This is the fifth installment in our special series on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Translation of Theses 9 and 10 by Caleb Keith.
9. Saying that works apart from Christ are dead, but not deadly, looks like a dangerous turn from the fear of God.
It is in this way that men become secure and therefore arrogant, which is dangerous. For in such a way, God is robbed of the glory which is owed to Him and it is scattered to others. With all zeal and quickness, one should strive to give Him glory; the sooner the better. Therefore, Scripture warns us, “Do not delay being converted to the Lord.” For whoever steals God’s glory offends Him, how much greater does he offend who goes on stealing glory from Him and does it proudly. But whoever is not in Christ, or rejects Him, steals glory from Him. This is well known.
10. Further, it is hard to understand how a work could be dead and also not a harmful and mortal sin.
I will demonstrate this proof in the following way: Scripture does contain a reference of dead things acting like this, stating that something could be at the same time dead and not mortal. Furthermore, the grammar, which calls “dead” a stronger word than “mortal” does not suggest this either. Grammarians call that which brings death a mortal work. To be sure, a “dead” work is not one that has been killed, but one that is not alive. But what is not alive displeases God, in Proverbs 15:8, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.”
Secondly, to some extent the will must navigate the road littered with dead works. This means, it must either love or despise them. However, the will is not able to hate dead works because it is evil. Therefore the will loves them and in so doing loves a dead thing. In that act itself, the will draws towards an evil work against God to whom it owes love and honor in this and in every other work.
If God gave out gold medals for good works, the prize would often go to people who never darken the doors of a church. Thomas, the atheist, because he has deep compassion for the homeless population, establishes a local shelter and soup kitchen where the poor can have a roof over the heads and a hot meal. Sandra, the agnostic, runs a local clinic that specializes in caring for those ensnared by addictions. Mohammed, a Muslim social worker, labors tirelessly to assist and free victims of sex trafficking. These people either deny God, question his existence, or reject the Trinity, yet they’re committed to helping their neighbor, doing good, and protecting the unfortunate. They are, by society’s standards, good people.
If Thomas, Sandra, and Mohammed sat down with you asked, “So, what do you, as a Christian, think of our good works?” what would you say? More specifically, what if they asked you, “What does your God think of our good works?” how would you respond?
Such questions take us into the heart of Theses 9-10 of the Heidelberg Disputation.
If we’re operating with a sort of Common Sense theology, then this question is a no-brainer: God applauds all good works, no matter who does them. What does it matter if the doer is an atheist, Hindu, a religious “None”, or Mother Teresa? If the work is good, it’s good—plain and simple. Don’t overthink this. Who really cares what the person believes? What matters is the deed itself. God, who is good, rejoices to see others do good. He doesn’t stop to ask what’s in their heart before He approves of what their hands accomplish. So speaks the common sense theologian.
If we put ourselves into the shoes of 16th-century scholastic theologians (whom Luther was addressing), the matter is a bit more tangled. They would insist that the works of unbelievers are “dead, but not deadly.” In other words, the good deeds of unbelievers neither earn the applause of heaven nor the condemnation of hell. They’re not good enough to earn the favor of God but neither are they bad enough as to deserve damnation. They’re just lying there, corpse-like. Corpses don’t earn gold medals but neither do they commit crimes. They just exist. They’re just dead. So the scholastic theologians are wobbling on a tightrope. Because the good deeds of unbelievers, are, by definition, good things to do, we cannot condemn them. But because such unbelievers aren’t doing them to the glory of God, neither can we approve them. So they want to have their theological cake and eat it, too.
The theologian of the cross, however, says, “No cake for you!” He has a far different, and more blunt, answer. He borrows his response from St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” (14:23). In our eyes, an atheist or unbeliever may pull off tremendous acts of love for the neighbor, but in God’s eyes, all they do is sin. No exceptions. No loopholes. No special award for trying. No neutrality. Whatever does not proceed from faith—no matter how bright and shiny and loving and compassionate and Nobel-Peace-Prize-deserving it may be—is sin. Thus, as sin, it cannot be “dead, but not deadly,” as the Scholastics claim. Rather, because it is sin, it’s both dead and deadly. Picture a killing corpse.
As if that were not dire enough, this “killing corpse” doubles down on death by becoming haughty about the whole affair. As Luther writes, “For in such a way, God is robbed of the glory which is owed to Him and it is scattered to others…For whoever steals God’s glory offends Him, how much greater does he offend who goes on stealing glory from Him and does it proudly,” (Proof of Theses 9). In other words, the unbeliever not only sins in everything he does, he boldly glories in being a killing corpse. Instead of giving glory to God, he hordes it all for himself.
If this all strikes you as a being a rather depressing view of humanity, a how-low-can-you-go anthropology, well then, you’re right. It is. But it echoes Scripture’s rather gloomy epitaphs of humanity. We’re barely out of the biblical gate when God points his divine finger downward and says of Adam’s offspring: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (Gen. 6:5). Notice: every…only. Or, as the psalmist says, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one,” (14:2-3). I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of those verses, “God sticks his head out of heaven. He looks around. He’s looking for someone not stupid—one man, even, God-expectant, just one God-ready woman. He comes up empty. A string of zeros,” (The Message). Even when unbelievers seek to do something good apart from Christ, like offer a sacrifice, it is “an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 15:8).
Where, then, does this leave us? It leaves us stripped of every confidence that we might have in some good act we’ve performed. It leaves our lips zipped regarding every boast we might voice about acts of charity, deeds of kindness, or humanitarian prizes we’ve been awarded. It leaves us naked, dead, humble and hopeless at the foot of the cross. And that’s right where God wants us to be. Because there, with Jesus, anchored to him by faith, everything suddenly changes.
All our dead and deadly works are peeled away from us and clenched by the hands of Christ. All our empty, arrogant boasting is lifted from our lips and swallowed by Jesus. He becomes our death, our dead works, our deathly works, all the pseudo-good we imagined we were doing. He not only atones for it, but he transforms it into something else. Because we are in Him, everything we’ve done in life, prior to conversion and after conversion, is cleansed and sanctified. If whatever does not proceed from faith is sin, then whatever does proceed from faith is righteousness. If the entire life of unbelievers is sin, then the entire life of believers is righteousness. We have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. And the life that we now live in the flesh, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself up for us (Gal. 2:20).
What our friends, Thomas, Sandra, and Mohammed, need is not more good works, shinier works, or greater personal sacrifices to make God smile. Not an affirmation that God is pleased with them because of what they do. Not a warning that their works are dead but not deadly. They need what we all need: the word of Law and the word of Gospel. They need to be crucified and resurrected with Christ. And in Him, in this new life in God, the Spirit works in us to do what is well-pleasing to God for the sake of Christ.