The Augustinian monks had a matter to settle in Rome. Some monks would have to go there. But who should they send? Martin Luther for one. He’s a good monk.
So in 1510 from Erfurt, Germany, Martin and a fellow monk set out for Rome. This was a privilege. If you worried about your salvation—as Martin Luther did—this was the place to earn your entrance into heaven. Thousands of relics were on display: a piece of Moses’ burning bush, bones of many saints, chains that once bound the apostle Paul, and more. To see just one of Judas’ betrayal coins would earn 1,400 years off purgatory. Crawling up the stairs of the Scala Sancta (the same stairs Jesus supposedly climbed to Pilate’s palace) would release a soul from purgatory altogether. Yes, Rome was the place to be.
Luther took advantage of it all. Besides attending to the business of the monks, he wasted not one moment to visit every relic and climb the Scala Sancta. He even kissed each step on the way up for good measure, hoping to release Grandpa Heine from purgatory‘s flames. “Who knows whether it is so?” the young monk said to himself at the top.
Indeed, who knows? Popes added indulgences at their convenience. One relic was worth 2,000 years off purgatory, while others spared 4,000 years. But none of this came from Scripture. On top of that, the lives of the clergy, including the pope’s, was anything but godly. Luther came back to Erfurt with no more assurance than before. Rome was a great disappointment.
Yet he pressed on in his monkery. He must earn his salvation somehow! The Catholic Church had other ways to do it.
Confess your sins—every one of them—and you’ll be forgiven. Catholic priests sit in small booths to hear such confessions without seeing the one confessing. Martin Luther spent hours at the confessional booth, listing every sin he could possibly remember. Yet he left still discouraged. He could always think of one more sin he failed to confess! And the priests who listened to him became weary. Come with some real sins to tell us, they complained, like blasphemy or adultery, and not these insignificant peccadilloes.
But Luther knew one sin, no matter how small, was enough to put him in hell. In fact, he began to see his problem was deeper. His very nature was sinful and corrupt. The problem wasn’t just his sin—it was himself! Luther was beginning to learn important truths.