The Importance of Luther's Anfechtung Testing - Reformation to Present Day
By Kathy L. McFarland
December 4, 2011
The thesis of this paper presents the development of Anfechtung thought in Luther’s mind that forms his psychosocial being, defines his relationship with God, and figures prominently in his efforts of reformation leading to Protestant separation from the Roman Catholic Church. This concept of the German word Anfechtung and its Latin counterpart tentatio is without complete English translation; the words “temptation, trial, affliction plus tribulation” are often used in an attempt to define the word. However, Anfechtung needs a deeper definition that reflects the control of God during trials that causes Christians to suffer with endurable but real agony within their souls with the invasion of extreme “doubts, turmoil, pang, tremor, pains, despair, desolation, and desperation.”
Anfechtung assaults believer’s most vulnerable places in the mind, body, or soul and creates real “fear, conscience, sin, or guilt, that is always a test of one’s faith” Anfechtung originates from either the “hidden God” or from the devil that is allowed by God to do his wicked testing for purposes of achieving Anfechtung in the believer; the test is always monitored by the Lord, often rewarding successful faith testing with additional spiritual works, leadership roles, extra attention to the believer, and a deeper spiritual relationship with Him.
Luther’s Anfechtung thoughts are deeply connected to real trials watched by God that forces him to resolve soul conflicts, and leads to a myriad of inward reflections and outward studies that form foundational beliefs and plant deep fear and awe for the Lord. This leads to the development of reverence toward God’s holiness, gives the believer an additional measure of discernment to separate the things of God from the temptations of Satan, and a persistent drive to find the Truth of God through His Word and a more intimate relationship shared with the believer. It is the intentions of this paper to show these key areas in Luther’s Anfechtung thoughts that lead to his strong stance of belief, and make a connection to the necessity of recognizing similar Anfechtung thoughts in present-day Christian leaders before responsibility, authority, and power are officially bestowed upon them.
II. Fearing God Develops Reverence through Wisdom
Young Martin Luther was not born a Reformer. He was a seeker of God before he became a leader of destiny. That journey began with a near strike of a lightning bolt searing his soul with passion to dedicate his life to God as a humble Augustinian monk and ended with his stance against the error of the Roman Catholic Church, leading to the Protestant Reformation.
But in his first steps of Christian faith, Luther was stricken with a deep fear of God that caused his body to tremble and his soul to shrink back in terror as his lips tried to form words of prayer to the Divine Majesty. His wretched nature was most unworthy to dare speak to the most Holy and Eternal God, and he sought the courage to be able to lift up his eyes and hands with requests to Him. His first Canon of the Mass as a monk stunned his senses and made him shudder as he dared to call upon God to come in the presence of worshippers: “With what impudence I am addressing so great a Majesty, when everybody should be terrified when looking at or conversing with some prince or king!”
We cannot know at which point in Luther’s religious and spiritual development that God chose him as the leader of Protestant reform. But, in the same way God delighted in an unlikely choice of young David and raised him to be king, the position of reformer was designated to be Luther, and his Anfechtung grooming began in earnest, with fear of the Lord given to him in great portion that was developed further through his theological studies.
It seems a common Anfechtung grooming for those designated to accomplish things for God. Success leads always to fear and awe of the Lord God, who rescues the believer from the condition that cannot be resolved alone. Fear of the Lord is an important prerequisite that God requires before designating more responsible works to leaders; numerous Scripture gives reason for this position and identifies many that have received this teaching. The fear of the Lord was given to Christ in his humanity (Isa. 11:2), the Israelites after their forty years of wilderness wanderings (Deut. 6:2), Prophet Obadiah for the saving of the prophets of God (1 Kin. 18:4), and placed upon the Jews and Greeks at Ephesus leading to acceptance of Christ. The Apostle Paul persuades men with the terror of the Lord always forefront in his mind (2 Cor. 5:11), and the fear of the LORD is extolled as it initiates knowledge and wisdom (Pro. 1:7, 9:10), prolongs days (Pro. 10:27), gives strong confidence (Pro. 14:26) and is the fountain of life (Pro. 14:27). It is an apparent critical component for leadership, and it is given by God to those He chooses to accomplish His works.
Luther’s Anfechtung development of fear of the Lord was seared into his soul at the crack of lightning that knocked him to the ground: “St. Anne, help me; I will become a monk!” And he did just that; he became the monk filled with unworthy shame that tried his mightiest to serve a God that both attracted and repelled him. While his soul longed for communion with God, the paralyzing fear crept in each time he approached Him in his monk duties or examined his personal life filled with bits of sin.
That process orchestrated a progression that brought Luther, step-by-step into a place of self-examination, obsessive confession, repentance, with deep struggles that eventually forced him to weigh all matters in his relationship with God’s Truth. The powerful storm brought Luther to conflict, not peace; the fear of the Lord within him propelled him to deep and true relationship with God by trusting only Him in his struggles, resulting in the gain of wisdom that prepared him to become the Reformer God willed.
The Anfechtung episodes were powerful trials of God that forced the worm of a man into conflict with his pained and depressed soul as moments of kairos time frozen by God in Luther’s memory added significance to his disquieting journey. He shamefully remembered his youthful chance meeting of an emaciated Prince William of Anhalt, who had rejected nobility and taken the robes of a friar, fasting to the point of near death carrying a burdened sack upon his back all for the sake of obtaining holiness for God. The confessional closet became overwhelming, as Luther recanted sin after sin after sin in never ending reminders of his failure to become a man of God; as soon as his mind rested, another remembered sin would pop into his shame, and require a rushed penance to salvage his salvation. His depression held firm upon his thoughts, sucking the vitality of life from his breath; he was in a place of darkness and felt alone; his spirit desired to feel God’s presence while at the same time, resented Him for the depth of despair placed in his path.
Throughout Luther’s lifetime, there are periods of Anfechtung that caused him to focus more and more tightly upon God’s Word to find His Truth and accomplish the works required of him that led to the Protestant Reformation. An interesting letter written to John Lang by Luther from the Wittenberg Monastery in October 1516 complains to the Prior at the Erfurt monastery about his time-consuming duties in the midst of his geistliche Anfechtung struggles with “the flesh, the world, and the devil.” Luther explains these same three struggles occurring in Anfechtung in more detail, offering a more perfect understanding of the forces that are involved in such a test. He says first comes temptation from the sin that clings to the flesh; next the world tempts with envy, hatred and pride, and finally, the Master Devil [Junker Teufel] tempts you to disregard God’s Word; thus, the flesh, world, and devil denotations are increasing degrees of Anfechtung.
The importance of God’s Word to Luther must surely have planted deeply in his psyche as a result of this observation, and gives suggestion of why it was the Word of God that led to his reform and the stance he proclaimed at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “Unless I am convicted of error … by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant of anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me!”
Luther’s use of the word “conscience” is the evidence toward the conclusion that Anfechtung thoughts were developed throughout Luther’s ministry, tightly winding upon his conscience, compelling him to act in full accordance with the Word of God. It was impossible for him to do anything else, for he had survived the Anfechtung intact and he was spiritually changed toward deeper faith and intimacy with God and His Word forever.
III. Luther’s Six Steps to Successfully Endure Anfechtung
Luther asks, “What greater affliction [Anfechtung] is there than sin and the evil conscience which is always afraid of God’s anger and never has rest?” He found that his despair and unrest of conscience was sickened through Anfechtung, and he could not cure it by staying away from God, without sacrament and hearing mass. But, Luther found that when a believer is fully enveloped in the Anfechtung experience, there is no comfort against the grave temptations present in the testing even in the midst of religious worship. He warns others to avoid false security through the trust of their baptism by wantonly sinning because that could set up a condition of Anfechtung which God would decree a test so great that faith would not be able to stand.
The affectations of tremendous, soul-wrenching conditions force the insignificant human to reject himself fully, to save himself completely. Luther shared his six steps to overcoming such tremendous pain and being victorious in the Anfechtung experience:
1. Remove focus of yourself and cling to God’s name in trust; all thoughts and feelings must be directed toward Him.
2. Know you are not alone enduring trials and that there are others in the world enduring the same sort of Anfechtung moments; they are not rare among the godly. “Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.” (1 Pet. 5:9)
3. Refuse to seek deliverance from testing and address God cheerfully and firmly; submit to the Will of God first. “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” (Lk 22:42)
4. Praise God; only then can the heart be glad. Lamentations, sadness, and anxiety do not remove evil from the Anfechtung testing. “I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: So shall I be saved from mine enemies.” (Ps 18:3)
5. Thank God for choosing you for such an important Anfechtung testing; only those worthy are tested in such a manner.
6. Believe in God, His truth and in His promises. Trust in Mark 11:24, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you shall receive it, and you surely will.”
Luther’s list provides ample argument that Christian leadership must experience Anfechtung before they are prepared to lead and teach others the things of God. It would be folly to set in place any believer over the authority of other Christians who had not developed the skills reflected in Luther’s six steps; to lead others without focus upon God causes heretical paths away from Christ to be formed. These crooked paths can be seen today amongst some Christian leaders that maintain a self-focused approach that requires praise, thanks, reward, and belief to be upon them, rather than the Lord. Only those who have not suffered Anfechtung would be unaware of Luther’s relief because the successful survivors of God’s testing are always victorious by placing their focus upon God.
IV. The Need for Evidence of Anfechtung Trials in Present-Day Christian Leadership
It is crucial that people of God, in particular, chosen leaders of God experience storms of God in their life that develops the necessary fear of the Lord within their souls. Without the fear of the Lord, leaders are without wisdom, knowledge, and long life; they must hold that disposition if they are going to be in a right relationship with God.
The fear of God develops how one speaks and relates to Him, and it is the fear of God that develops through Anfechtung trials. Scripture perspective shows a theologian as a “God-fearer,” and that fear is a theological necessity, according to Daniel Castelo, “in which cataphatic and apophatic moments are crucial to the possibilities and limits of theological reflection.” In fact, Psalm 19:7-10, shows the fear of the Lord to be more than a singular, awestruck event, and shows the fear of the Lord to be synonymous with a divine revelation developing in man through the law, testimony, precepts, commandment and ordinances of the Lord. This suggests a continuum of teaching that develops the fear of the Lord way past the episodic terror first visited upon those chosen by God, which biographical accounts of Luther confirm.
It is important that any Christians appointed to a position of leadership, authority, power, and responsibility holds the same type of fear of the Lord that young Luther felt that stormy day that began his stance as a reformer of God. If that spark of terror flamed through Anfechtung development by God that specifically leads to fear and reverence for Him has not shaken the leadership candidate, then it glaringly identifies a person that has not been prepared by God to take leadership of His people or His works.
There is only one Luther; but, there have been many leaders doing God’s work since then and up to present-day. Though few leaders will be placed in such a specific time and place, and developed with extreme Anfechtung to give no choice but to follow the Word of God precisely and particularly, most Christians would hope their leaders to hold that nature fully. Luther recognizes that Anfechtung is the “means of which God tests, prods, and drives a person” to plead for increased faith, “… giving up all other hope, despairing of himself, he come[s] to hope exclusively in the grace of God and cling[s] to it without ceasing.”
There must be specific Anfechtung questions developed for candidates by qualified, mature, Christian Trustees, Church Administrators, Board Members, Ordaining Committees, and Seminary Professors to fully ensure Christian leadership is given by God.
The Southern Baptist website at http://www.sbc.net/aboutus/faqs.asp lists the procedure policies for ordination in the Southern Baptist churches:
"Actually, there is no standard process or policy concerning ordination in the SBC. In fact, the SBC cannot ordain anyone. The matter of ordination is addressed strictly on a local church level. Every Southern Baptist church is autonomous and decides individually whether or not to ordain, or whether to require ordination of its pastor. When a church senses that God has led a person into pastoral ministry, it is a common practice to have a council (usually of pastors) review his testimony of salvation, his pastoral calling from the Lord, and his qualifications (including theological preparation and scriptural qualifications according to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9) for pastoral ministry. Based upon that interview the church typically decides whether or not ordination would be appropriate. Some SBC churches require seminary training from an SBC seminary, while others may not, such a requirement is entirely up to the church."
Clearly, there is no firm questioning of the Anfechtung experience for pastoral candidates with Southern Baptist Churches as a standard practice. A review of other independent Protestant ordinations are largely equal to or less intensified in their questioning of candidates, and focus upon seminary learning or Bible study opportunities rather than experiences initiated by God. Baptists must raise the bar if they desire to raise the leadership that God has prepared through Anfechtung experiences.
If the condition of Anfechtung has not been experienced by the candidate, then leadership is not established by God. Every authority, in that situation, should reject the candidate’s application, and encourage a deeper walk with God through increased study and worship. Leadership cannot be taught in the Christian faith; it must be bestowed upon those God has chosen to lead. His Anfechtung moments bring chosen Christian leaders to their feet after first bringing them to their knees. He gives them confidence and ability to complete the works God has given them, because their conscience has been entwined so fully through the captivation of God’s Word.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand - a Life of Martin Luther. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1950.
Castelo, Daniel. "The Fear of the Lord as Theological Method." Journal of Theological Interpretation 2, no. 1 (2008): 147-160.
Cate, Robert L. "The Fear of the Lord in the Old Testament." Theological Educator, no. 35 (1987): 41-55.
Luther, Martin. Luther's Works, Vol. 4: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25 Luther's Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.
________. Luther's Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I. Vol. 35 Luther's Works, Edited by Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.
________. Luther's Works, Vol. 42: Devotional Writings I. Vol. 42 Luther's Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.
________. Luther's Works, Vol. 48 : Letters I Luther's Works, Edited by Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999.
________. Luther's Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I Luther's Works, Edited by Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Philadelphia: Fortress PRess, 1999.
Scaer, David P. "The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther's Thought." Concordia Theological Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1983): 15-30.
 David P. Scaer, "The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther's Thought," Concordia Theological Quarterly 47, no. 1 (1983): 15.
 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand - a Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1950), 22.
 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 42: Devotional Writings I, Luther's Works, vol. 42 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 181.
 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I, ed. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress PRess, 1999), 179.
 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 4: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 21-25, Luther's Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), Ge 25:21.
 Bainton, 1.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 13-14.
 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 48 : Letters I, ed. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 26-29.
 Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I, 180.
 Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Luther's Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 42.
 Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 42: Devotional Writings I, 183.
 Luther makes an important point that when these six actions are implemented, the inner assaults may increase by the devil’s activity; that increase means that the devil is almost vanquished and the believer should maintain stance for victory.
 Daniel Castelo, "The Fear of the Lord as Theological Method," Journal of Theological Interpretation 2, no. 1 (2008): 148.
 Robert L. Cate, "The Fear of the Lord in the Old Testament," Theological Educator, no. 35 (1987): 2.
 Bainton, Chap. 1.
 Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, 18.