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

Martin Luther

Thesis 3.
Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

“Human works appear attractive outwardly, but within they are filthy, as Christ says concerning the Pharisees in Matt. 23:27. For they appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but searches ‘the minds and hearts’ (Ps. 7:9). For without grace and faith it is impossible to have a pure heart. Acts 15:9: ‘He cleansed their hearts by faith.’

The thesis is proven in the following way: If the works of righteous men are sins, as 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 - Footnote writer) of this disputation states, this is much more the case concerning the works of those who are not righteous. But the just speak on behalf of their works in the following way: ‘Do not enter into judgment with thy servant, Lord, for no man living is righteous before thee’ (Ps. 143:2). The Apostle speaks likewise in Gal. 3:10, ‘All who rely on the works of the law are under the curse.’ But the works of men are the works of the law, and the curse will not be placed upon venial sins. Therefore they are mortal sins. In the third place, Rom. 2:21 states, ‘You who teach others not to steal, do you steal?’ St. Augustine interprets this to mean that men are thieves according to their guilty consciences even if they publicly judge or reprimand other thieves.” (LW 31, 43)

Like other theses, the third thesis should be reflected in the connection with the second thesis. Luther argued that after Adam and Eve’s corruption, all humans are so totally corrupted that there is not reminder of us which is affected toward the good in Thesis 2. In an expansion of thesis 2, the third thesis Luther dealt with is that human works outwardly seem attractive and good, but without grace and faith, they are likely to be mortal sins.

The term ‘mortal sin’ Luther used here was from the medieval Catholic tradition.

A mortal sin is generally regarded as a transgression of God’s law of such seriousness that it causes loss of the effects of grace, rendering the sinner subject to eternal punishment. It can involve excommunication. A venial sin is a more minor error and does not entail loss of grace. However, it does require some submission to penitential discipline. In fact, it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘mortal sins’ and ‘venial sin’.

For this reason, Luther already in the process of moving away from the traditional between mortal and venial sin - a slippery distinction to work with in any case. ‘Mortal sin’ in this thesis does not only mean an obvious violation of law. Rather, it means that all sins of humans are ‘mortal sins’ – instead of ‘mortal sin’, some Lutheran scholars prefer here to use the less loaded term ‘deadly sin’ to convey what Luther seems to have in mind.

The third thesis is closely related to his theological breakthrough. Luther was a monk of the Augustinian order. The discipline in this order was so strict that it was hard for many monks to withstand the discipline. Luther observed not only the strict discipline but also the other discipline he himself established. In that day, people said about Luther: “Martin Luther is like Saint!”.

Luther confessed: “Although I lived an irreproachable life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner with an uneasy conscience before God, nor was I able to believe that I had pleased him with my satisfaction.” Luther realized that he was like whitewashed tombs, let alone a Saint, "People think I am a saint. If anything, I am a hypocrite.”

This thesis is proved by the Bible. In Matthew 23:27, Jesus criticized both teacher and Pharisee: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” St. Paul also argued that the works done in human strength are really deadly sins comes in Galatians 3:10: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'"

Regarding this thesis, some Christians may ask the following questions: if so, can humans never do good works? Does Luther speak too much emphasis on the negative aspect of human works?

What he is trying to say here is that human beings can never do absolute good. Following Augustine, even though man judges or reprimands other criminals, he is only a sinner.

Today, American theologian and ethicist, Reinhold Niebuher best describes Luther's saying for this. According to Reinhold Niebuhr, there is no good and evil.

“Responsible attitude, which will not pretend to be God nor refuse decision between political answers to problems because each answered to contain a moral ambiguity in God’s sight. We are men, not God. We are responsible for making choices between greater and lesser evils, even when our Christian faith, illuminating the human scene, makes it quite apparent that there is no pure good in history, and probably no pure evil either." Reinhold Neibuhr, Faith and Politics, ed. Ronalstone (New York: George Braziler, 1968), p. 56

As we know, there is a dogma of Papal infallibility in the Catholic Church. It means in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error. However, according to the secret files the Vatican opened in 2003, the Pope Pius XI helped Adolf Hitler destroy German Catholic political opposition, betrayed the Jews of Europe, and sealed a deeply cynical pact with a 20th-century devil. Later, the Pope John Paul II had to apologize for the faults of the predecessors, Popes.

The third thesis here asks us the very important questions: Are we proud of our righteousness before God in spite of the sinner? Are we also like a hypocrite who looks beautiful on the outside? Do we say that as a pastor, elder, or deacon I am an axis of good but others are an axis of evil?
The fastest growing Korean church with the message of ‘'positive power’ and ‘self-confidence' and the prosperity theology became the target of social criticism. The clarion call to reform the government has been sounded louder than ever before. It is true that the third thesis is the very important thesis we have in our mind.

Pastor Jin O Jeong
(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 :

Web Analytics