We all may be familiar with the fact that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church which sparked the Protestant Reformation, but we are probably less familiar with the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.
In his Disputation, Luther contrasted two opposing ways of approaching Christianity. He called these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. It is the death of Christ that is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. It is through being crucified with Christ that we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained only by grace through faith in Christ.
The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning that we readily see. You perhaps have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like. My guess is that it probably has something to do with an actual sinful lifestyle or particular evil acts.
Luther, however, insisted that the worst of sinners are those people who do good works, who pursue a theology of glory. More specifically, the wicked person is the one who has clean living and does all kinds of nice things, but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting it is that the wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for him/herself, rather than giving glory to God.
Our good works, Luther insisted, are the greatest hindrance to being a truly righteous person and living in the way of the cross. It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. It is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. The only remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives life apart from that cross, trusting in him/herself so that people can recognize them and give them their due respect and praise.
Here is what Luther had to say in a nutshell concerning his thoughts: “It is impossible for a person not to be puffed 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.”
So, then, the answer to this problem of doing good works out of our intention of gaining glory for ourselves is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and being connected to the vine of Christ.
Reformation Sunday is a time to remember, and a time to repent. We remember that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We also take the time to repent of our works done apart from Christ and acted for the accolades of others. Perhaps what we need today is another Reformation, that is, a reformation of spiritual habits that truly connect us to the vine of Christ – practices that shape our lives around the person and work of Jesus, and not around the idols of our hearts that make us look good and impress others. What will you choose on this day?