Luther’s Anfechtungen: The Dark Night of His Soul, and why it was Important for the Reformation

Martin Luther

By Pastor Richard Bucher - Posted at Regeneration, Repentance and Reformation:

Martin Luther’s relentless search for forgiveness and peace with God can be fully understood only against the backdrop of his frequent anfechtungen.

What were his anfechtungen?

Anfechtungen is the (German) word that Luther used to describe the overwhelming times of spiritual trial, terror, despair, and religious crisis that he experienced throughout his life. At the heart of such an anfechtung was the terrifying feeling that God was going to judge and condemn the sinner at any moment. In the wake of such a feeling came subsequent feelings of deep sadness that God had forsaken one.

Luther was not alone in his experience of anfechtungen. The late medieval piety that Luther was a part of, which stressed Christ primarily as the avenging Judge, made spiritual terror, guilt, and despair the ordeal of many. The monks especially spoke of this. If Luther was unique, it was the intensity of his anfechtungen that set him apart. Since he saw his sin and failure to keep the Law so clearly, his fear of Christ the Judge grew exponentially.

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).