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Travelogue: Persevering in the Christian Life

Session 2: Luther in His Cell

Dr. Sproul recounted the story of Martin Luther’s convicting experience in 1505 in which he felt called to become a monk. After choosing a monastery to enter, he went through the ritual of becoming a novice monk, on a one-year trial basis for his new vocation. Following the prescribed order, Luther presented himself to the altar, where he was interrogated by the friar with questions such as, “Are you ready to abandon all comfort, all riches, and submit yourself to rigorous discipline — even to the point of starvation? Are you ready to give up all your fine garments?” And to each of these questions, Luther would answer something like, “By the grace of God, I am so willing.”

Dr. Sproul, in his sweater, imitates Mr. Rogers during his teaching session, Tuesday, Feb. 24. R.C. and Fred Rogers were classmates and friends at Pittsburg Theological Seminary during the early 1960s, and both went on to become Presbyterian pastors.

Dr. Sproul, in his sweater, imitates Mr. Rogers during his teaching session, Tuesday, Feb. 24. R.C. and Fred Rogers were classmates and friends at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary during the early 1960s, and both went on to be Presbyterian pastors.

After going through these questions, the bishop would lie on his stomach with his arms extended in the shape of a cross in front of the altar while he was consecrated to this position. At the end of the ritual, after he had been there on the floor with his arms outstretched, he was invited to stand, and the final words of the ritual were, “It is not he who has begun, but he who has endured and persevered to the end, who will be saved.”

Martin Luther and every other novice bishop was challenged not only to begin the vocation of the monk, but to endure in it until death. “Luther went through the first year with flying colors,” said Dr. Sproul. “He was so well-disciplined and so productive in the labors of the monk that he would reflect later and say, ‘If anybody would ever make it to heaven by monkery, it was I.’ He was admired by his fellows and by his superiors in the monastery for his diligence and his devotion to the task.”

The monks had a rigorous schedule. They would go to bed at 4 or 6 in the afternoon, awoke at 1 in the morning, and the first thing they did was go to the chapel, where they would go through their prayers and sing psalms as a men’s choir. They did this seven times a day. It probably was there in the monastery in Erfurt that Luther acquired the discipline of prayer that would carry him through life to the end. But it was a difficult time as well. A year later, Luther finished his bishopship and was formally ordained to the priesthood. He wore the cowl of a priest for 19 years — for three years after having been excommunicated by the papal bull of 1520 entitled Exsurge Domine, “Rise up, O Lord, there is a wild boar loose in your vineyard.”

The monastic cell in the convent of Austin Friars, Erfurt, Thuringia, Germany, that, according to local tradition, was used by Martin Luther from 1505 to 1507. This was also the convent where he took the monastic vows. photo: irrlicht71

The monastic cell in the convent of Austin Friars, Erfurt, Thuringia, Germany, that, according to local tradition, was used by Martin Luther from 1505 to 1507. This was also the convent where he took the monastic vows. photo: irrlicht71

For years, Luther was very hung up on his guilt. He would spend hours in the confessional booth in the monastery, so for centuries, historians have deduced that Luther must have been insane. Well, perhaps he was. He started his career as a lawyer, and he was a brilliant one, so he knew how to read law and interpret it in the context of justice. Luther had mastered the law of God, where everybody else wasn’t even aware of their own sins. Luther was acutely aware of how insufficient he was to obey God, and he also knew what the implications of that were upon his soul, according to the justice of God.

“He examined his life not by the eyes of the culture, but through the lens of the law of God,” Dr. Sproul said. “He would read the law, and the law would say, ‘The great commandment is, Thou shalt love the LORD your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and so on,’ and everybody else would say, ‘Well, nobody does that. So what’s the big deal?’ Luther said, ‘The big deal is that this is the Great Command. And to violate it is the Great Transgression. And I haven’t loved the LORD my God with all my heart or all my strength or all my mind since I got out of bed this morning!’

“And so he applied the rigorous standard of God, not the relative standards of human beings, to his own life, and would spend six hours there in the confessional to receive absolution from [Johann von] Staupitz, his father confessor, and he would go out, and on the way back to his cell, he would remember his sin that he forgot to confess, and was miserable. His father confessor loved him but became frustrated with him, and he said, ‘Brother Martin. Please come in here and confess some significant sin. Adultery or something! But not all of these peccadilloes that you endlessly recite to us!’ I mean, how much trouble can you get into in a monastery every 24 hours?”

But Luther was serious about this because he believed in God, and he believed that God is righteous. And this is what was about to destroy him. So he was seeking solace, some relief from his guilt and his lack of peace. He followed that tradition that said that the best way to merit your way into heaven was to go into the priesthood, embrace a holy vocation, and be consecrated. Luther wanted to do everything he could possibly do as a priest to ensure his later salvation.

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