CRUX sola est nostra theologia

The cross alone is our theology [WA 5.176.32-3]

Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation


In the medieval university of Luther's time, the disputation was a syllogistic form of debate by one who proposed a set of theses and one who responded. The student or scholar wishing to engage in a disputation would post his points on a bulletin board on the university campus, and the list of propositions would serve as an invitation for a debate. Anyone who disagreed was welcome to publicly dispute the author. Such an exercise served to sharpen the intellect of students as well as to clarify questions among the learned, along with providing instruction to the audience. A student’s academic experience was not complete until he could stand on his own in a disputation.

On 31 October 1517, Luther nailed to the Castle Church door, which served as the bulletin board of the University of Wittenberg, his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The Ninety-Five Theses, as they were later called, were intended to serve as a basis for a scholarly debate, but in the storm of protest against them the disputation never materialized. Luther wrote the Heidelberg Disputation less than a year later, in April 1518, amid the controversy surrounding his Ninety-Five Theses. Pope Leo X contacted Gabriel della Volta (Venetus), general of the Augustinian Eremites, and requested that he brand Luther a heretic as a means of excommunication. Volta, in turn, delegated this responsibility to Johann von Staupitz, vicar of the German congregation of Augustinians. Staupitz, however, holding Luther in high regard (he was Luther's best friend and spiritual father, though their friendship would wane, Staupitz holding fast to the unity of the Catholic Church), instead invited him to speak at the Heidelberg gathering to present his new Wittenberg evangelical theology to the Augustinian brothers. He urged Luther to, rather than debate controversial issues, present his views on sin, free will, and grace. These were all issues that Luther had previously addressed in general in his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517).

Luther reveals his theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation. He argues against Aquinas and his order of reason with grace as a result of wisdom and philosophy, not as brought by God. To Luther this could only contradict what Paul had taught so clearly: "the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with human wisdom and philosophy, but only with deep folly and offense. The cross is not inspiring but a scandal. Therefore the true theologian is not one who argues from visible and evident things, but rather the one who learns from the cross that the ways of God are hidden, even in the revelation of Jesus Christ." (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31) Luther presents the disputation with 40 theses, 28 on theology and 12 on philosophy (the philosophical theses prove the Scholastics to be in error, and that Aristotle cannot be used to support theology or natural philosophy. These theses will be largely ignored in the following).

The Theological Theses

The 28 theological theses are terse and compact, and are arguably more influential and important to the Reformation than the Ninety-Five Theses. Bornkamm has likened the theses of the Heidelberg Disputation to an arch spanning two pillars (see illustration below).


The first pillar, the Law of God, is announced in the first thesis, Thesis 1: "The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him." The second pillar, the Love of God, is found in the last thesis, Thesis 28: "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it." The Disputation moves, in an ordered and deliberate fashion, from the law of God to the love of God, a way that passes directly through the cross.

The 28 theses can be divided into four general sections:

  1. The problem of good works (theses 1-12). These deal with the nature and value of human works with regard to sin.
  2. The problem of will (theses 13-18). These deal with the impotence of human will in overcoming sin.
  3. The way of glory versus the way of the cross (theses 19-24). Here is described the "great divide," the contrasting theologies of glory and the cross. These six theses represent the keystone in the arch above.
  4. God's work in us: the righteousness of faith (theses 25-28). The outcome: God's love in Christ is a creative act that brings believers into being.

Although older theologians remained unmoved by Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, it impressed a number of young theologians including Martin Bucer, Johann Brenz, and Theobald Billikan, men who would later spread the reformation throughout the German states.

[Go to The Heidelberg Disputation, with proofs and commentary.]

The Theology of the Cross

Theses 19-24 of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation are especially pertinent to his theology of the cross. They maintain that: the great and glorious things of God are to be found in the cross; that the greatest works of God can only be seen through suffering and the cross; and that the great things God effects in and through believers are worked in and through the cross.

Luther apparently used the phrase theology of the cross for the first time in his Lectures on Hebrews (1517-1518). Commenting on Hebrews 12:11, Luther drew the contrast between discipline as an alien work of God (God sending pain) and a proper work of God (the pain is for our benefit). "Here we find the Theology of the Cross,” says Luther, because the fruit of righteousness is "hidden” by pain, just as salvation is "hidden” by the cross. Thus God’s work among believers is hidden in the cross they carry, and God’s work of salvation is hidden in the cross Christ.

Luther further clarified his theology of the cross in his Explanation of the Disputation Concerning the Value of Indulgences, 1518:

From this you can see how, ever since the scholastic theology -- the deceiving theology (for that is the meaning of the word in Greek) -- began, the theology of the cross has been abrogated, and everything has been completely turned upside down. A theologian of the cross (that is, one who speaks of the crucified and hidden God) teaches that punishments, crosses, and death are the most precious treasury of all and the most sacred relics which the Lord of this theology himself has consecrated and blessed, not alone by the touch of his most holy flesh, but also by the embrace of his exceedingly holy and divine will, and he has left these relics here to be kissed, sought after, and embraced. Indeed fortunate and blessed is he who is considered by God to be so worthy that these treasures of Christ should be given to him; rather, who understands that they are given to him. For to whom are they not offered? "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials" [Jas. 1:2]. For not all have this grace and glory to receive these treasures, but only the most elect of the children of God. [LW 31.225-6]

A theologian of glory does not recognize, along with the Apostle, the crucified and hidden God alone [I Cor. 2:2]. He sees and speaks of God’s glorious manifestation among the heathen, how his invisible nature can be known from the things which are visible [Cf. Rom. 1:20] and how he is present and powerful in all things everywhere. This theologian of glory, however, learns from Aristotle that the object of the will is the good and the good is worthy to be loved, while the evil, on the other hand, is worthy of hate. He learns that God is the highest good and exceedingly lovable. Disagreeing with the theologian of the cross, he defines the treasury of Christ as the removing and remitting of punishments, things which are most evil and worthy of hate. In opposition to this the theologian of the cross defines the treasury of Christ as impositions and obligations of punishments, things which are best and worthy of love. Yet the theologian of glory still receives money for his treasury, while the theologian of the cross, on the other hand, offers the merits of Christ freely. Yet people do not consider the theologian of the cross worthy of consideration, but finally even persecute him. [LW 31.227]

Luther saw the theology of the cross as the only correct way to view God and the only way to correctly view the life of the believer. God came to the cross for man. God comes to man through the cross and man, in turn, comes to God through the cross.

Alister McGrath further clarified the idea of God's "concealed revelation:"

  1. The theologia cruces is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.
  2. This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia cruces to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: Although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recognizable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and the cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God -- but to others, this insight is denied.

Only those who have faith understand the true meaning of the cross. Where the unbeliever sees nothing but the helplessness and hopelessness of an abandoned man dying upon a cross, the theologian of the cross (theologus cruces) recognizes the presence and activity of the ‘crucified and hidden God’ (Deus crucifixus et absconditus), who is not merely present in human suffering, but actively works through it. It is with this God, and none other, that Christian theology must come to terms. As Luther himself emphasized, faith is the only key by which the hidden mystery of the cross may be unlocked: ‘The cross is the safest of all things. Blessed is the man who understands this.’ [Luther’s Theology of the Cross, pp. 149-50, 175]

Walther von Loewenich described the centrality of the theology of the cross in Luther’s thinking:

For Luther the cross is not only the subject of theology; it is the distinctive mark of all theology. It has its place not only in the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, but it constitutes an integrating element for all Christian knowledge. The theology of the cross is not a chapter in theology but a specific kind of theology. The cross of Christ is significant here not only for the question concerning redemption and the certainty of salvation, but it is the center that provides perspective for all theological statements. Hence, it belongs to the doctrine of God in the same way as it belongs to the doctrine of the work of Christ. [Luther’s Theology of the Cross, pp 17-18]

Loewenich outlined five aspects of Luther’s theology of the cross:

  1. The theology of the cross as a theology of revelation stands in sharp antithesis to speculation.
  2. God’s revelation is an indirect, concealed revelation.
  3. Hence, God’s revelation is recognized not in works but in suffering, and the double meaning of these terms is to be noted.
  4. This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith.
  5. The manner in which God is known is reflected in the practical thought of suffering. [p. 22]

The Way of the Cross

Interest in Luther's theology of the cross was renewed following the First World War, when the prevailing question was, "Is God really present amidst the devastation and dereliction of a civilization?" The theology was well equipped to provide the answer. We are brought to glory not through the effort of our works, but through the cross of Christ. Scripture tells us, "For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.” (Heb. 2:10) Of this verse, John Calvin wrote:

It is indeed a singular consolation, calculated to mitigate the bitterness of the cross, when the faithful hear, that by sorrows and tribulations they are sanctified for glory as Christ himself was; and hence they see a sufficient reason why they should lovingly kiss the cross rather than dread it. And when this is the case, then doubtless the reproach of the cross of Christ immediately disappears, and its glory shines forth; for who can despise what is sacred, nay, what God sanctifies? Who can deem that ignominious, by which we are prepared for glory? And yet both these things are said here of the death of Christ.

Paul Bühler, in his discussion of Luther's Anfechtung (and its Latin counterpart, tentatio, variously translated as "temptation," "trial," "affliction," and "tribulation"), wrote:

Through the Gospel the Christian has come to learn of a gracious God in Christ Jesus; however his life experiences present to him a God who is still wrathful and who not only refuses to forgive sins, but reminds him of them. The hard, concrete experiences of life contradict what he had learned by faith. God on his side through the Anfechtungen is drawing the Christian closer to him and throughout the Anfechtungen always intends that they should be beneficial to the Christian. The Christian, however, interprets them as forms of God’s retribution for sins and as signs of his wrath. In desperation the Christian flees to Christ for salvation. In this God has accomplished his purpose of bringing the Christian closer to himself. Though the Christian can through faith conquer one Anfechtung -- and indeed he must if he is to survive -- he must face a lifelong series of Anfechtungen. Resurrection is the only permanent solution. Anfechtungen are an aspect of faith, not as that faith trusts in God and totally relies on him for all good, but as that faith faces realities in life and in the world different from those offered in the Gospel. [Die Anfechtungen bei Martin Luther, p. 7]

Thus, time and again, we are forced to our knees at the foot of the cross. Matthew Henry observed that "His way to the crown was by the cross, and so must that of his people be." The temporal, earthly sufferings of the saints is not seen by theologians of the cross as evil or as of the devil, but as gifts from the very hand of God. We are commanded to "Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thes. 5:16-18) We are reminded that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:28) Suffering in the life of the Christian is a function of God’s love and not of His wrath. To those without faith, wrath and discipline appear to be the same, but those in faith see that they are different to God, who works each for different purposes. Luther compares the Anfechtungen to a father’s discipline of his delinquent son. The father does not seek vengeance but correction through the discipline (Deut. 8:5, Prov. 3:11-12, Heb. 12:5-11). Gold and silver are not put into the fire for destruction, but for refinement (Psa. 66:10, Isa. 48:10, Zech. 13:9). The vine is pruned not for the sake of punishment, but in order to make the vineyard more productive (Isa. 5:1-7, Jn. 15:1-8). Luther wrote:

When God sends us tribulation, Satan suggests: See there God flings you into prison, endangers your life. Surely He hates you. He is angry with you; for if He did not hate you, He would not allow this thing to happen. In this way Satan turns the rod of a Father into the rope of a hangman and the most salutary remedy into the deadliest poison. But he is an incredible master at devising thoughts of this nature. Therefore it is very difficult to differentiate in tribulations between him who kills and Him who chastises in a friendly way.

James L. Langebartels observed that:

Whereas Jesus describes following Him as taking up our cross, whereas the apostle Paul explained those words by saying, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," Ac14v22, many today describe the Christian life as one continuous success story, with never a setback. Some claim that God doesn't ever want His children to get sick. Others maintain that God wants Christians to be wealthy. And still others promise certain and sure success in God's kingdom if only we use the right methods and programs.

As Jesus took up His cross of suffering, so His followers have their cross of suffering to take up. It is by no means the same cross of suffering; His far surpasses ours. But there is a similar cross that we are to carry as followers of Christ crucified. Just as Jesus' mission as our Savior was not accomplished in the way in which the Jews expected it to be accomplished, so also the life of Christ's followers is not what we would expect. ["Maintaining the Theology of the Cross in our Doctrine and Practice," September 17, 1996, Northern Conference, Michigan District Good Shepherd, Beaverton, MI]

The Promise of the Cross

We have, in the promise of the cross, peace, rest, and health. Our peace is with God. "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 5:1) But our peace is not with men. "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful." (Jn. 14:27) "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Mat. 10:34) "These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world." (Jn. 16:33) Our earthly tribulations continue even as we enjoy spiritual peace.

We have rest. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mat. 11:29-30) Our souls rest in the shadow of the cross from our vain striving toward righteousness, for salvation is of grace from first to last. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Rom. 11:6) “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) “Therefore they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” (Jn. 6:28-29) We have rest in our assurance of salvation. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35-39) Our earthly labors continue even as we enjoy spiritual rest.

We have health. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Pet. 2:24) But our health is spiritual, and the full benefits of salvation will not be received until our bodies have been raised from the grave. “For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” (1 Pet. 2:19-21) Christ died for our sins, not for our physical sickness. Although God can -- and does -- heal on a physical level, it is not always His will to do so. Our earthly afflictions continue even as we enjoy spiritual health.

We also have, in the promise of the cross, persecution and affliction. “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12) But this is a temporary, earthly persecution. “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 1:6-7) No longer are we at enmity with God, but we are at enmity with the world. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well. But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’” (Jn. 15:18-25) Our suffering is not to our shame, but to God's glory. “But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.” (1 Pet. 4:16) Persecution is a blessing, not a curse. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mat. 5:10-12)

We are promised suffering. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.” (1 Pet. 4:12-13) Job asked, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10) Earthly suffering is used by the sovereign God to His purposes. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” (Isa. 45:6-7) Indeed, the only path to glory leads us to the cross. “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jas. 1:2-4) “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” (1 Pet. 4:1-2) As John MacArthur observed, "He will do whatever it takes to make us holy."

The cross is ours in this life, and glory shall not be ours until our perfection is complete through Christ the Lord.


LW: Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. Fortress Press, 1958-1972.

WA: D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe. Weimarer Ausgabe, 1892-.

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Fortress Press, 1966 (Robert C. Schultz, translator).

Bornkamm, Heinrich. “Die theologischen Thesen Luthers bei der Heidelberger Disputation 1518 und seine theologia Crucis,” in Luther, Gestalt, und Wirkungen, Schriften des Vereins für Reformationsgeschichte, vol. 5, no. 188. Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1975, 130.

Brecht, Martin. Martin Luther, Volume 1: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521. Fortress Press, 1985 (James L. Schaaf, translator).

Bühler, Paul. Die Anfechtungen bei Martin Luther. Zwingli Verlag, 1942.

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Grimm, Harold J. and Helmut T. Lehmann eds. Luther's Works: Career of the Reformer [LW 31]. Fortress Press, 1957.

Kiecker, James G. "Theologia crucis et theologia gloriae: The Development of Luther's Theology of the Cross," Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Volume 92, 1994, 179-188

Loewenich,Walther von. Luther's Theology of the Cross. Augsburg, 1976 (Herbert J. A. Bouman's translation of the 1929 edition).

McGrath, Alister E. Luther's Theology of the Cross. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985

Sasse, Hermann. "The Theology of the Cross," Reformed Theological Review 31/1972, 74-89.

© Copyright 2002 by Larry Orcutt. Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. I can be contacted by e-mail at Victory followed by the Roman numeral 4, no space and all lower case, at earthlink, which is not a dot com, but rather a dot net. Apologies for my indirectness, but I wish to avoid robots trolling for e-mail addresses.