Protestants never think about Martin Luther as a Catholic priest. But I do. He was a monk and a Roman Catholic priest and I think I know exactly how he felt.
I can see him now as he’s leaving his classroom in the university where he’s a well-respected professor, and racing to the nearby church to hear confessions. He slips into the darkened box, puts on his stole, and opens the slide to a waiting penitent. He sits there all afternoon, going from one side of the box to the other, listening to the repetition of familiar sins over and over again.
But on this day, Father Martin walks out of the confessional sweating. He has just given absolution to a man who had committed murder. The man left singing because he was now in the “state of grace,” but Father Martin leaves in a state of panic because he no longer believes he has the power to absolve a murderer. “How could the church give me that power? Only God has that power.”
This leads him to the next horrifying realization. “If I can’t absolve that man, how can another priest absolve me of all my sins?” Father Martin is tortured with sin. He’s a celibate man with constant sexual desires that bombard his brain at the worst possible times. He’d need to be in the confessional, confessing every hour to stay in the state of grace. “If I need the church to be saved, I’m damned.”
This brings him to the terrifying conclusion that his “church-given” power to perform the miracle of transubstantiation every morning at mass is likewise impossible. “But if doing what the church says and following the church laws and pronouncing the church-given formulae cannot bring me salvation, what can?” Where can Martin turn for help?
To Paul, because Paul had the same question. For Paul, it was the Jewish Church instead of the Catholic Church. Judaism had 613 laws and prescriptions designed to bring salvation to anyone who followed them religiously. Paul had lost his faith in the power of Judaism just as Martin had lost his faith in the power of Catholicism. Neither one believed anymore that God distributed his grace through certain rituals and formulae. Grace, according to Paul, came through faith.
Father Martin begins reading Paul’s letter to the Romans and he finds this answer: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” Rom. 10:9). Nothing in here about confession. Nothing about words of absolution from a sinful priest. Nothing about ritual and formula. Just believe.
Father Martin is free. He is no longer bound to a church of laws — and to a church that pretends to have “God-powers.”
Father Martin still believes that certain souls which were not yet ready for heaven but certainly did not deserve hell, went to a waiting place his church called Purgatory. But how could he believe his church had the power to release these souls early just because their relatives paid a little ransom? This is the last straw for Father Martin. He takes off his Roman collar, tacks up his 95 theses, and the rest is history.
Protestants say, “Good for you, Martin!” but Catholics say, “Shame on you, father,” and neither one knows both the peace and the pain Father Martin carried with him for the rest of his life. He had a wonderful peace; he found God in his new family and friends, and he could finally breathe and not cringe under the heavy weight of mortal sin that threatened to pull him closer to hell-fire.
But he also felt a heavy pain of loss. Many of his old friends and Augustinian brothers now disagreed with him and fought him on these theological issues. He had chosen to walk outside of his Catholic family, a family he had known since childhood. He lived the rest of his life with the peace of Christ and the wrenching pain of rejection and abandonment. I think I know how he felt.
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