This is the sixth installment in our special series on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 11 and 12 by Caleb Keith.
11. Shamelessness cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless judgment and condemnation are feared in every work.
This is present from Thesis 4. Because it is impossible to trust in God unless one has let go of trust in created things and knows that nothing is of benefit to oneself short of God. Since there is no one who holds this pure hope, as we stated above, and since we still put some trust in created things, it is clear that on account of such lust in all things, we must fear the judgment of God. And this arrogance must be avoided, not only in the work, but in the affections also, that is, because it should displease us to have trusting faith in created things.
12. Before God, sins are truly of less consequence when they are feared as death-bearing by men.
This has been clearly laid out by what was said before. For as much as we accuse ourselves, all the more God justifies us, “Confess your misdeed so that you will be justified,” and according to another, “Incline not my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds.”
Theses 11 and 12 of Luther's Heidelberg Disputation display the need for both sinners and believers alike to hear the Law preached in all its terror and the Gospel preached in all its glory every Sunday and in every sermon. The Christian never graduates from Psalm 51. We never find ourselves outside the need for repentance. We never find ourselves beyond the need for forgiveness. So the Law must be preached lest we begin to be arrogant before God. The Gospel is preached so that we can continue to live shamelessly before Him.
The danger Luther warns against here is man’s assumption he can do good apart from the forgiveness of sins, and thereby trust in his works above the grace of God. This will lead to arrogance and a shamelessness full of self-justification. Scripture is full of warnings against those who would trust in themselves or in the created things as Luther says in his proof of Thesis 11.
Luther himself had experienced this desire to trust in the created things as a substitute for the mercy of God. Unfortunately, the danger has not lifted since his days, even among Protestants who claim his legacy. Rather than Christ lifting the heavy burden and giving us an easy yoke of grace (Matt. 11:30), in the system that Luther reacted against, grace became a burden and a prerequisite for a life of works. A parallel can be seen today when in modern Christianity the forgiveness of sins and pronouncement of grace are reserved for and preached to unbelievers, while the Law is reserved for faithful Christians, perhaps under the guise of discipleship.
The reasoning behind such insidious theology is that because Christians already believe they do not need to hear again that which they trust in: the free forgiveness of sins and imputation of righteousness on account of Christ crucified. Instead, it is believed they should be prodded to do good works of some sort. As regenerate believers, these are possible for them to do now, and because they are possible, they are also necessary if one wants to truly call themselves a Christian. The effect is the same as it was in Luther's own life. Faith in Christ, our sure and certain hope of salvation who alone is necessary and needful, is gradually, and very subtly replaced, and the believer is led to focus on attaining a false confidence in works.
The result of this sort of focus will be one of two: the Christian will either be led to despair, or to shameless arrogance.
If we are lucky, this chain of events will take us down the road of temptation or anfechtung as Luther explains in his explanation to the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer, "lead us not into temptation." Here, Luther states that the devil, perhaps in the form of a preacher, is constantly trying to lead us into false belief which is always a legalism of one sort or another. There are only two religions in this world, Law and Gospel. If a person is not pointed to the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, he is left to his own reconnaissance to work out his own salvation. This then leads to despair, and then to other great shame and vice. We are tempted to change the order from the way Luther puts it in his catechism because we assume it is the vice that leads to the despair, but it is despair that leads to vice even if in the end vice will also feed despair. This is why guilt-tripping never puts an end to vice. It only leads to more despair. Forgiveness is the only answer because it takes care of the despair and all of its consequences.
The Gospel can cure despair, but those filled with the leaven of the Pharisees see no need for forgiveness. Therefore theirs is the greater vice, though the world may not see it as any vice whatsoever. One might now ask, are we not back to ranking sins? Just in reverse? No! The sin of pride or arrogance is no less forgivable in the eyes of God, it is only greater in regards to its danger for the sinner. When someone knows they have done wrong they are much more likely to ask forgiveness and even to receive forgiveness before they have asked. But where one is blind to their sin, their false confidence in themselves and their ability to attain righteousness, when they do not feel despair, this is when God must first kill to make alive. “For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down” (Ps. 18:27).
Now vice is a word people seem not to grasp today even with the availability of "Miami Vice" reruns or Miranda Lambert's hit song "Vice." Typically the word is used as a category to catch an assortment of unsavory practices one might use to numb pain, assuage guilt, or try to overcome - if ever so briefly - existential angst. Typical vices would include such things as binge drinking, fornication, drug abuse, or gambling. Yet here Luther expands the definition to also include "good" works.
The sin of pride or arrogance is no less forgivable in the eyes of God, it is only greater in regards to its danger for the sinner.
When Luther takes on works, he is not talking about those things that enjoy near-universal recognition as harmful or sinful, such as the vices Miranda Lambert sings about, or Sonny tried to thwart in Miami. These vices typically bring shame along with them. Historically, they are considered mortal or deadly because of the brutality with which they punish their slaves and those around them in this life. And it is for precisely this reason that they are in many ways less dangerous, less deadly, that is, less mortal than the vices to which Luther directs his attention.
There is another way in which man tries to assuage guilt that ironically only leads to sinful pride and more shame, but because the emperor is unaware of his nakedness, he parades around shamelessly. This is the way of supposed good works. They are the emperor’s new clothes. We find the righteousness with which Christ clothed us in our baptism and the wedding dress He gave us to be too constricting, too formal. We think we can do better by dressing in our own righteousness. We don’t want help from God. We exchange the righteous dress of Christ washed white in the blood of the lamb for that which Isaiah compares to filthy rags. In these clothes that are no clothes at all, we attempt to stand shamelessly before God.
To avoid our fictitious shamelessness, Luther turns to define sins of truly less consequence in Thesis 12.
Of less consequence, this is how people viewed the so-called venial sins in the middle-ages, the peccadillos, small sins that often have little or no earthly consequences. The deadly sins were numbered in succession: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Because of their enormous earthly consequences, they were also thought to have disproportionately great spiritual consequences.
Before God, the sins are most deadly when they are not considered to be so by men. To have such a view of sin is really to miscomprehend the nature of sin and what it really is. It buys into Satan's lie, and succumbs to the serpent's subtle poison that we are free to choose good and evil for ourselves, and ultimately, that we are God. Consider Eve in the garden and how easy it is to miss how deadly such a little sin can be. She partook of a forbidden fruit, but was that really worth subjecting all of humanity to the pain of death and the possibility of Hell? The whole concept becomes a scandal to the hardened atheist. And yet it was precisely in that seemingly little sin of no consequence that the whole world fell under God's curse.
Those sins we shamelessly flaunt in front of the Creator are only a manifestation of the larger problem, and the larger problem is always unbelief. The lack of fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Sin betrays the rebellious soul, even more so when one wishes to trivialize it as something of little consequence that does not need to be forgiven and does not need the blood of Christ.
But the Christian does what God asks and when he is done declares himself an unworthy servant, and receives absolution from the one who came not to be served, but rather to serve. This is why Christ came to save the lost, to heal the sick, to forgive the sinner. We find our salvation in Him alone and dressed in His righteousness and despairing of our own, we stand before God, shameless.