THE POPE WHIPPED HIMSELF? Derek Joseph Levendusky

Last week, the News Observer reported: “Pope John Paul II whipped himself with a belt, even on vacation, and slept on the floor as acts of penitence and to bring him closer to Christian perfection…”

I don’t know what your response to this was, but mine was sadness. When I see someone trying to earn something that Christ has already given, I feel sorrow that God’s grace is being ignored. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did not say, “It is half-finished” or “It might be finished”! The work for our redemption is finished. Every obstacle to keep us from knowing God and growing in God has been removed through the cross! We don’t have to earn something God has already given.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, NASB)

You can’t earn a gift. You can only receive a gift! The problem is, when we trust in our works or performance to earn our place with God, what we are basically saying is, “The cross wasn’t enough for me!” When you try to earn God’s approval through your performance instead of through the cross, it’s called “legalism.” Legalists unwittingly are trying through their performance to steal glory from God by trusting in their own work instead of God’s work!

As a young monk, the reformer Martin Luther was known to have whipped himself, and among other things, to have lain naked in the snow as an act of penitence. He nearly drove himself mad. Later in life, he wrote of this time, “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.”

Soon after, Martin Luther found grace, or I should say, grace found him! He wrote, “At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.” When he saw the way of grace, His soul was delivered from the snare of legalism! He concluded, “And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God.’”

Paul warned against legalism, and specifically asceticism, which is the mistreatment of the body for the sake of perfecting the soul. Listen to this verse:

”Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 3:23, NIV)

In other words, mistreating your body for religious purposes does not bring you closer to God or give you any more victory over your tendency to sin. There’s only one thing that brings you closer to God—faith in the cross of Christ! Rest in the grace of God today, and worship the One who paid the whole price for your redemption and mine.

Order Discipleship by Grace, Derek’s new book, today at

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