My sincere thanks to Michael for inviting me to guest post this series. I manage the Evangelical Portal at Patheos (you can see the Vision for the Portal here, and you can check out a great sample article , an interview with a Christian professor at Harvard Law School with terminal cancer).
Every now and then, the course of history hinges upon a a single person, a single event, a single year. Such is the case with Martin Luther and his theological disputation in the city of Heidelberg in the Spring of 1518. Martin Luther inverted the theological method of his day, and the consequences for the history of western thought have proven nothing short of revolutionary.
In the first installment of this series on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, I described the significance of the Disputation in the unfolding of Luther’s life and thought. In contrast to the better known Ninety-Five Theses, which focused on the selling of indulgences and other abuses of papal power, the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 offers a more expansive vision of the relationship between man and God.
Here, I will consider the first 7 of Luther’s 28 theological theses. The preface is also significant:
“Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, “Do not rely on your own insight” (Prov. 3:5), we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.”
Luther makes clear from the beginning that the theological case he presents is not to be judged by its persuasiveness to ordinary human reasoning, but solely by its fidelity to scripture. The implication is that worldly wisdom will be offended by the essential “paradoxes” of Christian theology. This will be a major theme of the Disputation. The theology of his day, Luther believed, had become an intellectual form of works righteousness. If God were best encountered in the elaborate edifices of the philosophers and theologians, then knowing God would be a matter of intellectual achievement, and a cause for pride—and our relationship with God would have all the passion of a relationship with a philosophy textbook. Thus God revealed Himself such that only the humble can receive him. The wise must become fools, and the mighty meek, if they would know a God who gave Himself as a humiliated and crucified carpenter.
Thus we come to the theological theses. The fundamental question of the Disputation is implicit in the first: what is the “way to righteousness”?
1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
2. Much less can human works, done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
The radicality of Luther’s claim may take some time to sink in. Consider what it means. Sometimes we might imagine that obedience and being “a good person” advance a person 80% of the way to righteousness, and faith in God’s grace spans the 20% gap. Or perhaps we imagine that our own efforts get us 20% of the way and God’s grace covers the remaining 80%. In either case, we believe that we are capable of fulfilling the law in part, and require divine grace only because we cannot perfectly or completely fulfill it.
Luther rejects this view, and goes further. Not only does the Law (not to mention an ethical system devised by men according to their own “natural precepts”) fail to deliver us all the way to righteousness—it fails to advance us at all. And not only does the Law fail to advance us to righteousness at all—it actually forms a hindrance!
Why should this be? We refrain from adultery and murder; we give to do the needy; we do what we believe God wants of us. Are we not, at least partly, fulfilling the Law?
The problem is this: even when we do the right things, we do them for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways. As long as we are striving to be righteous before God according to our own terms, we are already rejecting God’s grace and insisting on our own self-sufficiency. Any attempt to fulfill the law as a means to righteousness before God, no matter how attractive the action itself might be, is a transgression against God. Only the person who has already humbled himself to receive God’s grace can use the law of God properly. For him, the law is a “salutary” or helpful guide to life, a “doctrine” for how he can express his love for God in the world.
Even if we do fulfill the Law in part, we are not advancing at all toward righteousness before God. We are falling further away, because we are only entrenching ourselves more deeply in the presumption that we can justify ourselves before God. For the unredeemed, then, the Law does not advance us toward righteousness but convicts us of sin and our need for grace.
3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
4. Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
Luther posits a dichotomy here between appearance and actuality, where good and evil are actually the inverse of how they appear to the world. While men look upon the outward appearance, God judges the heart. The “works of man,” actions we take to fulfill our sense of right and wrong, may outwardly conform to the law or to ethical systems but inwardly they are done in distrust of God and arrogant presumption.
On the other hand, the “works of God” appear unattractive and evil. God chooses to work in ways that offend our worldly desires. As Luther explains in his justification for this thesis, “the Lord humbles and frightens us by means of the law and the sight of our sins so that we seem in the eyes of men, as in our own, as nothing, foolish, and wicked, for we are in truth that.” The way of God leads to suffering and sacrifice, hardship and humiliation, because we must be crucified with Christ before we can be raised with him in new life.
The worldly inversion of good and evil is of the utmost importance to Luther’s theology of the cross. There is nothing more critical in life than that we should be humbled to receive God’s grace. Yet the world abhors precisely the “works of God” that tend to humble us. Since “humility and fear of God are our entire merit,” the “unattractive works which God does in us,” the means by which he humbles us and teaches us to depend upon Him, are of eternal worth.
In other words, the world loves the things that tend to puff us up—and thus lead us further from God. The world despises the things that humble us—and prepare us for grace. The world calls “evil” that which works to our good, and calls “good” that which works to our evil.
5. The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
6. The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
7. The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
I will ignore theses #5 and #6, which address relatively obscure matters, and conclude by commenting on #7.
Shortly before the Ninety-Five Theses and the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther taught a series of lectures at the University of Wittenberg on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was his reading of Romans that revolutionized Luther’s understanding of the gospel. The letter’s “chief purpose,” he writes, is “to break down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh. This includes all works which in the eyes of people or even in our own eyes may be great works.” Or as he writes later, God has chosen to redeem us not through a righteousness “that comes from us and grows in us, but through one that comes from heaven.” Thus “we must be taught a righteousness that comes completely from the outside and is foreign. And therefore our own righteousness that is born in us must first be plucked up.”
Sin, as Luther came to understand it, is “radical,” and like a twisted root it perverts everything that flows from it. Sin is, at its heart, an attempt to establish our own righteousness before God. As Luther writes in his justification for this thesis, “To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one’s works, and toadore oneself as an idol.”
The problem is not that we sin; it is that we are sinners, that we are corrupted through and through with selfishness and pride. Even when we do things that might be perceived by the world as ethical and right, we do them in sin, in a sinful bid to justify ourselves before God. The righteous can only act righteously by depending upon God and remaining constantly aware that their own actions do not make them righteous, but they are righteous solely through God’s grace in Christ.
Yet this will not be the end of the story. Although Luther came to a profound sense of sin, his sense of God’s grace, not coincidentally, was equally profound. More to come.