The Insanity of Luther: The Holiness of God with R.C. Sproul


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, and the one who referred to him as a wild pig was Pope
Leo. In the papal bull that excommunicated Luther, the name of the bull was Exsurge
Dominae, which is taken from the opening lines of this papal statement that was
sent from the Vatican, and the opening words mean this: “Rise up, oh lords.
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 had other things to say about Luther
after Luther had posted his ninety-five theses that had created such a stir
throughout Germany and that controversy that spread across Europe and had reached
the Vatican in Rome. When it came to the attention of Leo, Leo said, “Ah! He is a
drunken German. He’ll change his mind when he’s sober.” And I say that to call
attention to the fact that in the Sixteenth Century it was acceptable in
theological disputatio to discuss matters not in a genteel, polite form of dialogue,
but rather in a rather acerbic form of polemical debate. And 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, so rude at times that people have even suggested that
he suffered from a mental problem. That’s what I’d like to consider in this session:
the judgment from the perspective of twentieth century psychoanalysis is, or
has been made, that Martin Luther was in fact, insane, and if you are a Protestant
and that verdict is true, that means the roots of your own religions persuasion
could be traced to that of a madman. Now it’s somewhat fascinating to see how
historians can think that they can go back into the past and watch the grass growing
from a perspective of two thousand years later. Well there’s 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 hundred years ago or five hundred years ago, or however.
And there have been those who have actually come to the conclusion that
Martin Luther was crazy — that he 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 this 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, where
Erasmus had written a word against Luther entitled “The Diatribe.” And when Luther
responded to Erasmus, he would say things like this: “Erasmus, you fool, you stupid
idiot.” He said, “Why is it that I even take the time to listen to the flimsy
arguments that you give?” He said, “Oh, you — you are eloquent. Your pen is
magnificent.” He said, “But reading the material that you have written,” he said,
“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. Not only was Luther intemperate in his speech, but he was 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 stomachache he was sure it was a fatal disease, and 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. And 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? He said, “Love God? You ask me if I love God? 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, and that
hatred was inseparably related to this paralyzing fear that Luther expressed that
he had about God. We know that as a young man his father had plans for Luther to be
a distinguished lawyer, and old Hans Luther, who was a coalminer in Germany,
saved his money to make it possible for his son to go to the finest law school on
the continent, and 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 this storm arose without warning,
and Luther found himself trapped on the road in the midst of a violent electrical
storm. And the lightning was flashing, and the thunder was banging, and suddenly a
lightning bolt came and landed so close to his horse that Luther was thrown from the
horse onto the ground, and he had to feel his body to see if he was still alive. And
there, what he did in the midst of that narrow escape from death, he cried out,
“Saint Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” And he took this narrow brush with
death as a divine omen on his life and as a call to the ministry. So he — to his
father’s everlasting displeasure — he dropped out of law school and 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 that the Western Open, outside of Chicago,
three prominent members of the Professional Golf Tour were injured by a
close bolt of lightning, including Lee Trevino. And they survived this difficult
experience, and shortly thereafter Trevino appeared on a talk show — a late-night
talk show — and the host said to him, “Now Mr. Trevino, what did you learn from
this experience of almost being killed by a lightning bolt?” And Trevino smiled, and
he said, “I learned that when the Almighty wants to play through, you get out of His
way. ” And then Trevino went on to quip, he said, “I’ve also learned to take
precautions any time that I’m involved in a lightning storm now.” And the host
said, “Well what do you do?” He 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 he said, “Why in the world would you hold a metal stick up in the air? It’s
like a lightning rod.” And he said, “No, no, no.” He said, “Even God can’t hit a
1-iron.” So Trevino responded to his close brush with death from lightning with
typical jocularity and flippancy, where Luther was driven to change his entire
life, to enter into the monastery, to give up his career — not out of a love for God
but out of a phobic preoccupation with the wrath of God. Well then the day finally
came where Luther was to be ordained and to celebrate his first mass, and finally
his father and family had somewhat made their peace with their son’s precipitous
decision, and Hans Luther decided to come and attend the celebration of the first
mass that his son is going to perform. And as you know, Luder — Luther — had
distinguished himself in school as an outstanding scholar and as an outstanding
speaker, and so people were waiting in eager anticipation for his presentation
and performance of his first mass. Now you have to understand this: that in the Roman
Catholic church, in the celebration of the mass, the belief of the Roman Catholic
church is that in the midst of this observation, a divine, supernatural,
immediate miracle takes place where, during the prayer of consecration, that
can be offered by one who has gone through holy orders and has been consecrated as a
priest, during the prayer of consecration the miracle takes place — the miracle
that is called transubstantiation where 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 change, an
essential change in these elements that they call transubstantiation. That is,
that the substance of the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the very
body and blood of Christ while the accidens — that is the external,
perceivable qualities of bread and wine — remain the same. This is the miracle, and
Luther had prepared himself in his training for this moment when he would
make this prayer over the elements and the divine mystery would take place so that
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. And so the moment in the mass came
where the prayer would be uttered, and everyone waited for Luther to say the
words of consecration. And he came to that point in the mass, and this one who was so
arrogant, so obviously capable of public speaking, he approached that moment, and
suddenly he froze. He began to tremble, and his lips moved, but no words came out.
And it’s like the people sat in the congregation trying to will the words out
of his mouth, and 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. He
didn’t forget the lines. He finally just mumbled them and rapidly completed the
mass and left the chancel in profound embarrassment, but he explained later that
it wasn’t a mental lapse, but 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. And Luther was so overcome with
his unworthiness that he froze at that moment. Oh, there are other stories about
Luther that indicate the extraordinary character of his behavior. We remember
that after the reformation was underway and a dispute came up between the
Calvinists and the Lutherans about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and
there was every effort to reach an agreement between these two strong forces
of Protestantism, and they met at a very important symposium, and there 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 just 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. They say perhaps the thing that would most indicate
his insanity is the apparent commitment to megalomania. I mean 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. Well he went through all of these debates at Leipzig.
He debated at — with Martin 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 Diet — the Imperial Diet of Worms — and
at Worms Luther is on trial, and he is going to be asked to recant of his
writings. And he’s to be on trial not only before the ecclesiastical authorities but
also before the secular authorities, and he’s granted safe conduct to come to this
momentous occasion for his trial; and before he gets there, in typical fashion
they ask him, “Well what are you going to say when you get to Worms?” And he said
this: He said, “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.”
I mean that’s the kind of statements that he would make — less than tactful and
diplomatic. So the world was watching when the stage was set for the Imperial Diet of
Worms, and Luther came into the hall; and Hollywood would have you look at it this
way: that Luther marched into the judgment hall, and he stood there alone as the
center of attention as the gallery, the crowd, the princes of the church and
princes of the state peered down at him from their lofty seats, and the inquisitor
stood up and read the charges and pointed to the books that were on the table next
to Luther, and they said, “Martin Luther, will you recant of these writings?” And
the Hollywood version is this: that Luther looked up into the gallery and he saw the
representatives of the emperor, of the Holy Roman Empire, and he saw the princes
of Germany, and he saw the bishops and the representatives from the Curia in Rome,
and he 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. That’s not how it happened.
At that moment in church history, when the question was put to Martin Luther, “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?”
And he looked at the authorities, and he said, “Could I have twenty-four hours to
think it over?” He didn’t know if he was right, and he was granted the additional
time, and he retired to his cell for private prayer and meditation; and he
wrote a prayer that night, which has survived to this day. And 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. For Luther, this
was a private Gethsemane, and 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 shouldest do this, by
thine own mighty power. For the work is not mine but thine. I have not 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, 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. And on the morrow, when Luther returned to
the hall at the Diet of Worms, and again the inquisitor put the question to him, he
said, “Brother Martin, will you now recant of these teachings?” And again Luther
hesitated for a moment, and 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. One other point — in fact the aspect of Luther’s life that
really makes people think he was nuts. It goes back to his years in the monastery.
It was the function and the practice of every young priest in the monastery to go
through the order and the rule of the monastery to give a daily confession to
his father confessor, and as a matter of routine the other brothers would come into
the confessional, and they would say, “Father, I have sinned, and hear my
confession.” He’d say, “Well 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 in in a monastery? These guys
would give their confession, and the father confessor would say, “Say so many
“Hail Marys,” do these penance,” and send them back to their labors as monks.
And then Luther would come to the confessional. He would 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. And it would take him not five minutes or ten minutes, not a
half an hour or an hour, but there were days after days where Luther would spend
in the confessional reciting his sins of the past day, and it would take him two
hours or three hours, and four hours, to the point that it was driving the
superiors in the monastery crazy. And they complained to him. They said, “Brother
Martin, stop this preoccupation with peccadilloes. If you’re going to confess
something, make it a real sin.” But all Luther was doing was all these small,
little things that it was — and it began to feel that 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 priests” But his confessor
understood that Luther, whatever else, was earnest about this, and 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 that he had committed that he forgot
to confess. And 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, very adept at
guilt-denial and guilt-justification as human beings. They say sometimes that
there’s a thin line between insanity and genius, and that those who are geniuses
sometimes transverse back and forth across the line. And I suspect, perhaps, that’s
what happened with Luther because the thing that the psychiatrists overlook
about this man is this: that 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 he applied it to the law of God; and then he
would look at the law of God and its demands — the fullness of the demands of
perfection — and he would 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 at the character
of God, the righteousness of God. As he saw himself so awful in comparison to the
righteousness of God that after awhile he began to hate any idea of the
righteousness of God. Then one night, as he was preparing his lectures as a doctor
in theology, to teach his students at the University of Wittenberg in the doctrines
and the teachings of the apostle Paul in the book of Romans, as he was reading the
first chapter and reading the commentaries and reading a passage that Augustine had
written centuries later, he came to Romans one, and he read these words: “For the
righteousness is revealed by faith, and the just shall live by faith.” And
suddenly the concept burst upon his mind that what this passage was teaching in
Romans was that it was discussing the righteousness of God — not that
righteousness by which God himself is righteous, but it was describing the
righteousness of God that God provides for you and for me graciously, freely to
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. And Luther said,
“It broke into my mind, and I realized for the first time that my justification, that
my station before God is established not on the basis of my own naked
righteousness, which will always fall short of the demands of God, but it rests
solely and completely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which I must hold on to
by trusting faith.” He said, “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.” And 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 nobody because it’s
the gospel.” Is that crazy? Ladies and gentlemen, if that’s crazy I pray that God
would send an army of insane people like that into this world that the gospel may
not be eclipsed, that we might understand that in the presence of a holy God that
how we, who are unjust may be justified, is 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 that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have
everlasting life. That is the gospel for which Luther was prepared to die. Let’s
pray. Father we thank you for the testimony of this madman, that he
understood how desperately we need a righteousness that is not our own to cover
our own lack of righteousness. Father we thank you that you have not dangled us
over the pit of hell like you did to Luther, that you have not driven us to the
point of despair before we’ve been able to see the sweetness and the glory of Christ;
but if that’s what it takes for anyone who hears this message to embrace, and I pray,
oh God, that the Hound of Heaven may be sent to the conscience of everyone who
refuses that grace until, like Luther, they are ready to leap for joy in
understanding that their righteousness is in Christ and in Christ alone. Amen.

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