Just off the Rhine River in Germany is the Neckar River, and located right on the Neckar is the city of Heidelberg. This ancient city was the site of the drafting of two significant texts from the Reformation.
The first was a Luther text. It was April 26, 1518. Martin Luther had made the trek from his monastery at Wittenberg to the chapter house of the Augustinian order in Heidelberg to present some theses for disputation. This disputation was not a debate, as if Luther was squaring off with some official from the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, Luther and others were discussing how we are made righteous and how we can stand before God.
Luther had started his dispute with the Roman Catholic Church as a monk in Wittenberg. On October 31, 1517, he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door. The theses circulated quickly among the Augustinian monks, and some of the ideas that Luther presented piqued their curiosity. Luther was happy to teach more on those topics, so he came to Heidelberg and presented another set of theses, his Twenty-Eight Theses for the Heidelberg Disputation.
In thesis 16, Luther says, “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” Luther was making a case that we as sinners have no ability to produce anything that is pleasing to God. And if we try to somehow earn our way or try to merit God’s favor, we are increasing our sin. In his explanation of this thesis, Luther said, “The sin that we add to sin is haughtiness—human pride that thinks we as sinners can do something that would be pleasing to God.”
In thesis 18, Luther says, “Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” Luther wanted us to get to the end of our rope. He wanted us to see that we are incapable of doing anything that is pleasing to God. And once we get to the end of ourselves, then we are ready to look to Christ in faith.
As Luther closed his theses for disputation, he had a few more things to say to these monks. He said, “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” The issue was not works; the issue was faith. The issue was not meriting your way into God’s favor; the issue was believing in what Christ did.
Why must this be the case? Well, Luther tells us in the last thesis: “The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.” In explaining this thesis, Luther said, “The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in man loves sinners, loves evil persons, loves fools, and loves weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong.”
And so, we all need to be thankful for these Twenty-Eight Theses of the Heidelberg Disputation—all of us who are weaklings—that Luther presented on April 26, 1518.