From Our Series on Luthers, Heidelberg Disputation.
25. He is not justified who does many works, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
For the righteousness of God is not acquired by constantly repeated action, which is what Aristotle taught, but righteousness is poured out by faith, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” And, “for with the heart one believes and is justified.” I want the words “without work” understood like this: Not that the one who is justified does nothing, but that his works do not justify him. In fact his justification produces works. For grace and faith are poured out without our works and works follow after they are poured out. Thus Romans 3:20 and 28 state, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” and, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In other words, works contribute nothing toward justification.
Therefore man knows that works which he does through faith are not his but God's. For this reason, he does not strive to be justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is enough for him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, he himself becomes a vessel and instrument for Christ.
26. The Law says, do this, and it is never done. Grace says, believe in this, and all things are already done.
The first clause is clear from what the Apostle Paul says and his interpreter, St. Augustine, also confirms in many works. And it has been said many times in the above theses that the Law works wrath and keeps all men under the curse. The second clause is clear from the same texts, for faith justifies. And according to Augustine, the Law commands that which faith delivers. For Christ is in us through faith, in fact, He is one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commandments of God, therefore on account of Him, we also fulfill everything on the condition that He was crafted our fulfillment through faith.
What Luther’s earlier theses accomplished was to clear the decks of every sort of false hope we sons of Adam and daughters of Eve use to attempt to justify ourselves before the Holy God. Each is examined and rejected as false. The overall message of them is that absolutely none of them work, that all are false, that each of us has “the sickness unto death,” and there is no cure in sight!
If this sounds to you like a summary of the first three and a half chapters of Romans, you are correct. Romans 1 is about the utter hopelessness of all Gentile-pagan “answers.”
We want to argue with God, “But we had no knowledge, no Book! Go jump on the Jews who had the Book!” But God will not accept our excuses and responds: You had the cosmos which spoke enough of Me for you to at least avoid worshipping idols (Rom. 1:18ff.). And you had a conscience within that spoke of at least the basics of the Law (Rom. 2:14-16). Checkmate!
Chapter 2 focuses on the utter hopelessness of all Jewish “answers.” Appeals to lineage instead of to obedience to God’s law is just another failing “answer.” The first half of Chapter 3 exposes that the whole world is under God’s juridical righteousness and stands utterly condemned.
Similarly, Luther’s first 24 theses of darkness, expose one, non-working “answer” after another, until the reader is utterly checkmated. And reduced to complete silence. You, me, the whole race (minus One) under the verdict “Guilty!” and without excuse.
Years ago, I walked campus with a colleague, a professor of mathematics. He asked, “Rod, what do you think was the greatest discovery during the Reformation?” I responded, “The recovery of the Biblical message of justification by grace alone through faith [in Christ] alone, and all propter Christum.” He responded, “I used to think that, too.” What could I do but ask what he now believed? And I did. Dr. Meyer then said, “I think it was the recovery of a true, Biblical view of human sin.” That little conversation I have never forgotten––and, I think, rightly so.
Thesis 25 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is the final turn of it. It had earlier been hinted at, but now comes right out in the open. It is nothing other than the first light of hope: justification before the Holy God by faith [in Christ] sola–that is, without works! In his proof of it, Luther quotes Rom. 3:20 and 1:17, 10:10 later (and I think he could have added Rom. 4:5 as well!).
Thesis 25 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is the final turn of it. It is nothing other than the first light of hope: justification before the Holy God by faith [in Christ] sola––that is, without works!
This does not just sound incredible; it is shocking to us all. It sounds like crazy-talk. It sounds like St. Paul writing about “a righteousness not based on Law?!” Think of how an audience of lawyers would respond to such a proposal. Any true answer would have to be constructed out of “earning, wages, virtue, works, etc. Such things would be the only legitimate coinage, no?
Luther contrasts what Scripture says with Aristotle and his discussion of “becoming righteous.” One becomes a builder by building, becomes an instrumentalist by practicing instruments, becomes temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave acts, etc. And righteous by doing righteous deeds! (See details in Theses 29-40) Who can deny that this is consummate human wisdom?
But Luther charges into this fray, using Scripture. Righteousness before God comes only by hearing about Christ and believing into Christ. To attempt to “become just” by performing acts of justness/justice is to overlook the fact that we are not capable of works solely for the sake of neighbor. We are much too inwardly polluted to do such pure things! Instead, we need to pursue “the foolishness of God which is wiser than the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:25). As Luther states, “He who is without works but believes much in Christ is righteous before God!” (Rom. 4:5).
Too, Luther was concerned that there be no confusion between the righteousness of faith and the works that will indeed follow. Luther argues that these are not the believer’s own. They are God’s (using us as God’s vessels or instruments). Any time we are looking for some sort of “confirmation by looking inward” we will find nothing but sin and death again! The Reformers wrote that sin could be described as “incurvatus in se” or turned in oneself. The only way of confirmation is to turn our gaze outwards to Christ’s Person and work (and in particular His dying for us). The Father raising Him after three days was not only for our justification. It was the Father’s way of saying that He accepted the work of the Son for us.
Thesis 26 defends that the Law is right, is “holy, true and good” but also that the Law cannot bring about in us what it demands of us. It “works wrath and keeps all men under the curse!” It can curse, but it cannot bless (in the sense of enabling us to do what it demands). The Law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce. All of this, Luther scholar Gerhard Forde calls “standard Pauline and Augustinian teaching.”
Because it will profit him or her in questions that we all have regarding the relationship between our imagined “good works” and point us in another direction: that is, again to Christ’s Person and work for us.
Is there anything in this teaching that is more positive? Yes. It is the theme, “Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” Or, paraphrasing, “Faith [in Christ] nude, sola, without works, justifies sinners before God!” Luther quotes Augustine: “And what the law commands, faith [in Christ] obtains.”
To any theologian of glory, this language seems utterly hyperbolic at best, and, at worst, quite dangerous. After all, what will happen to human moral earnestness if people get wind of the claim that through faith [in Christ] all has already been fulfilled for them? But this makes sense to any theologian of the cross. And Luther held that if there is any faltering here, all is lost! He pushes the language to the limit, refuses to “back off.” He insists that faith [in Christ] does not have to be prompted to do good works because in faith [in Christ] everything is already done. Preposterous as it sounds, it is based not on us but rather on Christ who has fulfilled all things for us. As Forde puts it, “The point is precisely that the power to do good comes only out of this wild claim that everything has already been done.”
Why should any Christian take the time to read Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation? Because it will profit him or her in questions that we all have regarding the relationship between our imagined “good works” and point us in another direction: that is, again to Christ’s Person and work for us. It will clarify for any reader the nature of justification (always a helpful aspect!) and could, for many, comfort the troubled conscience (a key theme throughout the Lutheran Book of Concord)
 Rom. 1:17
 Rom. 10:10
 In almost every reference to “faith” I added, in editor’s brackets, [in Christ]. This was no more than to force the reader to recognize the only object of true Christian faith to be Christ’s Person and priestly work for us, to be explicitly Christian.
 Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997).
 Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross.
Support 1517 in 2024 – Make a Year-End Gift Now
As we approach the end of the year, we are relying on your year-end support to continue our work in 2024. Your tax-deductible gift will ensure that we are able to keep declaring and defending the good news of Jesus in the next calendar year.