Confessions of a Reformer

Pastor Fred G. Zaspel, of the Word of Life Baptist Church in Pottsville, PA, gave me permission to post this script of a monologue he presented to his congregation while playing the part of a visitor to his church. I find this to be a delightful and incredibly useful teaching tool for examining some of the issues and practices within the Roman Catholic Church which led to the Reformation.

I believe this study will be particularly valuable for those looking to understand the core differences between Roman Catholic and Christian soteriology. If you are looking for a way to express these differences to a loved one who still wears Rome’s chains, you may find it here.

Confessions of a Reformer

I appreciate so much your invitation to come, and I am glad to be here with you all the way from my homeland, Germany. Of course, as it has already been mentioned, I am here to tell you my story. You probably know that a major Christian denomination is named after me and that I wrote the hymn, Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." You may have been told that it is Psalm 46 that lies behind that hymn. And you may have heard of a church door and 95 theses and a difficult soul struggle and perhaps a few other things. But you may not know much else about me.

Now, don't get me wrong – I do not mean to say that it is somehow necessary or even important for you to know me. It is not. In fact, I want to tell you right up front that it was not at all my will that the movement which in God's grace and providence was begun through me should be named after me. "The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone." I often wonder, "How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?" "I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emporer did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all."

No, it is not important that you know me. But I do hope that when I have finished telling you my story, you will see that it is really a story about the Lord Jesus Christ – what He has done in me and through me, yes, but more importantly what He has done for me and for others.

On the last weekend in October each year, Protestants the world over celebrate what has become known as Reformation Sunday. It has been 481 years now since that momentous day in 1517 when I walked over to the door at the Castle Church at Wittenberg and posted my very soon to be famous 95 theses. The names Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg (the university in which I was lecturing) were unknown and unimportant to most anyone in those days. And I had no idea myself then that these propositions for debate which I posted would become the flashpoint, the watershed of such an earth shaking event. But in God's gracious providence, unknown to anyone at the time, this marked the beginning of a revival of true religion – for me and so many others the world over.

Those propositions were not really the full blown theology which at that time I was only beginning to understand. But they do represent the seeds of a theological lesson that God burned into my heart, and that only after a time of considerable struggle. A theological lesson, yes, but more than that – a spiritual lesson of the greatest proportions. A startling lesson. A liberating lesson. And a lesson that stems from just this one great truth: God saves sinners.

Now for you, that does not seem like such a profound discovery. But I assure you that this most obvious, fundamental, and necessary truth about Christianity is the very truth which is most difficult to learn. It is somehow difficult – nearly impossible – for people, even professing Christian people, to understand that Christianity is a sinner's religion and that the gospel of Christ is good news for sinners.

Now of course on one level everyone knows that – at least everyone thinks he knows it. But as was true of me, so many have it so mixed up that they do not know it at all. We somehow have the notion – intuitively, it seems – that sinners are saved by becoming sinless. Well, maybe not by becoming sinless, but at least by improving. We are not enough like God, and what we must do, we think, is somehow improve ourselves to become more like Him. When finally we become enough like Him, He will graciously grant us fellowship with Him. As we labor somehow to become acceptable to Him, He keeps record, and then finally on judgment day we will find whether we have done well enough or no. And so in this life we must be careful to be a Christian – we must observe the rites and ceremonies of the church, we must be kind and charitable, we must pray and give our money, and so on. Our struggle is to be good – good enough, good enough to finally merit God's favor. This is what so many think. This is what I thought.

But if you think about all that very carefully at all, what strikes you is that that gospel is not for sinners. That gospel is not really good news at all – not for sinners. It is nothing more than a stern mandate that unless you can make the grade, you will perish. God will "justify" you, but only if you deserve it. And in the end, it is not a sinners gospel at all – it is good news only for good people.

And of course, as I said, we all naturally tend to think that way – it makes perfect sense. It only makes sense that God will help us only as we are willing to be helped and will in fact help ourselves! And not only does it make perfect sense, it is really far more gracious than we deserve! But still, that is not a sinner's religion. It is a religion that offers hope for good people, not for sinners.

And this was the reason for my struggle. I was part of a church, a religious system, which taught – and I believed – that I must labor to merit God's favor. He would justify me, but only if I showed that I deserved it.

What bothered me so was that I knew in my heart that I never would deserve it. I recognized that no matter how well I would do in terms of morality, no matter how high I would climb on the ladder of piety, the hard fact would be: I am still a sinner. Perhaps not as bad a sinner as I was before, but still a sinner. And if God cannot fellowship with sinners, then I knew I had no hope. I could pretend, make believe, that I was good enough. But I would always know that I was not good enough and never could be good enough. And it never really entered my mind in those days that Christianity was a sinner's religion. That Christ died to save sinners. Or, in the words of the great apostle, God justifies the ungodly. This, I say, was a most difficult lesson to learn.

In my world, the church at Rome, the former seat of a world empire, had long since taken center stage in Christianity. They had a ready answer for people like me. Grace had been channeled to me at the hands of a priest when he sprinkled water on my head when I was just a baby, and it was this grace – given automatically, infallibly by the very doing of the "baptism" – that I was told I could develop and improve until finally I would be righteous enough. "Righteousness" in my religion was something infused at baptism and then improved throughout life until finally I would become righteous.

You see, the problem, as my church saw it, was that man is sick and needs medication to improve; and "justification" was not legal acquittal from a judge but a physician's pronouncement of recovery – a clean bill of health, so to speak, attesting to the patient's transformed nature. The medication needed for this recovery was provided by the church – first of all in baptism where righteousness is infused so that we then have a degree of righteousness inherently – and which we could develop and by which we could rid ourselves of sin. Then there was confession –we were to tell our priest, our confessor, the wrongs we had done. Then he would prescribe certain acts of penance by which I could (as the Church teaches) make satisfaction for my sins. These acts of penance ranged from public expressions of remorse to the most severe kinds of asceticism and self-denial. Great stress was laid on tears, fastings, mortification. And when these were sufficiently performed, the priest would grant absolution.

And this system had become even more terribly corrupt. It did not take long for the church to recognize what a great degree of authority it had, and very soon there developed a system of indulgences as one form of penance. "If you cannot accomplish your assigned tasks of penance," they would teach, "well then just give us so much money." That always bothered me – "God will forgive you if you give us your money." Now not only was salvation dispensable at hands of priest – it was something that could be purchased from him as a commodity for so much money.

Now you may wonder how they could justify such a teaching. Well, they had a ready answer for that too. Jesus, the apostles, and the saints, they taught, all had works of supererogation. They were all not only good enough to merit God's favor themselves, they were better than that! They had a leftover merit, sufficient to help others also. And all this extra goodness comprised a great treasury of merit from which you may draw, provided you pay assigned price. This was one of my great concerns in my theses. Salvation had become a common commodity which could be purchased with money.

To this was added the doctrine of purgatory, a place of torment where after death the sinner would be "purged" from and make satisfaction for whatever sin remained. And of course, if you can purchase from a church forgiveness for yourself and thus lessen your stay in purgatory, why not do the same for others? The pope saw the opportunity here and needed funds to build St. Peter's Basilica, and so he sent out priest-salesmen to collect the money by means of the sale of these indulgences. Tetzel was the salesman in our area, a man described by his own superiors as dishonest and highly immoral, and it was he that sparked the writing of my theses. At first his sales were very successful. He had a little poem he would quote when selling the indulgences. Sobald der Pfennig im Kasten klingt, Die Seel' aus dem fegfeuer springt. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." Put your money in, and out of purgatory fly the souls of your parents.

And with that he would play to the people's emotions and conscience. "Your poor dead parents are suffering for their sins in an awful place! It takes them so long by this suffering to make satisfaction for their sins! But if you will buy indulgences for them, then their time of suffering will be lessened! O listen to your poor father and your dear mother crying out –'We gave you life, we gave you everything we had! Why will you not help free us from this torment?'"

And poor gullible people were taken in by this – all in earnest hope of obtaining salvation for themselves and for their loved ones. And this was the religious climate of virtually the entire Western Christian world in my day.

Backing up a bit – in July of 1505, then just a twenty-two year old law student, I was shaken by the death of a close friend. It caused me to do some long, hard, serious thinking – thinking about death, judgment, and sin. Then two weeks later I was caught in a violent thunderstorm and nearly struck by lightning. And in terror I vowed, "St. Anne, help me, and I will become a monk." St. Anne was the patron saint of miners, and I had learned to pray to her from my miner father. I had been severely afflicted by sobering and terrifying thoughts of sin and judgment, and so while I cannot say that this vow was something I had planned, it was a vow I was prepared to make. And make it I did.

In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, taking a monastic vow was the very most effective way to ensure spiritual peace. It was the highest level of spiritual and moral attainment. There in the monastery, apart from the distractions of the world, given over to a life of contemplative pursuit of highest morals – there, if nowhere else – a man would achieve God's favor. And so on July 16, 1505, I entered the Augustinian Monastery.

I was a zealous student and excelled above my peers. I taught myself Greek and Hebrew, and I learned these Biblical languages well. I worked hard and was never slothful. Always sincere. Laboring by it all to find peace of conscience.

You may have heard me quoted as saying, "Only temptation makes a theologian." I want you to know that this is what I was referring to. Actually, your word "temptation" doesn't quite say it. It was Anfechtung – an opposition, a dread, despair, fear, anxiety, a foreboding sense of doom because of my sin. It was a tortuous conscience fraught with thoughts of sin, guilt, ill-desert, and judgment. And with that were lofty and noble thoughts of God – that He was high, sitting on a rainbow, on the circle of earth ruling over all, yet at the same time the holy and righteous judge. The judge who could never condone sin or acquit a sinner. The judge whose standard of righteousness was absolute perfection, a perfection I could never hope to achieve.

This was for me an extended period of sheer torture. I felt that "my soul was stretched out, that there was no corner of my body which was not filled with the most awful bitterness, horror, and fear. And all these things seemed eternal. I wished I had never been created a human being." It was this experience, in God's grace, that made me a theologian. "I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations (Anfechtungen) took me.... "Not my understanding, reading, or speculation , "but living, nay, rather dying and being damned make a theologian."

Later, in 1518, in a letter to the Pope, sent in explanation of my 95 Theses, I wrote: "I myself 'knew a man' who claimed that he had often suffered these punishments, in fact over a very brief period of time. Yet they were so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could not believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, he would have perished completely and all of his bones would have been reduced to ashes. At such a time God seems terribly angry, and with Him the whole creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse."

This was my state of soul as I entered the Monastery. And I was assured that there was no place better to find relief. I labored to become the very best of Monks. I did all I could to rid myself of sin and guilt. I would pray for hours every day. One time I prayed for six weeks unending without eating, and only every three or four days sleeping for an hour or two. I would confess my sins hour on end to confessors who finally hated to see me come. "But," I would argue, "I must confess all my sin, however small! All sin must be confessed!" And so I was careful and meticulous and thorough. But then I would wonder, "What about the sins I have forgotten?!" and so I would ransack my mind to recall all that I had done and thought and said. But when I was done with that I would wonder, "What about the sins I never noticed?!" And I would again ransack my mind and pour over everything I had done and thought and said.

But then I would also wonder, "Have I been truly contrite in my confession, or is my repentance motivated simply by fear?" I would spend hours torturing my soul, laboring with all my might to be sure to rid self of all sin. I would flagellate myself with a whip until I fell unconscious. One morning I was found by my fellow-monks, lying unconscious in my own blood. I fasted day after day. I would stay out all night in snow and with as little clothing as decency would allow – all in sober attempt to rid myself of sin and make myself acceptable to God. I tell you honestly, "If ever a Monk got to heaven by Monkery, I should have been that Monk"

But with all this, I was still forced to recognize that God was still high, holy, and too righteous to acquit me. After it all I was still a sinner, and He was still Holy. I was not yet good enough, and I feared – no, I knew – I never would be.

And so, while I knew that I must love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, after all my trying, "I did not love, indeed I hated, that God who punished sinners; and with a monstrous, silent, if not blasphemous, murmuring I fumed against God." My basic question was no longer whether I was a sheep or a goat, but whether God was herbivorous or carnivorous, a Deliverer or a Destroyer.

Before you judge me too harshly for such feelings, I would challenge you to stay out half naked in deep snow, pray for six weeks and labor till you faint, labor for weeks and months until you are exhausted, all in the most earnest belief that by it God would be pleased – and then only to find that He is not pleased by it.

I felt new hope when my monastery sent me on business to Rome. "Surely there I can find relief!" I thought. Upon arrival I said, "Hail, holy Rome! Thrice holy for the blood of martyrs shed here."

I was shocked by the vice and immorality of the clergy that I found there and finally said, "If there is a hell, Rome is built on top of it." But undaunted by it, I made my way to the Scala Sancta in Lateran Church – that huge stairway believed to have been brought from Jerusalem to Rome, on which had Jesus stood beaten and bleeding. The church taught that for each step climbed we would receive so many years' indulgence. And climbing that long staircase on my knees, I kissed each step as I went, hoping with my whole being there finally to find the relief I had so desperately sought. But reaching the top, I said to myself with pain, "I wonder if it is so."

I felt as many have felt – many of you, no doubt – that after all my efforts in religion, I was still a sinner, still guilty, with seemingly no way out. Returning home with the same Anfechtungen with which I had gone, the same feelings of despair, I still saw God as high and lofty and sitting above the earth, a judge so righteous Judge that He could only condemn me for my sin. And I wondered why God would be so cruel as to require of me what I could never give.

Johann von Staupitz was a Saxon Nobleman, Doctor of Divinity, Head of Augustinian Convents in Germany, and head of the newly formed University of Wittenberg. He was also my Confessor and spiritual father. After hearing my endless confessions and seeing me still in my misery, he would only say, Ich verstehe es nicht!" "I do not understand it." But it was Staupitz who first got the idea across to me that Peace comes with faith. He pointed me to the wounds of Christ and showed me that forgiveness comes by faith – not doing but trusting – and that true penance is a change of heart. Staupitz later was very critical of me and of the Reforms which I led, and he died a loyal son of Roman Catholic Church. But he did get me started on the right track, and I am thankful for him for that. "If I did not praise Staupitz, I should be a damnable, ungrateful, papistical ass . . . for he bore me in Christ. If Staupitz had not helped me out, I should have been swallowed up and left in hell."

Staupitz convinced me – both he and I, then, deciding better than we knew – that the pursuit of theological studies would bring me peace. And so I was appointed to the faculty of the new University of Wittenberg, a small, backwater university which no one would otherwise have heard of. In 1513 I began to lecture in theology, and for the first time in my life I began to wrestle with the source book of Christianity, the Word of God. From 1513 to 1519 I lectured from the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. The lectures became very popular, based as they were on the Greek and Hebrew texts, not the scholasticism of the Fathers. I began to spend long hours brooding over the Scriptures in study and preparation for my lectures. Now you think, "Of course! Of course you poured over the Scriptures – how else could you teach them?" But you should not take such things for granted. My first series of lectures on Romans (1515) consisted of endless quotations of the fathers and Aristotle. This was the custom; it's just what was done. Aristotelian logic reigned, and in our study and teaching it was presumed that we would appeal to and follow the church's teachers. It was my later series (1518) that contained very few quotes and much expounding of Paul – the meanings of the words he used and how he used them.

In 1515 the town council called me to the pulpit of the City church, a position I never gave up. And it was in my studying of the text of Scripture that I began to notice real differences between them and the teachings of my church.

It was when I reached Psalm 22 that God began to open my eyes. "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" I had studied enough to know the Christocentric focus of the Psalms, and I realized this was speaking of Christ. And I realized that Jesus spoke these words while on the cross. But that is what shocked me. "How could He say this? How, why would the Lord Jesus be forsaken by the Father?" This was how I felt, and I could understand that well. But how could He feel this way?

Gradually it began to dawn on me that Christ was forsaken of God, simply and only because He had become the sinner's substitute. He was made a curse for us. He who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him! He, the Lord of Glory, had identified Himself with us so as to take to Himself our sin and bear our punishment. Our sin became His and He took it and bore the penalty of it. In turn, His righteousness becomes ours, and we take it by faith. Not by works. Not by self improvement. Not by earning it ourselves, we never can do that – I had learned that well! No, not by earning it ourselves but by trusting. By a mere dependence upon Him to be for us all that God required of us.

Indeed, I learned that God justifies the ungodly. This is a sinner's religion! This gospel is good news for sinners! I do not improve to the point where God finally pronounces me cured. No, He declares me righteous by virtue of the fact that I have a perfect substitute.

And Christus pro me became my great hope and cry – "Christ for me!" I came to realize that it is not my efforts, not my improvement. It is the perfections of Christ. He is for me, and I may have Him by faith.

My awesome, shocking, thrilling, amazing discovery was that I am simul iustus et peccator – at the same time righteous and a sinner. Indeed, I am semper iustus et peccator – always righteous and a sinner. You see, as God looks at me as I am in myself, I will never be anything but sinful. I am so full of sin and guilt, that I can never improve enough. This is why all the Anfechtungen – the soul travail. But by Faith I have Him who both died for sin and yet is Himself perfectly righteous – and having Him as my own, simply and only by virtue of my association with Him, by faith, God declared me righteous.

You see, I was right – God is the high and lofty Judge who cannot condone sin. But he, the judge, has taken the place of us, the accused, and in our place paid the penalty of sin and established a clean record. The gospel really is good news for sinners! Righteousness is not something we give God – it is something He gives us! He who through faith is righteous shall live! God justifies the ungodly! That man who turns from himself and all his attempts at achieving sufficient righteousness and instead looks to Christ in whole-souled reliance upon Him to be for us all that God requires of us – that is the man whom God declares righteous. I myself am still a sinner, but I have Christ – I am in Him! And because I have Him, I am righteous. God has declared me righteous not because of me but in spite of me and because of Him and for His sake.

In other words, I found that God saves sinners, and He saves them freely. He freely gives them in His Son all that He requires of them. And it was when I discovered this – "When I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith alone, I felt myself reborn, and that I had entered paradise itself through open gates. And there a totally new face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me."

In God's providence, it was the rediscovery of this truth that changed me and, in turn, changed the world map also. And now people the world over, as in the apostolic age, again see that they may be righteous before God by faith alone – that God justifies the ungodly – and they too are enjoying the thrilling liberty of it.

And this is the whole reason for the Reformation – a new understanding that Christ is for sinners. That God saves sinners. That He justifies the ungodly. He does not reserve His blessing for those who can prove that they deserve it. No! He offers it as a free gift to those who acknowledge they do not deserve it and who therefore depend upon Christ for it. If you will go to Him acknowledging your ill-desert, and if rather than pretending and making believe that you are good, you will run for refuge to His Son, then He – Christ – will become for you everything which God requires of you.

This is a sinners religion, and this is a sinners gospel. Amen. By Fred G. Zaspel Word of Life Baptist Church Pottsville, PA

Most of the quotes of Luther as well as the narrative material itself that are used here are found in the standard Reformation and Luther reference works. Special acknowledgment, however, is given to Roland Bainton, The Sixteenth Century Reformation and Timothy George, The Theology of the Reformers.

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