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November 2016 - A Monk's Monk

Luther – A Monk’s Monk.

            Last month we referenced Luther’s storm incident where he cried out to St. Anne that if she helped save his life from the storm, that he would become a monk.  Having survived the storm, Luther resolved to keep his vow.  And typical of Martin, he chose to enter one of the strictest branches of monasticism, the Augustinian Order of Hermits.   

After two weeks to arrange his affairs, the 21 year old Martin had a farewell party with a few friends and presented himself before the monastery gates as a novice.  The head of the monastery (the prior) asked Luther four questions: What are you looking for? “For God’s grace and your mercy”.  Are you married?  Do you owe anyone money or work?  Do you have any secret diseases?  Receiving a “no” answer to those, the prior would then explain the rigors of the life Luther was about to begin: The renunciation of self-will, the scant diet, rough clothing, vigils by night and labors by day, the reproach of poverty, the fighting against sin, the shame of begging.  Was he ready to accept those hardships?  “Yes, with God’s help and in so far as human frailty allows.”  A circle of his hair was shaved from the top of his head (tonsured), civilian clothes traded for the monk’s habit (white robe with black cloak and a leather belt) and he was welcomed into the lifestyle he thought would finally give him peace and the certainty of heaven.

            Luther of course was motivated and dedicated to this rigorous life – he was a monk’s monk. Historian Roland Bainton writes in his biography of Luther “Here I Stand”:   He fasted, sometimes three days on end without a crumb.  The seasons of fasting were more consoling to him than those of feasting.  Lent was more comforting than Easter.  He laid upon himself vigils and prayers in excess of those stipulated by the rule.  He cast off the blankets permitted him and well-nigh froze himself to death.  At times he was proud of his sanctity and would say, “I have done nothing wrong today.”  Then misgivings would arise.  “Have you fasted enough?  Are you poor enough?” He would then strip himself of all save that which decency required.  He believed in later life that his austerities had done permanent damage to his digestion.  ‘I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I.  All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out.  If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.’  All such drastic methods gave no sense of inner tranquility.  The purpose of his striving was to compensate for his sins, but he could never feel that the ledger was balanced.”

Truly that is how it is for all of us – you can “never feel that the ledger was balanced”.  I know that you have learned from the scriptures and believe that you are saved from sinful guilt by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.  And yet we still have a sinful flesh clinging to us that would always have us rely on ourselves and our own efforts in order to make us more certain to enter heaven.  And there is of course the devil who is always ready to urge us on in these efforts, and eagerly pounces on us with cruel accusations when we fail and sin.  Both our sinful flesh and the devil point us inward to ourselves, but there is nothing in us but sin and weakness.  We could never do enough, be faithful enough, deny ourselves enough to compensate for our sins and truly balance the ledger.  And when we realize that, that is not a good feeling!  The uncertainty.  The fear and worry.  Even despair.

 But thanks be unto God we don’t have to balance the ledger for God has wiped our ledger absolutely clean in the Blood of His Son poured out for us upon the Cross!  Our sinful guilt has been covered in the very Righteousness of Jesus Himself.  We don’t have to try and be a monk’s monk or outwork our neighbor, for God has made us Holy in His Son.  He gets our eyes off ourselves and focuses us on Christ alone.  That is our Reformation heritage and the Eternal Life our gracious and loving God alone has won for us and given us through His Means of Grace.


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