Brother Martin Luther, Master of Sacred Theology, will preside and Brother Leonhard Beier, Master of Arts and Philosophy, will defend the following theses before the Augustinians of this renowned city of Heidelberg in the customary place. In the month of May, 1518.
Distrusting completely our own wisdom, according to that counsel of the Holy Spirit, "Do not rely on your own insight" [Prov. 3:5], we humbly present to the judgment of all those who wish to be here these theological paradoxes, so that it may become clear whether they have been deduced well or poorly from St. Paul, the especially chosen vessel and instrument of Christ, and also from St. Augustine, his most trustworthy interpreter.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 1:
The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
This is made clear by the Apostle in his letter to the Romans (3[:21]): "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law." St. Augustine interprets this in his book, The Spirit and the Letter (De Spiritu et Littera): "Without the law, that is, without its support." In Rom. 5[:20] the Apostle states, "Law intervened, to increase the trespass," and in Rom. 7[:9] he adds, "But when the commandment came, sin revived." For this reason he calls the law a law of death and a law of sin in Rom. 8[:2]. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 3[:6] he says, "the written code kills," which St. Augustine throughout his book, The Spirit and the Letter, understands as applying to every law, even the holiest law of God.
Luther wrote that "the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability." (The Freedom of a Christian, 1520; WA 31.348) In his Ninety-Five Theses, he wrote, "Through the law we have nothing except an evil conscience, a restless heart, a troubled breast because of our sins, which the law points out but does not take away. And we ourselves cannot take it away." (WA 31.231) There are two ways in which our relationship with God is broken. The first, the more obvious, is when in our sinfulness we reject and deny God. The second, the more imperceptible, is when we accept God intellectually but in our pride strive, through our own works, toward righteousness, thus in effect placing ourselves above God.
The law may also serve to increase sin in rebellion, in a hunger for forbidden fruit. Paul wrote, "For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death." (Rom. 7:5)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 2:
Much less can human works which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.
Since the law of God, which is holy and unstained, true, just, etc. is given man by God as an aid beyond his natural powers to enlighten him and move him to do the good, and nevertheless the opposite takes place, namely, that he becomes more wicked, how can he, left to his own power and without such aid, be induced to do good? If a person does not do good with help from without, he will do even less by his own strength. Therefore the Apostle, in Rom. 3[:10-12], calls all persons corrupt and impotent who neither understand nor seek God, for all, he says, have gone astray.
If works performed under the revealed law of God cannot advance man toward righteousness, less so can natural powers under moral law. There is no righteousness to be found within. The claim of natural theology is that by powers of reason and observation, man's mind can rise to an elementary knowledge of God, of the freedom and morality of the human soul, and of the basic demands of morality. Natural theology thus finds sole reliance on reason. The speculations of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient philosophers about a transcendent, divine being are examples of natural theology. This theology found particular popularity in the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas was a notable defender of the theology in his Five Ways of Preaching the Existence of God.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 3:
Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
Human works appear attractive outwardly, but within they are filthy, as Christ says concerning the Pharisees in Matt. 23[:27]. For they appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but searches "the minds and hearts" [Ps. 7:9]. For without grace and faith it is impossible to have a pure heart. Acts 15[:9]: "He cleansed their hearts by faith."
The thesis is proven in the following way: If the works of righteous men are sins, as Thesis 7 of this disputation states, this is much more the case concerning the works of those who are not righteous. But the just speak in behalf of their works in the following way: "Do not enter into judgment with thy servant, Lord, for no man living is righteous before thee" [Ps. 143:2]. The Apostle speaks likewise in Gal. 3 [:10], "All who rely on the works of the law are under the curse." But the works of men are the works of the law, and the curse will not be placed upon venial sins. Therefore they are mortal sins.
In the third place, Rom. 2[:21] states, "You who teach others not to steal, do you steal?" St. Augustine interprets this to mean that men are thieves according to their guilty consciences even if they publicly judge or reprimand other thieves.
Theses 3 and 4 are contraries, which can be compared thusly:
|The Works of Man||The Works of God|
|Always seem attractive||Are always unattractive|
|Seem good||Appear to be evil|
|Are likely mortal sins||Are eternal merits|
A theologian of glory judges by appearances. He observes that there is good in human works. He classifies works as being either good or bad, and bad works are not to be credited to God. Works are seen through to an eternal standard by which they are evaluated.
A theologian of the cross sees God working through the horror of the cross. Works do not become the occasion for pride, but rather for humility and despair. The works of God in us, the humility and fear of God, represent our eternal merit.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 4:
Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.
That the works of God are unattractive is clear from what is said in Isa. 53[:2], "He had no form of comeliness," and in 1 Sam. 2[:6], "The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up." This is understood to mean that the Lord humbles and frightens us by means of the law and the sight of our sins so that we seem in the eyes of men, as in our own, as nothing, foolish, and wicked, for we are in truth that. Insofar as we acknowledge and confess this, there is no form or beauty in us, but our life is hidden in God (i.e. in the bare confidence in his mercy), finding in ourselves nothing but sin, foolishness, death, and hell, according to that verse of the Apostle in 2 Cor. 6[:9-10], "As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as dying, and behold we live." And that it is which Isa. 28[:21] calls the alien work of God that he may do his work (that is, he humbles us thoroughly, making us despair, so that he may exalt us in his mercy, giving us hope), just as Hab. 3[:2] states, "In wrath remember ercy." Such a man therefore is displeased with all his works; he sees no beauty, but only his ugliness. Indeed, he also does these things which appear foolish and disgusting to others.
This ugliness, however, comes into being in us either when God punishes us or when we accuse ourselves, as 1 Cor. 11[:31] says, "If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged" by the Lord. Deut. 32[:36] also states, "The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants." In this way, consequently, the unattractive works which God does in us, that is, those which are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit.
(See also the comments on Thesis 3, above.) Regarding merits, the Catholic Church in Luther's day held that "the saints during this life have contributed many more good works than were required for salvation, that is, works of supererogation, which have not yet been rewarded, but have been deposited in the treasury of the church, by means of which, through indulgences, some fitting compensation takes place." (WA 31.212) As the holder of the keys to the treasury, the Pope and his prelates were able to sell indulgences for profit. Luther argued that "Christ is the Ransom and Redeemer of the world, and thereby most truly and solely the only treasury of the church." (WA 31.216) He concluded, "Unhappy is he who does not put aside his good works and seek the works of Christ alone ... since it would be the greatest blasphemy of all for one to prefer his own good works over the works of Christ." (WA 31.219)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 5:
The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
For crimes are such acts which can also be condemned before men, such as adultery, theft, homicide, slander, etc. Mortal sins, on the other hand, are those which seem good yet are essentially fruits of a bad root and a bad tree. Augustine states this in the fourth book of Against Julian (Contra Julianum).
The works of man appear to be morally good and beneficial. This apparent goodness of our works seduces us into placing our trust in self rather than God.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 6:
The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.
In Eccles. 7[:20], we read, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” In this connection, however, some people say that the righteous man indeed sins, but not when he does good. They may be refuted in the following manner: “If that is what this verse wants to say, why waste so many words?” or does the Holy Spirit like to indulge in loquacious and foolish babble? For this meaning would then be adequately expressed by the following: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does not sin.” Why does he add “who does good,” as if another person were righteous who did evil? For no one except a righteous man does good. Where, however, he speaks of sins outside the realm of good works he speaks thus [Prov. 24:16], “The righteous man falls seven times a day.” Here he does not say, “A righteous man falls seven times a day when he does good.” This is a comparison. If someone cuts with a rusty and rough hatchet, even though the worker is a good craftsman, the hatchet leaves bad, jagged, and ugly gashes. So it is when God works through us.
Luther here proposes the difficult concept that the works of God through man are not sinless: the righteous are simultaneously sinners. As Isaiah wrote, all our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Luther likens the believer to a flawed tool in the hand of a perfect God. Thus we are to look to God and not to ourselves, even in those works that He accomplishes through us.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 7:
The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.
This is clear from Thesis 4. To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one’s works, and to adore oneself as an idol. He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner. For if he had fear he would not be self-confident, and for this reason he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.
In the second place, it is clear from the words of the Psalmist [Ps. 143:2], “Enter not into judgment with thy servant,” and Ps. 32[:5], “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’” etc. But that these are not venial sins is clear because these passages state that confession and repentance are not necessary for venial sins. If, therefore, 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 the saints are good works, wherefore they are meritorious for them only through the fear of their humble confession.
In the third place, it is clear from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses” [Matt. 6:12]. This is a prayer of the saints, therefore those trespasses are good works for which they pray. But that these are mortal sins is clear from the following verse, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” [Matt. 6:15]. Note that these trespasses are such that, if unforgiven, they would condemn them, unless they pray this prayer sincerely and forgive others.
In the fourth place, it is clear from Rev. 21[:27], “Nothing unclean shall enter into it” [the kingdom of heaven]. But everything that hinders entrance into the kingdom of heaven is mortal sin (or it would be necessary to interpret the concept of mortal sin in another way). Venial sin, however, hinders because it makes the soul unclean and has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Consequently, etc.
Works done by the righteous, in grace, are deadly sins when there is no fear of God. Luther frequently alludes to mortal and venial sins as conceived in medieval penitential practice. A mortal sin is a transgression of such severity that it causes a fall from grace, rendering the sinner subject to eternal punishment. A venial sin is a more minor error that does not bring about a fall from grace, but rather requires some submission to penitential discipline. Luther moves away from the traditional and somewhat elusive distinction between mortal and venial sins and describes the deadly sin that we are not likely to condemn and confess, the works of apparent goodness that just as effectively cut us off from grace as we trust in the work, and ourselves as the agent of that work.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 8:
By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.
The inevitable deduction from the preceding thesis is clear. For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God, for God opposes the haughty. Indeed, if pride would cease there would be no sin anywhere.
If works done by the righteous without fear of God are deadly sins, more so are those deeds done in the confidence of "natural power." Luther observes that pride is the root of all sin. Of the Christian, he wrote, "By means of prayer he may conquer the pride of life and live in a godly manner." (LW 31.86) If humility is the antithesis of pride, then only through humility may we overcome sin.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 9:
To say that works without Christ are dead, but not mortal, appears to constitute a perilous surrender of the fear of God.
For in this way men become certain and therefore haughty, which is perilous. For in such a way God is constantly deprived of the glory which is due him and which is transferred to other things, since one should strive with all diligence to give him the glory -- the sooner the better. For this reason the Bible advises us, “Do not delay being converted to the Lord.” [Sirach 5:8] For if that person offends him who withdraws glory from him, how much more does that person offend him who continues to withdraw glory from him and does this boldly! But whoever is not in Christ or who withdraws from him withdraws glory from him, as is well known.
Here Luther equates dead works with deadly works. A theologian of glory will say that good works done without Christ are dead (i.e. without grace), and while such works are not meritorious, nor are they mortal sins worthy of condemnation. A theologian of the cross will say that if works are dead, then God's glory is displaced. Thus are dead works mortal sins.
Luther quotes from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 5:8: "Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and defer it not from day to day." Verse 9 adds, "For his wrath shall come on a sudden, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy thee." (Douay-Rheims version; both verses appear as 5:7 in the KJV) This apocryphal book was contained in the Latin Vulgate of Luther's day.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 10:
Indeed, it is very difficult to see how a work can be dead and at the same time not a harmful and mortal sin.
This I prove in the following way: Scripture does not speak of dead things in such a manner, stating that something is not mortal which is nevertheless dead. Indeed, neither does grammar, which says that “dead” is a stronger term than “mortal.” For the grammarians call a mortal work one which kills, a dead work not one that has been killed, but one that is not alive. But God despises what is not alive, as is written in Prov. 15[:8], “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.”
Second, the will must do something with respect to such a dead work, namely, either love or hate it. The will cannot hate a dead work since the will is evil. Consequently the will loves a dead work, and therefore it loves something dead. In that act itself it thus induces an evil work of the will against God whom it should love and honor in this and in every deed.
(See also the comments on Thesis 9, above.) If a work is not of God (a dead work) then it must be contrary to God (a deadly work), just as "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters." (Luke 11:23) The will is not neutral, and, being in a fallen and evil state, is bound to favor its own works.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 11:
Arrogance cannot be avoided or true hope be present unless the judgment of condemnation is feared in every work.
This is clear from Thesis 4. For it is impossible to trust in God unless one has despaired in all creatures and knows that nothing can profit one without God. Since there is no person who has this pure hope, as we said above, and since we still place some confidence in the creature, it is clear that we must, because of impurity in all things, fear the judgment of God. Thus arrogance must be avoided, not only in the work, but in the inclination also, that is, it must displease us still to have confidence in the creature.
We must sincerely admit, even to confession, that our best works are sinful. Because we pride ourselves in our works, our works are deadly sins. Because we lack full confidence in God, because we cannot avoid creaturely confidence, we must fear the judgment of God in every work. Every hope built on the work of man is boastful and false, but true hope is found only in the fear of condemnation. Luther wrote, "We live under the protection and the shadow of his wings and escape his judgment through his mercy, not through our righteousness." (LW 31.63)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 12:
In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.
This becomes sufficiently clear from what has been said. For as much as we accuse ourselves, so much God pardons us, according to the verse, “Confess your misdeed so that you will be justified” [Cf. Isa. 43:26], and according to another [Ps. 141:4], “Incline not my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds.”
(See also the comments on Thesis 11, above.) Here Luther obliterates the distinction between venial and mortal sins, and asserts that sins are only truly venial when they are perceived by the sinner as being truly mortal. Sins are truly forgivable when they are feared to be damning.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 13:
Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
The first part is clear, for the will is captive and subject to sin. Not that it is nothing, but that it is not free except to do evil. According to John 8[:34, 36], “Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin… So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Hence St. Augustine says in his book, The Spirit and the Letter, “Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin;” and in the second book of Against Julian, “You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will,” and in many other places.
The second part is clear from what has been said above and from the verse in Hos. 13[:9, freely rendered], “Israel, you are bringing misfortune upon yourself, for your salvation is alone with me,” and from similar passages.
Facere quod in se est ("To do what is in one") is a Scholastic phrase that implies that a Christian is able to perform meritorious works agreeable to God (cf. Thesis 16). By doing their best, Christians receive the grace of God. They therefore have the ability to gain salvation by their works.
A theologian of the cross sees that when the fallen will endeavors to "do what is in one," to do one's best, it commits a deadly sin. The will is free only to do evil. After the fall, the will is bound by sin, not by determinism or fate, but because the will does what it wills to do, and it will not do otherwise (cf. John 8:34, 36). The self seeks itself even for salvation, and in failing to recognize the power of God, in failing to give God the glory, it commits a deadly sin.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 14:
Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can do evil in an activecapacity.
An illustration will make the meaning of this thesis clear. Just as a dead man can do something toward life only in a passive capacity, so can he do something toward death in an active manner while he lives. Free will, however, is dead, as demonstrated by the dead whom the Lord has raised up, as the holy teachers of the church say. St. Augustine, moreover, proves this same thesis in his various writings against the Pelagians.
Luther contrasts potentia subjectiva (passive capacity) with potentia activa (active capacity).The will can do good only when acted upon from without (i.e. not in an active capacity). He offers the analogy of the dead who can be raised by divine power but not by any power from within. The living can only bring death in an active capacity. The will is able to be changed only from without, and it can do nothing from within to initiate this change. Augustine wrote, "But that free will, whereby man corrupted his own self, was sufficient for his passing into sin; but to return to righteousness, he has need of a Physician, since he is out of health; he has need of a Vivifier, because he is dead. Now about such grace as this he [Pelagius] says not a word, as if he were able to cure himself by his own will, since this alone was able to ruin him." (A Treatise on Nature and Grace, Against Pelagius, Ch. 25)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 15:
Nor could the free will endure in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
The Master of the Sentences, quoting Augustine, states, “By these testimonies it is obviously demonstrated that man received a righteous nature and a good will when he was created, and also the help by means of which he could prevail. Otherwise it would appear as though he had not fallen because of his own fault.” He speaks of the active capacity, which is obviously contrary to Augustine’s opinion in his book, Concerning Reprimand and Grace (De Correptione et Gratia), where the latter puts it in this way: “He received the ability to act, if he so willed, but he did not have the will by means of which he could act.” By “ability to act” he understands the passive capacity, and by “will by means of which he could,” the active capacity.
The second part, however, is sufficiently clarified by the Master in the same distinction.
The "Master" is Peter Lombard (Lat. Petrus Lombardus), a Scholastic theologian, who wrote his Book of Sentences (Quatuor libri Sententiarum) while he was a professor at the school of Notre Dame (1145-51). This theological work made the name of Peter Lombard famous and earned him the name "Magister Sententiarum," or simply the "Magister." The work is divided into four books that, in a long series of questions, covers the entire body of theological doctrine and unites it in a systematized whole. Lombard's doctrine on sacraments (that a sacrament is both a symbol and a means of grace) was adopted as the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. By the 13th century, the Sentences had become the principal theological text in the universities, and many of the greatest Scholastics wrote commentaries on it. Luther describes the Scholastic view that man must have, of necessity, been created with "good will," with an active capacity for righteousness, otherwise the fall would not have been the fault of man but rather the fault of the Creator of an imperfect man.
The theologian of the cross holds that even before the fall, free will lacked an active capacity to remain in a state of innocence, but did so only in a passive capacity. Adam and Eve were upheld in their state of innocence not from within but from without. Man has no active capacity to progress -- much less to stand his ground -- in righteousness. The will in an active capacity always moves the creature to be independent of the creator and sets out to create its own goodness apart from God.
Before the fall, man lived by faith with only a passive capacity for good. He was never meant to stand or operate alone, but to simply be one through whom God works. The active will remained unexpressed, and man lived fully in the will of God.
After the fall, the active will attempts to claim something for itself and its works before God. The original sin is the sin of disobedience, of unfaithfulness, of an idolatry of reason, of independence from God. Adam strived by the exercise of his will for a knowledge not promised, for something not accorded him by God. Adam's sin was his declaration of independence.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 16:
The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.
On the basis of what has been said, the following is clear: While a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks himself in everything. But if he should suppose that through sin he would become worthy of or prepared for grace, he would add haughty arrogance to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an exceedingly great sin. As Jer. 2[:13] says, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water,” that is, through sin they are far from me and yet they presume to do good by their own ability.
Now you ask, “What then shall we do? Shall we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?” I would reply, By no means. But, having heard this, fall down and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection. For this reason we are so instructed—for this reason the law makes us aware of sin so that, having recognized our sin, we may seek and receive grace. Thus God “gives grace to the humble” [1 Pet. 5:5], and “whoever humbles himself will be exalted” [Matt. 23:12]. The law humbles, grace exalts. The law effects fear and wrath, grace effects hope and mercy. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” [Rom. 3:20], through knowledge of sin, however, comes humility, and through humility grace is acquired. Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature results in a deed belonging to his very nature: he makes a person a sinner so that he may make him righteous.
That man is doubly guilty is illustrated by the passage from Jeremiah. We are guilty because, in our sin, we are separate from God (we have forsaken him, the fountain of living waters), and we add to our guilt when we presume to do good by our own ability (we hew out cisterns for ourselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water).
Twice damned, the theologian of glory sees only frustration and despair. The theologian of the cross, however, sees salvation, hope, and resurrection. How can this be? We look to the cross. With all of our own supports removed, there is nothing else to do but throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ. We obtain grace by humility (1 Pet. 5:5), and this humility is not a work of ourselves. We are humbled. Humility is always something done to us, and faith is the true humility.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 17:
Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.
This is clear from what has been said, for, according to the gospel, the kingdom of heaven is given to children and the humble [Mark 10:14, 16], and Christ loves them. They cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven. Sin is recognized only through the law. It is apparent that not despair, but rather hope, is preached when we are told that we are sinners. Such preaching concerning sin is a preparation for grace, or it is rather the recognition of sin and faith in such preaching. Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen. A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness. Therefore one does not give cause for despair or death by telling a sick person about the danger of his illness, but, in effect, one urges him to seek a medical cure. To say that we are nothing and constantly sin when we do the best we can does not mean that we cause people to despair (unless they are fools); rather, we make them concerned about the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The theologian of glory may protest that the theology of the cross is too downbeat, too pessimistic and gloomy, too bitter a pill to swallow. Luther insists that, rather than despair, the theology of the cross awakens the sole desire that can help, the desire for the humility to seek the grace of Christ. The theologian of glory is doomed to despair because sin never ceases and no amount of man's work can serve to counterbalance it. Luther wrote that they imagine "that their sins have been and can be overcome by such [good] works: and therefore, not being able to find the victory after which they labor, and not knowing that they ought to turn to the mercy of God, desperation of necessity follows." (WA 5.159.16-21)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 18:
It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
The law wills that man despair of his own ability, for it leads him into hell and makes him a poor man and shows him that he is a sinner in all his works, as the Apostle does in Rom. 2 and 3[:9], where he says, “I have already charged that all men are under the power of sin.” However, he who acts simply in accordance with his ability and believes that he is thereby doing something good does not seem worthless to himself, nor does he despair of his own strength. Indeed, he is so presumptuous that he strives for grace in reliance on his own strength.
How are we prepared to receive the grace of Christ? We must utterly despair of our own ability. Though Thesis 17 states "nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair" and Thesis 18 says "that man must utterly despair," there is no tension between them. The object of our despair differs; indeed, it is precisely because we despair of our own ability that we do not despair in the shadow of the cross, in the grace of God.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 19:
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].
This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Rom. 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.
McGrath translates this thesis, "The man who looks upon the invisible things of God as they are perceived in created things does not deserve to be called a theologian" (Luther's Theology of the Cross, p. 148, from the original: "Non ille dignus theologus dicitur, qui invisibilia Dei per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspicit.") Theologians of glory assume that creation is transparent to the human intellect and can be seen through, revealing the invisible things of God (virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, etc.). By contemplating and analyzing visible creation, they attempt to gain insight into the nature and logic of God, even if only by analogy. They seek transcendent meaning in the works of God.
Luther concedes that man has a natural knowledge of God. He wrote, "The light of natural reason, in so far as it reaches concerning God as good, gracious, merciful and tender, has reached a deep understanding." (WA 19.206.7-14) But this knowledge cannot be applied theologically without aid from divine revelation. These insights exist purely at the cognitive level, but they do not address God's specific intentions concerning mankind. Passing from the cognitive to the existential level requires faith -- it cannot be accomplished by the power of reason alone. "Understanding, reading, or speculating" does not make a theologian (WA 5.163.28-9). Luther quotes from Romans, "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools ..." (Romans 1:19-22)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 20:
He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
The "back" and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 1 [:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isa. [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”
So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeing God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ, as it is also stated in John [14:6 and] 10[:9] “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door,” and so forth.
McGrath calls this translation of Thesis 20 "seriously inaccurate." He renders it thusly: "The man who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross does, however, deserve to be called a theologian" (p. 148-149; Sed qui visibilia et posteriora Dei per passiones et crucem conspecta intellgit). To translate posteriora Dei as "manifest things of God" is to miss both the allusion to Exodus 33:23 and the concept of a "hidden revelation."
Suffering and the cross comprise the key to comprehension for one deserving to be called a theologian. "Then Moses said, ‘I pray You, show me Your glory!’ And He said, ‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’ But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’ Then the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.’" (Exodus 33:18-23) God prevented Moses from seeing His glory, and instead willed that Moses only see His back, the posteriora Dei.
Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [1 Cor. 1:18-31]
As God is known through the suffering of Christ, He also makes himself known through our suffering. Luther sees suffering and temptation as means by which man is brought to God. God plays an active role in our suffering. The theologian of the cross does not see suffering and evil as a curse, as an intrusion contrary to the will of God, but as his most precious treasure. Hidden in such suffering is the living God, working out the salvation of those whom He loves.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 21:
A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.
A theologian of glory calls suffering evil while he calls works good. In fact, he works to avoid suffering. And if he is afflicted with adversity, he concludes that he failed in his works. One of the most difficult problems for theologians has been the problem of evil. Why does an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist in this world? Theologians and philosophers include many things in that category they call evil: disaster, crime, war, disease, abuse, and all manner of misfortune. So much is suffering identified with evil that it should follow that a beneficent God is not to be blamed for such occurrences. If God is good, then bad things cannot be of God.
A theologian of the cross "calls the thing what it actually is." If the only way that a sinner can see and come to know God is through suffering and the cross, then this suffering is of God, and it is good. Of Psalm 2:9, "You shall break them with a rod of iron," Luther wrote:
For since the Word of Christ is the Word not in the flesh but in the spirit, it must suppress and cast out the salvation, peace, life, and grace of the flesh. When it does this, it appears to the flesh harder and more cruel than iron itself. For whenever a carnal man is touched in a wholesome way by the Word of God, one thing is felt, but another actually happens. Thus it is written [1 Sam. 2:6-7]: "The Lord kills and brings to life; He brings down to hell and raises up; He brings low, He also exalts." Isaiah also beautifully portrays this allegorical working of God when he says [28:21], "He does His word -- strange is His deed; and He works His work -- alien is His work!" It is as if he were saying: "Although He is the God of life and salvation and this is His proper work, yet, in order to accomplish this, he kills and destroys. These works are alien to him [opus alienum], but through them He accomplishes His proper work [opus proprium]. For He kills our will that He may be established in us. He subdues the flesh and its lusts that the spirit and its desires may come to life. [LW 14.335]
Luther introduced the dialectic between the opus proprium Dei and the opus alienum Dei in his explanation of Thesis 16. In order that man may be justified, he first must be humbled. "Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature [opus alienum Dei] results in a deed belonging to his very nature [opus proprium Dei]: he makes a person a sinner so that he may make him righteous." Suffering is the opus alienum through which God works His opus proprium: God assaults man in order to break him down and thus justify him. Luther makes a similar distinction between ira severitatis, the wrath of severity, and ira misericordiae, the wrath of mercy. Unbelievers find only the severity of the wrath of God, while believers recognize the merciful intention behind it, that it is intended to bring them to humility, faith, and repentance in order to receive the grace of God. God's mercy, then, is to be found in His wrath. Luther wrote that God's works are hidden "under the form of their opposite." This hiddeness is discernible only to those in faith. The unbeliever mistakes the opus alienum for the opus proprium and cannot distinguish between ira severitatis and ira misericordiae.
Because the theologian of the cross recognizes his own worthlessness, he gives God the glory for any good works which of necessity are of God and not of himself. Any crowns earned will be cast before the throne of Christ (Rev. 4:10) because it is to Him that the glory is due.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 22:
That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Eccles. 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.
Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again.”
The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.
Worldly wisdom involves a false perception of the value of works, a vanity with a thirst for glory that can never be sated. Jesus said, "But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst." (John 4:14) An effort to achieve righteousness through law and works only puffs us up, blinds us, and hardens us. "For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things." (Phil. 3:18-19)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 23:
The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].
Thus Gal. 3[:13] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law;” and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Rom. 4[:15]: “For the law brings wrath;” and Rom. 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me;” Rom. 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore he who boasts that he is wise and learned in the law boasts in his confusion, his damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Rom. 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”
The law does not work the love of God -- it works His wrath; it does not give life -- it kills; it does not bless -- it reviles; it does not comfort -- it accuses; it does not pardon -- it judges; it does not save -- it condemns. In our active efforts to strive to righteousness through our own works, we stray, ironically, farther from our goal. Only in passive rest in Christ, through His grace, can we achieve it.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 24:
Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Gen. 1[:31]. But, as stated above, he who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. He thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.
He, however, who has emptied himself [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer does works but knows that God works and does all things in him. For this reason, whether man does works or not, it is all the same to him. He neither boasts if he does good works, nor is he disturbed if God does not do good works through him. He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. It is this that Christ says in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.
The wisdom of the law is not itself inherently evil, nor is the law to be understood as a thing that no longer applies. Jesus said, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." (Matt. 5:17) Paul wrote, "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, 'You shall not covet.' ... So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." (Rom. 7:7, 12) The theology of the cross is not antinomian -- it does not reject the law of God.
The problem lies in the misuse of the wisdom of the law. Without the theology of the cross, the sinner is bound to take credit for his own wisdom and works, rather than receiving them as gifts from God, thereby denying Him the glory. Trust is then placed on the self rather than on God. One must first die and then be raised up with Christ. Dying, Luther explains, is to feel the very presence of death. He wrote, "Natural death, which is the separation of the soul from the body, is simple death. But to feel death, that is, the terror and fear of death -- this indeed is real death." (Lectures on Genesis, LW 4.115) Through the law, we feel this death, but through Christ we are raised with Him to eternal life.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 25:
He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “Man believes with his heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Rom. 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in His sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore man knows that works which he does by such faith are not his but God’s. For this reason he does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is sufficient to him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Cor. 1[:30] has it, that he himself may be Christ’s action and instrument.
This thesis is a statement of justification by faith alone. Works avail nothing. Only those who believe much in Christ are righteous before God. In his proof, Luther cites Aristotle, who wrote, "Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building, and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, and brave by performing brave ones." (Ethics 92) Aristotle here articulates worldly wisdom (Luther's philosophical theses are directed at Aristotelian premises, which are contrary to the theology of the cross). But "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." (Rom. 10:17) We come to faith passively, through the work of God in us, just as we do good works passively, in the work of God through us. "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God." (Rom. 7:4) In his Operationes in Psalmos, Luther wrote:
Wherever the holy scriptures command good works to be done, understand that it forbids you to do any good work by yourself, because you cannot; but to keep a holy Sabbath unto God, that is, a rest from all your works, and that you become dead and buried and permit God to work in you."
“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 26:
The law says, "Do this," and it is never done. Grace says, "believe in this," and everything is already done.
The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all men under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.
The law cannot bring into being that which it commands. Paul wrote, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20) And: "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom. 8:3-4) And: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." (Rom. 10:4) Paradoxically, what the law requires is freedom from the law.
Christ has fulfilled all things and, through faith, we are at one with Him. "Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses." (Acts 13:38-39) Paul wrote, "A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." (Gal. 2:16)
 Luther's proof, Thesis 27:
Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.
Since Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which he does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which he has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If his action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”
The work of Christ is the operative power, and our works represent the operation of that power. Good works are the work of Christ who dwells in the believer through faith. Such works are pleasing to God because of the grace of Christ's operation.
 Luther's proof, Thesis 28:
The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.
The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive: For this reason the love of man avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Ps. 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.
The love of God is creative; He “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Rom. 4:17) Luther contrasts this love with human love, a love that is awakened by what is attractive. God does not love because of any merit or worthiness of the individual, but rather He bestows merit and worthiness to the object of His love. "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) This is the love of the cross, born of the cross. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 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. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." (Eph. 2:4-10)
The Heidelberg Disputation and Luther's proofs are quoted from Luther's Works: Career of the Reformer [LW 31], Harold J. Grimm and Helmut T. Lehmann eds. Fortress Press, 1957, pp. 39-58.
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-.
Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.
McGrath, Alister E. Luther's Theology of the Cross. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985
© 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.