A part of our series on Luther's, Heidelberg Disputation.

16. The person who thinks that by doing what is in him, he can willingly make himself move toward grace, adds sin to sin in such a way that he becomes twice as guilty

Because of what was said before, the following is clear: When a person is doing what is in him, he sins and wholly seeks himself. But if he believes that through sin he could be suitable to receive or obtain grace, he would add arrogant stubbornness to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an even greater sin. AsJeremiah 2:13 says, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” That is, on account of sin they are far away from me and yet they presume to do good by themselves.
Now you ask: What can we do? Should we walk calmly because we can do nothing except sin? I would answer: By no means. But, having heard these proofs, fall down and pray for grace and transfer your hope from yourself to Christ in Whom lies our salvation, life, and resurrection. Because we have been taught these things and because the Law makes sin known so that, in knowing sin, one might beg and receive grace. Thus God “gives grace to the humble,” and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The Law humbles, grace lifts up. The Law brings about fear, and wrath, grace brings about hope and mercy. Through the Law comes knowledge of sin. Moreover, by the knowledge of sin, humility is acquired and through humility grace is gained. Thus God's alien work brings out a work which is His very own: that is He brings forth the sinner that He might make him just.

17. Nor is speaking like this a reason to be hopeless, but causes one to be humbled and seek after the grace of Christ.

This is clear from what has been said, for, according to the Gospel, the kingdom of heaven is given to little children and the humble, and Christ loves them. Those who do not recognize that they are damnable and awful smelling sinners cannot be humble. However, sin cannot be known except through the Law. Clearly, when we are called sinners it is not despair, but rather hope, which is preached. Preaching about sin is preparation for grace, or even more importantly such preaching creates knowledge of sin and faith. For example desiring grace rises up after knowledge of sin has been created. A sick person seeks treatment when he recognizes how severe his illness is. In the same way, it does not produce despair or death when a sick person is told about the danger of his illness, but instead urges him to seek medical treatment. To say that we are nothing and always sin when we do what is in us is not hopeless (unless we are stupid); rather, it makes one focus on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

18. It is certain that man must give up all hope in his own ability before he is able to receive the grace of Christ.

The law desires that man give up hope in himself, for it leads him to hell and makes him miserable and shows him that he is a sinner in all of his works. The Apostle Paul does this in Romans 2 and 3:9, where he says, “I have already charged that all men are under the power of sin.” However, he who does what is within him and believes that he is as a result doing good does not consider himself worthless, nor does he give up on his own strength. Indeed, he is so self-consumed that he depends on his own strength to get closer to grace.

In his travelogue, Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck offers a fascinating account of his attendance at a Vermont church one Sunday. He found a “John Knox” church where the preacher, “a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like pneumatic drill, opened with a prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot.” Steinbeck speaks of the sermon as a “glorious…fire-and-brimstone” sermon. “He spoke of Hell as an expert…a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me.” This sort of preaching is fodder for spoofing old-time religion in our day. But not for Steinbeck. “I began to feel good all over.” He writes, “For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me….I wasn’t a naughty child but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it….I felt so revived in spirit that I put five dollars in the plate…[this preacher] forged a religion designed to last, not predigested obsolescence. ”

How about that? Steinbeck is just bludgeoned by the Law’s accusations from this preacher, and he loves it! He is not left hopeless or in despair, how could this be? Upon hearing this passage, I found myself wondering the same sort of thing I wondered years ago when encountering Luther’s great Heidelberg Disputation. Luther’s provocative theses come to a remarkable point in Theses 16-18.

Here, Luther hits us with the full force of the Law: you are not a naughty child, in need of correction. You are a first-rate sinner. So sinful are you that if you try to correct your sin and prove to God that you are doing everything in your power to right your wrongs, well, you are only making matters worse. You are adding sin to sin. There’s just no way out of it. You are a first-rate sinner.

At least this is the presupposition of God’s Word. His Word gets after us and calls us what we are: first-rate sinners. But that’s offensive these days. A pastor preaches this too much, he could get sued. See, in our world, we are operating with an entirely different set of presuppositions that make us look much better and reduce God to our encouraging pal.

Think about how we view ourselves. We presuppose that, deep down inside of us, dwells a really good person. Our job in this life is to find that person, strengthen him with religion, morality, and a healthy diet, until he is strong enough to go before God and say, “I’ve done the best I can.” God, who is certainly glad to help in this process, will see our good efforts, and reward us. Since we suppose that at our core we are good, our pal God won’t be able to help but treat us as good people deserve to be treated.

This exposes our presuppositions about God. We think He is the sort of God who wants us to be good, to do our best, and to treat others well. We know, we know, nobody’s perfect. But, God knows that too, and He’s a pretty nice guy, so He’ll throw us a bone. He won’t punish us for bad actions so long as our heart is in the right place. If we just do our best, work off those sins as much as we can, we’ll save ourselves. He will give us the benefit of the doubt. He’ll reward us with a happy eternity in the clouds! We will “obtain grace.”

In the midst of this mushy, moralistic dream, that Vermont God shows up with His Law and shatters all of it to pieces. The Law shows up and says, “You are far too gone in your sins to think that you could move towards grace by any power inside of yourself. It’s the inside of yourself that’s the problem!” We say, “I know I’ve sinned. But my heart was in the right place!” Perhaps, but once your heart arrived there, that right place was ruined! We are so proud of our religious work and effort; yet that Vermont God preaches, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Or, St. Paul can say in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one…no one does good, not even one” (3:10, 12).

The Word of God is clear: you are a first-rate sinner with no chance of moving towards grace. You ask: But what about all the good I’ve done? Does it not count for something? Think of my religious devotion, my political stances, my Christian tweets! Surely, God must reward that? The response? Paul can say of his own religious accomplishments and ours, “I consider it all rubbish” (Phil. 4:8).

God’s Word of Law gives us no quarter. Even our best efforts to “move towards grace” make matters worse. The trouble is, when we try to effort our way to salvation, we can only do so because we are not listening to the other Word of God: the Gospel. To trust our works in order to obtain salvation is to ascribe to our work that which belongs to Christ alone. His Work is to obtain salvation and to give it out freely. When we put our faith in our works, even our best ones, we turn them into idols and worship them as though they are Jesus.

When we put our faith in our works, even our best ones, we turn them into idols and worship them as though they are Jesus.

So, this is why Luther says we must despair of our own abilities if we are going to obtain salvation. Luther, characteristically, gives us two options: Christ or works. If you trust your works, you do not trust Christ and thus prepare yourself for a “squad of open-hearth devils.” When it comes to your salvation, God gives His Law so that you will find no hope in your works. His Law works this Godly despair in you (2 Cor. 7:9-11).

But, notice, then, Luther’s remarkable point: Despair is not an end unto itself. We must abandon hope in our efforts, but not give up hope altogether. Why? Because the purpose of the Vermont preacher coming to “kick the hell out of you” is to finally clear your ears to put you into the heaven of Christ’s Gospel. As Gerhard Forde says, “In order for there to be a resurrection, the sinner must die.” When we try to save ourselves, we add sin to sin. But God condemns our efforts and adds hope to our despair. He gives us Christ!

You need not lose hope because God condemned you in your sin. He only did it so that He would finally get you in the position to listen. And, boy, has He got something to say! You who put your trust in your glorious works, why don’t you look away from those for one minute and see what He did for your salvation: He suffered. He died. He was obedient to His Father, not for His own sake, but for yours. You who take your sin so lightly and exalt your works so highly, get over that rubbish. It is nothing compared with knowing this Christ Jesus who had died and obtained salvation for you.

Your best works are your worst idols. But there is no need to despair. For this crucified God loved you enough to “kick the hell out of you,” pick your hell up, and carry it to the cross. What’s more, He loved you enough to rise and proclaim you forgiven! You are a first-rate sinner. But don’t despair. That’s just the sort of sinner Christ dies for.

Notice Luther’s remarkable point: Despair is not an end unto itself.