The Insanity of Luther (Dr. Sproul)

The Holiness of God: The Insanity of Luther
R.C. Sproul


  1. Begin with reading Psalm 46 and prayer.

  2. We’ve been introduced to the concept of holiness through the vision of Isaiah 6 in the first two lectures, “The Importance of Holiness” and “The Trauma of Holiness.” Those two lectures taught us about the fact of divine holiness, and the effect of holiness on sinful man. As Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am undone.” When divine holiness meets human sinfulness, we are ‘dis-integrated.’

  3. Last time, in the lecture entitled, “Holiness and Justice,” we considered the implications of God’s holiness on each and every individual. Justice means we will all get what we deserve. Each individual will get what he or she deserves from a just and holy God. That’s a frightening thought.

Question: Do any of you remember how we ended the last session, as we talked about the justice of God?

We ended with Rom. 3:19-26, which says,

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

We ended the session last week with that passage, because I wanted you to depart with the relief of the gospel. Facing the justice of a holy God is a terrifying prospect, and I didn’t want to leave any of you in a state of concern about your soul, without also giving you the rest of the story, the part about divine mercy.

We’ve only scratched the surface of this doctrine of holiness and justice, and it is indeed traumatic; it is troubling. In tonight’s lecture, Dr. Sproul introduces us to someone who—because of an intense, extremely sharp mind, because of an acutely sensitive conscience—God used this man to recover and clarify gospel truths for Christians who lived after the Reformation he sparked.

Luther wasn’t crazy; he wasn’t insane. He was struck with the seriousness of this doctrine, and wrestled with it biblically until God provided him with lasting peace.

I don’t want to steal any of Dr. Sproul’s thunder from this fantastic lecture, but I do want to help you get the most from it. Let me give you a bit of background to introduce Martin Luther to you, and I’m just going to jump into his life at the end of his University years.

When Martin Luther graduated from the University of Erfurt, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1502 and his Master of Arts in 1505, the biographer Rolland Bainton sums up his training to this point:

The entire training of home, school, and university was designed to instill fear of God and reverence for the Church. […] God was portrayed now as the Father, now as the wielder of the thunder. He might be softened by the intercession of his kindlier Son, who again was delineated as an implacable judge unless mollified by his mother, who, being a woman, was not above cheating alike God and the Devil on behalf of her suppliants; and if she were remote, one could enlist her mother, St. Anne. (Bainton, Here I Stand, 27, 28)

In 1505, when Luther was finishing his Masters’ degree, two significant things happened to him. First, while studying for his exams for Master of Arts, a good friend of his died. Some accounts say he died in a duel, others say he was struck by lightning while at Luther’s side. Whatever the case, it rattled Martin; it demonstrated the mortality of mankind, and even of young men, who tend to think of themselves as invincible.

Second, close on the heels of the death of his friend was his own brush with death, which became the turning point of his life. While on the road to Erfurt, returning from a trip to see his parents, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm. A lightning bolt struck right next to him, knocking him to the ground. It frightened him so terribly that he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne! I will become a monk!” Bainton describes the significance of Luther’s fear:

In that single flash he saw the denouement [conclusion] of the drama of existence. There was God the all-terrible, Christ the inexorable [inescapable, relentless], and all the leering fiends springing from their lurking places in pond and wood that with sardonic cachinnations [loud, convulsive laughing] they might seize his shock of curly hair and bolt him into hell. It was no wonder he cried out to his father’s saint, patroness of miners, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.” (Bainton, 34)

That happened on July 2, 1505. For two weeks, he must have experienced tremendous anguish of soul such that he followed through on his rash vow to St. Anne. On July 16, he showed up at the front door of the Augustinian cloister in Erfurt. Again, Roland Bainton writes:

Like everyone else in the Middle Ages he knew what to do about his plight. The Church taught that no sensible person would wait until his deathbed to make an act of contrition and plead for grace. From beginning to end the only secure course was to lay hold of every help the Church had to offer: sacraments, pilgrimages, indulgences, the intercession of the saints. Yet foolish was the man who relied solely on the good offices of the heavenly intercessors if he had done nothing to insure their favor! […] And what better could he do than take the cowl? ... Monasticism was the way par excellence to heaven. (Bainton, 32, 33)

  1. So, think of Martin Luther as a man who has been gripped with the holiness and justice of God, and he’s trying to find peace for his soul. And with those thoughts prompting your thinking, let’s watch the next lecture, “The Insanity of Luther.


  1. What are your thoughts about what you heard tonight?

  2. Can you think of any biblical figure who reminds you of that kind of sincerity, intensity, and anguish of soul about divine holiness and justice? Can you think of anyone who was, like Luther, relieved by the discovery of divine mercy?

  3. Turn to Philippians 3, and I want to read a few verses from the man who described himself in 1 Tim. 1:15 as the chief of sinners. Note, it’s not that he says he was the chief of sinners; he said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief (prĊtos, first, foremost).” Not past tense. Present tense.

  4. Listen to Paul’s confession, READ Phil. 3:2-11. With that litany of accomplishments in his background, why do you think he would at the same time say, “I am the chief of sinners”? What troubled him?

  5. Martin Luther wasn’t crazy. He was profoundly traumatized by divine holiness, and deeply concerned about the prospect of facing God’s judgment one day. And like the apostle Paul, he was relieved from his spiritual torment, he was delivered from his dread, by discovering the grace of God.

  6. Luther lived in an ignorant time—people and priest alike were ignorant, many even illiterate. They didn’t know and understand the true height and depth of divine holiness, nor did they know and understand the true meaning and impact the manifest righteousness of God in the gospel (Phil. 3:9, “the righteousness from God that depends on faith”). They just didn’t know.

  7. I want to read you something Luther wrote, which demonstrates his tender concern for the people of Germany. He gave his life to educate his fellow Germans in the gospel, as Calvin did in Geneva and throughout France.

This comes from The Treatise on Good Works, and it explains why he refused to do theology only in Latin, interacting only with fellow scholars, and why he chose to minister directly to the people, in their own language.

Although I know full well and hear every day that many people think little of me and say that I only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity, I do not let that stop me. Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layman to be better! I would be quite satisfied, thank God, and quite willing then to let all my little books perish. Whether the making of many large books is an art and of benefit to Christendom, I leave for others to judge. But I believe that if I were of a mind to write big books of their kind, I could perhaps, with God’s help, do it more readily than they could write my kind of little discourse.

      I will most gladly leave to anybody else the glory of greater things. I will not be ashamed in the slightest to preach to the uneducated layman and write for him in German. Although I may have little skill at it myself, it seems to me that if we had hitherto busied ourselves in this very task and were of a mind to do more of it in the future, Christendom would have reaped no small advantage and would have been more benefited by this than by those heavy, weighty tomes and those questiones which are only handled in the schools among learned schoolsmen. (Pettegree, Brand Luther)


  1. What new things did you learn about the holiness of God? What practical impact do those truths make on your life?

  2. What do you plan to do differently as a result of studying this lesson? What changes do you need to make (i.e., in your life, in your schedule) to succeed in those plans?

  3. Now, with those thoughts in mind, let’s sing Luther’s hymn together, Hymn #11, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Close in prayer.

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