Luther, Jesus’ Body, and a Troubled Conscience

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Luther saw that God demands not that we become perfectly righteous like God but that we simply receive the gift of righteousness; a gift that actually makes us worthy.

A little less than a decade before the Ninety-Five Theses, on May 2, 1507, Martin Luther’s friends and family gathered in Erfurt to watch the hoopla of a freshly-minted priest preside over the Lord’s Supper for the first time. His father, Hans Luther, had brought a retinue of folks from Mansfeld and made a worthy donation of money to cover their expenses. Faithful mentors from Luther’s school years in Eisenach, Wigand Güldenapf and Johannes Braun, joined the family. Hopes ran high for an event that signaled more divine grace for everyone involved. Instead, the festivities turned south.

Luther had been ordained as a priest a month earlier in the cathedral atop the hill above the Erfurt marketplace. When he lay prostrate before the altar it had only been ten years since the 8.5 foot, 13-ton Maria Gloriosa bell had been installed overhead. Ringing a deep E-natural, the bell would have called everyone to the service to witness the transformation of a mere man into one of the Lord’s priests.

It was argued that in Christ’s death on the cross, he had gained limitless merit that was intended to counteract sin. The church was instituted, in turn, as a storehouse of all this grace and was called to distribute it to the world in order to enable people to engage their free will, repent, and continually accumulate merit. If you had enough merit, you could ride it like Aladdin’s magic carpet into a whole new world of eternal life.

The most vital place to garner such important merit was the mass, that is, the Lord’s Supper. In the mass, the priest would intone the required words of institution over the bread and wine, and they would become Christ’s actual flesh and blood. But no ordinary man had the ability to transform the substance of the elements into something new. What was required was ordination: the laying on of hands by the church’s authorities and bestowal of the Holy Spirit that proffered the ability to make transubstantiation happen. Without properly ordained priests, sinners were cut off from grace and the certainty of salvation came into question. The whole thing functioned like a multi-level marketing scheme, with divine benefits flowing down and pious commitment (and often Germany’s gulden) flowing up.

With Luther having been ordained, the date for his first mass was put on the calendar. A month out was enough time to invite family and friends and arrange for travel. While Luther was ordained at the cathedral’s Saturday service, May 2, was a Sunday. He was to preside not at the impressive church on the hill but at the Augustinian cloister’s chapel, which was no slouch when it came to providing beauty for worship. The floor-to-high-ceiling stained glass windows that were already 200 years old depicted scenes from the life of the order’s namesake, St. Augustine of Hippo. Walk into the chapel today and you can still feel awe as you first see the expansive chancel area and then have your eyes drawn ever upward toward a transcendent God.

The lay visitors would have sat apart from the Augustinian hermits of the monastery. When the bell rang to call them to worship at 12:30 p.m., the brothers would have been about their tasks in a day that began with the matins service at 2:00 a.m. They would have processed from their quarters along the arched cloister in silence with their arms folded, anticipating an encounter with Jesus.

Luther’s anticipation was different. He’d written a note to his Eisenach mentor, Johannes Braun, in which he confessed his reservations about being worthy of taking on the task of presiding at the sacrament. A few years later when he represented his order at a meeting of the Augustinians in Rome, Luther would observe priests mindlessly mouthing incantations over the elements as if all that were needed were the proper words and a robotic voice willing to mumble them. But Luther’s problem was that he didn’t care enough; for him the problem was scruples. He cared too much.

When it came time for the sacrament, Luther stood facing away from the congregation. He began to intone the preface, which directly addressed God without an intermediary. Now he was the one standing on holy ground like Moses before the burning bush. What’s more, if he was going to confect Christ’s body and blood, he knew he’d be calling in Jesus who was the judge of sinners. And the greatest of these would be the one holding the Lord himself in his hands. Luther’s fervent desire was to drop the charade of righteousness he thought he was playing out and simply run away. He wouldn’t have been the first priest to do so. Mutianus Rufus reported postponing his own first mass for years after being ordained.

Luther had been taught that as he said the words of institution, he was re-sacrificing Christ. As he tore the bread in two, he was rending Jesus’ flesh. It was no different from what those wielding hammers and spikes and the one with a spear did to Jesus’ body on Golgotha. With that, Luther’s guilt was doubled. Not only was he unworthy of performing the rite, but he also became Jesus’ new executioner. Unrighteousness piled upon unrighteousness. It’s no wonder that at the meal afterward, when everyone was celebrating the new transubstantiator, Luther was hardly able to bear the acrimony of his father’s accusation of breaking the Fourth Commandment. He was reminded that he’d also disobeyed his parents’ wishes in becoming a monk.

What Luther experienced that day was the terror of Anfechtungen — that untranslatable German word that can mean terror, tumult, tribulation, temptation, accusation, trial, and more. In short, it’s an attack on one’s conscience, that is, on your sense of your standing in relation to others, especially God. For Luther, the devil was certainly a source of Anfechtung, but a troubled conscience also came from God who sat on his heavenly throne accusing sinners like him of neither fulfilling God’s will nor, worse, having no appetite for it either.

Just as he struggled to find relief from his frequent bouts of constipation, Luther also worked hard to expel the guilt that came with Anfechtung. At one point he sat in the confessional recounting a litany of his sins for six hours to Johann Staupitz, his confessor. The more he tried to become worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, the more his own recalcitrance was revealed. More prayer. More self-recrimination. More good intentions. More failure.

Luther would find no relief until he’d been sent to teach at the new University of Wittenberg. As he studied Romans there, he read Paul’s passage about the righteousness of God in a way that, for the first time, quelled his Anfechtungen. What he so feared in presiding at the mass when he was a new priest now fell away. He saw that God demands not that we become perfectly righteous like God but that we simply receive the gift of righteousness; a gift that actually makes us worthy.

That caused a wholesale reworking of Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Now it offered grace, free and clear of any demand. It required no one to rid themselves of sin before coming to the altar, because it was a meal to which actual sinners were invited. The sacrament is pure, unadulterated promise, and the one promising had made it happen in the cross and empty tomb. Not only did the new understanding free Luther to truly celebrate God’s work in the Lord’s Supper, it also freed him to live in faith beyond the mass itself. You could say that the disaster of Luther’s first mass was an early death that made his later new life in the gospel possible. As God says in Deuteronomy 32, “I kill and I make alive.” What a life that new life is!