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Monastery and Rome Crisis

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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October 24, 2023 12:01 am

Monastery and Rome Crisis

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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October 24, 2023 12:01 am

During his days in the monastery, Martin Luther wrestled with how he could possibly be justified before God as a sinful man. Today, R.C. Sproul explains Luther's struggle to reconcile his guilt with the holiness of God.

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Luther's trip to Rome was the most significant disillusionment of his life. When he got to Rome, instead of finding a holy city, he found a city that was marked by unprecedented corruption and that scandalized this idealistic young monk. Martin Luther didn't have peace with God.

He had searched for it in the monastery, but didn't find it. Perhaps he would find it when he took a pilgrimage to Rome, known to some as the Holy City. Welcome to the Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind.

I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham. God used Martin Luther, an obscure Augustinian monk, to stand up against popes and emperors in defense of the Gospel. And I'm thankful the Lord did, as the good news that he recovered and defended spread like wildfire. And if you're a believer today, it's this Gospel that we believe and proclaim. But Luther's journey to discovering the good news would begin with moments of crisis. So today, R.C. Sproul will explain the crisis Luther faced as he ventured to the city of Rome in 1510.

Here's Dr. Sproul. In a book I wrote several years ago entitled The Holiness of God, I included an entire chapter called The Insanity of Luther. And the reason why I chose that title for the chapter was in the 20th century, there was something of a fashion among scholars to examine the personality and the behavior of Luther from a distance.

And some of those who were involved in the field of psychology and psychoanalysis decided to ply their trade from over a period of four-and-a-half centuries. They looked back at the record of Luther's life to see whether this man was neurotic or beyond that to the realm of the psychotic because you asked the question, how could one man in an obscure town in Germany stand against the whole Roman Catholic Church alone, stand against the whole Holy Roman Empire alone, and defy all these profound authorities without submitting? What drove him with such passion? And also by reading the record of Luther's life and the writings that came from his pen, which were voluminous of course, one noticed very early in the study of Luther his frequent use of intemperate language, that even in that day, polemical language and vitriolic attacks on one's enemy were commonplace. Luther was a past master of those particular forms of debate. One of the favorite things he did with respect to those who disagreed with him, he called them dogs. And when he would write something and see the outrageous reaction from the church, he would say, the dogs are starting to bark.

And that was some of the milder language that Luther used in debate and in discussions. But there were other aspects of his life that the psychologists focused on. Again, I mentioned to you the preoccupation that he had with guilt in his days in the monastery.

Nothing that he could do seemed to give him peace of mind or quietness from his conscience. As I said, he would spend long periods of time in the confessional. And when that didn't work, he would go back to his cell and then despair after he had spent two hours confessing his sins to the Father Confessor, getting the absolution to go back to his cell and suddenly remember a sin that he had committed during the last 24 hours that he had forgotten to confess. He also was involved in self-flagellation and all the rigorous forms of asceticism that monks would use to purge themselves of any evil thoughts. And again, Luther was in a class by himself in inflicting punishment upon his own person to salve his conscience. Now, you have to understand that in a medieval church, which by the way at this time in history through the 15th and into the 16th century had entered into such a period of corruption among the clergy that is so well documented that even the Roman Catholic Church clearly acknowledges that this was a low point, the nadir of moral behavior of the clergy and even of the papacy in the history of the church.

This was the age of the Medici and the Borgia popes that were scandalous in every way. Well, still what was going on at that time was the view that the highest road one could take in order to ensure one's personal salvation was to enter into holy orders, to have a holy vocation and particularly to enter into a monastery. That gave a person an inside road to sanctification and to reaching heaven's door.

And so Luther was bound and determined that through the rigors of the monastic life he would gain that peace of mind he so desperately sought after. On one occasion he was asked, Brother Martin, do you love God? He said, love God? Love God? Sometimes I hate Him.

He said, I see Christ as a furious judge with the sword of judgment in His hand coming after me. And again this preoccupation with guilt made the psychiatrist say this morbid sense of unsettled conscience is not rational. It's not sane.

One of the qualities used to describe people losing touch with reality is the loss of normal, normal functions to cover up fears and guilt. For example, there's the story of the man who wouldn't leave his home and he wouldn't even go out on a picnic because he was so afraid of the dangers that were inherent in picnic sites. And so his wife took him to the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist said, why are you so afraid to go on a picnic? He said, I go on a picnic. He says the food's outside in the sun. I can get food poisoning and die.

Not only that, I go outside and eat their snakes in the grass. And there might be a poisonous snake there that comes and bites me and kills me. Or if I drive to the picnic site, I might get hit by a car and get killed. The world out there is filled with danger every minute.

Well, what could the psychiatrist say? There's no risk in riding in an automobile. Of course there's risk in riding an automobile. There's no risk in getting food poisoning. Of course there's a risk in getting food poisoning. Not a risk of getting bit by a poisonous snake. Ask the lady here in the third row who's just recovering from poisonous snake bite. So those risks are real.

But who stays away from picnics because of them? We have these built-in defense mechanisms in our own mind to shield us from the clear and present danger that's out there everywhere. And the person may have an accurate assessment of real danger and still be nuts because they have lost the use, the normal use of defense mechanisms. Now transfer that to the question of guilt. Luther was a guilty man.

He understood the law of God like probably no Christian outside of the Apostle Paul before him. He knew the penalty, the severity for breaking the law of God and knew that his soul was exposed to the potential torment of everlasting damnation. But most people rationalize their guilt. Most people deny their guilt. The normal person has normal defense mechanisms to escape any thoughts about the judgment of God.

It never ceases to amaze me how many millions and millions of people go through their whole lives without ever thinking about what's going to happen to them when they stand before a holy God and have to give an account for every idle word that they have spoken. You see, Luther took those teachings, the sacred Scripture, very seriously and, as I mentioned, the law of God terrified him. And so the question is, was he crazy?

Well, it's been said that there's a fine line between genius and insanity. And I think when I read Luther and look at Luther that he skated across and back over that line throughout his whole life. He was a victim in many ways of his own genius and of his own insight.

Well, there are other important moments of crisis in his life that reinforce this diagnosis that he was an unbalanced and perhaps psychotic man. The first took place at the time that he was going to give and celebrate his first Mass as an ordained monk. Now, between the time of his entrance into the monastery as a novice and the celebration of his first Mass, he was able to mend his fences with his father.

I'm sure that Margarita, his mother, interceded with her husband to be not so harsh with their wayward son who chose the religious life over the prosperous life of law. And so Hans Luther now, instead of bragging to his associates in the business world about my son, the attorney, he was now going to say, my son, the ordained priest. And so the day that Luther was scheduled to celebrate his first Mass, Hans Luther gave personal invitations to his closest business associates in the mining business that he was involved in. And so he brought these associates to the monastery in Erfurt to witness his son's first Mass, and he was scheduling a party of celebration afterwards. And so the moment came for the celebration of the Mass and the early portions of the Mass. Luther, decked in the garments of a priest, went through flawlessly the order of the liturgy of the Mass until he came to that critical moment in the Mass where the miracle of transubstantiation took place, when the common elements of bread and wine were supernaturally and miraculously changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. This took place during the prayer of consecration. And this was one of the powers that is vested in the priest at ordination, that he has now the power to pray the prayer that God will hear to bring about this amazing miracle. And so at the moment in the Mass where the prayer of consecration was to be said, Luther opened his mouth to say the words.

Nothing came out. And he stood frozen at the altar, petrified, beads of sweat on his forehead, a visible tremor in his body. His lip was quivering, but he simply was not able to voice the words. In the midst of this embarrassing moment, one of the other priests stood in, said the prayer for Luther, and abled the Mass to continue. Well, Hans Luther was beside himself. He had come to show off his son, the priest, and his son had failed and failed miserably in his most holy hour to the absolute chagrin and embarrassment of his father. Afterward Hans took Martin aside with a little conversation.

What happened in there? What's the matter with you? Do you think you have a vocation? Do you think that God's called you to be a priest? Maybe you've had an apparition from the devil that you've mistaken for the call to the priesthood. Luther said, don't you understand? I had the body and blood of Jesus Christ in my hand. How do I, as a sinful man, handle these holy things? How can I speak normally in the presence of such wonder and awe?

You see, here was the problem. It wasn't that Luther was crazy. He really believed this. He really believed that the Lord Jesus Christ was there. He really believed that he was standing on holy ground, where other men in the priesthood would just go through the motions and do these things as a matter of course. Luther was trembling in his humanity to be in the presence of the holy. Well, I've said a few moments ago that the road of the monastic vocation was considered one of the highest ways to receive salvation. But another very important element that will feature so prominently and centrally in the whole crisis of the sixteenth century Reformation was the practice of the pilgrimage. A pilgrimage took place when a pilgrim would go to a cathedral that had a reliquary. And a reliquary was the section of the cathedral where a relic or a collection of relics from antiquity were preserved.

Things such as the bones of the apostles or hair from the beard of John the Baptist or milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary, things like this. Every church had some relic of a sort. And there were certain cathedrals that had massive collections of relics.

Again, we'll visit this later on to see about the relic collection in Bittenberg itself, where a pilgrim could receive all kinds of indulgences and forgiveness of your sins now and in purgatory. And so that was a big deal. And of course the two cities in the world most valuable for pilgrimages were Jerusalem and Rome. Rome, the seat of St. Peter's.

Rome, the visible center of the Roman Catholic Church, where the bones of Peter and the bones of Paul were there. And so to have the opportunity to make the trip from Germany to Rome was an unbelievable opportunity. And what happened was at the monastery two of the brothers were selected to make the long journey from Germany into Rome for business concerns for the monastery that would take place in Rome. And Luther was one of the two brothers who was selected for that.

And this selection perhaps gave him more joy than any other experience that he had in the monastery. His only regret was that his mother and father were still alive because he wanted to make this journey to Rome for the benefit of its pilgrimage and use the indulgences from that for his parents. But since they were still alive, he couldn't do that, and so he dedicated this pilgrimage to grandparents, and it was a several-month journey on foot from Germany to Rome. And I don't think even that he got there by 1510.

I think it was 1511 by the time he came to the Holy City. Now his trip to Rome was the most significant disillusionment of his life. When he got to Rome, instead of finding a holy city, he found a city that was marked by unprecedented corruption. He noticed that the priests in the city there would do five or six masses in an hour. They would go through the liturgy as fast as they could recite the words and then collect the fees for it, and that scandalized this idealistic young monk.

Even worse was the sexual behavior of the priests in Rome, who as a matter of commonplace practice were engaged with the use of prostitutes, both female and male. But for him the highlight of the pilgrimage was to be able to visit the Lateran Church, which had been the main church of Rome in the city before St. Peter's was built, because the Lateran Church housed the sacred steps. These were the steps that had been recovered by the Crusaders when they went to Jerusalem. They were the steps that went up to the judgment hall where Jesus was judged by Pontius Pilate, and so history would record that these steps were steps that our Lord actually went up and down. And this whole staircase was dismantled by the Crusaders in Jerusalem and brought back to Rome, and it became a focal point for indulgences. And if you went to the sacred steps, the pilgrim would go up the steps on their hands and knees and recite an Our Father or a Hail Mary on each step of the way until they got to the top, and then they would receive the indulgences from this pilgrimage. I was in Rome several times. The first time I was there, the place I wanted to visit more than anywhere else was the Lateran Church to see if the sacred steps were still there. They were. I wanted to walk up them just because I wanted to see where Luther had this crisis.

I couldn't get near the stairs. They were covered with pilgrims on their hands and knees, and a large sign next to the stairs explained how many indulgences were available. So this is still going on. In any case, Luther went through the process, went up the stairs on his knees, kissed each stair, said the rosary and so on. When he got up to the top, he stood up and he said aloud to no one in particular, who knows if it is true. The doubt that was cast in his heart that pierced his soul that day was one that was not relieved at all until another experience that took place five years later.

That was R.C. Sproul on this Tuesday edition of Renewing Your Mind. Hearing Dr. Sproul recount Luther's journey to Rome and his doubt as he reached the top of those steps at the Lateran Church brought back memories of the study tour Ligonier hosted there last year. And sadly, pilgrims are still climbing those steps today. If you would like to travel with Ligonier and walk in the footsteps of church history, you can find all of the current travel opportunities at This series is titled Luther and the Reformation, and all ten messages plus the paperback book of the same name can be yours for a donation of any amount at This is a series and a book to return to each year as we approach Reformation Day on October 31st, but also to help Christians, Protestants that have forgotten what it was that we were protesting and why it's still relevant today. Call us at 800 435 4343 or visit and give your gift in support of faithful gospel proclamation, and we'll send you R.C. Sproul's book, Luther and the Reformation, and give you digital access to the entire series. What was it that Martin Luther discovered that relieved the doubt that he was carrying? Find us tomorrow in what is often called Luther's Tower Experience, here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-24 03:55:29 / 2023-10-24 04:03:34 / 8

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