CHRISTIANITY DAILY

The Way of the Cross VII: Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis VII

Martin Luther

Thesis 7.
The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.

“This is clear from Thesis 4. To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself in one’s works, and to adore oneself as an idol. He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner. For if he had fear he would not be self-confident, and for this reason he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.

In the second place, it is clear from the words of the Psalmist [Ps. 143:2], “Enter not into judgment with thy servant,” and Ps. 32[:5], “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’” etc. But that these are not venial sins is clear because these passages state that confession and repentance are not necessary for venial sins. If, therefore, they are mortal sins and all the saints intercede for them, as it is stated in the same place, then the works of the saints are mortal sins. But the works of the saints are good works, wherefore they are meritorious for them only through the fear of their humble confession.

In the third place, it is clear from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses” [Matt. 6:12]. This is a prayer of the saints, therefore those trespasses are good works for which they pray. But that these are mortal sins is clear from the following verse, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” [Matt. 6:15]. Note that these trespasses are such that, if unforgiven, they would condemn them, unless they pray this prayer sincerely and forgive others.

In the fourth place, it is clear from Rev. 21[:27], “Nothing unclean shall enter into it” [the kingdom of heaven]. But everything that hinders entrance into the kingdom of heaven is mortal sin (or it would be necessary to interpret the concept of mortal sin in another way). Venial sin, however, hinders because it makes the soul unclean and has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Consequently, etc. (LW 31:46)

Luther, in Thesis 7, introduces a new note that the works done by the righteous, in grace, are deadly sins when there is no fear of God. It looks to be a shocking proposition for Christians. If so, who is the righteous and when then are the works of the righteous mortal sin?

To understand this thesis, we have to know what the medieval penitential practice is. As I mentioned earlier in Thesis 2, the scholastic theologians in Middle Age, including Thomas Aquinas, believed the innate understanding of the good has its source in an uncorrupted state or condition of human nature, despite the fact that corruption existed since Adam. In other words, man can perform the natural virtues, which include prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (ST IaIIae 61.2) - by using the natural human capacities – it had so called “reason, will, and conscience.”

However, to be saved, man needs to have the supernatural power from God. It is given only through baptism in grace. Humans can possess the supernatural power by baptism in grace. This supernatural power can lead man to perform the supernatural or theological virtue (faith, hope, and charity) created by God to round out the natural virtues.

Based on this understanding, the Roman Catholic Church in the Medieval Age taught the believers that the works of the righteous – namely the Christians who hold the supernatural power by baptism – could be sinful in some way, but not deadly (mortal). So a distinction was made between venial and mortal sin. The works of the righteous could no doubt be venial but not mortal sins.

According to Thomas Aquinas, "When the will sets itself upon something that is of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end, then the sin is mortal by its very object . . . whether it contradicts the love of God, such as blasphemy or perjury, or the love of neighbor, such as homicide or adultery.... But when the sinner's will is set upon something that of its nature involves a disorder, but is not opposed to the love of God and neighbor, such as thoughtless chatter or immoderate laughter and the like, such sins are venial.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Su Th I-II, 88, 2, corp. art)

While the venial sins were forgiven by their own penitential discipline, the mortal sins were forgiven only by God and His grace.

For this, Luther raised the following question: If the righteous are to do their works, either bad or good, does it seem, in the supposed confidence that they are at worst only venial sins, they are presuming on and usurping the judgment of God?

In thesis 7, there is a salient warning for the believers who regarded themselves as having the supernatural power by the baptism in grace. Without genuine fear of God, the works of the righteous, no matter how good, are mortal sins. Everything depends on whether it is done in the fear of God.

This thesis is parallel to Jesus’s saying: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”(Matthew 5:21-22)

The Jewish teachers had taught that nothing except actual murder was forbidden by the sixth commandment. Thus they explained away its spiritual meaning. Christ showed the full meaning of this commandment. Not only will the external act receive due punishment at human tribunals, but the inner feeling that prompts it is liable to the verdict of condemnation which will be pronounced by God. In other words, it is God who judges both our heat and act.

Like the Jewish teachers, Roman Catholic Church taught Christians that in so far as the righteous person by the baptism in grace does not take action on human desire and evil intention, it would not be sinful. Even if they could be sinful in some way, it is venial sins which could be always forgiven by their own efforts.

Luther, in the proof in Thesis 7, argued that he who is self-confident and without fear of God is one who pleased oneself, enjoyed oneself in his works and adored oneself as an idol. Following the teaching of Jesus Christ, Luther also taught that the apparent goodness of the deed, and even the claim of the help of grace, does not remove the possibility that the act is a deadly sin.

According to the proof in Thesis 7, all the saints intercede for the mortal sins, as it is stated in the Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. Then the works of the saints are mortal sins.

The righteous in the Bible even confessed and repented their sins, because they know that their works were not the venial sins but the mortal sins. In addition to this, it is clear from Rev 21:27 that the venial sin as well as the mortal sins hinders entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Today, Christians try to dismiss the seriousness of the sin, and the fear and judgment of God. As they just repeat the love of God, they believe that while the work of the believer is merely venial sin forgiven by their efforts, the work of the unbeliever is the mortal sin. Christians often lead the dual lives in the way that they hide their perfidy behind pious facades.

Thesis 7 is a severe warning to these Christians. Without genuine fear of God, the works of the Christians, no matter how they are baptized, are mortal sins.

What a shame to be so interested about the growth of the church that we have forgotten what’s really important in our faith. It is time for Korean Church to reflect on the essence of the faith.

Pastor Jin O Jeong 2
(Photo : Pastor Jin O Jeong)

Reverend and Doctor Jin O Jeong is an assistant pastor for the Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email : jjeong@zionbelleville.org

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