The Insanity of Luther
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”- Romans 1:16-17
Modern academia thrives on applying its theories to figures and events of the past, and no field makes this clearer than the field of psychology. Despite never having had one-on-one contact with the men and women of centuries gone by, many of those who work in psychology or who apply a psychological approach to the study of history or religion are unafraid to diagnose people who lived centuries ago with psychoses of various kinds.
Martin Luther is one figure whom modern scholars have often psychoanalyzed. Some thinkers have even labeled the great German Reformer as insane, which is actually not all that surprising given that Luther’s enemies regarded him as crazy even in his own day. To be fair to these modern thinkers, Luther’s commanding personality invites speculation about his mental state. He suffered anxiety for a great portion of his life, and he tended to be a hypochondriac. His over-the-top commentary is also well-known. For example, on one occasion, he described Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam’s defense of free will as dung served up on gold plates.
Yet secular academics have the most trouble wrapping their minds around the intense personal guilt that Luther felt during his early years. His fear of God’s wrath paralyzed him, and he constantly looked over his shoulder for the Lord to strike him. He froze during the consecration of the Communion elements during his first celebration of the Mass due to His awareness of His unworthiness before God. Moreover, he got on the nerves of his monastic supervisors, confessing every trivial sin he could think of and yet never finding his guilty conscience assuaged.
As those whose eyes have been opened to the Lord’s true character, we know why Luther struggled with such guilt. He understood God’s majestic holiness better than most, and this drove his fear of divine judgment. Secular thinkers must view Luther as crazy, for that is the only explanation that those who do not know the Creator’s holiness and the depth of their sin can fathom. Still, Luther did not live out his later life in despair. His guilt drove him to the Bible, where he discovered that we can be credited with the righteousness of Christ by faith alone and stand unafraid in the day of judgment (Rom. 1:16–17). In Christ, we need not fear our most holy Lord (chap. 4).
Once we begin to understand something of the gravity of our sin and the purity of God’s character, it can be easy for our knowledge of our depravity to paralyze us. This need not be the case, for the good news of the gospel is that while we are sinners in and of ourselves, God fully receives us as righteous if we trust in His Son alone for salvation. In so doing, we enjoy peace with God the Father and have no reason to fear His eternal wrath.
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 1:13–21