Monday, October 17, 2011

A Brief History of Martin Luther, Part 3

Luther Becomes a Monk:

In the summer of 1505 Luther entered the Augustinian convent at Erfurt and became a monk. His father nearly went crazy when he heard the news. Later in life, Luther declared that his monastic vow was forced from him by terror and the fear of death and the judgment to come, yet he never doubted that God’s hand was in it.

The Augustinian convent at Erfurt became the cradle of the Lutheran Reformation. Luther was a sincere, conscientious monk. It was significant that the order Luther joined bore the name of the greatest Latin father who, next to St. Paul, was to be Luther’s chief teacher of theology and religion. But it is an error to suppose that this order represented the anti-Pelagian or evangelical views of the North African father. In fact, it was intensely catholic in doctrine, and given to excessive worship of the Virgin Mary, and obedience to the papal see which conferred upon it many special privileges.

At the end of 1505 Luther promised to live until death in poverty and chastity, to render obedience to Almighty God, to the Virgin Mary, and to the prior of the monastery. For the next two years he diligently read the Scriptures and the latter Scholastic theologians. He observed the tiniest details of discipline. No one surpassed him in prayer, fasting, night watches, and self-mortification. He was already held up as a model of sanctity. "If ever," he said afterward, "a monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there."

He was disappointed in his hopes to escape sin and temptation behind the cloister walls. He found no peace in all his pious exercises. The more he advanced externally, the more he felt the burden of sin within. He had to contend with temptations of anger, envy, hatred and pride. He saw sin everywhere, even in the smallest trifles. The Scriptures impressed upon him the terrors of divine justice. He could not trust in God as a reconciled Father, as a God of love and mercy but trembled before him, as a God of wrath, as a consuming fire. He could not get over the words: "I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God." His confessor once told him: "You are a fool, God is not angry with you, but you are angry with God." He remembered this afterward as "a great and glorious word," but at that time it made no impression on him. He could not point to any particular transgression; it was sin as an all-pervading power and vitiating principle, sin as a corruption of nature, sin as a state of alienation from God and hostility to God that weighed on his mind and brought him often to the brink of despair. In this state of mental and moral agony, Luther was comforted by an old monk of the convent who reminded him of the article on the forgiveness of sins in the Apostles’ Creed, of Paul’s word that the sinner is justified by grace through faith, and of an incidental remark of St. Bernard (in a Sermon on the Canticles) to the same effect.

His best friend and wisest counselor was Johann von Staupitz, Doctor of Divinity and Vicar-General of the Augustinian convents in Germany. Staupitz was Luther’s spiritual father. He encouraged Luther to enter the priesthood (1507), and brought him to Wittenberg. He convinced him to take the degree of Doctor of Divinity, and to preach. 

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