Luther's Life: Anfechtung

The name evangelical was early on attributed to the Reformers and to Luther himself, and it was of course a fitting title as it not only grasped their recovery of the gospel, but also their emphasis upon it and the good news it declared. For Luther that good news only made sense in light of the bad news. He described it in terms of Law and Gospel. What the Law, in its holy light, revealed concerning man was the bad news - we are sinners and incapable of pleasing God. And it is only in light of that bad news that the news of Jesus Christ and what he’s accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection can be seen as Gospel.

But it seems that it was not just Luther’s theology that set the direction for what came to be known as evangelical but it was also his life. And in particular there was one aspect to his life, interestingly a part of Luther’s pre-conversion life, that has found a place under the evangelical banner. This is what has come to be known as Luther’s Anfechtung.

This German word doesn’t have a clean English equivalent, but Roland Bainton in his classic biography on Luther describes it as “all the doubt, turmoil, pang, tremor, panic, despair, desolation, and desperation which invade the spirit of man.” He goes on to say that “Luther’s tremor was augmented by the recognition of unworthiness; ‘I am dust and ashes and full of sin’. Creatureliness and imperfection alike oppressed him. Toward God he was at once attracted and repelled. Only in harmony with the Ultimate could he find peace. But how could a pigmy stand before divine Majesty; how could a transgressor confront divine Holiness? Before God the high and God the holy Luther was stupefied.”[1]

As we’ve already noted, this feeling of despair, this Anfechtung, occurred in Luther’s life before he heard and believed in the evangel, in the good news. But considering Luther’s later emphasis on the Law/Gospel distinction many have commented on this turbulent time in Luther’s life as what really lay behind his understanding of the Law. His theology, some would say, was only a result of his emotional life. Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless of how not a few modern commentators have tried to psychoanalyze Luther and thus make sense of his theology, history has born witness that this feeling of despair, doubt, panic and desperation has been a common experience in the lives of many who have come to know the good news of Christ.

For Luther it was a deep awareness of his inability to do enough. Under the medieval Roman system of works, a system which would soon make it explicit at the Council of Trent that there could be no such thing as a true assurance of salvation, Luther was driven to despair. Though he would confess his sins, he never knew if he had confessed enough. Though he would spend hours in prayer, he never knew if he had prayed enough. There was a crippling fear that God would bring him into eternal judgment at any moment. Looking back on this time of his life the older Luther would say that “if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” His was a religion of doing. And yet he was painfully aware that in and of himself there was nothing he could truly accomplish to close the chasm between his sinful soul and God’s holiness. “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing.”

It was out of this anfechtung, this existential and anxious awareness of his own fallen creatureliness, that Luther found true hope and assurance outside of himself. It was in the person of Jesus Christ, that good news that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).

In the past his thoughts of Christ were only that of judgment, Jesus returning to judge the quick and the dead with a sword coming out of his mouth; no one could escape his wrath. But now, in light of his grasp of the Gospel that by faith alone we can partake in Christ’s righteousness - we can be justified - Jesus became a mighty fortress in whom Luther found peace. “Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His name, From age to age the same, And He must win the battle.”

Though the degree to which a person feels conviction for sin and trembles at the promised judgments of God against his sins may vary, nonetheless, by God’s grace this state of anfechtungen will generally precede a persons coming to faith; it will be the means of making a man cry out for help and salvation. But Luther was also aware that simply experiencing this terror was no sign of grace in and of itself. There were countless men and women who knew only the justice and holiness of God and yet never turned to see the grace and love of God in Christ given for them. “For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

This is why Calvin could later write that “it is appalling to think that many who boast they are Christians, instead of desiring death, dread it so much that the very mention of it makes them quake, as if it were the worst misfortune that could befall them. It is not surprising if we feel unsettled and distraught when we hear that our body must be parted from our soul. However, it is unthinkable that a Christian heart should be so lacking in light that it cannot overcome its fear by turning to a higher source of comfort.”[2] For the evangelical Reformers, that higher source of comfort was Christ.

This aspect of historic evangelicalism seems to have been lost to today’s evangelical-ish church. There is no place for Luther’s anfechtung in a culture where Christ is only offered to give you a happier, more successful life or where Christ is believed on because of the emotional high experienced during “worship”. Many have assurance when they ought not to. For Luther, and for most historic reformed evangelicals, the preaching of the law, preaching which sought to bring about a real terror and despair before God’s holiness, was essential to rightly grasping the good news, the evangel of Christ.

We know that the Lord looks to those who “tremble at his word” (Isaiah 66:2); may God be pleased to bring more men and women to tremble yet again and take seriously the living God and His living word. Perhaps then, like Luther and so many after him, more will look to Christ and find in him alone true peace before God.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Hendrickson Publishers), pg. 22.

[2] John Calvin, A Guide to Christian Living (Banner of Truth Trust), pg. 101.


Stephen Unthank