The following is adapted from The Word of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation written by Charles Fry (1517 Publishing, 2018).
In the sixteenth century, society experienced upheaval as a result of the theology of Martin Luther and his Heidelberg Disputation being proclaimed and embraced by the Protestant reformers. Five hundred years later, the West is once again in upheaval as the truths of the Heidelberg Disputation are being rejected. The losses have been incalculable.
John Morley was an admirer of the 1700’s Enlightenment and its effect upon Western civilization. In Morley’s estimation, “The Goddess of Reason” had been enthroned and through the work of men such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, the scaffolding was assembled for the building of a thoroughly secularized Europe. Summarizing the central pillar of Enlightenment thought, Morley wrote, “…that human nature is good…This cheerful doctrine now strikes on the ear as a commonplace and a truism. A hundred years ago in France, it was a wonderful gospel, and the beginning of a new dispensation.” Owen Chadwick concisely summarized Morley’s observation and its effect: “Human nature is good. This, said Morley, is the key that secularizes the world.”
The Enlightenment’s rejection of the Heidelberg Disputation’s anthropology has continued to this day, causing serious erosion to all categories of Christian theology. After all, if man can save himself, what need is there for the cross or the Gospel? We can somehow stand before the God of Isaiah dressed in a righteousness of our own making and thus besmirch His holiness. While the disputation declared Gabriel Biel’s semi-Pelagianism to be as an unclean leper, both Western civilization and even the Church have warmly welcomed the leper back into the camp. The result is that we have lost the gravitas of God, we have minimized the atonement and forensic justification, we have lost our sense of need for the Gospel of grace. With arrogance, we have antiphonally answered the angels praise that broke Bethlehem’s night with a dissonant chorus of our own making: “Glory to Man in the Highest.”
If man can save himself, what need is there for the cross or the Gospel?
In short, through our high view of human nature, we have become theologians of glory.
On a cold December morning, my wife and I drove by live oak trees in South Carolina’s Low Country to visit C. FitzSimons and Martha Allison. They so kindly opened their home and hearts to us—a newly married couple whom they had never met. At their entryway was a curious sight: a plumbline hung from the balcony. We later discovered the purpose of the plumbline: referring to the book of Amos, it was to be a reminder to Bishop Allison of the unflinching and unchanging perfection of the Law of God. Whenever he would lift his heart in pride or begin to think that somehow he had gone beyond his need for the cross, there hung the plumbline, silently reminding him of the truth of his own heart. He would be driven back to Christ.
My friend’s plumbline was Luther’s plumbline—the pure and holy Law of God, thundering from heaven to a world lifted in pride. Five hundred years of ideological change has not altered the inviolable Law of God—though we have tried with all our might to erase transcendent truth from the world. Plumblines don’t lie. They only tell the truth; the plumbline of the Law tells us the truth about human nature and exposes our guilt.
As John Newton (the author of Amazing Grace) observed, “Guilt is the parent of atheism.” We may try to alleviate our guilt before the Law of God by ridding the universe of God’s existence, or by ridding God of His thunder and thus making Him like us, or by passing laws to justify our sin, or by hiding in our semi-Pelagian castles, defending ourselves, as Luther said, by exalting “free will.” In any of these solutions, we become our own arbiter of truth, seeking a dynasty change in heaven.
There is another possible response we may have to our guilt—a response to which the Heidelberg Disputation kindly invites us. With nothing in our hands but sin, we may humbly admit our spiritual poverty before the Law of God and trust in the finished work of Christ for us, resting from our own works. Such trust will come face to face with the meekness of the Lamb of God, in whom alone we find rest. Such trust will restore health to the life of the Church and once again give us a clear message to share with the world. One who is genuinely poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) will never add to the Gospel; rather, he or she will embrace the word of the cross and proclaim it with clarity and simplicity.
One who is genuinely poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) will never add to the Gospel; rather, he or she will embrace the word of the cross and proclaim it with clarity and simplicity.
May we embrace the truths of 1 Corinthians 1—so beautifully encapsulated in the Heidelberg Disputation—and know God only in the cross of Christ. And may we ever remain in the shadow of the cross, admitting the bankruptcy of our sinful nature, and in so doing flee the plague of the theology of glory. And as the apostle Paul expressed in his letter to the Corinthians, may we ever determine to know nothing before the world save the word of the cross: Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Adapted fromThe Word of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation written by Charles Fry (1517 Publishing, 2018). Used by permission.