5 – The Insanity of Luther
If we fix our minds on the holiness of God, the result might be disturbing. Martin Luther was one such man whose spirit was troubled by a deep knowledge of the character of God.
“Love God? Sometimes I hate Him.” This is a strange quote to hear from the lips of a man as respected for his religious zeal as Luther. But he said it. He was noted for making outrageous statements. “Sometimes Christ seems to me nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in His hand.” And, “To the gallows with Moses.”
Was Luther crazy? We will look at some of his life to determine why some thought that. The first evidence was his outbursts of anger and the harsh insults of his critics. But there was more than his speech. His behavior was at times downright bizarre. He was afflicted by an assortment of phobias and he thought that he was a personal target of Satan. Yet from the vantage point of church history, Luther was likely right about being the target of sixteenth century satanic energy.
A young Luther was once walking in the midst of a severe thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning crashed so close to him that he was thrown to the ground. He cried in terror, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!”
Church historian Roland Bainton says, “The man who thus called upon a saint was later to repudiate the cult of saints. He who vowed to become a monk was later to renounce monasticism. A loyal son of the Catholic Church, he was later to shatter the structure of medieval Catholicism. A devoted servant of the pope, he was later to identify the popes with Antichrist.”
Shortly after the lightning bolt experience, Luther paid his vow. He quit his studies in law and entered the monastery, much to the dismay of his father. Luther then was to make his big debut at the celebration of his first mass following his ordination. Luther began the ceremony with great poise. When he came to the Prayer of Consecration—that moment when Luther would exercise his priestly authority for the first time and to evoke the power of God to perform the great miracle of transubstantiation (the changing of the bread and wine to the real body and blood of Jesus)—when that moment came, Luther faltered.
He froze at the altar. He tried to speak the words of the mass, but no words came forth from his mouth. He went limp and returned to the table where his father and family guests were seated. He had failed. He ruined the mass and disgraced himself and his father.
What happened at the altar? Luther offers his own explanation at the paralysis that struck when he was to say the words. “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God.” He says:
“At these words I was utterly stupefied and 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? The angels surround him. At His nod the earth trembles. 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.’”
But these episodes are minor considerations in the question of Luther’s sanity. We must look at one of the most dramatic moments in Luther’s life (and for all of Christianity), when he was on trial for heresy at the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521.
Events had run out of control since the theological professor had tacked his ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg. Luther wanted to announce these points for theological debate and dispute. He had no desire to flame them into a national or international fire. Some people, probably students, got hold of the theses and made use of the marvelous new invention of Gutenberg. Within two weeks the theses were the talk of Germany. Luther engaged in debates, was censured, and his books were burned in Rome. Finally he appealed for a hearing at the Imperial Diet of Worms.
What happened at Worms was the stuff that legends are made of. In fact, legends have risen from the events. Hollywood has given a touch of glamour to the scene. The image of Luther at Worms that prevails is that of a valiant hero defying a wicked authority structure and riding off in the sunset. It didn’t quite happen like that.
Luther spoke boldly before his arrival: “This shall be my recantation at Worms: ‘Previously I said the pope is the vicar (representative) of Christ. I recant. Now I say the pope is the adversary of Christ and the apostle of the Devil.’”
People were expecting more bold statements, but when Luther was asked to recant, he meekly answered, “I beg you, give me time to think it over.” As at his first mass, Luther faltered. His confidence deserted him. The emperor gave him twenty-four hours to think it over.
That night, in the solitude of his room, Luther wrote one of the most moving prayers ever written. His prayer reveals the soul of a humble man on his face before God, desperately seeking the courage to stand alone before hostile men. For Luther it was a private Gethsemene. When he returned the next day, he was asked once again to recant. This time his voice did not quake or quiver. He said:
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right or safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
As important as this event was to the church and to the personal history of Martin Luther, it was not the chief reason future scholars would judge Luther insane. There was something even more extraordinary, even more morbid about the man. It has to do with Luther’s behavioral patterns while he was a monk in the monastery.
Luther set out to be the perfect monk. He went beyond the rules of the monastery in terms of self-denial. He wrote, “If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”
The most bizarre of Luther’s practices involved his habit of daily confession. Confession was a requirement for the monks, but not daily. He stayed for hours every day. On one occasion Luther spent six hours confessing the sins he had committed in the last day!
Concern arose that perhaps he was mentally unbalanced. The man was radically abnormal. His guilt complex was unlike anyone’s before him. He was so morbid in his guilt, so disturbed in his emotions that he could no longer function as a normal human being.
One aspect of Luther is often overlooked by psychologists. Before Luther went to the monastery, he had already established himself as one of the brightest young minds in the field of law. Some heralded him as a legal genius.
It has been said many times that there is a fine line between genius and insanity and that some people move back and forth across it. Luther was not crazy. He was a genius. Once he applied his legal mind to the law of God, he saw things that most mortals miss.
Luther examined the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Then he asked himself, “What is the Great Transgression?” He concluded that if the Great Commandment was to love God with all the heart, then the Great Transgression was to fail to love God with all the heart. He saw a balance between great obligations and great sins.
Most people do not think that way. None of us keeps the Great Commandment for five minutes. We may think that we do in a surface way, but upon a moment’s reflection it is clear that none of us loves God with our whole heart or our whole mind or our whole strength. No one loves his neighbor as he loves himself. Our comfort is that nobody is perfect. We all fall short of perfect love for God, so why worry about it? It doesn’t drive sane fellows to the confessional for six hours a day. If God punished everyone who failed to keep the Great Commandment, He would have to punish everyone in the world. The test is too great, too demanding; it is not fair. God will have to judge us all on a curve.
Luther didn’t see it that way. He realized that if God graded on a curve, He would have to compromise His own holiness. To count on God doing so is supreme arrogance and supreme foolishness as well. God does not lower His own standards to accommodate us. He remains altogether holy, altogether righteous, and altogether just. But we are unjust and therein lies our dilemma. Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question: How can an unjust man survive in the presence of a holy God? Where everyone else was at ease in the matter, Luther was in agony. He wrote about others who so easily dismissed their sin: “Don’t you know that God dwells in light inaccessible?...What wonder then that His majesty overpowers us and shatters!”
Luther’s legal mind was haunted by the question: How can an unjust man survive in the presence of a holy God?
Luther’s attitude was in contrast to the rich young ruler who in Luke 18:18 asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He called Jesus, “Good Teacher.” Jesus did not miss the significance of it. Jesus knew at once that He was talking to a man who had a superficial understanding of the meaning of the word good. The man wanted to talk about salvation. Instead Jesus subtly turned the conversation around to a discussion about what goodness was.
Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good?” Jesus was not denying His own deity or His goodness here, but He wanted the man to know that He was good. The rich young ruler thought that Jesus was a great teacher, but he had no idea that he was speaking to God incarnate.
Psalm 14:13 says that, “There is no one who does good, not even one.” The only exception is Jesus, the Son of God. We think that the Bible is wrong on this matter. Surely this is an exaggeration. There are many people who do good. No one is perfect, but we do good most of the time don’t we?
The answer is “No.” This is precisely what the rich young ruler was thinking. He was measuring goodness by the wrong standard. He was evaluating good deeds from an outward vantage point. Outwardly, we do good often and conform to what God commands. But God looks at the heart and the motivation for our deeds.
For a deed to pass the standard of God’s goodness, it must flow out of a heart that loves God perfectly and loves our neighbor perfectly as well. Since none of us obey the Great Commandment, all of our outwardly good deeds are tarnished. Without a perfect heart, one cannot perform a perfect deed.
The Law of God is the mirror of true righteousness. When we set our works before this mirror, the reflection in it tells of our imperfections. Jesus held up the mirror in the form of the “second” table of the law—the commandments that dealt with our relationship to other human beings (stealing, adultery, murder, etc.).
How did the rich young ruler respond? He was not bothered. He looked calmly in the mirror of God’s Law and saw no imperfections. He said, “All these I have kept since I was a boy.”
“When Jesus heard this, He said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”
Jesus set the challenge to the man’s obedience to commandment number one: “Thou shall have no other gods before Me.” The rich young ruler walked away sorrowfully, for he had great possessions. He was put to the test of the Ten Commandments and flunked the first one.
The point of this narrative is not to lay down a law that a Christian must get rid of all private property. The point is for us to understand what obedience is and what goodness actually requires. Jesus called the man’s bluff, and he folded.
Back to Luther. He knew that he lacked a multitude of things, unlike the rich young ruler. He was a lawyer and he had studied the Old Testament Law. He knew the demands of a pure and holy God and it was driving him crazy. The genius of Luther ran up against a legal dilemma that he could not solve. There seemed to be no solution possible. The question that nagged him day and night was this: How could a just God accept an unjust man.
He knew that his eternal destiny rode on this answer. But he could not find the answer. Lesser minds went merrily along their way enjoying the bliss of ignorance. They were satisfied to think that God would compromise His own excellence and let them into heaven. They thought that surely God must grade on a curve.
Two things separated Luther from the rest of men: First, he knew who God was. Second, he understood the demands of the Law of that God. He had mastered the Law. Unless he came to understand the Gospel, he would die in torment.
Then in the quietness of his own study, Luther’s “tower-experience” changed the course of world history. It was an experience that involved a new understanding of God, a new understanding of His divine justice. It was an understanding of how God can be merciful without compromising His justice.
Luther saw the phrase in Romans, “the justice of God,” and thought it meant the justice where God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. He said:
“Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit could assuage Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him…Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies through faith…Whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”
“Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies through faith.” - Martin Luther
Like Isaiah before him, Luther felt the burning coal upon his lips. He knew what it meant to be undone. He was shattered by the mirror of a holy God. He now understood the meaning of Romans 3:26, that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” When Luther understood the Gospel for the first time, the doors of paradise swung wide open and he walked through.
God is just – He must punish sin.
God is also the justifier – He forgives sin.
How is God able to forgive sin without compromising His justice? - Through our faith in Jesus Christ alone, by the merits of Christ alone.
The believers’ sin is still punished by God – Jesus took that punishment.
“The just shall live by faith.” The idea that justification is by faith alone, by the merits of Christ alone, was so central to the Gospel that Luther called it “the article upon which the church stands or falls.”
Once Luther grasped the teaching of Paul in Romans, he was reborn. The burden of his guilt was lifted. The crazed torment was ended. This meant so much to the man that he was able to stand against pope and council, prince and emperor, and, if necessary, the whole world.
Was Luther crazy? Perhaps. But if he was, our prayer is that God would send to this earth an epidemic of such insanity that we may too taste of the righteousness that is by faith alone.