In 1518 Martin Luther gave a series of theses disputing the reigning medieval scholastic theology of his day and many of it’s primary tenets. This Heidelberg Disputation is brilliant, humbling, and incredibly relevant for today. What follows may be a bit thick, but I hope it is worth it. Here are 3 of his theses with a bit of commentary.
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.
Luther was adamant against any sort of theology that said, “Just try your best and God will do the rest”, or “Just do what is in you and God will accept it; after all, what else could God expect you to do?” Nowadays we would call these little slogans simply self-help or philosophy (or Lord forbid, Christian!), but in reality they are marks of a theology that stands against the cross. In contrast, Luther understood the completeness of our depravity and that nothing a person can do in their own ability can merit God’s favor or obtain his grace.
Thus when we believe that we can obtain God’s grace by our own works we sin in trusting our works (aka in seeking ourselves and not God) as well as in our pride and presumption. However, the question then arises, “What do we do?” Luther’s answer is that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5). But what is humility then? Is it a work we must perform? Must we try to be humble enough? No, rather we are humbled by God’s law; that is, we are humbled from outside ourselves. Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde explains:
“Theology tries to describe accurately what the situation is, but in the fallen world descriptions always turn into prescriptions. Then they become deadly, especially when they turn up in sermons! So, talk of humility, or faith, or grace tends invariably to slip over into prescriptions for what we are to do to make ourselves as humble as possible, or to get some faith, or to decide for grace, and so on. In the theology of the cross, however, the point is that the language is to be used in such a way that every prescription is cut off…
Thus the impetuous question of whether or not humbling oneself or falling down and praying for grace is ‘doing something’ can only be turned back on the questioner: ‘When you humble yourself and plead for grace, are you making the claim that you are doing something? If so, you are not pleading for grace, but only your own cause. And so you are still lost. Give up and believe the gospel!'” (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, pp. 62-63)
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.
The objection that inevitably arises out of thesis 16 is it’s supposed pessimism. However, Luther here objects that his bleak assessment of human nature is not overly pessimistic and does not ultimately lead to despair. Rather, it is trusting in ourselves and our own ability which ultimately leads to despair. Luther explains:
“The cause of despair is not the multitude or magnitude of the sins, but the wrong affection in those who seek after good works in the time of their trouble of conscience, in order to set them against their sins as a counterbalance and satisfaction. For such imagine…that their sins have been and can be overcome by such 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.” (From The Operationes in Psalmos, quoted in Forde, 64. Italics mine)
Telling a sick man that he is sick does not lead to despair. Rather, telling him that he can get better by himself when in fact he is dying will only lead him to despair as he continues to see his body fail.
So, we must be humbled by our own ability to do nothing to save ourselves. Our fallen human nature always wants to add just a little bit of human willing or working into our salvation, in effect trying to render grace as not grace. But we must despair or ourselves and our own abilty so that we cast ourselves solely on God’s mercy and cry out with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) This leads Luther to his final point in this section of the disputation.
Thesis 18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.