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

Martin Luther

Thesis 4.
Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.

"That the works of God are unattractive is clear from what is said in Isa. 53:2, ’He had no form of comeliness’, and in 1 Sam. 2:6, ‘The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.’ This is understood to mean that the Lord humbles and frightens us by means of the law and the sight of our sins so that we seem in the eyes of men, as in our own, as nothing, foolish, and wicked, for we are in truth that. Insofar as we acknowledge and confess this, there is no form or beauty in us, but our life is hidden in God (i.e. in the bare confidence in his mercy), finding in ourselves nothing but sin, foolishness, death, and hell, according to that verse of the Apostle in 2 Cor. 6:9-10, ‘As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as dying, and behold we live.’ And that it is which Isa. 28:21 calls the alien work of God that he may do his work (that is, he humbles us thoroughly, making us despair, so that he may exalt us in his mercy, giving us hope), just as Hab. 3:2 states, ‘In wrath remember mercy.’ Such a man therefore is displeased with all his works; he sees no beauty, but only his depravity. Indeed, he also does those things which appear foolish and disgusting to others.

This depravity, however, comes into being in us either when God punishes us or when we accuse ourselves. As 1 Cor. 11:31 says, "If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged by the Lord," Deut. 32:36 also states, "The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants." In this way, consequently, the unattractive works which God does in us, that is, those which are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit. (LW 31, 44)

After affirming that the works of man are likely to be mortal sins, Luther begins thesis 4 as the discussion of divine works in contrast to human works.

Theses 3 and 4 can be taken together because they are parallel in construction and set up the fundamental contrast. This contrast is an important way to explain the fundamental difference between ‘the theology of the glory’ and ‘the theology of the cross.’ Theses 3 and 4 are contrary to each other, which can be compared thusly:


What is then the works of God in contrast to the works of man? How are the unattractive works of God really eternal merits?

To answer this question, we have to deal with the Luther’s understanding of the works of God. In commenting on this verse (28:21), Martin Luther made a sharp distinction between God's "proper" work (opus proprium Dei) of grace and God's "alien" work (opus alienum Dei) of judgment.

God cannot come to this His proper work - turns sinners into righteous Christians - unless He undertakes a work that is alien and contrary to Himself. God assaults man in order to break him down and thus to justify him. Through the experience of the opus alienum Dei, the sinner finds himself under the wrath of God, he counts himself as damned. It is through experiencing the alien of God (in other words, the wrath of God) that man is humbled, and forced to concede that he cannot, by himself, stand in the presence of God. In his helplessness and hopelessness, he confesses his sins and turns to God. By doing so, he is justified. Through this experience of the strange work of God, the sinner is enabled to appropriate the proper work of God.

Therefore, even though the alien works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, it is for our benefit because God is wise and good. In other words, the despair and suffering by God’s judgment are eternal merits in that they lead man to confess sin and to appropriate the proper work of God. For this, Luther states, "But when our flesh is so evil that it cannot be saved by God's proper work, it is necessary for it to be saved by His alien work" - that is, God must destroy our ungodliness in order that we might be saved (LW 16: 233-234)

The basic paradox of God’s work Luther dealt with here is illustrated with reference to the justification of an individual. ‘The theologians of the cross’ state that in order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. On the other hand, ‘the theologians of the glory’ want themselves to be judged and justified through their works. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14) may be a good example for this.

The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Unlike the Pharisee, “The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Here, Jesus does not criticize the “Pharisee’s life of faith” – “fasting twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” - in itself. Rather, he condemns the attitude of Pharisee that demands salvation before God with flags flying, proudly reporting his work. On the other hand, the tax collector has nothing to say before God. There’s nothing he can say to make Jesus proud of him.

Then, what about the Korean Christianity? What would Korean Christians be like today? Would they be Pharisee or a tax collector? Maybe the answer is neither. Rather, the Korean churches are thronged with false prophets who have absolutely no sense of shame after a crime they have committed. Far from confessing sins, they disguise themselves as if they are the suffering servant with flamboyant rhetoric.

Recently some pastors who pleaded guilty to fraud, theft and embezzlement charges, were sentenced to some years in prison. However, glorifying themselves as martyrs, they come back to the church and preach the sermon without any unpleasantness. Without an apology and atonement for their crimes, they continue to serve as senior pastors.

How about the sermon preached in the Korean church? We can hardly hear the evangelical message which urges repentance and humility. Rather, it is filled with the message of ‘positive power,' ‘self-confidence' and the prosperity theology. Church and Theology encourage the works of humanity, and teach us that doing good work is the way to receive God’s grace. They say that if Christians pray like the tax collector, they will only be rewarded with pessimism.
God wants the sinful man to confess his sins and to seek God’s grace with humility. For doing this, God does his ‘alien work’ for us. Although this work of God always seems unattractive, they make us humble and penitent.

Luther called this ‘delicious despair.’ In other words, God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous. For this, Luther said, “Anfechtung, in so far as it takes everything away from us, leaves us nothing but God: it cannot take God away from us, and actually brings him closer to us. (WA 5.165, 39-166, 1)"

It is only by experiencing the wrath of God in this manner that a man becomes a 'theologian of the cross'. It is through undergoing the torment of the cross, death and hell that true theology and the knowledge of God come about. But our life is not gloomy or depressing. It is God who both humiliates and justifies. Our life, as St. Paul states, is “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as dying and behold we live” (2 Cor. 6:9-10).

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 :

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