What made Luther jump?

Hi, I have been trying to find out what Luther saw in his view of Catholicism that made him constantly fear for his salvation. Here’s what I know so far:

*]Luther was a Nominalist, as that appeared to be the *via moderna *of theology at that time.
*]Nominalism says that there are no universals. Universal are simply “names” we give to things
*]Nominalism holds that God can sovereignly call anything good or bad, solely because of whether He wills it. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, goodness or badness is determined by the will of God. Something could be “good” today and tomorrow it can be “bad”.

If I am mistaken or simplistic on these assumptions, I welcome any corrections. I also believe that Nominalism was declared a heresy?

Here’s my dilemma:

Why is Luther seemingly the only one who can’t be sure he will go to heaven?

If Nominalism is the current theology of his time and Luther can’t reconcile his nominalist theology to some measure of confidence in God, why are no other monks or theologians also fearing for their salvation? Did Luther make a connection that others didn’t see, or did he make a logical error that lead him down a road of despairing for his salvation?

Thanks for your help,



If you mean that Luther rejected the God of Philosophers and accepted the God of Revelation, then you’re correct.

Luther was a student of William of Occam, and accepted reason as a “most precious gift of God” but understood (Like Occam) that God’s revelation trumped all - and thankfully so.

In Luther’s estimation Reason, Philosophy (and subsequently Science) conclude that we’re destined for a meaningless grave, while God promises trump all of our rationalizations.

(I’ll have to duck out of this debate mostly, I’ve given up most internet stuff for Lent)

Thanks for your reply, and I’m sorry you have to duck out. You’ll probably be the better having sacrificed this for Lent.

To your point: I’m not aware that Luther was struggling with Reason, Philosophy & Science vs. God’s Revelation. I don’t see that anywhere in his writings. He seems to be wrestling with his sins and even worse, his :tendency towards constant sinfulness. Is he wrestling with the idea that, how can he, a believer, still continue to commit sins over and over? Is he thinking that by doing mortifications he can become a new person?

Luther is contemporary with Sir Thomas More and Erasmus. Erasmus decries the abuses in the Church just as Luther and many others do, but More, Erasmus and others don’t have the problems Luther has. Is Luther the first person to see a flaw in the theology which drives him to reform it?

That’s actually a Catholic outlook. Except that it seems that Luther couldn’t live with it.

In one sense, many people undergo a similar problem as Luther and some other Reformators did.

The Catholic outlook ideally requires constant vigilance, constant introspection, a constant awareness of one’s sinful tendencies. For some people, this is simply too much.

Here’s what someone here wrote who left Catholicism for Protestantism (I don’t want to link it directly, so as to not cause undue bias):

One of the main problems with the Catholic Church is they make too little of God, and too much of man. It would take more than this book to convince me that the truth I have found in the Bible is not complete, or sufficient to make me “wise unto salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15). I would lose more than ‘dreams’ or ‘hopes’ if I became a Catholic again. I would lose the peace that comes with resting in the completed work of Christ. (John 19:30) The joy that comes with knowing that there is NOTHING I can do that adds to the completed work of Christ on the Cross for my sins. (Galatians 3) I would lose the gratitude that comes from knowing His grace is a gift given freely to me (Romans 6:23) and that I have a Father in heaven to whom I can draw near thanks to the precious blood of His Son that washes me clean from all of my inequity (Hebrews 4:16). I would lose the joy in knowing that He has removed my sins as far as the East is from the West, and He remembers them no more. (Psalm 103:12) The peace in knowing that nothing can ever separate me from the love of Christ, (Romans 8: 35 – 39) and that my name was written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13: 8). I would lose the security I have knowing God is the one who keeps it there and has given me His Spirit as a guarantee (2 Corinthians 1: 22). Oh! What I would have to lose!

He was on course to be a lawyer and in his studies he studied William Ockham – who taugh nominalizm, but then in July of 1505 caught in a thunderstorm and afraid that he would die he vowed, “Save me, St. Anna, and I shall become a monk.”

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that man can know the true objective essence of things but Ockham denied it was possible.

Catholic Encyclopedia has:Concerning Nominalism, Conceptualism, and Exaggerated Realism, a few general considerations must suffice. Nominalism, which is irreconcilable with a spiritualistic philosophy and for that very reason with scholasticism as well, presupposes the ideological theory that the abstract concept does not differ essentially from sensation, of which it is only a transformation. The Nominalism of Hume, Stuart Mill, Spencer, Huxley, and Taine is of no greater value than their ideology. They confound essentially distinct logical operations–the simple decomposition of sensible or empirical representations with abstraction properly so called and sensible analogy with the process of universalization. The Aristotleans recognize both of these mental operations, but they distinguish carefully between them.

De Wulf, M. (1911). Nominalism, Realism, Conceptualism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.


Regarding Martin Luther’s angst:

Dr. *Richard P. Bucher (Pastor of **Our Redeemer Lutheran Church) writes:
*Luther’s anfechtungen were no mere intellectual questions or doubts, but religious crises that gripped his entire being. Usually it was thinking about Christ the Judge that brought them on. Often it was the mass (holy communion) that was the stage for this, because for Luther, there in the mass, the avenging, punishing Christ was present in his body and blood to judge. This was his experience at this first mass (Luther’s Works 54:234) and also at the Corpus Christi festival in Eisleben in 1515 (LW 54:19-20) when he was gripped with horror over the closeness of Christ. Yet, at times even viewing the crucifix or hearing the name of Jesus would cause Luther to recoil with terror, for it was the Judge that He was seeing or hearing (LW 8:188).


Although this is an interesting topic, is a Catholic forum really the best place to get accurate information on this subject?

Lucy107 you wrote, “The Catholic outlook ideally requires constant vigilance, constant introspection, a constant awareness of one’s sinful tendencies. For some people, this is simply too much.”

Of course it is too much! If one truly understands how Holy God is and how disgusting and deserving of wrath our sin is, how can one possibly get out of bed in the morning? How can one do anything at all but spend a day in self-loathing, knowing that there is no reparation to be made by a human being to an infinite eternal God. Those who are born again do not have difficulty recognizing and feeling the weight of their complete depravity.

The difference is that we believe as Scripture tells us that Jesus bore our sin, and took the punishment of God’s wrath that we deserve and then rose from the dead. That He lived a perfect sinless life and imputed His own righteousness on to all who will believe. This is the gospel. It is good news! This is the freedom that Christ has called us to.

And, in order to be relevant to the original post, it was when Luther realized this glorious truth in Romans 1:16-17 that he was born again and began his journey out of Romanism.

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it 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.”

The regenerate Christian is even MORE aware of their sinfulness after their new birth by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which leads them to repentance and grows them more and more into the likeness of Christ. The difference is “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,
in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:1-6)

Thanks for the replies, but the original question was why Luther and only Luther could not feel his sins were forgiven, and felt compelled to try and work for righteousness. Thomas More, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, even William of Ockham–all Catholics–all felt (as far as I have read) secure in their salvation and secure in the love of God. Aquinas and Francis of Assisi wrote many hymns concerning God’s love. I don’t think it’s fair to knock Catholicism as that had already defined that salvation is by faith in God’s grace alone. In fact the Council of Orange declared that it is impossible to work for your salvation, it is entirely God’s gift to us. And, reading from the other Catholics mentioned, that’s what they all thought as well. So why is Luther not convinced of this?

When I saw this thread on the NCRF list of threads, I just had to click on it. It reminds me of something I haven’t thought of in ages: Ozzie in Ozzie and Harriet sees “Press to see the man jump” in a store window. So he presses the button, which gives him an electric shock.

At this point, we can only speculate about what really went on inside of Luther’s mind.

If it is true that he grew up in a troublesome household and suffered from scrupulosity, this could explain how come he was the way he was.

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