In the Church’s long history, two figures stand out. Both were obsessed with their sins, terrified of divine justice, and doubtful that they could ever earn God’s love. But their paths diverged profoundly: one threw the Church into turmoil and brought devastation to the whole world, while the other attained eternal glory as one of the Church’s beloved and revered saints and Doctors.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church, with sola fide, “faith alone,” being one of the core Lutheran (and anti-Catholic) doctrines. What led Luther to promote this teaching—that faith, to the exclusion of human works, is what saves people? Its origin seems to be found in Luther’s life and personality: a monk in the monastery, ridden with anxiety, trying to gain peace by living a rigorous Catholic lifestyle.
Luther never felt at peace with God. He thought his every action was sinful and that he could not obtain God’s favor. He would go to confession every day, sometimes for thirty minutes, sometimes for an hour, and sometimes even for a few hours! He said, “As a monk I thought salvation impossible when I felt the concupiscence of the flesh, that is, an evil movement, whether of lust or of anger or of envy against a brother, etc.” Luther believed that simply having a temptation was sinful. This anxiety is what Catholic moral theologians call scrupulosity and what psychologists call obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It’s understandable that salvation by faith alone would appeal to a Christian crippled with guilt over his every action. And Luther thought he could find passages from Scripture to back him up: “the righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17); “for we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law” (3:28); “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). By Luther’s interpretation, faith, and faith alone, was the way to achieve eternal life. Therefore, he did not need to continue with his sacrifices, fasts, and other rigorous works.
But sola fide is wrong. Jesus never taught it, Scripture contradicts it, and Luther led countless millions of souls astray by promoting it. If only he could have found a kindred spirit in St. Thérèse of Lisieux—also living the religious life, also cripplingly anxious about her sins. He might not have gone on to spearhead the collapse of Christendom!
Thérèse was raised in France in the nineteenth century. She entered a convent in her teenage years and came to be known for her intimate relationship with God. She passed away from an illness at twenty-four, yet she continued influencing others through her autobiography, The Story of a Soul. According to it, she at first struggled mightily with a fear of God, just like Luther. However, she conquered her scruples and lived believing in God’s love, obeying the teachings of the Catholic faith. Because of her diligence, she not only achieved salvation, but is also hailed as a Doctor of the Church.
Thérèse had a strong obsession with sin in her younger years, fearing that her every action was offensive to God. His justice terrified her and was always on her mind. But she prayerfully discerned with the help of her sisters and her spiritual director that she didn’t need to earn God’s love. Rather, God loved her already.
From this realization, Thérèse developed her spirituality—a strategy to love God in little ways. While Luther as a monk had been imposing severe penances on himself, including long fasts and sleeping without a blanket, Thérèse recognized that she was too little for these things and chose to make small sacrifices with great love.
Thérèse cast off her terror of God’s justice. She said, “What sweet joy it is to think that God is just—that is, he takes into account our weakness, he knows perfectly the fragility of our nature. What should I be afraid of?” If only St. Thérèse could have emphasized her comments to Luther! Although she knew that God took sin seriously, she did not let that blind her from his mercy. For when she offended God, she imagined herself as a little child who, with tears running down her cheeks, ran to the Father’s open arms in the confessional. Luther, on the other hand, went to confession frozen, terrified, and ultimately dissatisfied with God’s forgiveness.
This is not to say that Thérèse thought God excused all sin on account of people’s weaknesses. When a man was to receive the death penalty for a triple-murder, she remarked, “Everything led to the belief that he would die impenitent. I wanted at all costs to keep him from falling into hell.” Thérèse prayed for this man’s conversion, for she knew that God is just. If a man does not lovingly repent of his sins, then he will feel the full weight of God’s justice.
Luther obsessed over God’s justice in the monastery, feeling as if none of his good works was ever sufficient to please God. Thérèse, on the other hand, knew that God was merciful and pleased with her mere desire to love him. She desired to love God, though imperfectly, through her prayers, confessions, and fasts. For Thérèse imagined herself as a child throwing little flowers to her Father. Her good works—her Little Way—made God smile all the more tenderly at her, his little daughter.
The young nun of Lisieux felt that these little actions done with great love maintained her intimate relationship with God. She said, “How shall I show my love since love is proved by deeds? Well—the little child will strew flowers. . . . She will embalm the divine throne with their fragrance.” Her works stemmed not from a heart of fear, but from a heart overflowing with love. She represents the true Catholic teaching on salvation, which Luther never understood.
Protestant theologian R.C. Sproul recounted the following from his study of Luther: “He had such a fear of the wrath of God that, early on in his ministry, somebody put this question to him: ‘Brother Martin, do you love God?’ You know what he said? ‘Love God? You ask me if I love God? Sometimes I hate God. I see Christ as a consuming judge who is simply looking at me to evaluate me and to visit affliction upon me.’”
What a stark difference there is between these two figures! Luther was dominated by fear, and he left the Faith. Thérèse wanted only to please her loving Father—and her gentle love and understanding of God ensured her a place of honor in heaven, the Church, and history.