The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes. [Luther – Heidelberg Thesis #5 of 28] 



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).

MY OBSERVATIONS re: Good Works More Sinful than Homicide

My post heading itself appears almost Lutheran – paradoxical and seemingly turning sound reason and the teaching of Jesus on its head. But it is effectively what Luther is saying when taken with his later thesis #12 “In the sight of God sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal”. I’ll repeat the point I made in the previous post, partly because I added it in after many will have read it: “Whilst these theses are nowhere near the polished articles of the Protestant Faith, the latter stands or falls on Luther’s initial insights – whether they are rational and above all whether they are scriptural”. Referring to Luther’s unusually brief supporting statement, I have underlined the three words that are the most shocking, being “on the other hand”. Read in context it affirms that the criminal acts he cites “theft and homicide” are not regarded by him as mortal sins whereas performing that which is in accordance with God’s law, focussed on love and respect for one’s fellows (Gal5:14) is itself hell-deserving unless regarded as such by the doer.

Counter-intuitive or what? Imagine for one moment that Luther were right. What would be the providential implications for the vast proportion of souls who, unless they are acquainted with such contorted rhetoric would have no chance of discerning the matter? For apart from its irrationality, it turns received wisdom on its head. It also diametrically opposes the principles of natural law, i.e. the way the God-given conscience functions in man. For when one does what one senses is right, one has a measure of peace about it. That is not “evil pride” or “satanic self-reliance”, it is effectively the outworking of an innate godly fear. This can be demonstrated by the fact that there are some (children of the devil) in which that spiritual faculty simply does not function. If they lie, hurt, hate, cheat and kill, they do not feel chastened, more likely elated. They have no God-given incentive to do what is right – it gives them no peace or satisfaction whatsoever, for they have no working conscience. But for the majority, regardless of whether they have been spiritually regenerated, doing what they know they should matters – for their own peace of mind, not to mention the wellbeing of everyone else. That is because they are of God and have been enlightened by Christ. That is the case for all (Jn1:9KJV: Rom2:15), but for those who go in the way of Cain (Jude1:11) that Light has been extinguished. By their own free will they have morally demeaned themselves to the extent that their souls have been fatally compromised and given over to Satan (Gen4:7; Luk22:31; 1Pet5:8).  

Good works can indeed be sinful

In terms of Luther’s reference to Augustine’s teaching, I have read the relevant sections. Luther and Augustine’s point that it is possible for seemingly good fruit (i.e. works) to be produced from a bad tree is a valid one. It pertains to Jesus’ teaching: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit” (Mt12:33). So, whilst an apple tree generally produces apples and a good person does what is good, it is an observable reality that a thoroughly bad person can also do what appears to be virtuous. The issue is why they did it. The apostle Paul hits the nail on the head in his statement “Everything that is not of faith is sin” (Rom14:23a). Amen, say Augustine and Luther; Amen, say I – yet we are not by any means in agreement on the matter. For (as ever), look very carefully at the context of Paul’s teaching – even within the verse itself “But the one who doubts is utterly condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that is not of faith is sin”. Then examine the broader context: whether a Christian should eat meat that had been offered to idols. Paul deals with the same issue in 1Cor8 which is expressed more pertinently to the matter under consideration:

If someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will his conscience, if he is weak, not be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge the one who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1Cor8:10-13)

It pertains again to conscience and how at the personal level it is supreme over everything, even religious faith and biblical truth. Truly, that is what Paul is effectively saying here. The weaker brother Paul sites believes that he should not eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. The truth is that this individual is wrong about the matter as Paul explained at the opening of the chapter. But what matters is not whether it is right or wrong, even whether it is biblically true or false, but what the person in question’s CONSCIENCE dictates on the matter. So, going back to Rom14:23, the context of everything “not of faith being sin” pertains not to religious faith but the dictates of conscience, i.e. natural law. God regards a positive response to conscience as faith, opposing it or doubting it as a lack of faith = sin. No surprise really, for as I commented a few posts ago, in terms of its origin, source and efficacy, natural law is Christ, Christ and Christ – the Cosmic Christ.

Conscience is universal, innate revelation whereas the Gospel of Jesus Christ (by which I mean the true Gospel – Mt24:14) is special revelation pertaining to what is required for “salvation”. That is to be empowered to “possess one’s own vessel in sanctity and honour” (1Thes4:4), to partake of the divine nature even whilst the eternal spirit operates within such a sin-soiled vessel; to have a living relationship with God, Christ and Holy Spirit (aka “eternal Life” Jn17:3); to become conformed to the image of Christ so as to be in a marital relationship and reign with Him through eternity. None of the above can be attained through natural law, yet it plays an essential, but up till now largely obscured role within divine providence, ensuring that everything that can be redeemed and restored shall be so to the Glory of the Father., Son and Spirit:

For He has made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ,  to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Eph1:9-10NIV).

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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