Luther's Spiritual Journey
On October 31st, 2016, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the doors of a church in Wittenberg, Pope Francis invited Catholics at the Lutheran cathedral in Lund to commemorate “the spiritual experience of Martin Luther.” Luther’s action is generally considered the beginning of the so-called “Reformation”—rather, a revolution, the destruction of the faith and an apostasy and rebellion against Our Lord and His Church. Let us then remember that spiritual experience, but not aim at re-telling the events differently, as Pope Francis would have us do, but as they were in reality: the spiritual journey of an unrepentant heretic.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 to a good Catholic family. From an early age he felt drawn to religion and God, later he developed an interest in theology. His father wanted him to study law, but Luther chose to become a monk instead and joined the Augustinian order in 1512. From that point on, his life was spent teaching and preaching.
At first, Luther was a pious and zealous monk. However, his gift of a rich and passionate temperament exposed him to strong temptations against chastity, a penchant for good eating, a tendency to wrath, a spirit of independence, and a predisposition to pride.
Luther would have liked to be free from these temptations. As St. Peter at the Transfiguration, he would have liked to lead a saintly life, to have “put on Our Lord Jesus Christ,” to find himself already in a state of perfect integrity—a state not to be found on earth save in exceptional cases. Luther began to be obsessed about the certitude of his own salvation. As the temptations continued to assail him, a growing feeling of guilt ended up in a certain despair for the spiritual life, for the efficacy of grace, and the ordinary means of acquiring and maintaining grace (such as the sacraments, prayer, fasting, etc.).
It was upon this intimate “spiritual experience” that Luther built a new religious system. A system that had nothing to do with the teaching of the Church or the truths of Christianity.
In 1515 from his Biblical theology chair, Luther began an exegesis of the Epistles of St. Paul, starting with Romans, an extraordinarily rich but difficult text. Luther developed a new “Christian” theology based on a personal reading of the text, following his own feelings and disregarding Tradition while drawing from his internal struggles (“Can I save my soul in spite of having these many temptations?”). This new theology from the beginning was incompatible with that of the Catholic Church, although the eventual public split would not transpire until later.
Catholic doctrine teaches that if man accepts divine revelation by faith and, moved by hope, repents of his sins and turns to God through the merits of Christ, he obtains the forgiveness of his sins and a regeneration and sanctification of his soul so that, as St. Peter puts it, he “may be made partakers of the divine nature.” The soul that lives by charity is, therefore, “a saint,” as St. Paul says; a saint because he has truly been purified, transformed, sanctified, and become a friend of God. Being a friend of God, the soul spontaneously performs good works, virtuous acts that merit eternal salvation through the grace of Christ.
Luther denied this truth. Based on what he felt, Luther concluded that the mere fact of having embraced the Christian faith and life does not rid the soul of sin (Luther referred rather to temptation, which is not sin if it is not consented to). He believed that the Christian remains, in fact, a sinner and enemy of God and his soul remains totally corrupted. Nonetheless, since Christ has merited the salvation of all men through the sacrifice of the Cross, he who by faith (or trust in this salvation through Christ) firmly believes that he is saved, will have his sins covered by the mantle of the merits of Christ. And God the Father would deliver this soul to paradise, this soul covered by this mantle through faith/trust. Good works, therefore, do not attain merit; man remains a sinner interiorly. Good works merely encourage pious souls to persevere in this faith/trust.
So far this is the core of what Luther calls “the truth of the Gospel.” From it flows the rest of his doctrine.
Luther starts by questioning the Church, denying its divine origin. The Church teaches that man saves his soul through good works, while Luther has suffered during his monastic period the frustrating experience of discovering that good works do not eradicate sin (again, not sin but temptation, as we saw above). He also claimed that the Church had abandoned “the truth of the Gospel,” that is, salvation by faith. The Lutheran doctrine is built upon this rejection of the Church, a new Gospel to suit Luther’s own beliefs—the textbook definition of heresy. Since to Luther, the Church has betrayed the “truth of the Gospel,” it necessarily and logically followed that he should engage in a free interpretation of Scripture to search for the truth and transmit it to the people of God, led astray by an illegitimate hierarchy. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything” (Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms, presided over by Charles V in 1521). In Luther’s doctrine, the soul is not transformed by grace; the sacraments do not impart anything substantial to the soul and therefore the classic Catholic teaching that the sacraments are efficacious by their own operation is rendered meaningless. For Luther, the sacraments merely signify and awaken the faith. Therefore, only those sacraments that bring about that psychological effect should remain. For that same reason the Mass, the unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of Christ, whose merits are daily applied to us, loses all its meaning. There only remains a memorial of the Last Supper to remind the faithful of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross and to enkindle the faith in the redemption. And yet, Luther was not satisfied with tearing down the Mass. Abandoning his priestly vocation, this monk who had betrayed his vows nurtured a pathological hatred for the sacrifice of the Mass. His words in this respect are so horrible, one might believe he was possessed by the devil. For instance, he stated in 1521, “The Mass is the biggest and worst of the papal abominations; it is the tail of the dragon of the Apocalypse, spreading innumerable impurities and filth all over the Church.” In 1524, “Yes, I declare, all brothels (severely condemned by God as they are), all homicides, murders, robberies, and adulteries are less harmful than the abomination of the Mass.” And indeed Luther showed quite the insight as he drew the conclusion, “If I succeed in doing away with the Mass, then I shall believe I have completely conquered the Pope.” Since the Church, referred to with contempt as “the papacy” is no longer held as the mystical body of Christ, the faithful stand alone before God. On the one hand, the soul is enlightened by the Bible, which Luther wanted the faithful to read on their own, generating thus the need of printing Bibles in the vernacular. On the other hand, the Holy Ghost instructs the soul from within to discern from the Bible those teachings that pertain most to his spiritual life. In the sensible words of Boileau, “All Protestants became their own pope, Bible in hand.” As a consequence of Luther’s abolishment of the hierarchy—the “holy authority” of the Church—his followers would gradually question all other human authority: the essence of Protestantism thus being revolutionary. Since every individual is left to his own interpretation, without input from the Church, it follows logically to separate absolutely the religious and the political realms through secularization. No wonder, then, that Protestants have often played the role of promoters of causes such as the establishment of secular governments, godless education, the rise of anticlericalism, and the process of separating Church and State. For Luther then, good works and especially the religious vows were useless and deceitful. Neither to avoid sin nor to fight temptation (as he himself had done during his Catholic period) is essential for Luther because man remains a sinner. Even though still an enemy of God, what is important to the soul is to cling to and cover itself with the mantle of the merits of Christ and thereby avert the divine wrath, as God will see in the soul only the merits of His beloved Son. Such is the meaning of Luther’s words to his friend and biographer Phillip Melanchthon in his letter dated August 1, 1525, “Peca fortiter, sed forties crede” (Sin greatly, but believe greater still).
In line with his ideas, Luther forsook his vows in 1525 and married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, with whom he had six children. The rest of his life he waged war on the Catholic Church, “the great Babylonian whore,” whom he insisted ought to be attacked and destroyed by any available means. To that end, Luther wrote numerous vile and obscene flyers. His followers systematically destroyed Catholic monuments, tortured and murdered bishops, priests, religious, and innumerable faithful, not to mention the terrible wars they unleashed.
At Luther’s death on February 18, 1546, and for many years later, Europe was, due to him, torn by fire and sword. Because of his false doctrine and pernicious example, millions of souls apostatized and strayed from the path of salvation.
Notwithstanding the Church’s magnificent renovation through a multitude of saints, through the great reforming work of the Council of Trent, and through the great missionary efforts of adding numerous peoples to the faith of the Church, whole nations unfortunately would blindly adopt the errors and lies of the former Augustinian monk and would not return to the true faith.
Luther was a great enemy of the grace of Christ, which he claimed to honor: he attacked the grace of Christ in the Church, in the sacraments, in good works, and in the very meaning of grace itself. For this reason, no Catholic aware of his duty to Christ and to the Church—not to mention a Pope (!)— can ever praise and honor Luther’s name or rejoice in his legacy.