This is the third installment in our special series on Luther’s, Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 5 and 6 by Caleb Keith.
5. Those works of man which are crimes are not part of the category of deadly sins. When speaking about deadly sins, I am talking about those which appear outwardly good and beneficial.
For instance, these are crimes which all men are able to identify: adultery, theft, murder, and deception. But deadly sins are those which appear good but in actuality are the result of a wicked tree bearing wicked fruit. Augustine affirms this in Book 4 of Against Julian.
6. The works of God, in particular, those which are done through men, are not done apart from sin.
We read in Ecclesiastes 7, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” From this, some say the justified man sins, but not when he is doing good works. They should be refuted saying, if that is what the text wanted to communicate, then why be superfluous with its words? Or does the Holy Spirit delight in overabundant and foolish ramblings? For this purpose could have been thoroughly expressed by the following: “There is not a righteous man on earth who never sins.” Why add, “who does good,” as if there are other persons who do evil and are righteous? For no one except a justified man does good. Where, however, he speaks of sins outside the realm of good works he speaks thus, “For the righteous falls seven times.” Here he does not say: A righteous man falls seven times daily while doing good. This is a good analogy: When someone cuts with a rusty and jagged ax, even though the carver is a good craftsman, the hatchet leaves bad, misplaced, and deformed cuts. So too, this is what it is like when God works through us.
I am the queen of “good works.” I grew up doing my chores early so I could find extra to-do's around the house. I never missed curfew. I received straight As. I volunteered more during my first two years of college than I took credited hours of classes. My first job out of college was with a nonprofit (which also meant I had to work two other jobs to support myself). I curse only on occasion, and to my mother’s delight, I have no tattoos. You get the idea. I am just the type of self-righteous person who finds it easy to put my trust in the bounty of my perceived goodness, and therefore, I am just the type of person Luther addresses in Theses 5 and 6 of his Heidelberg Disputation.
Luther has already laid out the beginnings of his argument in the preceding theses: the Law of God does not have the power to get you where you want to be, virtuous works done in repetitious fashion have no innate bearing on righteousness, and furthermore, such works are deadly. So we dress our achievements up in beautiful adornments to hide their fatality, and at the same time, we fling God’s works aside as if they were disgusting garbage. Before moving on too quickly, Luther takes a little aside in Thesis 5 and 6 to make sure He is extremely clear on one thing: none of us, not the good works queens and kings, the righteous and redeemed, nor the theologically savvy reading this right now, none of us can avoid deadly sin in this life.
Obvious crimes are not what Luther’s after. Adultery, theft, murder, and lies: these sins do not betray the sinful conscience, but instead, they expose it. A murderer knows he is culpable, the adulteress has no qualms about her purity, and everyone knows you should not steal what is not yours to take. Any sane person understands there is nothing good about a crime. Yet what can we say about the sins we refuse to admit, all of which trace back to a lack of faith in Christ? Luther levels the playing field by making this seemingly obvious point: No longer can the righteous put herself on a pedestal above the criminal. In fact, the sins of the criminal don’t even fit the same definition as hers - all of which appear beautiful and picturesque yet are killing her from the inside.
None of us, not the good works queens and kings, the righteous and redeemed, nor the theologically savvy reading this right now, none of us can avoid deadly sin in this life.
Our lives are inundated with the beautiful and picturesque. "Live longer, happier lives through health, wealth, and a dose of thoughtful charity,” is our zeitgeist. And the longer we live, the less we think about death. Death is such a dreary topic, anyway, it’s always certain to dampen the mood! So we push for more comfort, less suffering, and convince ourselves that no one deserves pain and hardship. No one deserves to die, and if no one deserves death, then no one is sinful.
This is why what appears to be good is the most deadly. Our smallish and constant attempts to save ourselves and the world around us trick us into thinking we are capable of eternal salvation. And thus, our works keep us from trusting in the only One who can indeed deliver eternal life. Any sin, no matter how inconsequential, cuts us off from our Creator and our true savior. “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Is. 59:2). The small sins of our good works: pride, self-righteousness, “godliness,” and charity are the sins we least expect to have lasting consequences; in fact, we rarely view them as sins at all! Yet generation after generation, here is where we continue to find ourselves most deceived, and most cut off from the God of the universe. These little sins expose the very nature of sin: the constant battle we fight with God to try and save ourselves rather than let Him save us.
Not only are these sins the most deadly, but they are the sins we all have. We cannot escape them, we cannot deny them, even when, as Thesis 6 states, God works through us despite them. Here, Luther drives home the point that no matter how and when God chooses to use us, praise and honor goes solely to Him. We can’t take the credit: He is the master craftsman, and we are the rusty ax, He is the artist, and we are the old and dirty paintbrush. Don't doubt that good can be done through you, but do doubt your ability to contribute anything other than sin and resistance.
Our sin is not just that thin layer of dust plaguing your furniture - it is much more pervasive. We assume the harder we work to appear good, the less sinful we will become. Scrub hard enough and often enough and that veneer of dust will hardly be noticeable. The good will outweigh the bad, the good works queens of the world will finally triumph.
Be wary, righteous one, good works queen, self-sacrificial servant, self-help guru, for you cannot escape sin in this life.
Unfortunately, neither Scripture nor experience shows this to be the case. On our own, in our pervasive sin, we are separated from God and wholly unrighteous. No amount of chores, exercise, or studying can change our ontology. Seeking to observe and quantify our goodness based on works is a fatal task because not even the jagged good done by God through us is free from sin. In this fallen and broken world, the righteous remain simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously fully righteous and fully sinner. Luther bases his proof of Thesis 6 on Ecclesiastes 7:20, "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Can you imagine the panic in the room as Luther read these words? How then is one made righteous? Just as the minds of those Augustinian friars began to attempt to count up their goodness and reason themselves out of the category of sinners described by Luther, the piercing truth of God’s law breaks in again. Be wary, righteous one, good works queen, self-sacrificial servant, self-help guru, for you cannot escape sin in this life.
I can imagine this panic because I’ve experienced it myself. Although oftentimes when I hear God’s law, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” I may use these words to confirm my own self-righteousness and go about my business convinced I’ve fulfilled His commands (Matt. 5:48). Yet every once and a while, I realize how imperfect I truly am. Suddenly, I know that although I did my chores and more, my real motivation was always to receive praise from my parents. I can’t hide behind my volunteer work because I am slapped in the face with how little I care for my neighbor if not for the recognition I receive from doing so. I know the only reason I don’t have a tattoo is because I am afraid of the pain it would take to get one. The Law exposes the real me, the works queen without her crown: ugly, mortal, and desperate for righteousness. I need the type of righteousness that will save me from this failing body and failing world, iustitia salutifera or saving righteousness, not the type that will give me what I deserve, iustitia distributiva. But from where can such righteousness come?
Only in Christ and by Christ have we, who are wholly sinful, been wholly justified. Our hope does not come from within; it comes from without. We are dying inside; our self-justifying works are killing us. Left to their own devices, these killing works would convince us we get what we deserve and what we deserve is happiness, healthiness and eternal life. We need a saving righteousness, won for us by a perfect life, death, and resurrection to break the spell. Our perfect God reminds us that what we truly deserve is death. But then in a miraculous turn, He does the dying for us and hands over eternal life. In Christ, we are daily killed and made alive. It’s true His work appears deadly, perhaps the deadliest of all. Yet look closely and you’ll see it is more beautiful than anything you’ve ever seen, for as dying, behold, we live (2 Cor. 6:9).