The Struggle for a Merciful God

Luther had entered the monastery to reach perfection and to find a merciful God. He had, however, no secret sins to confess and no gross worldliness to renounce. How could this become such a passionate struggle for him – and eventually cause the breakup of the Church and determine its history for centuries?  

Is there another explanation but Luther’s morbid and unbalanced mind? Many have certainly thought that the real cause of the Reformation was the Reformer’s abnormal and overwrought mental life.  

However, Luther did not take a chosen path, but the one that the Church had assigned to him. It was normal for the Church to advise those, who took their relationship with God seriously and strove for perfection, to do penance and to renounce the world by entering into monastic life.  

When the Church in its confession demanded that he must confess all his sins, he would understand this so literally that he had to admit that such honesty was impossible for him.   When his confessor said to him: “Ach es muss doch nicht alles so hart sein” (“It should not be taken so seriously”), he could neither understand nor accept such thinking. He took the Words of the Scripture seriously. He would follow the path of inviolable consistence to the bitter end.   The Scripture said that Jesus kept company with publicans and sinners, yes, even accepted street girls, must have been felt as a violation of all moral order and dignity in those day. The radicalism of Jesus’ words and life was probably the most radical attack on human existence ever.  

However, it didn’t take long before the Church of the time had the radicalism cut into shape: On the one hand, it kept the Gospel and the message of reconciliation and forgiveness that lay in Jesus’ life and death, but, on the other hand, it saw to it that it was not without terms and conditions. Man also had to make an effort in everyday life by fasting, praying and almsgiving. It was virtually agreed that salvation only could be granted to man through the grace and mercy of God – man’s own effort.  

Behind all this lurked the last Day of Judgment when our Saviour would emerge as the severe judge, and the preaching of the Church became a peculiar mixture of God’s grace and demands for human penance and atonement. Especially, monastic life in those days was characterized by this duality. The concept of grace and the acts of penance somewhat balanced each other. Man still lived under the requirements of the law and the conditional forgiveness of the Gospel.  

It was this moral-religious thinking that became Luther’s spiritual trial which he had to root out radically.   Luther could not come to terms with conditional obedience or that good deeds of man would be associated with the idea of eternal life and salvation.   In the years 1512-13, he managed through reading of the Scripture, primarily the Psalms and the Epistle of the Romans, to arrive at a new understanding of the Gospel, which released him from his spiritual doubts.  

The deepest urge in man is probably the urge to assert oneself, to play a role, so to speak to find a platform in order to obtain position, importance and recognition – perhaps most of all when facing Our Lord. It was this self-sufficiency Luther called self-centredness and unveiled in the monastery.  

Luther learned that the words of the Gospel were about God’s righteousness, not about the individual’s personal quality, but were a God given gift. He learned about the forgiving Christ who didn’t ask for merits.  

When man thus accepts God’s Judgment and recognizes his own inability to balance the accounts of life by morals and deeds or by atoning sacrifice, and his only refuge is the words of forgiveness of sins, that is when fear of the Judgment fades and is engulfed by his relationship with Christ in the forgiveness of love.  

The good deeds do not belong in the relationship with God, but to the relationship with the neighbour. They cannot be brought along on the Day of Judgment. You can only rely on merciful forgiveness and hope to be accepted.

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042

The Struggle for a Merciful God

Luther had entered the monastery to reach perfection and to find a merciful God. He had, however, no secret sins to confess and no gross worldliness to renounce. How could this become such a passionate struggle for him – and eventually cause the breakup of the Church and determine its history for centuries?  

Is there another explanation but Luther’s morbid and unbalanced mind? Many have certainly thought that the real cause of the Reformation was the Reformer’s abnormal and overwrought mental life.  

However, Luther did not take a chosen path, but the one that the Church had assigned to him. It was normal for the Church to advise those, who took their relationship with God seriously and strove for perfection, to do penance and to renounce the world by entering into monastic life.  

When the Church in its confession demanded that he must confess all his sins, he would understand this so literally that he had to admit that such honesty was impossible for him.   When his confessor said to him: “Ach es muss doch nicht alles so hart sein” (“It should not be taken so seriously”), he could neither understand nor accept such thinking. He took the Words of the Scripture seriously. He would follow the path of inviolable consistence to the bitter end.   The Scripture said that Jesus kept company with publicans and sinners, yes, even accepted street girls, must have been felt as a violation of all moral order and dignity in those day. The radicalism of Jesus’ words and life was probably the most radical attack on human existence ever.  

However, it didn’t take long before the Church of the time had the radicalism cut into shape: On the one hand, it kept the Gospel and the message of reconciliation and forgiveness that lay in Jesus’ life and death, but, on the other hand, it saw to it that it was not without terms and conditions. Man also had to make an effort in everyday life by fasting, praying and almsgiving. It was virtually agreed that salvation only could be granted to man through the grace and mercy of God – man’s own effort.  

Behind all this lurked the last Day of Judgment when our Saviour would emerge as the severe judge, and the preaching of the Church became a peculiar mixture of God’s grace and demands for human penance and atonement. Especially, monastic life in those days was characterized by this duality. The concept of grace and the acts of penance somewhat balanced each other. Man still lived under the requirements of the law and the conditional forgiveness of the Gospel.  

It was this moral-religious thinking that became Luther’s spiritual trial which he had to root out radically.   Luther could not come to terms with conditional obedience or that good deeds of man would be associated with the idea of eternal life and salvation.   In the years 1512-13, he managed through reading of the Scripture, primarily the Psalms and the Epistle of the Romans, to arrive at a new understanding of the Gospel, which released him from his spiritual doubts.  

The deepest urge in man is probably the urge to assert oneself, to play a role, so to speak to find a platform in order to obtain position, importance and recognition – perhaps most of all when facing Our Lord. It was this self-sufficiency Luther called self-centredness and unveiled in the monastery.  

Luther learned that the words of the Gospel were about God’s righteousness, not about the individual’s personal quality, but were a God given gift. He learned about the forgiving Christ who didn’t ask for merits.  

When man thus accepts God’s Judgment and recognizes his own inability to balance the accounts of life by morals and deeds or by atoning sacrifice, and his only refuge is the words of forgiveness of sins, that is when fear of the Judgment fades and is engulfed by his relationship with Christ in the forgiveness of love.  

The good deeds do not belong in the relationship with God, but to the relationship with the neighbour. They cannot be brought along on the Day of Judgment. You can only rely on merciful forgiveness and hope to be accepted.

The Lutheran Council of Great Britain
30 Thanet Street London WC1H 9QH
Registered Charity No. 232042