Heidelberg Disputation Theses

Heidelberg Disputation (Thesis 1)

Good citizens are those that keep the law right? Those who don’t speed, don’t shop lift, and do look after the property of others. Well that is how we as humans look at each other and judge whether we are good citizens, or ‘righteous’, according to our laws. From a human perspective, there is much truth in this because our legal system is actually based on these very principles. Aristotle taught this principle in his Ethics: one becomes righteous by doing righteous things.

The problem is, when this principle is applied to God – on the basis of analogy (i.e. the assumption that what is true of God must also be true of man etc.) – we run into a false and errant gospel.

No human being can be declared, even to the smallest decree, righteous by obeying the law. Luther rightly argues three things in this first thesis: first, the law is good; second, despite it’s goodness it does not help us become righteous before God; and three, the law actually hinders us from advancing to righteousness! The law gets in our way! In the medieval period Aristotle’s ethics became a manual of how to become righteous before God: do keep God’s law, don’t break God’s law…and you will be righteous.

Martin Luther in his cloister days…

Thankfully, Luther challenged that way of thinking through a good old time fashioned duel. He called out Aristotle into the barren and dusty street of False Christianity saying…’Aristotle, (Luther spits some lumpy black saliva onto the ground, a smidgen being caught in his moustache) I’m calling you out you dirty son of a philosopher!’…in a deep southern drawl…ok, with a slight German accent. The only onlookers were the unshaved, unwashed cronies of the Pope’s posse – who were actually kind of distracted stumbling their way out of Madame Venus’ ‘hotel‘…

This was the first shot:

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

Luther’s Explanation: 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.

LW 31:42-43

Bolt and Sheridan on Sheridan’s New Book

While Sheridan is coming from a Roman Catholic perspective, the evidences for the New Testament (NT) that he discusses are of importance for evangelical and reformed Protestants too. From an apologetic standpoint it is great to see this on Australian television. But let’s not forget the need to get the gospel right – in addition to these evidences. If we could have all of Australia as convinced as Sheridan about the truth of the NT and Jesus, it would be great – but all this would achieve is that we have arrived back to the time, as it were, before the reformation and still in the dark!

One can have the historical Jesus but not have the gospel of justification by faith alone. This is why Luther said regarding the article of justification by faith alone:

‘…if this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.’ (WA 40:3.352.3)

And this is why Calvin described justification by faith alone as:

‘…the main hinge on which religion turns‘ or ‘…the principal ground on which religion must be supported‘.

(Institutes, 3.11.1)

I see the greatest challenge facing the church today is the need to get both the person and work of Christ right. The person – who He is, the work – what He has done. It is the point of the work of Christ on which we disagree with the Roman Catholic church officially; and of course many Protestants unofficially, who do not understand their own faith. If Christ’s work means His obedience under the law is given to me and my sin given to him at the cross, there is nothing I can or need to do to inherit eternal life. That is why it is a gift, it is grace, and it is by faith (alone). And yes, like Luther and Calvin, it does not matter what else you get right, if you get the gospel wrong, you get everything wrong.

‘For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety towards God can be reared.’

– John Calvin (Institutes, 3.11.1)

Luther's Eight Sermons at Wittenberg

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 6)

In Luther’s 5th sermon he begins to pick apart the incredible hypocrisy and contradictions of the papal man-made laws. For instance, he writes, ‘You have heard how I preached against the foolish law of the pope and opposed his precept, that no woman shall wash the altar linen on which the body of Christ has lain, even if it be a pure nun, except it first be washed by a pure priest. Likewise, when any one has touched the body of Christ, the priests come running and scrape his fingers, and much more of the same sort. But when a maid has slept with a naked priest, the pope winks at it and lets it go. If she becomes pregnant and bears a child, he lets that pass, too. But to touch the altar linen and the sacrament [i.e., the host], this he will not allow. But when a priest grabs it, both top and bottom, this is all right.’ Thus the implication is, a woman is not ‘clean’ enough to wash the altar linen while it is ok for a sexually immoral male priest to wash it…I am surprised the gender equality woke-activists haven’t picked this up! Luther was 500 years ahead!!

Luther preached against this foolishness, however he was concerned that his congregation had institued foolish ‘evangelical laws’ in place of the papal laws: ‘Against such fool laws we have preached and exposed them, in order that it might be made known that no sin is involved in these foolish laws and commandments of the pope, and that a layman does not commit sin if he touches the cup or the body of Christ with his hands. You should give thanks to God that you have come to such clear knowledge, which many great men have lacked. But now you go ahead and become as foolish as the pope, in that you think that a person must touch the sacrament with his hands. You want to prove that you are good Christians by touching the sacrament with your hands, and thus you have dealt with the sacrament, which is our highest treasure, in such a way that it is a wonder you were not struck to the ground by thunder and lightning. All the other things God might have suffered, but this he cannot allow, because you have made a compulsion of it. And if you do not stop this, neither the emperor nor anyone else need drive me from you, I will go without urging; and I dare say that none of my enemies, though they have caused me much sorrow, have wounded me as you have.’ What a way to speak to your congregation! But again, Luther is concerned about not making a ‘must’ out of something that is ‘free’. Whether the priest would place it in your mouth or whether you take it yourself with your own hands – what of it? Only do not make laws that Christ has not made. For freedom Christ has set us free…!

It goes to show that people who want to reform might be involved in reform – merely for the sake of reform. But we must reform and be involved in reform, not for the sake of reform itself, but for the sake of the gospel. Plenty of people love to be involved in protests, social change and in anything they can be a justice activist for, in order to give their boring life some meaning. However, if we reform for the sake of the gospel, we will be careful not to contradict the gospel in the pursuit of reformation. This is why Luther concludes, ‘Therefore no new practices should be introduced, unless the gospel has first been thoroughly preached and understood, as it has been among you. On this account, dear friends, let us deal soberly and wisely in the things that pertain to God, for God will not be mocked [Gal. 6:7]. The saints may endure mockery, but with God it is vastly different. Therefore, I beseech you, give up this practice.’

LW 51:88-91.


David F. Wells on Preaching…

Preaching is not a conversation, a chat about some interesting ideas. It is not the moment in which postmoderns hear their own private message in the biblical words, one unique to each one who hears, and then go their own way. No! This is God speaking! He speaks through the stammering lips of the preacher where that person’s mind is on the text of Scripture and the heart is in the presence of God. God, as Luther put it, lives in the preacher’s mouth. This is the kind of preaching that issues a summons, that nourishes the soul, that draws the congregation into the very presence of God so that no matter what aspect of his character, his truth, or his working in this world is in focus, we leave with awe, gratitude, encouragement, and sometimes a rebuke. We have been in the very presence of God! That is what great preaching always accomplishes.’ From The Courage to be Protestant p. 197.



On Christian Unity

The foundation and structure of unity. What is the basis of Christian unity? There are multiple protestant denominations that exist – even multiple types of the same denominations. There are a plethora of Christian cults constantly seeking our affirmation and their legitimacy. The Roman Catholic Church has become just another denomination rather than what the reformers understood it to be – a false church and a church of the antichrist. Thus, there remains a frightening confusion between what it means to be a true and false church, between true and false unity. Sadly, it is painfully evident that ignorance abounds as to what it means to be confessional – let alone reformed; to be Protestant – let alone evangelical. On what basis, therefore, can we even know if we have genuine unity with another professing Christian? I want to put it to you that the basis upon which we can know if we have unity with other professing Christians is based on what Paul describes as the foundation and structure of the household of God. The foundation – sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – and the structure – solus Christus – (Christ alone) are the fundamental principles that build the true household of God. This means the foundation of the gospel community can only be built on the sole supreme authority of the Word of God – for faith and life. The structure, indeed the only structure that can stand on this foundation, is that of the true person and work of Christ – and Him alone.

It’s no wonder that Paul used this imagery in Ephesians ch. 2 where he describes that we, both Jew and Gentile, are saved by grace through faith and not by works. This redemption purchased for His people, who are saved out of two major people groups (Jews and Gentile), brings these peoples into one united household. The implications of this are: ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.’ (Ephesians 2:19–22 ESV)

The foundation. How does the Paul describe the unity of his people who have been redeemed? First, as a ‘household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.’ The redeemed have unity being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, that is by believing the words of those who spoke the very Words of God – pointing us to Christ as they spoke with the authority of Christ. Thus,affirming that Scripture alone has – and is – the supreme authority – because it is the Word of God – is foundational to true Christian unity.

The structure. Secondly, the redeemed also have unity in ‘Christ Jesus…being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure…grows into a holy temple in the Lord.’ The cornerstone of the building is a crucial piece which secures and strengthens the frame or structure. It’s what all the other structural pieces are measured against and aligned with. Without this structure, the building will not stand. The gospel of the person and work of Christ – otherwise known as justification (by faith alone) is the ‘article upon which the church stands or falls’ (Luther) or the hinge upon which everything turns (Calvin). Without getting the person and work of Christ right, without getting justification right, without getting the gospel right, we have no structure, we have no true church.

Implications. If we share the same foundation and the same structure we can know that we have unity with like minded believers who believe God’s Word (the prophets and the apostles) over man’s word, and who believe the biblical gospel. If we believe God’s Word and His Gospel it doesn’t matter (for the purposes of evangelical unity) whether or not we are Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Congregational etc. because we – together – believe His Word and His Work. Interestingly, this foundation and structure are none other than the two main causes of the Protestant reformation. The initial flash point of the reformation was whether we can purchase forgiveness through any means, either money, works or attitude. That is, has Christ done everything to accomplish our salvation or not? Is Christ really the cornerstone or is He just the blue print of the building – the example? Have we really been justified by faith alone or by cooperation? How do we know this? This 16th century debate then necessarily led to expose the underlying problem of the Roman Church: that Scripture was not the sole and supreme authority. Theirs was an authority ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets‘… yes, but also on popes, councils and man made traditions. You see, if your foundation is faulty, so will your cornerstone be. If your foundation is right it is difficult to get the cornerstone wrong. Without sharing this Scripture alone foundation and this Christ alone structure we do not have any union, unity or fellowship with any believer who denies these realities even though they claim ‘Jesus’, profess to be Christian, or are even employed as a pastor. What abut the Roman Catholics? Their official doctrine opposes both the Scripture alone foundation and the Christ alone structure. They add the commandments of men to Scripture and they add works of men to Christ.

A final point. What about those who confess these things but by their life deny them? It is true that one can be orthodox in theology (at least on the surface) and profess these truths yet inwardly they disobey and deny them. These people are generally exposed when God sends them suffering and persecution. This is why many people leave the church when ‘bad’ things happen to them. But it does raise the final point. The final point is this, that we can consider these two truths, the foundation and structure, as external evidences of unity. However, the ultimate reality, that is alluded to in the passage above, gives us true unity: In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Those who have been born again, who have the Spirit of Christ, who are indwelled by the Holy Spirit have union together. This is what we could call the internal unity. What we profess to believe above is the external unity but the Spirit of Christ indwelling us and causing us to trust His Word and His Work (i.e. the gospel) is the internal evidence and means of true Christian unity. With the Spirit living inside of us, we cannot for long hold errors relating to the foundation and structure for long because the Spirit of sanctification will sanctify our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit is also then the unifying Spirit in Christ.

A final word. I think it is also important when we talk about the authority of Scripture and the gospel of the person and work of Christ (i.e. justification by faith alone – because Christ alone has done everything for us) we must not only affirm what the proposition affirms, we must also deny what the proposition denies. For example, for one to say that they believe in justification by grace alone they must also believe that those who do not believe in the gospel will perish. There is no gospel if there is no saving from something…i.e. hell. There are plenty of Christians who talk about grace alone but in the next confused breath assert that somehow everyone will be saved. Do you see how this is an undermining of the gospel they claim to believe? Sneeky and cunning people can use our vocabulary and say they believe in the authority of Scripture meanwhile being led solely by their feelings, subjectivism or culture. In our culture today we have some people justifying abortion, homosexuality (in the church, marriage and ministry) and transgenderism by stating they are consistent with Scripture. Yet these beliefs are tantamount to calling God a liar. With such people we have no unity. They are actively denying the authority of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ who – if they would only listen to the gospel – would be saved if they repented and trusted in His Word and believed the Word who became flesh to die for sinners like me.

Soli Deo Gloria

Luther's Eight Sermons at Wittenberg Uncategorized

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 4)

As a pastor returning to the mess that Karlstadt had begun – in trying to bring revolution – Luther explains the method he uses to decide whether something is to be considered ‘free’ or a ‘must’. Remember this is Luther’s third sermon having returned from Wittenberg from isolation in Wartburg Castle (although he probably didn’t have to wear a mask): ‘We have heard the things which are “musts,” which are necessary and must be done, things which must be so and not otherwise: the private masses must be abolished. For all works and things, which are either commanded or forbidden by God and thus have been instituted by the supreme Majesty, are “musts.” Nevertheless, no one should be dragged to them or away from them by the hair, for I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club. I said this plainly enough; I believe you have understood what I said…’

It seems that through Karlstadt’s influence some had sought to correct the forbidding of marriage by forcing Nuns and Monks to marry. This, Luther knew, was as wrong as the forbidding of marriage in the first place. How does Luther address this? ‘Now follow the things which are not necessary, but are left to our free choice by God and which we may keep or not, such as whether a person should marry or not, or whether monks and nuns should leave the cloisters. These things are matters of choice and must not be forbidden by any one, and if they are forbidden, the forbidding is wrong, since it is contrary to God’s ordinance. In the things that are free, such as being married or remaining single, you should take this attitude: if you can keep to it without burdensomeness, then keep it; but it must not be made a general law; everyone must rather be free. So if there is a priest, monk, or nun, who cannot abstain, let him take a wife and be a husband, in order that your conscience may be relieved; and see to it that you can stand before God and the world when you are assailed, especially when the devil attacks you in the hour of death. It is not enough to say: this man or that man did it, I followed the crowd, according to the preaching of the dean, Dr. Karlstadt, or Gabriel, or Michael. Not so; every one must stand on his own feet and be prepared to give battle to the devil. You must rest upon a strong and clear text of Scripture if you would stand the test. If you cannot do that, you will never withstand—the devil will pluck you like a parched leaf…Therefore I say, what God has made free shall remain free. If anybody forbids it, as the pope, the Antichrist, has done, you should not obey. He who can do so without harm and for love of his neighbor may wear a cowl or a tonsure, since it will not injure your faith. The cowl will not strangle you, if you are already wearing one...’

As an heir of the reformation I often look impatiently at Luther and wonder why he takes such a mediating role even though other reformers would later go further than Luther on some issues. This impatience, however, might even tempt me to run – not just fall – into the revolutionary trap of Karlstadt. But we have to remember that the reformation is in its early days. Luther himself is still in the process of reforming. However, I think the main reason for Luther’s ‘mediating’ tact here, is found in his recent discovery of justification by faith alone. What Luther did not want to do was to remove one erroneous ‘must’ (priests must not marry) only to replace it with another erroneous ‘must’ (priests must marry). Or, in other words, to remove one work and simply to replace it with another work. For both these attitudes contradict the theology of grace and justification by faith alone. This should help us to understand Luther at this point.

Now, the reformed churches would go onto modify this method of working out what is free and what is a must. In general, Luther would say what God has said is a must – is a must. But with what God has not said is a must – therein is freedom. The reformed tradition would generally agree with this if applied as a general principle. However, when it comes to worship, the reformers would understand ‘must’ and ‘free’ slightly differently. ‘Must’ and ‘free’ must be interpreted through the lense of what God has explicitly said and commanded, and only what God has commanded must be done in worship. If God is ‘silent’ on something, Luther might give the freedom to do it, whereas the later reformers—in view of worship in particular—where God is silent, so must we be (i.e. it does not automatically give us the right to practice it, for example like the lunacy of waving of flags in worship etc.). This is where the regulative principle of worship comes in. For example, if God hasn’t commanded us to wear a cowl in worship, the reformers would say we must not wear it. Whereas Luther would say it isn’t forbidden so it is free with regard to conscience. I do however, agree with the reformers here. How we worship our holy God has never been left up to us to decide for ourselves. The worship of God must follow only what God has commanded.

The regulative principle of worship can be justified to support a number of different things, so we should be careful how we come to our conclusions. But what we can learn from Luther here, is that we must not replace a law-work with another law-work, and that our conclusions must – to the best of our ability – be drawn from Scripture (or be deduced by good and necessary consequence) so that we stand on them in good conscience.

LW 51:79-84

Luther's Eight Sermons at Wittenberg Uncategorized

Luther’s Eight Sermons at Wittenberg, March 1522 (Part 3)

Luther begins his second sermon with a summary of his sermon from the day before: ‘Dear friends, you heard yesterday the chief characteristics of a Christian man, that his whole life and being is faith and love. Faith is directed toward God, love toward man and one’s neighbor, and consists in such love and service for him as we have received from God without our work and merit. Thus, there are two things: the one, which is the most needful, and which must be done in one way and no other; the other, which is a matter of choice and not of necessity, which may be kept or not, without endangering faith or incurring hell. In both, love must deal with our neighbor in the same manner as God has dealt with us; it must walk the straight road, straying neither to the left nor to the right. In the things which are “musts” and are matters of necessity, such as believing in Christ, love nevertheless never uses force or undue constraint. Thus the mass is an evil thing, and God is displeased with it, because it is performed as if it were a sacrifice and work of merit. Therefore it must be abolished. Here there can be no question or doubt, any more than you should ask whether you should worship God. Here we are entirely agreed: the private masses must be abolished. As I have said in my writings, I wish they would be abolished everywhere and only the ordinary evangelical mass be retained. Yet Christian love should not employ harshness here nor force the matter. However, it should be preached and taught with tongue and pen that to hold mass in such a manner is sinful, and yet no one should be dragged away from it by the hair; for it should be left to God, and his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference. Why? Because it is not in my power or hand to fashion the hearts of men as the potter molds the clay and fashion them at my pleasure [Ecclus. 33:13]. I can get no farther than their ears; their hearts I cannot reach. And since I cannot pour faith into their hearts, I cannot, nor should I, force any one to have faith. That is God’s work alone, who causes faith to live in the heart. Therefore we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it. We have the jus verbi[right to speak] but not the executio[power to accomplish]. We should preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God’s good pleasure.’

Even when something is truly wrong and unbiblical (like the mass) Luther warns against responding to it without faith in God and love for man. If we have faith in God when we respond, we cannot but be drawn to the absolute conviction that His Word alone is the only means of reformation. If we love our fellow man, we will not physically drag people away from the mass – by the hair which must have happened – but be faithful preachers of the Word, ‘his Word should be allowed to work alone, without our work or interference…we should give free course to the Word and not add our works to it.’ This is what made the reformation a reformation – rather than a revolution! A revolution is man’s way of making change through violence, coercion and a manipulation of reality and truth. A reformation is God’s way of making change through the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of truth. The Devil loves revolutions, God’s Word is too powerful to need them.

Luther goes on to say that forcing change on someone results, ‘in a mere mockery, an external show, a fool’s play, man-made ordinances, sham-saints, and hypocrites. For where the heart is not good, I care nothing at all for the work. We must first win the hearts of the people. But that is done when I teach only the Word of God, preach the gospeland thus God would accomplish more with his Word than if you and I were to merge all our power into one heap. So when you have won the heart, you have won the man—and thus the thing must finally fall of its own weight and come to an end…Faith must not be chained and imprisoned, nor bound by an ordinance to any work. This is the principle by which you must be governed. For I am sure you will not be able to carry out your plans. And if you should carry them out with such general laws, then I will recant everything that I have written and preached and I will not support you…

And in Luther’s conclusion to this sermon we can see the very heart of the reformation, the so called’ ‘formal cause’—that is, the ultimate authority of Scripture summarised in the phrase Sola Scriptura. This is a famous quote from Luther and one of my favourites—but it makes the point:In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe [i.e. a revolution]. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work. What do you suppose is Satan’s thought when one tries to do the thing by kicking up a row? He sits back in hell and thinks: Oh, what a fine game the poor fools are up to now! But when we spread the Word alone and let it alone do the work, that distresses him. For it is almighty, and takes captive the hearts, and when the hearts are captured the work will fall of itself…’

So what does the church really need? The devil says psychology, eloquence, oratory, trendiness, sociology, relevance, revolutions. Nope, we just need faithful preachers of the Word. Full stop.

LW 51:75-78

©Nathan L. Runham. All Rights Reserved.


Thesis 5: A fake sinner will only merit a fake saviour. A true sinner will, by faith alone, merit the righteousness and forgiveness of a true saviour…Be a sinner!

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17 ESV)

See Luther Quote #5 for the explanation.


Luther Quote #3

An excerpt of a letter Luther wrote to George Spenlein, a fellow Augustinian Friar, on April 8 1516 – 18 months before posting his Ninety-five Theses:

‘Now I should like to know whether your soul, tired of its own righteousness, is learning to be revived by and to trust in the righteousness of Christ. For in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God, which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible. While you were here, you were one who held this opinion, or rather, error. So was I, and I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it as yet.

Therefore, my dear Friar, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not.” Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness yours…’

LW 48:12-13