This is the fourth installment in our special series on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 5 and 6 by Caleb Keith.
7. The works of the justified are deadly sins unless the justified themselves dread them to be deadly sins out of devout fear of God.
This is clear from Thesis 4 of this work. Relying on works, which we ought to do out of fear, is the same thing as giving oneself glory and taking it away from God, to whom fear is owed in every work. For it is completely wrong to please, enjoy, and adore oneself and his works as an idol. Again whoever confidently trusts in all his works without fear of God acts like this. For if he possessed fear, he would not be confident, and for this reason he would not be satisfied with himself, but rather, he would have satisfaction in God.
Secondly, it is clear from the words of the Psalmist, “Enter not into judgment with your servant,” and “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’” etc. It is clear that these are not venial sins because these verses proclaim that confession and repentance are not necessary for venial sins. If, they are mortal sins and “all the saints intercede for them,” as it is stated in the same place, then the works of the saints are mortal sins. But the works of saints are good works, which are not meritorious apart from their fear and humble confession.
Thirdly, it is clear from the Lord's Prayer, “Forgive us our debts.” This is the prayer of the saints, therefore those debts for which they pray become good works. But that these are mortal sins is clear from the following verse, “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Take note that these sins are so great that they are damnable and unforgiven, unless they pray sincerely and actually forgive others.
Fourth and lastly, it is clear from Revelation 21:27, “But nothing unclean will ever enter it,” that is the Kingdom of Heaven. But anything that prevents entrance into the kingdom of heaven is a mortal sin (Otherwise there would be another definition of mortal sin). However, venial sin prevents entrance because it pollutes the soul and cannot stand in the kingdom of heaven.
8. The works of man are all the more deadly when they are done without fear and are aligned with unrestrained and evil self-security.
It is clear what necessarily follows this statement. For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is arrogance, and where there is arrogance there lies the fury and judgment of God, “for God opposes the proud.” Indeed, if pride ceased to exist there would be no sin anywhere.
In more than 500 years post-Reformation, no single work cuts through the noise and clatter pretending to be the Christian faith more than Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. In 28 theological theses, Luther exposes the nature and structure of the only two theologies (or religions) that exist: the false way by which fallen man attempts to “save” himself, and the one, true salvation of God. Thesis 7 and 8, in particular, address the issues of trust and security both for the Christian and the non-Christian.
In Thesis 7, Luther addresses what the Christian’s actual state-of-being is and is not post-conversion. Christians stand palpably unholy, yet entirely holy on account of Christ’s righteousness. This sinner/saint distinction is sometimes referred to as the “old Adam,” or the reality that even Christians are still completely sinful in this life, and “new Adam,” or the reality that Christians are also completely justified. Our holiness is on account of Christ alone—as the Prophet Jeremiah states, “In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which He will be called: The Lord [Christ] is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). Because we contribute nothing to this holiness, we must rely completely on God rather than on our own works.
The old Adam distrusts God and desires to be lord of his/her own destiny and salvation. We are glory-stealers, as Luther says. Suspicious of God and warring against Him, the sinner cannot help but to listen to the whisper of the Serpent and trust himself by relying on his best works. Man adores and relishes himself in good works in an attempt to be holy like God (Gen. 3:15). Behind every best and highest work is the desire to make oneself a god.
Luther carries this thought into Thesis 8: if the struggle to trust in one’s own works still exists in the justified man, how much more will this be the case for the non-Christian. Here, he challenges our way of thinking about what is good and evil in an unfamiliar way. No person would argue that theft, murder, or other overt evils are righteous before God. Furthermore, all religions “do holy works” to either become more like their god or for the “glory of the deity worshipped.” Man’s dilemma is not the climb towards achieving perfectly good works. Rather, his problem is that good works done in pride, apart from fear of God, are always and completely damnable as sin.
Therefore, Luther establishes the human condition in two, and only two realities; the Christian (Thesis 7) and the unbeliever (Thesis 8). There is no third purgatorial state of “figuring out if one is a Christian.” There are no levels of Christian holiness based on one’s avoidance of sin or one’s success at good works. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not based on works or sins, but on where they place their security. Thesis 7 and 8 are not simply aimed at errant medieval Roman Catholicism. Rather, they address this same error of the object of faith wherever and whenever it freshly emerges in all times and places, including post-reformation Protestantism.
To understand their application to all Christendom and not just medieval Roman Catholicism one must understand what Rome meant by mortal and venial sin, and how Luther redefines these terms.
At the most basic level, all agree: mortal sin separates one from God’s grace, and a venial sin does not. This medieval distinction arises out of a human desire to understand the ongoing presence of sin in the life of the Christian. Rome defined a mortal sin by its quality, magnitude, severity, and willful nature. If one’s sin was willful or severe enough, it was mortal. If not, it was considered venial. Typically willful sexual sins, large crimes, and “unconquered” repetitive sins were mortal. Venial sins tended to be misdemeanors and accidental sins, although much gray area existed in between the two. Mortal sin meant spiritual death and separation from God while venial sins could generally be atoned for through acts penance.
This system left people unsure of their standing before God in several ways. When was a sin mortal or willful? When was penance needed and how much? And lastly, how could one truly know their good works outweighed their sins?
Today it would appear we have not moved far from Rome. Though Protestant Christians have ditched the terms “mortal” and “venial,” we still find ourselves ranking our sins and our works from least to greatest. Which sins mean we have lost our salvation? What act reveals once and for all we were never elect? Which works can show we are saved or elect? Back and forth we go, weighing and measuring at every step. Before we know it, we find ourselves in the same purgatorial state-of-mind as the 16th-century laity. St.Paul’s bold and certain faith seems, at best elusive, and at worst, entirely out of reach. These “holy metric systems” lay bare the true depths and reality of original sin: the exchange of faith in God for faith in oneself, or the disregard of humility before God in favor of the arrogance of self. Adam and Eve’s original sin was more than just illegal action - it was complete distrust of God in an attempt to be like God.
This is why Luther decided to turn these words upside down. Luther’s view is from the Cross. If man’s good works are in play anywhere in salvation’s course, then what in the world is Jesus Christ doing living, suffering, dying and rising? Both the believer’s and unbeliever’s works alike are mortal, deadly sins if instead of being feared as such, they are praised for bringing righteousness and life. Good works are a very great, evil temptation if one does not fear them as such out of pious fear before God. When we fear trusting in good works, we assume we must put our trust somewhere outside of ourselves, namely, in Christ. Thus, Christ alone and His work on the cross is the sole hope of the Christian.
When the Christian appears before Christ’s judgment seat to receive what is due for the good or evil they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10), they will not offer up to Christ their “good works” as opposed to their evil deeds. Rather, they will confess all that they have done is sin worthy of condemnation and cling solely to the mercy of that nail-driven hand. This is the pious fear of God—without any other support than in God’s mercy and graciousness.
The Law deals a death blow to our religious projects no other religion dares speak, “By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). And as a result of this great blow, the Gospel is always even more unexpected as God resurrects us with, “I forgive you on account of My Son, rise and enter into the kingdom of heaven good and faithful servant.”