After a delay (sorry!), I continue this series “On Being a Theologian of the Cross.” I manage the Evangelical Portal at Patheos. As a sample, check out our discussion (to which Michael contributed, and which he noted earlier) of where the American evangelical church is most in need of theological renewal. Join the discussion!
In the first installment of this series, I described the historical circumstances surrounding the Heidelberg Disputation, the locus classicus of Luther’s theology of the cross. The second installment examined the first 7 of the 28 theological theses that Luther defended in 1518 before a convocation of the Augustinian order. In the following paragraphs I will consider theses 8-14, asking what we can learn that will serve us well today.
The first thesis clarified the fundamental question Luther addresses in the Heidelberg Disputation: what is “the way to righteousness”? Neither the Law of God, nor the moral philosophies and accomplishments of man, can advance an individual along the way to righteousness. Indeed, these things are not helps, they are hindrances insofar as we set our confidence in them. As the third and fourth theses explain, the “works of man” (meaning the things men love to do: acts of accomplishment and self-reliance and self-justification) appear good in the eyes of the world, but are evil when they are done in pride and in place of grace; the “works of God” (meaning what God asks us to do: acts of humility, acts of self-sacrifice, acts that scorn the rewards and esteem of the world) often appear evil, but are good insofar as they teach us to rely upon grace.
These themes continue in the theses that follow.
8. By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
9. To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
10. Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
11. Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.
12. In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.
13. Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
14. Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can always do evil in an active capacity.
My reflections on these themes will be brief. In some cases, Luther was responding to technical debates within the world of scholastic theology. Still, Luther has astonishing things to say here.
The eighth, thirteenth and fourteenth theses are especially meaningful to me. The works of man (following the Law or human moral philosophies) are mortal sins, Luther says, because they dissipate the desire and obscure the need for divine grace. When we act in this way, we become further entrenched in a false sense of self-security. This self-security, comforting though it may be, is “evil” because it prevents us from calling out to God, from confessing our need for God, from seeking out God’s grace for the sake of our salvation.
There is an implicit distinction here between the horizontal dimension (relationships among people) and the vertical dimension (the relationship between the individual and God). The most splendid human deed, though it may be good on the horizontal dimension (i.e., it serves another person), can nonetheless be “evil” on the vertical dimension if it is a rejection of the right relationship with God, which is always a relationship of constant and complete dependence.
Yes, the world may mock our dependence upon God. Yet the truth is that it is a simple recognition of reality. The person who finds his strength and places his security in God alone understands that God is his Creator and Preserver and the source of all things True and Good and Beautiful. He also understands what Luther explains in the thirteenth and fourteenth theses: that we are only capable of doing what is truly and thoroughly good when we (passively) allow God to guide and strengthen and act through us.
Luther is reiterating a claim from Augustine. After the Fall, we are not free to do (not capable of doing) what is truly and thoroughly good. We may, from time to time, do the right thing. But we do not do the right thing in the right way and for the right reasons. To do what is truly and thoroughly good, we must not only do the right thing, but we must do it in faith and in gratitude to God. Prior to faith, we may do the right thing and yet do it pridefully and for the sake of self-justification, in an attempt to secure our salvation through our own merit. Only the person who rests in faith and acts in faith humbly, only the person who knows his salvation is secured by the grace of God, is freed to do the right thing in the right way and for the right reason. Only the person who lives by faith can do what is truly and thoroughly good.
I post this on Good Friday, and Good Friday is a powerful reminder that the values of the world are upside-down. What appeared to be an evil and despicable thing, a moment of ugliness and humiliation and defeat, was in fact a deed of extraordinary goodness, a moment of victory and a love so beautiful that it has transformed the world. Christ invites each of us to take up our own cross and follow him. So let us ponder: is God calling us to do things that are “evil” in the sight of the world? Things that are uncomfortable? Things that require sacrifice and suffering? Things that require us to humble ourselves and deny the idols of the world? Things that requires us to rely upon God’s strength and not our own? If so, be encouraged that God chooses the “weak” and “foolish” things of the world to shame the “strong” and the “wise.” God delights in doing what men deem impossible.