How Martin Luther’s protest failed him

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Portrait of Martin Luther

It is deeply satisfying to see the peace, love and joy that flows into the hearts of worshipers here at The Good Shepherd. The work and fruit of the Holy Spirit is a deep, abiding, joyful stability which I see growing in many of our parishioners. Through entering into the worship of the Holy Orthodox Church, so many people, of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds alike, find communion with the God Who is the Lover of Mankind.

Orthodox Christianity is filled with an overwhelming sense of optimism. Her slogan is “Jesus Christ, Victor.” Her hymn is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” Her icon is Christ, having shattered the fetters and locks of Hades, holding Adam and Eve by the arms, dragging them towards heaven (see below). And Her hope is the Life of Christ filling and transforming each communicant. Orthodoxy’s optimism is founded on the reality of a dynamic union between God and man mediated by the resurrected, triumphant Jesus Christ.

Christ defeats Death and Hades

Icon from Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Istanbul), shows Christ shattering the gates of Hades and pulling Adam and Eve up towards Paradise. Notice that Christ is holding Adam and Eve by their wrists? It's communicating that the power is entirely of Christ. There's a debris field under Christ's feet of broken locks and chains, and bound by his own locks is the Devil for “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

I so wish that Martin Luther could have tasted this sweet joy. For Luther’s life, while sometimes thought of as a triumph, is deeply tragic. The tragedy is that he lived and died without knowing the stable joy and peace that grows from union with the Holy Trinity. Luther never had the chance to participate in the worship of the Eastern Church. If he had, he might have had a completely different view of God’s relationship with man.


A deep pessimism

The sixteenth century western religious environment was marked by a deep pessimism about the human condition. What later within Protestantism came to be called the “hellfire sermon” had its roots in the medieval Catholic view of man’s impending doom before a wrath-filled God. San Bernardino, who died in the middle of the 15th century, preached the sort of sermon that set the tone for Luther’s understanding of God and man. Here’s an example of the sort of sermon that heavily influenced Luther.

Yes, you wretch, God is good, God is merciful, and infinitely better and more merciful than you imagine or could possibly imagine. At the same time, learn that this same God, so good and so merciful, threw from the heights of heaven down to the lowest depths of hell the third part of the angels, these lovely and noble creatures, merely for a sinful thought, conceived in a moment and without any other moment in which they might do penance. It is the same God who banished Adam from the earthly paradise for eating a fruit against his injunction, who condemned him to endless woes and just as swiftly condemned his descendants to the flames of hell.

This same merciful God condemned his own Son to die on the cross for the expiation of sins he had not committed, but especially this good, kind God will see throughout eternity an almost infinite number of poor souls languishing in the blazing pits of fire, making horrible shrieks and eternal howls. And he will never even think to deliver them from their agony, nor be touched with the least compassion for them. Therefore, learn if you do not know this already, that when you say that God is good, you speak true, but you have not spoken the entire truth, for you must add that he is just, that the extent of his kindness equals that of his justice, that just as he is infinitely good so is he infinitely just, and that the strictness of his justice primarily touches those who will have abused his goodness, and that to offend him and so they will have to endure a wounded mercy and angered justice. 

— San Bernardino

When Luther encountered this kind of piety he shivered at the thought of his unworthiness before God. He was filled with dread at the thought of his impending doom and destruction. Thoughts and feelings of his personal unworthiness led Luther through harrowing mood swings. During bouts of deep religiosity, he would throw himself into severe bouts of penitence; at other times, he would completely give up and neglect his Christian duties.

It didn’t help Luther’s state of mind that penance was considered punishment. The purpose of doing penance was to reduce the length of one’s stay in purgatory. Roman Catholic manuals emphasised a juridical approach to handing out penitential punishments — a certain type and quantity of penance for a certain type of sin.

One has to understand how drastically removed this is from the positive traditional piety of the Church. St. John of Sinai writes about repentance as a “joy-creating sorrow.” It is for him a recognition that it is the passions within the human soul that separate us from Christ, and the godly sorrow that brings us to repentance turns into an unspeakable joy of renewed union with God. 

Sadly, the legalistic environment in which Luther lived never gave him the chance to know repentance as a “joy-creating sorrow.”


Luther’s breakthrough

Luther’s anxiety and despair led him to seek escape from his intolerable torture chamber of conscience. One day in 1516 as he read through St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he saw a line on the page that startled him. 

“… man is not justified by works of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ …”

—Galatians 2:16

While this is the translation as Luther understood it, it’s a misunderstanding of the Church’s traditional reading.1 Luther decided that it is the presence of faith in the believer that signifies that the person is right with God. He also read into St. Paul’s phrase “works of the Law” the kind of penitential works that had failed to soothe his conscience.2 Based on this new interpretation of the verse, Luther believed he had re-discovered the Gospel.

Suddenly, Luther read this new understanding into every passage. He now saw his ideas being said in Romans 1–5, and somehow allowed this new doctrine of justification to run roughshod over Romans 6–11. Moreover, he was now willing to dismiss anything in the Scriptures that didn’t connect with his new idea of justification. This led Luther to a kind of hand-waving about many other scriptures, such as keeping the commandments (Matthew 19:17), fasting (Matthew 6:16, 17) or any other kind of good work (Matthew 25:31–46). It even caused him to want to remove the letter of St. James from the Bible because St. James had the nerve to contradict Luther’s new idea.3


Luther’s protest

In 1517 Johann Tetzel was offering indulgences for the sake of those in purgatory in return for alms towards the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Some of the preaching was crassly focused on revenue raising. Here’s an example.

Do you hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying: ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me… for the hand of God toucheth me.’ We are suffering severe punishments and pain, from which you could rescue us with a few alms, if only you would.’ Open your ears, because the father is calling to the son, and the mother to the daughter.

Luther rightly perceived that this preaching was an exploitation of the peasantry.

Now Luther had trained among the academic scholastics, so he sought to debate the practice of indulgences. He drew up 95 separate Theses — which was how scholastics in those days presented the terms of debate — and posted them on the Castle Church in Wittenburg. He wanted an academic debate.

The 95 Theses were not an articulation of fundamental Protestant dogmas and can probably be assented to as much by an Orthodox as by a Protestant.4 (So far so good.) It wasn’t Luther’s initial protest that had such a drastic effect on Christendom, but in how he supported his ideas in the subsequent debate.


Luther’s defence

Luther’s defence covered forty separate propositions. Notably, he asserted:

  • that all Church councils have erred
  • that the Pope should not be the supreme power in the Church
  • Luther’s right to admonish the Church based on scriptural grounds
  • that man does not have free will
  • man should never attempt to do any good work (since that is legalism), he should instead despair of his own ability entirely

Of course, he presented what would become the three fundamental slogans of the Protestant Reformation: 

  • sola fide (salvation is by faith alone)
  • sola gratia (salvation is by grace alone)
  • sola scriptura (scripture is the only authority)

Much ink has been spilled about the rightness or wrongness of these positions and in later articles we will also examine them. For now though, I would like to pay attention to:

  1. the effect of these positions on the mood of Protestant Christianity; and 
  2. the effect of his teaching in Martin Luther’s own life.


Protestantism deepened western pessimism

The irony is that Luther’s solution would take an already pessimistic western theology and increase the pessimism! Luther magnified the already-pessimistic view of human nature by teaching that man has no freedom of will; mankind was entirely devoid of capacity to reach out to or respond to God within himself. This stands in opposition to the Orthodox view that mankind has the capacity to respond to, cooperate with, and experience union with God. The Orthodox understanding brings peace to the soul.

In response to the faults in the Roman Catholic teaching of purgatory, Luther in effect sealed up the exits from purgatory. He turned the experience of a hellish retributive purgatory — which could be escaped — into an inescapable experience of hell the moment someone dies outside of the grace of Christ.

On the teaching of repentance, Luther took the western legalistic penitential outlook and expanded it to the whole of life. He argued that penance should encompass the entirety of life, whereas the Orthodox don’t see penance that way at all. Instead, repentance is a sorrow that results in the joy of renewed relationship with God. Penance is given not for retribution but for medicine to heal the soul. 

The effect of these changes was to darken the mood of Western Christianity. Within a few centuries, the God who needed to punish people in purgatory for unconfessed sins became a God who longed to claw someone into the pits of hell for eternity. The ultimate effect of this unprecedented gloom was to create generations of people who revolted again and again against such a God. It may be fair to say that in Luther’s teachings lay the seeds of both 17th century deism and 20th century atheism.

This is a tragedy of unspeakable dimensions, for the message of the Gospel is the Victory of Jesus Christ against all demonic powers, against sin and death. Christ’s Life is the Life that disarms the power of the passions, sin, evil and death and swallows them within His Life. The joy of Eucharist is the presence of the fruit of the Tree of Life — which is Christ’s Life-filled Body and Blood — that unites humanity with the Life of God Himself. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, mankind may partake of the Divine Presence — of Paradise itself — in the here and now. Truly, God is with us, Emmanuel, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.


Luther’s Christian experience

What was the effect of Luther’s teaching on Luther himself?

At first, Luther felt great relief. No longer was the legalistic penitential piety required. He felt like he had escaped from jail. He wanted to share this great relief with everyone.

Yet the strange and novel teachings he adopted plunged him into doctrinal tumult for the rest of his life. Luther had absolutely no time for those who did not accept what he thought was obvious. He protested vigorously against the tyranny of the Pope but in practise, very much established himself as a new Pope. Anyone who disagreed with what he considered to be basic and obvious, was obviously corrupt, including fellow Reformers.

Luther’s fellow Reformers frequently commented on his extreme volatility. John Calvin said that the man was irascible to the extreme and impossible to live with. Beyond his temper, Luther expressed himself in an incredibly coarse manner that would make Christians today blush with shame. One of Luther’s Protestant biographers, D. P. Smith wrote:

It strikes the modern reader with no less than astonishment, almost with horror, to find the great moralist's private talk with his guests and children, his lectures to students, even his sermons, thickly interlarded with words, expressions, and stories, such as today are confined to the frequenters of the lowest bar-rooms.

— D. P. Smith, “Luther,” p. 321.

Luther’s own writings give disgraceful descriptions of his own indulgence in everything passionate. His diaries record shocking excesses of sensuality. No Church Father has ever said, “To be continent and chaste is not in me,” or, “Why do I sit soaked in wine?” Luther gave free rein to his passions, calmly saying that a man has to do so, and will not be responsible for such conduct.

The shame of Luther’s situation is summed up in his melancholic musings late in life. Where earlier in his life, he sensed no relief in Roman Catholic penitence; now late in his life, he was troubled by whether or not he truly belonged to the elect.5 According to his teaching, he had absolutely no say in the matter.



Luther’s Protest ignited the volatile conditions already present in Western Europe setting off a cascade of events that would soon see 100,000 peasants slain by German Princes at Luther’s behest; and several years after that Germany would embark on a religio-political war6 that would result in the deaths of twenty per cent of the German population. While Luther’s Protest was ignited by doctrinal novelties introduced after the Great Schism and corruption among the Roman Catholic hierarchy, his teachings intermixed a scatter-gun of defensible positions with his own doctrinal novelties that failed to reconnect Western Europe with genuine orthodox Christianity. In other words, he nailed the initial problem but failed to find the orthodox solution.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the Protestant Reformation is that Protestants who find their way to The Good Shepherd are discovering a God they never knew. Their Protestantism has filled them with doctrinal propositions, but has never connected them with a Personal God Who is all-loving, all-kind, and all-merciful. Their discovery of the genuine, organic, holy Eastern Tradition is a life-changing experience; one that is a genuine personal pleasure to share.

Next Article: How Zwingli’s radicalism shaped Evangelical worship


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1 Translations and commentaries preceding Luther understood the verse as saying, “… man is not justified by works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ …”. The Church’s traditional reading understands that the faith being discussed is Jesus Christ’s faith. The means of appropriating Jesus’ faith is by belonging to Him and participating in His divinity. Luther’s reading reassigned faith to the Christian believer.

2 This also is an anachronistic reading of St. Paul. Luther was reading his own environment back into the letter to the Galatians.

3 St. James writes, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” — James 2:24. 

4 Fr. Josiah Trenham, “Rock and Sand,” p. 19.

5 Fr. Josiah Trenham, “Rock and Sand,” p. 14.

6 The Thirty Years War.