Lecture 4, The Insanity of Luther:

If God is holy and man is sinful, what is there for man? This is the problem Martin Luther wrestled with for years and which drove him to despair. It caused him to cry out at one time, “Love God? Sometimes I hate Him.” Then one day as Luther was preparing to teach Romans 1 to his theological students, he came to verse 17 and read, “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith….” Luther said later, “I realized for the first time that my own justification depends, not on my own righteousness which will always fall short, but it rests solely and completely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ which I must hold on to by trusting faith.” This lesson is designed to help us understand how sinful people can stand in the presence of a holy God through the righteousness which God provides through Jesus Christ.

Message Transcript

I’d like to begin this session with a question from church history. See if you can identify for me the famous theologian who was once described by a contemporary who had more authority than he did as a “wild pig.” Well by now, obviously, the name has popped into your mind. I’m referring, of course, to Martin Luther. The one who referred to him as a “wild pig” was Pope Leo X.

The name of the papal bull that excommunicated Luther was Exsurge Domine, which is taken from the opening lines of this papal statement that was sent from the Vatican. The opening words mean this: “Rise up, oh Lord. Defend your cause, for,” as the Pope goes on to say, “there is a wild boar loose in your vineyard.”

According to legend, Pope Leo X had other things to say about Luther after he had posted his Ninety-Five Theses and created such a stir throughout Germany. Controversy had spread across Europe and reached the Vatican in Rome. When it came to the attention of Leo, he said: “Ah! He is a drunken German. He’ll change his mind when he’s sober.” 

I say all that to call attention to the fact that, in the sixteenth century, it was acceptable in theological disputation to discuss matters in a rather acerbic form of polemical debate instead of a genteel, polite form of dialogue. So if you read the writings of the sixteenth century on both sides of the controversy, it seems as though these people are ruthless in their attacks upon each other. But even in that crowd of ruthless debate, Martin Luther was in a class by himself. He was so intemperate, so bombastic, and so rude at times, that people have even suggested that he suffered from a mental problem. That is what I’d like to consider in this session.

Out of His Mind?

The judgment from the perspective of twentieth-century psychoanalysis has been made that Martin Luther was, in fact, insane. And if you are a Protestant and that verdict is true, this means the roots of your own religious persuasion could be traced to that of a madman.

It’s somewhat fascinating to see how historians think they can go back into the past and watch the grass growing from a perspective of two thousand years later. There are no boundaries to the optimism of certain psychoanalysts who think that they can go back into the pages of history and, from a large distance, be able to diagnose the psychological state of somebody who lived four or five hundred years ago. And there have been those who have actually come to the conclusion that Martin Luther was insane.

But what I want to ask is this: Why? What would people see in Luther that would provoke them to think, “Perhaps the man was out of his mind”?

I’ve mentioned already the extraordinary intemperance of Luther. You read, for example, his famous work, On the Bondage of the Will, which is a response to the sophisticated, humanist scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus had written a word against Luther titled The Diatribe.

When Luther responded to Erasmus, he would say things like this: “Erasmus, you fool, you stupid idiot. Why is it that I even take the time to listen to the flimsy arguments that you give? Oh, you are eloquent, and your pen is magnificent. But reading the material that you have written is just like watching somebody walking down the street carrying gold and silver plates that are filled with dung.” That’s the way Luther would engage in theological debate. I won’t translate those words into the vernacular, but I think you get the idea.

“Sometimes I Hate God”

Not only was Luther intemperate in his speech, but he was also clearly neurotic, particularly about his health. He was a hypochondriac. He suffered from nervous anxiety and a nervous stomach his whole life, and I can relate to that. He had kidney stones. I can relate to that. He predicted his death six or seven times. Every time Luther got a stomach ache, he was sure it was a fatal disease. He was always looking over his shoulder, thinking that the Hound of Heaven was about to pounce on him and visit him with some kind of judgment.

His phobias were many and legendary. He had such a fear of the wrath of God that, early on in his ministry, somebody put this question to him: “Brother Martin, do you love God?” You know what he said? “Love God? You ask me if I love God? Sometimes I hate God. I see Christ as a consuming judge who is simply looking at me to evaluate me and to visit affliction upon me.” Imagine a young man preparing for the ministry declaring that he goes through periods of hating God. Luther’s hatred was inseparably related to this paralyzing fear which he expressed that he had about God.

A Close Encounter with Lightning

We know that, as a young man, Luther’s father had plans for him to be a distinguished lawyer. And old Hans Luther, who was a coal miner in Germany, saved his money to make it possible for his son to go to the finest law school on the continent. When Luther became a law student, he distinguished himself very quickly as one of the most brilliant young minds in the field of jurisprudence in all of Europe.

But in the midst of that experience, he was coming home one afternoon, riding on horseback, when suddenly a storm arose without warning. Luther found himself trapped on the road in the midst of a violent electrical storm. The lightning was flashing, the thunder was banging, and suddenly a lightning bolt came and landed so close to his horse that Luther was thrown onto the ground. He had to feel his body to see if he was still alive.

In the midst of that narrow escape from death he cried out: “Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” He took this narrow brush with death as a divine omen on his life, and as a call to the ministry. So to his father’s everlasting displeasure, he dropped out of law school, enrolled in the monastery, and began to take training to become a priest. Now there aren’t too many people that have that kind of a reaction to a close encounter with lightning.

I remember a few years ago, three prominent members of the Professional Golf Tour, including Lee Trevino, were injured by a close bolt of lightning at the Western Open outside of Chicago. They survived this difficult experience, and shortly thereafter Trevino appeared on a late-night talk show. The host said to him, “Now Mr. Trevino, what did you learn from this experience of almost being killed by a lightning bolt?” Trevino smiled and said, “I learned that when the Almighty wants to play through, you get out of His way.” Then Trevino went on to quip, “I’ve also learned to take precautions any time that I’m involved in a lightning storm now.” And the host asked, “What do you do?” Trevino said, “Well, now if I see lightning, I immediately pull out my 1-iron and walk down the fairway holding it in the air.” And the host said: “Why in the world would you hold a metal stick up in the air? It’s like a lightning rod.” And Trevino responded, “No, no, no. Even God can’t hit a 1-iron.”

Trevino responded to his close brush with death from lightning with typical jocularity and flippancy, while Luther was driven to change his entire life, to enter into the monastery, and to give up his career. He did all this, not out of a love for God, but out of a phobic preoccupation with the wrath of God.

Overcome with Unworthiness

Then the day finally came where Luther was to be ordained and to celebrate his first mass. His father and family had somewhat made their peace with their son’s precipitous decision. Hans Luther decided to come and attend the celebration of the first mass that his son was going to perform. Luther had distinguished himself in school as an outstanding scholar and an outstanding speaker, so people were waiting in eager anticipation for his presentation and performance of his first mass.

Now you have to understand, the belief of the Roman Catholic Church is that a divine, supernatural, immediate miracle takes place in the celebration of the mass. During the prayer of consecration, which can only be offered by one who has gone through holy orders and has been consecrated as a priest, a miracle takes place that is called transubstantiation. Even though the appearance of bread and wine remains the same and no one can discern any observable change in these elements, nevertheless Rome believes that there is a substantive, essential change in the elements. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the very body and blood of Christ while the accidens (the external, perceivable qualities of bread and wine) remain the same. This is the miracle.

Luther had prepared himself in his training for this moment. He would make his prayer over the elements and the divine mystery would take place. Then after the consecration happened, in the hands of the son of a coal miner would be not bread, not wine, not the common elements from the earth, but nothing less than the holy body and blood of Jesus Christ.

The moment in the mass came when the prayer would be uttered, and everyone waited for Luther to say the words of consecration. He came to that point in the mass and, this one who was so arrogant, so obviously capable of public speaking, suddenly froze. He began to tremble. His mouth opened and his lips moved, but no words came out. It’s like the people sat in the congregation trying to will the words out of his mouth. His father was hiding his face in embarrassment that his son couldn’t even get through the simple celebration of the mass that he had memorized a thousand times.

Everyone thought he simply forgot the lines, but he didn’t forget the lines. He finally just mumbled them, rapidly completed the mass, and left the chancel in profound embarrassment.

He explained later that it wasn’t a mental lapse. Rather, he began to contemplate the idea that this one who was a sinful human being would dare have the audacity to hold in his filthy hands the precious body and blood of Christ. Luther was so overcome with his unworthiness that he froze at that moment.

A Strange Fellow

There are other stories about Luther that indicate the extraordinary character of his behavior. We remember that after the Reformation was underway a dispute came up between the Calvinists and the Lutherans about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There was every effort to reach an agreement between these two strong forces of Protestantism. They met at a very important symposium.

As they were discussing their differences, Luther insisted on the corporeal presence of the body of Christ in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And he took his fist and began to bang on the table over and over again: “Hoc est corpus meum. Hoc est corpus meum,” like Nikita Khrushchev did at the United Nations decades ago when he took his shoe off and started pounding on the table for attention. Luther wouldn’t debate. He wouldn’t discuss. He just kept saying over and over again, “This is my body.”

He was a strange fellow.

Defying Every Earthly Authority

Perhaps the thing that would most indicate his insanity is the apparent commitment to megalomania. How else can you explain a person being willing to defy every authority structure of this world and to stand utterly alone as a young priest against all of the authorities of the church—against the pope, against church counsels, against the finest theologians in the land?  He went through all of these debates at Leipzig. He debated with Johann Eck. He debated with Cardinal Cajetan. He went and got himself in trouble with the pope and now, finally, the whole discussion comes to a climax where Luther is invited to the Imperial Diet of Worms.

At Worms, Luther is on trial and is going to be asked to recant of his writings. He is to be on trial, not only before the ecclesiastical authorities, but also before the secular authorities. He is granted safe conduct to come to this momentous occasion for his trial. Before he gets there, in typical fashion, they ask him, “Well, what are you going to say when you get to Worms?” And he says, “Previously I used to speak of the pope as the vicar of Christ, but now I’m going to say that the pope is the adversary of Christ, the vicar of Satan.” These are the kind of statements that he would make—less than tactful and diplomatic.

The Diet at Worms

The world was watching and the stage was set for the Imperial Diet at Worms, and Luther came into the hall. Hollywood would have you look at it this way: Luther marched into the judgment hall and stood there alone as the center of attention as the gallery—the crowds of princes of the church and princes of the state—peered down at him from their lofty seats. The inquisitor stood up, read the charges, pointed to the books that were on the table next to Luther, and said, “Martin Luther, will you recant of these writings?”

The Hollywood version is that Luther looked up into the gallery and saw the representatives of the Holy Roman Empire, the princes of Germany, the bishops, and the representatives from the Curia in Rome, and then said: “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I will not recant! For my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand—God help me—I can do no other!” Boom! And on with the Reformation. But that’s not how it happened.

At that moment in church history, when the question was put to him, “Martin Luther, will you recant?” Do you know what he said? He answered the question, and nobody in the hall could hear what he said. They said: “What did he say? What did he say? Speak up, Luther. What did you say? Will you recant of these writings?” 

He looked at the authorities and said, “Could I have twenty-four hours to think it over?” He didn’t know if he was right. He was granted the additional time and retired to his cell for private prayer and meditation. He wrote a prayer that night which has survived to this day. I’d like to read a portion of that prayer to you so that you can get a feeling for the anguish of soul that Martin Luther endured the night before the final verdict.

Here I Stand

For Luther this was like a private Gethsemane. He prayed like this:

“Oh God. Almighty God everlasting, how dreadful is the world. Behold how its mouth opens to swallow me up, and how small is my faith in thee. Oh the weakness of the flesh and the power of Satan. If I am to depend upon any strength in this world, all is over. The knell is struck. Sentence has gone forth. Oh God, oh God, oh thou my God, help me against all the wisdom of this world. Do this, I beseech thee. Thou shouldst do this, by thine own mighty power. For the work is not mine, but thine. I have no business here. I have nothing to contend for with these great men of the world. I would gladly pass my days in happiness and peace, but the cause is yours, and it is righteous and everlasting, oh Lord. Help me, oh faithful and unchangeable God. I lean not upon man—it were vain. Whatever is of man is tottering. Whatever proceeds from him must fail. My God, my God, dost thou not hear? My God, art thou no longer living? Nay, thou canst not die; thou dost but hide thyself. Thou hast chosen me for this work; I know it. Therefore, oh God, accomplish thine own will and forsake me not for the sake of thy well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ—my defense, my buckler, my stronghold.”

And it goes on like this.

On the morrow, when Luther returned to the hall at the Diet of Worms, again the inquisitor put the question to him: “Brother Martin, will you now recant of these teachings?” Again Luther hesitated for a moment. Then he said: “Unless I’m convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, don’t you see I can’t recant? My conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can’t do anything else. God help me.”

Megalomania? Visions of grandeur? Maybe.

A Preoccupation with Peccadilloes

One other point—in fact the aspect of Luther’s life that really makes people think he was nuts—goes back to his years in the monastery. It was the function and practice of every young priest in the monastery to go through the order and the rule of the monastery, and to give a daily confession to his father confessor. As a matter of routine, the other brothers would come into the confessional and say, “Father, I have sinned, hear my confession.” The confessor would ask, “What did you do?” “Well last night after lights out I used a candle, and I read an extra three chapters in the Psalms when I wasn’t supposed to,” or, “Yesterday afternoon I coveted Brother Henry’s chicken leg at the lunch hall.” I mean, how much trouble can you get into in a monastery?

These guys would give their confession, and the father confessor would say, “Say so many ‘Hail Marys,’ and do this penance,” and send them back to their labors as monks.

Then Luther would come to the confessional and say: “Father, forgive me for I have sinned. It’s been twenty-four hours since my last confession.” And he would begin to recite the sins that he had committed in the past twenty-four hours. It would take him not five minutes or ten minutes, not a half an hour or an hour. There were days after days where Luther would be in the confessional reciting his sins of the past day, and it would take him two, three, or four hours, to the point that it was driving the superiors in the monastery crazy.

And they complained to him: “Brother Martin, stop this preoccupation with peccadilloes. If you’re going to confess something, make it a real sin.” But all Luther was doing were little things, and it began to feel like he was goldbricking. They said: “What is it, you like to spend your time here in the confessional? You don’t like to do the tasks that are assigned to you as a priest?” But his confessor understood that Luther was earnest about this.

The Holy Law of God

Luther revealed later that he would come out of the confessional after a three or four-hour marathon, and he would hear the words of the priest saying, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he would feel light-hearted and joyous as he returned to his cell. Until, suddenly, he would remember a sin he had committed that he forgot to confess. Then all of the joy and all of the peace vanished.

Now that’s crazy if, by modern psychiatric terms, we understand that a person has normal, built-in defense mechanisms to defend against our own guilt afflictions. We are very adept at guilt-denial and guilt-justification as human beings. They say that there’s sometimes a thin line between insanity and genius, and that those who are geniuses sometimes transverse back and forth across the line. I suspect, perhaps, that’s what happened with Luther.

The thing that the psychiatrists overlook about this man is this: before Luther ever studied theology, he had already distinguished himself with brilliance as a student of the law. And he took that sharply acute, trained legal mind and applied it to the law of God. Then he would look at the law of God and the fullness of the demands of perfection and analyze himself in light of the holy law of God. And he couldn’t stand the results.

He kept evaluating himself, not by comparing himself to other human beings, but by looking at the standard of the character of God—the righteousness of God. As he saw himself so awful in comparison to the righteousness of God, after a while he began to hate any idea of the righteousness of God.

By Faith Alone

Then one night he was preparing his lectures as a doctor in theology to teach his students at the University of Wittenberg in the doctrines and teachings of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. As Luther was reading Augustine and the commentaries on Romans 1, he came to these words: “For the righteousness of God is revealed by faith, and the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). And suddenly the concept burst upon his mind that this passage in Romans was not describing that righteousness of God by which God Himself is righteous, but the righteousness of God that He graciously and freely provides for you, me, and anyone who puts their trust in Christ. Anyone who puts their trust in Christ receives the covering and the cloak of the righteousness of Christ.

Luther said: “It broke into my mind, and I realized for the first time that my justification, my station before God, is not established on the basis of my own naked righteousness, which will always fall short of the demands of God. Rather, it instead rests solely and completely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which I must hold on to by a trusting faith. And when I understood that, for the first time in my life I understood the gospel. And I looked and beheld the doors of Paradise swung open, and I walked through.”

It’s like Luther said to the world, from that day forward, to popes and to counsels, to diets and to kings: “The just shall live by faith; justification by faith alone. ‘God is holy and I am not’ is the article upon which the church stands or falls, and I negotiate it with no one because it is the gospel.”

Is that crazy? Ladies and gentlemen, if that’s crazy then I pray that God would send an army of insane people like that into this world so that the gospel may not be eclipsed. So that we might understand that, in the presence of a holy God, we who are unjust may be justified by the fact that God in His holiness—without negotiating His holiness—has offered us the holiness of His Son as a covering for our sin. Whoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

That is the gospel for which Luther was prepared to die.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.