Dr. Martin on Monastic Futility

Product Details  Some Christians today unfortunately have a positive view of monasticism or monastic retreats; many of them view such things as very “spiritual” and pleasing to God.  Martin Luther, however, rightly rebuked such a view.  Having spent time in a monastery, Luther spoke first hand.  This excerpt that follows has a lot to do with the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel (justification by faith alone):

“The real change which Christ came to effect is an inward change of the human heart, just as I now have a different mind, courage, and perception than I did when we were still controlled by the papacy and before the Gospel was revealed anew. At that time I was convinced that God would reject me, and I did not believe that I would be serving God if I continued in my vocation, discharging the duties of my office. As a matter of fact, I did not know God as He really is. Nor did I know how I could ever overcome sin and death, go to heaven, and live in eternal bliss.  I had the idea that I had to reach those goals by my own good works; and I became a monk for that reason, and nearly tortured myself to death.”

“But salvation does not depend on caps, robes, not eating meats, fasting, and similar works.  Death cannot be destroyed in that way; nor can sins be washed away in that manner.  Instead, both sin and death continue to exist under either gray or black hoods, and under red or blue robes.  As I said earlier, salvation depends on the heart being enlightened and receiving a new seal, so that it can say, ‘I know that God accepts me just as I am, and that this truly applies to me because he has sent his Son, let him become a human being, so that through him I would be able to overcome sin and death and be assured of having eternal life.”

“…Prior to this time many people thought, ‘If I am to be saved, I will have to don a monk’s camp or a nun’s hood.’  If anyone tried to force you to wear one now, you would run to the end of the earth to avoid doing so.  Likewise if you previously would have eaten a bit of meat on Friday, you would have thought that the earth would upon up and swallow you for sure.  But now you tell the pope, the bishops, yes, the devil himself, ‘Go, kiss my hand! Why shouldn’t I eat meat?  Why should I be afraid to do so?’  That’s what it means to undergo an inner change and a change of heart, a change in which the heart acquires from God’s Word a different mind and will, and continues in its vocation and secular life as before, as we learn from the shepherds [in Luke 2:15-20).”

Martin Luther, a “Holy Christmas Day” sermon, Luther’s House Postils, in volume 5 of Luther’s sermons.

shane lems

5 Replies to “Dr. Martin on Monastic Futility”

  1. I am one of those Christians with a positive view of monasticism having been a Christian monk myself for nearly forty years. The passage you quoted from Luther may indeed have a lot to do with Reformation’s recovery of the Gospel, but in the first place it an autobiographical description of Luther’s recovery of himself as a man and as a Christian. His experience is simply that of any man or woman on a sincere spiritual journey. For a Christian this journey will always end up in the experience of God’s prevenient love, in the insight and understanding that “Christ is the end of the Law.” For some of us, who are rather weak and need a lot of support of one kind or another along this spiritual journey, monasticism has been a great help. It may even has been what triggered Luther’s conversion, not only negatively as he expresses it here, but positively, too. “Why shouldn’t I eat meat? Why should I be afraid to do so?’ That’s what it means to undergo an inner change and a change of heart, a change in which the heart acquires from God’s Word a different mind and will.” Of course. What Luther expresses here is the very freedom of the children of God that I have experienced monastic life to lead me to, thanks be to God.


    1. Thanks for the note, Mark.

      I think you may have missed Luther’s point: the gospel freed him from the slavish monastery and the monastic life. Since he found all of his righteousness in Christ, he realized he was free from all the ways people try to find acceptance with God by their deeds and spiritual performance. Once he understood the gospel, he realized it didn’t matter if he ate meat on Friday or not (who cares!?). Also, by the gospel he was free to go out into the world and serve his neighbor, rather than retreat from the world like the monks around him did.

      Another question to ask is not what I think will please God, but what does God say is pleasing to him? In Scripture he doesn’t call his people to escape the world, but serve their neighbors (Christian and non-Christian), love their enemies, and let their light shine as they do their daily tasks (vocations) in the world. He is pleased with that when we do these things through faith in Christ.

      Anyway, thanks for the note!


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