This is the second installment in our special series on Luther’s, Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 3 and 4 done by Caleb Keith.
3. Even though the works of man always seem to be beautiful and good, they are nevertheless demonstrably deadly sins.
Human works seem beautiful externally, but on the inside they are obscene, thus Christ says to the Pharisees in Matt. 23. For though they and others seem good and beautiful, in fact, God is good and beautiful, who does not judge according to outward appearance, but searches hearts and minds. And so without grace and faith, it is impossible to have a clean heart. He cleansed their hearts by faith.
Therefore, the thesis is demonstrated: If the works of justified men are sins then it is asserted that they are much greater sins for those who are not yet justified. But the just speak on behalf of their works: do not begin to judge your servant, Lord, for no living man is righteous in your presence. Thus speaks the Apostle Paul in Gal. 3. All who hope on works of the Law are under a curse. But the works of men are the works of the Law, and the curse is not upon venial sins thus they are mortal sins. Thirdly, Rom. 2:21 states, “You who teaches, do not steal, do you steal?” Which Augustine explains, “Men are thieves in their desires, even if they judge others guilty of stealing.”
4. The works of God, thus always seem ugly and wicked, nevertheless, they are truly, eternal gain.
It is well known that the works of God are unattractive, according to Isaiah 53, “He is neither beautiful nor splendid,” and 1 Sam. 2:6, “The Lord kills and makes alive, He stretches down to Sheol and restores it.” This is understood to mean that the Lord humbles and terrifies us by means of the law and the witness of our sins so that we appear to seem in our own eyes as well as those of all men to be nothing, foolish, and wicked, for this is what we actually are. Insofar as we know and confess this, there is “no form or majesty” in us, but our life is buried in God (i.e. in the faithful trust of his mercy), having ourselves nothing except sin, foolishness, death, and hell, Thus the Apostle Paul pronounces in 2 Cor. 6:9-10, “As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live.” And this is what Isaiah 28 calls the “alien work” of God “to work his work” (that is, He humbles us, making us give up hope, so that in His mercy we are exalted, creating hope in us), just as Hab. 3:2 states, “In wrath remember mercy.” Therefore man is so displeased with all his works; that he sees no beauty, but only his depravity. Indeed, he also does those things (of God) which seem foolish and ugly to others.
However, this disgrace comes into us when God punishes and also when we accuse ourselves, as 1 Cor. 11:31 says, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” Deut. 32:36 also states, “For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” In this way, the ugly works of God which are done in us, that is, those which are humble and fearing, are truly eternal, for humility and fear of God are in every way gained.
Greeks seek wisdom, Jews seek a sign, and modern Christians seem to like big monuments and buildings. Our folly in doing so has caught the attention of everyone since Babel to the present day, always with a predictable ending. Consider Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous 19th-century ode to the great king Ozymandias. It is unlikely that Shelley was familiar with Luther’s theology of the cross, but his poem uses the same irony and inverted logic. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and Despair!” reads the inscription on the great monument to the once feared king. However, we soon learn that this king is long since dead, and this inscription we read remains on only a fragment of the monument, destroyed and in rubble. The once great Ozymandias and his monument are now all but forgotten. Luther similarly “praises” the works of man as mighty, only to then flip the tables in order to magnify the grace of God.
In the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther presents the Gospel which crushes the mighty and proud and elevates the humble and lowly. The message in Theses 3 and 4 of the Heidelberg Disputation is this: Be careful praising the accomplishments of man while missing the hidden, and sometimes despised, works of God. Even the best of our works that we call beautiful and good pale in comparison to the mighty works of God. Luther even suggests that boasting in these works is deadly. Yet each of us continues to build and worship idols.
Take for instance the monuments we have built for our earthly gods. The great pyramid alone has over two million stones weighing as much as fifteen tons each. Many more millions of slaves were told that god’s only plan for their life was to lug stones for a foreign king and then die. Sometimes our man-made, impressive gods end up acting like tyrants. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon exalted themselves over nature as a man-made oasis in a desert, built with the express intent of establishing hierarchy and lording it over the people. The Washington Monument took over twenty years, a civil war, and the weight of a nation, to finally hoist the world's tallest obelisk in the beltway skyline. In the very top of the monument is an inscription praising God, but certainly, at some point, visions of Babel crossed their minds. The God of the Bible is not easily impressed with monuments. Yahweh is not into looks (despite the curiously well-coifed, sun-kissed tan Jesus of some Bibles). In fact, if we want to know anything about the appearance of Jesus, consider this description given by the prophet Isaiah:
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and forsaken of men
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised and we did not esteem him (Is. 53:2-3)
This deformed yet divine servant will be God’s mouthpiece. And as all advertisers know, if you don’t have a pretty product, you had better have a really good product. The theology of the cross, a Jesus-centered religion, put all its weight in the message. Our God is not like a Marvel superhero, but rather like one who after finding a treasure hidden in a field, goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. Our God looks forsaken, foolish, and even irresponsible.
The theology of the cross inverts our obelisks reaching to heaven and sends heaven down to earth, albeit, not in the kind of package you probably expected. We want our works to matter, and so we make them bigger. The irony is that as we are building these bigger and more attractive, God inverts the way of the world in Jesus. St. Paul famously highlights this in a great early exploration of the theology of the cross in Philippians 2:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It is this emptying and humbling that turns the wisdom of this world on its head. God has become man and victory comes through His death. It was the message, of a logic-of-the-world, turned upside down, summarized in the Heidelberg Disputation. From Paul to Luther, we are taught to let all the other gods, and theologies, and spiritual narratives impress with their size and stature. Greeks seek wisdom, Jews seek a sign, but despite all the magnificent buildings, and burial places and monuments, our God still prefers to be found in the green wood of the manger and the old, splintered wood of the Roman cross.