“One of the privileges of the monastic life was that it emancipated the sinner from all distractions and freed him to save his soul by practising the counsels of perfection– not simply charity, sobriety, and love; but chastity, poverty, obedience, fastings, vigils, and mortifications of the flesh. Whatever good works a man might do to save himself, these Luther was resolved to perform.
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 misgiving would arise. “Have you fasted enough?’ Are you good 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.”
The trouble was that he could not satisfy God at any point. Commenting in later life on the Sermon on the Mount, Luther gave searching expression to his disillusionment. Referring to the precepts of Jesus he said:
This word is too high and too hard that anyone should fulfil it. This is proved, not merely by our Lord’s word, but by our own experience and feeling. Take any upright man or woman. He will get along very nicely with those who do not provoke him, but let someone proffer only the slightest irritation and he will flare up in anger, …. if not against friends, then against enemies. Flesh and blood cannot rise above it. Luther simply had not the capacity to fulfil the conditions.
But [according to the Church of Rome] if he could not, others might. The church, while taking an individualistic view of sin, takes a corporate view of goodness. Sins must be accounted for one by one, but goodness can be pooled; and there is something to pool because the saints, the Blessed Virgin, and the Son of God were better than they needed to be for their own salvation. Christ in particular, being both sinless and God, is possessed of an unbounded store. These superfluous merits of the righteous constitute a treasury which is transferable to those whose accounts are in arrears. The transfer is effected through the Church and, particularly, through the pope, to whom as the successor of St. Peter have been committed the keys to bind and loose. Such a transfer of credit was called an indulgence.”1 Luther was soon to be disillusioned by the hollowness of such fabricated notions.
1 Roland Bainton HERE I STAND a Lion Paperback pgs. 44- 47.