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Luther’s Heidelberg Spring

One day is the reason why this year is especially significant for scholars of the Reformation: October 31st 1517. It was on that day, according to Philip Melanchthon, that Luther publicly protested against the peddling of indulgences by displaying his 95 theses at the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg. That act set in motion a train of events that was to change the course of history. But it was only the beginning.

Six months later, Martin Luther found himself in Heidelberg for the triennial conference of the Augustinians. He had been invited to explain and defend his ‘new theology’. Luther received a sympathetic hearing, though there was no broad agreement with his teaching.

The disputation – a debate or discussion based on a series of propositions – was among the most important in Luther’s career. In twenty-eight brief but carefully argued theological theses, he challenged the mind-set of the age – that theology could be understood by the human mind and that salvation could be secured by human endeavour – and sought to bring his audience to the cross, the only place where God was to be found.

Works Cannot Save
Luther began by announcing that “The law of God… cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them”. In other words, the law cannot save; if the key issue is ‘righteousness before God’, it only makes matters worse. Scripture proof is not lacking: Romans 3:20-21, 5:20, 7:9, 8:2-3. Far from curing, the law simply confirms the problem of sin. And it does this whether the individual is openly lawless, or striving to be lawful; the behaviour of the first is obviously exposed by the law, while the second is indicted for setting aside Divine grace and replacing it with human effort, Romans 10:3-4.

If the law of God, as an objective standard, cannot help, neither will the sinner be aided by ‘looking within’ for an alternative. The modern penchant for rejecting Scripture in favour of some sort of self-fulfilment, and the assurance it brings, would have found no favour with Luther: “If a person does not do good with help from without, he will do even less by his own strength.” But men do trust to appearance rather than reality, like the Scribes and Pharisees so roundly condemned by Christ, Matthew 23:27-28. The only hope is to let go of all such ‘dead works’, to humble ourselves, and to repent. Only by making the painful but proper judgement of spiritual bankruptcy will we avoid a judgement of an altogether different order, 1 Corinthians 11:31.

Luther asserted that man’s self-confidence is altogether incompatible with the fear of God. To trust in our own works is to fail to understand who and what God is. This failure does not belong only to the sixteenth century, nor to unregenerate men alone. Even today, believers may have such an opinion of their own works as to usurp the honour that belongs only to God! (1 Corinthians 1:31) Only in recognising that the best we have to bring is yet tarnished by sin will we begin to “serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear.” (Hebrews 12:28)

Man’s Bound Will
Here is another key question: ‘Does man will, or want, the righteousness that avails before God?’ And, consequently, if our salvation is by grace alone, without works, do we play any part? If we do not, are we then ‘forced’? Where is ‘freedom of choice’?

Theologians then sought to have the human will play at least some part, arguing that if man does his best, he will not fail to receive the desired grace from God. Thus salvation becomes something of ‘a joint endeavour’. Reformed theologians reject this. For them, man’s will is in sinful bondage. As such, it must say ‘no’ to God. Salvation cannot originate from the will’s movement – the will must be acted upon from the outside, from above, from God Himself. This was the Saviour’s message to Nicodemus, where the imperative of ‘rebirth’ was not, first of all, a command to the Jewish ruler, but a statement of what needed to happen to him by Divine agency, John 3:7-8.

For Luther, if we use the expression ‘free will’ at all, we should use it only in respect of mundane matters – in things ‘below us’, not ‘above us’; not, therefore, in relation to God. We may well choose freely what to eat or what to wear, but no such freedom pertains to God. He is rejected by the will, because it cannot accept Him; it can only move in the direction of its essential nature, which is away from God and towards sin. And so, ‘free will’, in this context, is an illusion. Luther concluded that the fallen will “is not free except to do evil”, just as Augustine had taught: “Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin”.

This ‘closing of the door’ on man’s natural will infuriates many, as it did in Luther’s day. He appealed to the teaching of Christ in John 8:34, 36. The will can be changed, but it will not change itself. It is a slave to sin; if its disposition is to be changed, it must be accessed from without. So we are pointed to Christ and to the cross. Luther, like Paul, would glory only in the cross and its message of transformation, Galatians 6: 14-15. It does not matter what is our background, but whether or not we have been regenerated, and are therefore that “new creature” in Christ. Nothing we can do can change the sinful inclination of a bound will. To think that we can, and to live and act accordingly, is to emulate those of Israel so vividly indicted by God, Jeremiah 2:13.

What is the sinner to do? He must respond in humility to the truth, recognise that he is bound and ensnared by sin, and resort to Christ as his only hope. Luther described faith in Christ as “the humility which turns its back on its own reason and its own strength”, and it is to such that God gives grace, 1 Peter 5:5.

At The Crossroads
All of this implies a conflict between two types of theologian and two ways of working; how they see things, and how they speak subsequently. Those theologians with whom Luther contended professed to see the invisible God through the visible creation. In seeing evidence of His goodness, wisdom, justice and so on, they saw also human objectives – things that men might aspire after, and so set up a way to reach God. Even the cross became no more than a means of promoting reflection, discussion and speculation. Looking at these men, Luther saw fulfilment of Romans 1:21-22.

For Luther and his colleagues, there was another way. It is about looking at the cross, and seeing ourselves and our world in its light. There is no other way to see God, really. That is Luther’s conclusion, and he makes much of 1 Corinthians 1:17-25 to validate his position. “The cross alone is our theology”, he declared, and we can see how he might put it so. Faith in the crucified, but now risen, living Christ, is all we have! The battle that raged then rages still. There are yet those who elevate the deliberations of human reason above the doctrine of Divine revelation. And so we must still “preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), for the Gospel has no meaning apart from the cross.

It Is God Who Works
“He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ” – so said Luther in his twenty-fifth thesis at Heidelberg, and it is the message of the New Testament. But this is not all. Luther maintained that “grace and truth are infused without our works”, yet “after they have been imparted, the works follow”. These good works are God’s working in the life of the believer. The Christ who has accomplished all that needed to be done now dwells in the believer by faith, and He it is who now moves and motivates us to those works that are good in the sight of His Father. Luther presents Christ as the operator in the production of these works, the believer being operated upon, and his works now acceptable because of the grace of Christ. Even in those things believers now achieve, there is nothing to glory – all is of God, all is of grace.

Luther’s critics were of the opinion that such teaching could never produce godly fruit. However, he showed that only the Gospel of grace would issue in true godliness, because only justification by faith alone frees the believer to live for the glory of God and for the service of others. Without the assurance born out of this truth, the individual can only struggle on in the bondage of doubt (will he ever be able to ‘do’ enough?) and even despair. But the soul who clings to the promises of God, and who knows joy and acceptance because of them, will live in glad obedience. Yes, he knows that his works are often flawed, and that he must ever relate to God in grace, but he sees the Gospel yielding fruit in his life and he knows that a ‘servant of sin’ has become a ‘servant of righteousness’ (Romans 6: 17-22). This is the product of God’s forgiveness in Christ: To Him alone be the Glory!

Rev Timothy Nelson.