Luther Tries to Earn Heaven, Fails — an excerpt from MARTIN LUTHER

November 22, 2022

Luther Tries to Earn Heaven, Fails

Luther was obsessive about confession. In fact, it eventually got to the point that his confessor—who ended up being Staupitz—began to get fed up with his maddeningly overscrupulous confessee. Once, Luther actually continued confessing for six consecutive hours, probing every nook and cranny of every conceivable sin and then every nook and cranny within each nook and cranny, until Staupitz must have been cross-eyed and perspiring just listening. When would it end? But Luther didn’t care. He was simply determined to keep digging until he got to the bottom of it all. But he never did. He did not yet understand that there really was no bottom, that we were sinful all the way down. All Luther knew was that as soon as he left confession, there likely lurked sins he had not ferreted out, despite his digging like a terrier after a rat. He knew that ac cording to all he understood of church doctrine, a sin must be recalled and confessed before it could be repented of and forgiven. But hadn’t he tried as hard as possible to find and confess every one? How did the others do it? Was he more sinful than they? He concluded that he must be and must therefore try harder yet.

Staupitz’s frustration with Luther grew. Luther seemed some kind of unprecedented moral madman on a never-ending treadmill of confession. Instead of looking upward and outward toward the God who loved him, he zealously and furiously fixated on himself and his own troubling thoughts. Staupitz, on more than one occasion, tried to shock Luther out of his downward spiral of navel-gazing. “God is not angry with you!” he once said. “You are angry with God! Don’t you know that God commands you to hope?” Another time he said, “Look here. If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—parricide, blasphemy, adultery— instead of all these peccadilloes.” Luther would confess negative thoughts about one of his brethren, or his impatience with something that morning, or his poor attitude toward prayer. And if he had not had any such sins to confess, he would confess his pride at not having had any such sins. Staupitz was an important and busy man, and he didn’t have time for this niggling ridiculousness. Give him a big fat juicy sin, one that anyone could see was a sin, and then repent of it and be gone! But Luther brought him gnat after gnat, with nary a camel to be seen. The taxonomy of Luther’s sins seemed never to tend toward anything sizable that Staupitz might grab with both hands. He could see that Luther was chasing his own tail, making both of them winded and dizzy.

It is clear that Luther’s struggles had little to do with concupiscence. There are many things he said as a young man and later in life that suggest he didn’t struggle particularly in this area. His struggles instead usually had to do with his own doubts that he could ever be good, no matter how he tried, that he could ever be worthy of God’s mercy, grace, and salvation. He knew that the life of a monk was designed to free one from temptation, to keep one so busy with praying and singing and doing that there was no room for the sorts of things he might have been able to do if he had continued as a lawyer. But for Luther, the more he tried to be holy, the more he saw that he couldn’t be. The more he cleaned, the more furniture he moved, the more dirt he saw. He was leagues past fretting over sexual temptations. Such things were small beer compared with what he called the “real knots.”

He didn’t know what to do to untangle them, and this led to tremendous problems for him, but he was determined to wrestle and wrestle with them until at last he had an answer. Nonetheless, any real answer still lay years in the future. Meanwhile the agonies of Anfechtungen he experienced as a result of this hopeless quest persisted. But here is what Luther wrote about these experiences some years later, in 1518:*

I myself knew a man who claimed that he had often suffered these punishments, and in fact over a very brief period of time. Yet they were so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could not believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one-tenth of an hour, he would have perished completely and all of his bones would have been reduced to ashes. At such a time God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse…. In this moment, it is strange to say, the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed.

Here was the central difficulty of late medieval Catholic theology: that one was brought to the place of understanding one’s sinfulness and one’s unworthiness before God but was not told what to do at that moment of understanding except to lie paralyzed with hopelessness, to confess and try harder. At some point, the sinner—and Luther chief among them—came to feel that he wholly deserved God’s fierce anger. For Staupitz, who had a remarkably healthy view of God for that time and place, God was someone who loved us and had mercy on us, but for Luther, God was still and only the harsh judge whose righteousness condemned us with withering fierceness. Staupitz saw Luther’s agonies and took a personal and fatherly interest in him. His importance in the life of Martin Luther cannot be exaggerated. He early on saw the genius and potential in Luther and wanted to do all he could to help him find his way. Staupitz—and his connections and relationships, most important with Frederick the elector and with the university at Wittenberg—would play such a significant role in Luther’s life that we cannot imagine Luther without him. And yet where he seemingly and ultimately helped Luther to go, he would never himself end up following, which is another curious detail in a story composed almost exclusively of them.

* He is obviously writing about himself as the apostle Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12:2–4, and the biblically literate readers of his time would have understood this immediately.