October 31, 2017 is widely acknowledged as the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The historical details of this incident are a matter of academic debate, but we do know that the content of Luther’s theses and the theological, religious, economic, and political firestorms that followed were major factors in what has come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
Many aspects of the posting of the 95 Theses, their content, and the events that followed are compelling, but what interests me most is the personal backstory that led Luther to write the theses and to question some of his own religious beliefs and practices.
From his own writings, we learn that Martin Luther (1483-1546) began his ministry as a conscientious and devoted young monk:
I was a good monk, and 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.
Luther’s statement, written many years after he first entered the monastery in 1505, is a commentary on the legalistic beliefs and practices he once embraced, but later challenged.
The Augustinian order young Martin Luther had entered was known for its expectations of rigorous moral and physical discipline. Luther and his fellow monks slept and studied in small and generally unheated rooms. In addition to making vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, the monks began their formal worship each morning at 2:00 a.m. These sessions normally lasted forty-five minutes each and were held seven times throughout the day. After an initial year of peace, Luther began to experience feelings of guilt and self-doubt:
When I was a monk, I made a great effort to live according to the requirements of the monastic rule. I made a practice of confessing and reciting all my sins, but always with prior contrition; I went to confession frequently, and I performed the assigned penances faithfully. Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve certainty but was always in doubt and said: “You have not done this correctly. You were not contrite enough. You omitted this in your confession.” Therefore, the longer I tried to heal my uncertain, weak, and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more uncertain, weak, and troubled I continually made it. In this way, by observing human traditions, I transgressed them even more; and by following the righteousness of the monastic order, I was never able to reach it.
Luther’s writings also reveal that some of the other monks with whom he served experienced similar feelings, and like Luther, “the more they labored, the greater their terrors became.” Today, psychologists might describe Luther and the others as suffering with scrupulosity, “a psychological disorder primarily characterized by pathological guilt or obsession associated with moral or religious issues that is often accompanied by compulsive moral or religious observance and is highly distressing and maladaptive.”
Young Luther looked to his religious leaders and to the sacraments of the church for help. Luther “confessed frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours on a single occasion” but concluded, “After confession and the celebration of Mass I was never able to find rest in my heart.”
Luther fasted from food and water for days at a time, only to report, “I almost fasted myself to death, for again and again I went for three days without taking a drop of water or a morsel of food.” Luther later warned that those who practiced fasting beyond its intended purpose would “simply ruin their health and drive themselves mad.”
Luther also increased his efforts to be more diligent in prayer. Luther recorded: “I chose twenty-one saints and prayed to three every day when I celebrated mass; thus I completed the number every week. I prayed especially to the Blessed Virgin, who with her womanly heart would compassionately appease her Son.” Luther reported that instead of bringing the relief he sought, his extra devotion to prayer and fasting “made [his] head split.” Luther continued to descend into spiritual and emotional darkness.
In 1511, nearly six years after Luther first entered the monastery, his vicar, Johannes von Staupitz, invited him to pursue a doctoral degree, and lecture on the Bible at Wittenberg University. Luther was surprised by the invitation and felt unworthy of the opportunity, but accepted the assignment and began a serious study of the Bible, beginning with the book of Psalms followed by the apostle Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Galatians.
Luther listed and discussed many scriptural texts that were vital to his being “reborn,” but the text that was central to his understanding and personal transformation came from the words of the apostle Paul to the saints in Rome: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
At first, Luther struggled to understand the phrase “the righteousness of God.” Initially these words angered him to the point that he “hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.” But eventually, Luther’s understanding of “God’s righteousness” changed dramatically:
The words “righteous” and “righteousness of God” struck my conscience like lightning. When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified. If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish. But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower, . . . over the words . . . “the righteousness of God” [Romans 1:17], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God contribute to the salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy. My spirit was thereby cheered. For it’s by the righteousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ. These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me. The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in this tower.
Unlike those of his day who bought and sold “indulgences,” as a means of earning God’s blessings (the major theme of his 95 Theses), Luther discovered that the temporal peace and eternal salvation he was seeking were not legalistic rewards for his own righteousness, but were blessings made possible through the righteousness and grace of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther’s experiences with depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive behavior mirror the lives of individuals in a variety of different religious communities throughout the world. When faced with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that become distressing, many individuals, like the young Luther, believe the answers to their problems will come if they strive to be more religious. They work harder, but the expected blessings do not come as expected. Striving to do all one can to solve one’s own problems certainly has merit, but will lead to greater problems if one excludes God’s grace. Luther’s experiences reveal that legalistic righteousness and ignorance of the grace of God can be related to spiritual and psychological instability.
Elder M. Russell Ballard, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated:
No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we obey, no matter how many good things we do in this life, it would not be enough were it not for Jesus Christ and His loving grace. On our own we cannot earn the kingdom of God—no matter what we do. Unfortunately, there are some within the Church who have become so preoccupied with performing good works that they forget that those works—as good as they may be—are hollow unless they are accompanied by a complete dependence on Christ.
The distortion of our own righteousness brings either a sense of self-righteousness to those who experience success from their obedience or despair to those who, like the young Martin Luther, scrupulously keep the commandments without experiencing the love of a gracious God. Martin Luther eventually came to understand that true discipleship includes obedience to law, but more importantly, the grace of Christ:
Both groups, [the scrupulous and the rebellious] sin against the Law: those on the right, who want to be justified through the Law, and those on the left, who want to be altogether free of the Law. Therefore we must travel the royal road, so that we neither reject the Law altogether nor attribute more to it than we should.”
The life of Martin Luther demonstrates that finding the grace of God and finding the rightful place of our own good works are essential as we strive to find peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come.
 Martin Luther, as cited in Roland C. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 26.
 Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 22.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), 27:13.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 27:13.
 Chris H. Miller and Dawson W. Hedges, “Scrupulosity Disorder: An Overview and Introductory Analysis,” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22 (2008): 1042.
 Bainton, Here I Stand, 35.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 5:157.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 54:339.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 44:74–75.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 54:340
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 54:340
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 34:336–37.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 54:193–94.
 Peter J. Kreeft, Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Belief based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001), 346.
 Daniel K Judd, “Clinical and Pastoral Implications of the Ministry of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation,” Open Theology, 2 (2016): 324-337.
 M. Russell Ballard, “Building Bridges of Understanding,” Ensign, June 1998, 65.
 Pelikan, Luther’s Works, 27:13.