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OCD caused Luther to say "alien righteousness"

Updated: May 29, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

Martin Luther was deeply scrupulous. What is that, you might ask? It is where you have an obsessive anxiety about sin. With this line of thinking, God predominantly becomes seen as fearful Judge, rather than as merciful Father.

Luther consistently felt that he was offending God in nearly every thought, word, and action. At that point, he was thinking that mere temptations were sinful, and as such, felt abandoned by God. To ease his troubled conscience, he would go to confession for hours daily (see Protestant scholar RC Sproul's book, The Holiness of God, pgs. 128-129). How could somebody be in the confessional for hours after having gone to confession the day before?! The answer is scrupulosity. Truly, it is obsessive compulsive disorder, but in a religious context.

Luther's confessor tried to take his mind off of sin by urging Luther to teach Scripture, which he did. However, Luther's conscience still kept driving him crazy. He never felt righteous before God, but rather felt totally unworthy of Heaven. Luther says, “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy" (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, pg. 315).

Luther needed to internalize the fact that none of us are worthy of Heaven. But the Lord has offered us a gift to join Him there. Instead of accepting this understanding of Catholic theology, Luther couldn't. He seemed to be thinking of righteousness in terms of "law" that demanded 100% obedience. However, God relates to us in terms of grace. We can be in a good relationship with Him even with sin. Only mortal sin makes us unrighteous. So, Luther was operating under a false understanding of Catholic theology, but who could blame him with his OCD afflicting him?

The blameworthy aspect of Luther is where he tried to give peace to his troubled conscience with a new doctrine, discovered from his personal interpretation of Scripture. He felt that he really was unrighteous, but Jesus' perfect alien righteousness could cover him. He imagined himself as a baby chicken, covered and protected by Christ, the mother hen. With this new theology, Luther could remain an unrighteous sinner before God, but exteriorly be covered with the white robe of Christ.

However, Scripture does not teach this doctrine of the "great exchange."

We are saved or justified when we believe and are baptized into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). From there, we just need to love Christ in small ways everyday, peacefully and faithfully walking in His steps. Christ's justice should not strike us with terror, for He did not come for the righteous, but sinners. He knows how weak we are, and His justice takes this into account. So, let us avoid Luther's false teaching of a purely forensic imputation of Christ's alien righteousness.

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