Luther giving notice of forthcoming debate



Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. [Luther – Heidelberg Thesis #3 of 28] 



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.


In terms of the thesis itself, by “works” Luther is referring to actions that at least have the appearance of being virtuous, for clearly acts that are blatantly sinful will not appear attractive to others. In his supporting statement Luther is effectively saying that acts of kindness and compassion towards others are likely in themselves to be worthy of damnation if not repented of before death (i.e. a “mortal sin”). He infers that Jesus Christ as Judge of humanity regards acts of human kindness as inwardly filthy. To do so he utilizes Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees’ in Mt23. But as ever, we need to examine the context.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have NEGLECTED THE WEIGHTIER PROVISIONS OF THE LAW: JUSTICE AND MERCY AND FAITHFULNESS; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but INSIDE YOU ARE FULL OF ROBBERY AND SELF-INDULGENCE… 28 Outwardly you appear righteous to people, but INWARDLY YOU ARE FULL OF HYPOCRISY AND LAWLESSNESS. (Mt23:23-25&28NASB)

What is the first thing for which Jesus rebukes these religious leaders? For attending to God’s Law rather than relinquishing their efforts to be righteous and trusting in the mercy of God? Hardly – “You have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done”. It was not so much their works that were inwardly filthy, they were as people. “Neglectful of the Law (v23), hypocrites (v24), self-indulgent (v25), legalistic about trivialities yet lawless in terms of the weightier matters of the Law” (v28). That is the context – Jesus is not rebuking them for attending diligently to God’s Law and works of service towards their people but their failure on both counts. Not for their good works but for the lack of them. Nor is this the way Jesus generally responded to human frailty. It is in view of who these people were – the intended guardians of the Faith and examples to God’s chosen people.

Moving on to Luther’s quote from Acts15:9, what Paul actually wrote was not “He purified their hearts by faith” but “their hearts having been purified by the Faith” [τῇ πίστει καθαρίσας τὰς καρδίας αὐτῶν]. If you check through Acts and also Paul’s  writings[ref 1] you will see that whenever  the definite article precedes “faith”, it is always referring to “the Faith”, i.e. the Christian or Jewish Faith rather than faith as a quality or possession. What Peter was reported as saying in Acts 15 is that as a result of believing Gentiles being given the Holy Spirit, God made no distinction between their hearts and those of believing Jews – both had been purified by the Faith.

In terms of his quote from Ps143, the psalmist and Luther are quite right to say that no living person is justified before God in their own right. Why? – because we have inherited a sinful nature. But like so many creationist Christians, in the past I had unwittingly inferred that God had given me a polluted soul at birth. Now, still a creationist, I know it was the intellectual vessel procreated from my father, ultimately from Adam that is the source of my problem with sin, not my God-given soul (cf. Rom7:23-25; 1Pet2:11). For once I have agreed with Luther regarding justification and for once he would agree with me when I add “but we are justified in God’s presence by faith”. But that is where the agreement will end for as explained in the previous post what he and I mean by faith/faithfulness (Greek: πίστις) is substantially different. My interpretation is in line with Hebrews chapter 11 and Hab2:4 – Luther’s is something else: “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it”. This is the faith of Luther and many of his followers – it is not faith as the Bible defines it. Not for the first time, a 2nd century theologian can do better: “Faith is that which of itself and from its own resources always chooses what is best [Ref 2]. The 1st century is of course safer still – compare with Hebrews chapter 11, being the definitive chapter on faith, just as Mt25 is the definitive chapter on final judgement, whilst Rom2&7 and Jn6 are arguably the 3 most definitive (but least understood and most disputed) chapters in the bible concerning the human condition and how it is to be remedied.

Finally, regarding Luther’s comments that “the Apostle speaks likewise in Gal. 3:10, ‘All who rely on the works of the law are under the curse’”, many, not least within Protestant scholarly circles, aided by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ insights into first century Judaism, recognize that both Augustine and the Reformers had misunderstood Paul in this area[Ref 3]. I explained this in the context of broader divine providence in my first book, the following quote from which might be helpful, covering as it does a number of issues that have arisen in the last few posts:


Often when Paul is referring to the Law, he is referring to the Torah, God’s Covenant Charter for His people, for in Philippians3:6 he declares that in terms of righteousness based on the Law he was “faultless”. He was not being ironic or saying he never sinned but claiming that he had perfectly observed all the physical requirements to be marked out as a Jew, such as circumcision, dietary restrictions and the like, that some Galatian converts were saying were essential for Christians to observe to be justified before God. No, said the apostle, we are justified by faith in Christ, not the works of the Law (Torah). If righteousness came through the Torah then Christ had died in vain (Gal2:21). The Jews also, he said, had approached the Law in the wrong way. It is not that they should not have personally striven to keep the Torah (God help us all, yet that is what many believe Paul to be saying), rather that they had sought to be regarded as righteous “as it were by works rather than faith” (Rom9:32), by which he meant they relied on “the deeds of the Law” – the fact they were circumcised and observed dietary and sacral regulations (cf. Gal4:9,10) to be marked out as the genuine children of Abraham and heirs to the Promise as opposed to being circumcised of heart, being those who deny the disordered desires of the body so as to serve God (cf. Col2:11). For the letter of the Law kills but the spirit (of the Law) brings life (2Cor3:6):

But now we are freed from the Law (Torah) that being dead wherein we were held that we should serve in newness of spirit and not the oldness of the letter (Rom7:6 King James Version)The spirit of the Law focusses on love for our fellow man:

For the entire Law is fulfilled in keeping this one command “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Gal5:14 New International Version; see also Rom13:8)

This re-affirmed Jesus’s teaching that at the heart of the Old Testament Law and Prophets was the inculcation of kindness and treating others as one would wish them to treat us; that is the Teacher’s own summary of the Law and the prophets (cf. Mt7:12) with which Paul concurs. God’s Law was something about which the psalmists frequently eulogised (especially Ps119, by far the longest) for true human living expressed in fear of God and concern for fellow man was at its heart. Paul’s critique was never aimed at those Jews like King David who delighted in the Torah and had earnestly sought to keep it, but those individuals, especially leaders who were bogged down in the minutiae of rules, regulation and liturgy (and indeed had added to them), laying impossible burdens upon their fellows, whilst entirely neglecting the weightier matters of social justice, mercy and love. Nevertheless, to keep the Law perfectly in letter and spirit was impossible for anyone and had never been the basis of justification. If acceptance before God were on such a basis, then the Law would indeed be something to fear and hate for it would condemn us all. The point that Paul wished to make in the context of the gospel was that the Torah had now become redundant for “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor non-circumcision avails anything but faith operating by love” (Gal5:6 King James Version).

[Excerpt from “Fellowship of the Secret” chapter 3 re: Justification and the Faithfulness of Christ]


Truly, once Paul’s statement “faith operating by love” is grasped alongside a proper understanding of “justification by faith”, then Jesus and John’s teaching (in particular) along with much of what I have been writing about should fall into place. The works of man when they are motivated by love, far from being mortal sins are evidence of an underlying, justifying faith – which explains the Matthew25 “sheep”.


Ref1: An easy way to check is in Bible Gateway, searching for “the faith” in Acts and Paul’s letters using the Youngs Literal Translation – it takes less than 2 minutes. Just as the intransigent and doctrinally polluted monolith that the Roman Church had become in the middle ages failed to defend herself effectively against Luther’s attacks once the printing press had been invented, neither shall those whose very raison d’être depends on whether Martin Luther’s insights were sound, rational and above all, biblical, be able to defend the indefensible for very much longer thanks to the internet. Not to mention some even more extraordinary pre-Christian prophecy concerning digital printing (Enoch104 vv12-13)

Ref2: Clement  of Alexandria (2nd century)

Ref3: The project often referred to as “the New Perspective on Paul

The LITTLE BOOK OF PROVIDENCE: a seven-part synopsis of the bible: Download a free PDF of e-book suitable for desktop computers HERE[updated September 2023] Large-print version for mobiles HERE [565 pages]

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Related posts: Sovereign grace theology & Law and gospel

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