alone was enough to kill me—and I inflicted upon myself such pain as I would never inflict again, even if I could.”

Johann von Staupitz was the vicar general of the Augustinian Order in Germany. Reports of Luther’s legendary struggles in the monastery eventually made their way to Staupitz, who took an interest in the earnest and intense young monk. Staupitz was already moving away from some of the emphases of medieval Roman Catholicism, and he nurtured Luther’s continued interest in reading Augustine directly.2 Staupitz was also deeply concerned for Luther in the midst of his spiritual struggles. Recognizing Luther’s academic abilities, Staupitz sent him to Wittenberg for biblical studies and theology. Luther took a BA in 1509, then returned to Erfurt to teach. Yet the distractions of academics did nothing to abate the struggles.

Rome: Holy City, Artistic Wonder, or Vanity Fair?

In 1510, Staupitz decided to send Luther on a pilgrimage to Rome. The Augustinian Order and the monasteries in Erfurt needed to renew their credentials. Staupitz thought this a fine occasion for Luther to be cured of his Anfechtungen. At it turns out, Staupitz miscalculated.

Rome plays a crucial role in the New Testament. Paul spent his final years there and, as we learn from tradition, was martyred there. So was Peter. The crown jewel of the New Testament is the epistle to the Romans. Rome was the capital city of a vast empire. Over the centuries, of course, Rome’s stature continued to grow, as did the stature of the bishop of Rome. No longer one among many hundreds of bishops, the bishop of Rome eventually borrowed a title from the Caesars: pontifex maximus, the supreme priest.

The pope during Luther’s visit, Julius II, was a patron of the arts. He commissioned the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. Up to that point, the Basilica of St. John Lateran had served as the church’s center, or “ecumenical mother.” Pope Julius II set his sights on St. Peter’s, across the Tiber. Julius also commissioned Michelangelo to begin painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a project that lasted from 1508 until 1512, coinciding with Luther’s visit. Cardinals around Rome were also busy building palaces and cathedrals of their own. Church officials also called upon Raphael and a galaxy of other artists to adorn walls and ceilings, design buildings, and erect sculptures.

In 1510, Rome, the Holy City, was becoming the artistic wonder of the whole of the Western world. It was also a city of high debauchery. One historian describes the city this way: “Overall the life of Roman high society, both lay and clerical, was marked by a spirit of worldliness, moral laxity, and ostentatious luxury, in an unending round of banquets, parties, and hunts.”3 And, in 1510, Luther made his journey here.

By the time Luther made his way down to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, he would have seen enough to make his stomach turn.

Rome was roughly eight hundred miles directly south of Erfurt. Luther would have stopped at monasteries along the way. These monasteries were strategically placed to house pilgrims as they made their way from various places across Europe to the Holy See. Luther would have visited many shrines along the way, and he would have spent most of the hours of the pilgrimage in prayerful contemplation and meditation—all in preparation for this visit to the Holy City. He would have traversed the Alps through Germany, through the Swiss city-states and on to Italy. When he reached Rome, he would have gone through the ancient Aurelian Walls and across the Piazza del Popolo, Rome’s northern public square. By the time Luther made his way down to the Basilica of St. John Lateran, he would have seen enough to make his stomach turn. Prostitutes, public lewdness, and hawkers of all sorts of wares would have pestered him along the cobbled city streets.4

One of the focal points for pilgrims to Rome was the scala sancta. Here, Luther’s disillusionment reached its apex. These twenty-eight marble steps are believed to be the very steps that led up to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem—the very steps Jesus walked on the way to His trial. Emperor Constantine had them removed and relocated to Rome, a gift to his rather pious mother, Helen. Today, they are housed in their own building across the street from St. John Lateran. In 1510, there would have been a table set up at the base of the steps where priests collected coins and handed out indulgences. Pilgrims, after they had turned over a few coins, would climb the steps on their knees, praying the rosary as they shuffled up and down. Luther waited his turn and then joined the stream of penitent pilgrims.

When Luther reached the top, no spiritual awakening greeted him. No waves of peace rolled gently over his soul. All he could say was, “Who knows whether it is so?”5 Years later, he had a much more scathing review of Rome: “This city has become a harlot.” He went on to say that he would not have believed it had he not seen it. Needless to say, Staupitz did not receive a favorable report, and his young charge was slipping even further away. The neurotic monk was becoming even worse.

Wittenberg: Fountainhead of the Reformation

In desperation, Staupitz sent Luther back to Wittenberg for more studies. He entered the Black Cloister of the Augustinian Order in 1511. He completed his doctoral studies. To qualify for his doctorate, he had to master the preeminent theological text of the day, Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This text had a profound and far-reaching impact on Luther, but the impact did not come through Lombard’s teachings or conclusions. Instead, the impact came through the figure Lombard quoted: Augustine. B.B. Warfield would later say that the Reformation was nothing short of the recovery of Augustine’s doctrine of salvation.6 Once Luther earned his doctorate, he took his place on the theology faculty at the University of Wittenberg.

Thanks to his exposure to Augustine, Luther took one step forward and two steps back in his understanding of sin. He learned that our problem is not sins in the plural. This quantifying of sin gets to the heart of the eclipse of the gospel in later medieval Roman Catholicism. If sin is quantified, then we look to merits or graces as the remedy. Baptism atones for original sin, or the sin of Adam that was imputed to us. What remains is our actual sins. Again, the quantity of sins is the issue. And so, the other sacraments, in addition to the sacrament of baptism, come into play. Through penance, it is possible to undo the effects of our sins.

Indulgences arose through the evolution of the doctrine and practice of penance. These documents allowed for the skipping of a few steps in the process of being restored to the good graces of the church (and thus, of God). Penance for sin entails going to confession and receiving absolution (pending, of course, the completion of the tasks prescribed by the priest). Having done the penance, one could then attend Mass and receive the grace of the Eucharist. Or, alternatively, one could skip all these steps through the simple purchase of an indulgence.

Indulgences first appeared during the Crusades. According to the Roman Catholic Church, going on a crusade was certainly a work worthy of the forgiveness of sins. But some noble families did not want to risk losing their sons in the process. Consequently, they could pay someone to go on a crusade in the son’s place—they could purchase an indulgence. The practice of buying indulgences evolved over the centuries until it reached its nadir in the sixteenth century, on the eve of Luther’s stand against the Roman Catholic Church.

What Luther learned about sin from Augustine upset this entire superstructure.

The idea of the quantity of sins led to a similar notion of the quantity of grace, or graces. In this view, some people have more graces than they need; they are deemed saints by the Roman church. Their grace, their works of supererogation (works above and beyond), are stored in a treasure chest in heaven. Of course, Mary is “full of grace” and, consequently, stands at the head of this line of saints. This expression “full of grace” (from the Vulgate’s translation of Luke 1:28) had come to mean that Mary possessed a great quantity of grace that could be applied to those who prayed to her or applied to the penitent who sought her out.

The pope holds the keys to this treasury of graces, and the sacraments— all controlled by the church—are the means by which those graces reach the people. All of these graces come to the penitent ultimately because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. The question is, how do those graces get mediated to the sinner? The medieval Roman answer was loud and clear: those graces only come through the church. Grace is not immediate; that is, it does not come without a mediator. Grace can only come through the church. Again, the pope holds the keys. It is at this point that Luther enters the discussion.

What Luther learned about sin from Augustine upset this entire superstructure. He learned that we are sinners at the root (radix, from which we derive the English word “radical,” is the Latin word).7 That’s one step forward. We are sinners, and God is holy. Luther saw all this poignantly. He was a sinner through and through, and he knew this to be true. God is holy and righteous through and through, which he also knew to be true. A sinner could never please a holy God. Luther writes, adding some color as only he can:

For this reason it is plain insanity to say that a man of his own powers can love God above all things and can perform the works of the law according to the substance of the act, even if not according to the intentions of Him who gave the commandment, because he is not in a state of grace. O fools. O pig-theologians.8

This excerpt is from Stephen J. Nichols’ contribution in The Legacy of Luther, edited by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, ©2016. Use by permission of Reformation Trust, a division of Ligonier Ministries.

WORLD readers can receive a free ebook of The Legacy of Luther courtesy of Ligonier Ministries. The offer expires Nov. 30, 2017.


1. Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon, 1950), 42.

2. Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 28.

3. Agostino Borromeo, “Rome,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3:448.

4. One can not help draw an allusion to Christian’s walk through “Vanity Fair” in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, though what Luther actually saw was far worse than what Bunyan imagined.

5. Bainton, Here I Stand, 51.

6. Benjamin B. Warfield, “Studies in Tertullian and Augustine” in The Works of Benjamin B . Warfield (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1930), 4:130, 131, 285, 411.

7. Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 70–72.

8. LW, Vol . 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 261.

Stephen J. Nichols
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