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

Martin Luther

Thesis 8.
By so much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear and in unadulterated, evil self-security.

The inevitable deduction from the preceding thesis is clear. For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God, for God opposes the haughty. Indeed, if pride would cease there would be no sin anywhere.” (LW 31: 47)

Thesis 8 is the contrapuntal comparison with the previous thesis 7. While thesis 7 dealt with the works of the righteous, thesis 8 discusses human works; works done by, and in the pure confidence of “natural power” alone. In other words, if works done by the righteous without fear of God are deadly sins, more so are those deeds done in the confidence of "natural power." What Luther continues to stress in Theses 7 and 8 is the issue of the fear of God.

It seems to me that the phrase ‘the fear of God’ is one that today's Christians are too reluctant to use. We put a very large emphasis on love; God is love and that we ought to love Him in return are the most repeated phrases of almost every Sunday School lesson and weekly sermon. In this atmosphere, Luther’s theses continues to stress that ‘the fear of God’ is a concept that is rather difficult to understand. It enslaves human beings to the law waiting for God’s punishment.

Some Christians even think that emphasizing ‘the fear of God’ is a phrase reminiscent of the corrupt Catholic Church from the Middle Ages. In other words, while the Roman Catholic Church in Middle Ages sold indulgences with the emphasis “the fear and punishment of God,” the Reformers including Martin Luther released Christians from the law with the emphasis “the love and grace of God.”

However, contrary to our expectation, Luther continues to stress “the fear of God” in Theses 7 and 8.

We can also find Luther’s phrase ‘the fear of God’ in his Small Catechism, especially in the explanation to the conclusion of the commandments: “There we read in no uncertain terms: “God threatens to punish … Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments.”
What does it mean to say that we “fear” God, and can fear coincide with love?

In the proof for this thesis, Luther explained why we should fear God: “For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God, for God opposes the haughty.” (LW 31: 47)

The fear of God was an inherent component to a true relationship with God, not only from God’s side, because of who God is, but also from the human side, because of who we are.

According to Luther, we are deeply sinful—pervasively, persistently, and inescapably sinful – and without the fear of God, we will too easily and too quickly go astray. In particular, Luther recognizes the grave danger that human pride presents; the tendency to lift up our own works and our own accomplishments, and to rely on ourselves while disparaging God’s work and God’s power.

Therefore, for Luther, the fear of God provided an important antidote to that temptation, which Luther thought was so extremely deadly. Luther states:

“Consequently, no one is more wretched and miserable than a proud man. For he cannot pray to God or trust in God, … because he does not know that he is subject to sin and death. Nor does he call God his Father. No, he excludes himself from this association and voluntarily subjects himself to the slavery and obedience of the devil. Indeed – and this is more serious than anything else – he does not recognize or feel this misery of his but proceeds on his way puffed up and proud, as though he were a god and some deity to be adored.” (LW 7,180)

In his commentary on Genesis, Luther describes this problem in some detail, writing that, “To those who are smug and have altogether discarded the fear of God, God’s blows and wrath must be presented in order that they may be warned by the example of others and cease to sin.”(LW 3: 222) According to Luther, without the fear of God, humans easily forget how dangerous sin and death are. He also writes: “If there were not perils of fire and water, no sudden death and similar evils, I myself would surely not say anything about them and would speak only of God’s kindness and of [God’s] benefits.”(LW 3: 225)

Luther argues that without the fear of the Lord, people think that their good fortune is a result of their own merit and virtue, which they believe has caused God to reward them. The remedy for this is to replace confidence in one’s own work with confidence and trust in God. The fear of the Lord facilitates the cultivating of humility regarding one’s work, and assurance regarding God’s work. “Fear and reverence for God shine forth, contempt of self, and love for his neighbor.”(LW 7:183)

Today, the messages and theology in the Korean church are wholly filled with ‘love, mercy and blessing.’ It is hard to find the phrase ‘the fear of God’. Rather, people think that, “the fear of God,” makes us discouraged and frustrated. However, if we do not proclaim “the fear of God,” and we try to lift up our own works and our own accomplishments, we forget who we are and how truly sinful we are. Emphasizing only the blessing and love might lead to becoming prideful by relying on ourselves and not on God.

The fear of God can strengthen our relationship with God and our neighbors, helping us to love God rightly and to serve our neighbor with a humble heart; not out of a desire for divine rewards or blessings, and not out of a terrifying angst and insecurity, but because of a correct understanding of who God is, all God has done for us, and all we owe God. For Luther, “the fear of God” is the only way to love God and our neighbors.

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 :

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