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If anyone could ever have achieved salvation by his own effort, it was Martin Luther. In 1505, when he was twenty-one years old, Luther abandoned a promising career in law and entered the monastery of the Augustinian hermits at Erfurt. As he later said, this was not to study academic theology but to save his soul.

In those days the monastic orders prescribed ways by which the seeking soul could find God, and Luther, with the determination and strength that characterized his entire life, gave himself rigorously to these tasks. He fasted and prayed. He devoted himself to menial work. Above all, he practiced penance, confessing his sins, even the most trivial, for hours on end until his superiors wearied of his exercise and ordered him to stop until he had committed some sin worth confessing. Luther’s piety gained him a reputation for being the most exemplary of monks.

Later he wrote to the Duke of Saxony, "I was indeed a pious monk and followed the rules of my order more strictly than I can express. If ever a monk could obtain heaven by his monkery, I should certainly have been entitled to it. Of this all the friars who have known me can testify. If I had continued much longer, I should have killed myself because of my watchings, prayers, reading and other labors."

Yet Luther found no peace through these exercises.

The religious wisdom of the day instructed him to satisfy God’s demand for righteousness by doing good works. "But what works?" thought Luther. "What works can come from a heart like mine? How can I stand before the holiness of my Judge with works polluted in their very source?"

It was not until Johann Staupitz, the Vicar-General of the Congregation and Luther’s wise spiritual father, set him to studying the Bible that Luther realized what the difficulty was. He was trying to earn salvation by works of human righteousness, when the righteousness he needed was not human righteousness at all. It was divine righteousness, and this could become his only if God gave it to him, which he did in the gospel.

Luther had been seeking righteousness by means of human works, when what he needed was to accept God’s righteousness by simple faith and therefore stop trying to work for it.

From a sermon by Freddy Fritz, "Why Would Anyone Reject Salvation?" 2/15/2009)

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