June 18, 2014

The 28 Theses

Stephen Nichols
The 28 Theses


On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History we’re going to explore the 28 Theses. Now you likely know the 95 Theses. This of course is the great document by Martin Luther; started the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517. Luther is also the author of the 28 Theses. This is not a discount version of the 95 Theses. Luther didn’t run out of ideas, but he was much more focused in this text—the 28 Theses. This is also sometimes simply called “The Heidelberg Disputation,” because these were written for a disputation at the city of Heidelberg and it was held on April 26, 1518.

Now to give you a little background here, Luther of course was an Augustinian monk and his 95 Theses in the previous Fall had caused quite a stir within the Augustinians there in Germany. And Johannes Staupitz, who was very significant in Luther’s life—a formidable influence on him—Staupitz was the head of the Augustinian order in Germany and he called for a disputation in the wake of the 95 Theses.

This was held in the chapter house at Heidelberg, and Luther advanced within these 28 Theses, or The Heidelberg Disputation, a series of contrasts. He initially sets up a contrast between the works of God and the works of man. He notes how that within the medieval church it was the works of man that pretty much governed. This was behind the indulgences, this was behind penance, this was behind the way we sort of work towards God, we somehow work to achieve our righteousness.

In number 16 of these 28 Theses, Luther directly addresses this issue of the works of man, and he says something that just sort of knocks the legs right out from under this approach in the medieval Catholic church. 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." The works of man will not accomplish anything when it comes to righteousness. We need the contrast; we need the works of God.

He also goes on to contrast a theology of glory with a theology of the cross. He does this in theses 20 and 21. And then the final one, the one I want to spend a few moments with you on is number 28. Here he gives a contrast between the love of God and the love of man. Now, my friend and a church historian Carl Trueman has said that this is the most beautiful sentence that Luther has ever written—the first half of Theses 28. I’ll let you judge if Dr. Trueman is right. Here’s what Luther says: "The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it."

The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. You know, I think Dr. Trueman is right. I think that is likely the most beautiful sentence Luther ever wrote. “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Luther goes on to say, he finishes that thesis with this thought: “The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” See, we as people, we love those things that are pleasing to us. But here we are, sinners in God’s eyes, deserving of His wrath. So He doesn’t wander around the universe looking for something to love that is pleasing. He can’t find that which is worthy of His love. Instead, as Luther says, God "creates" it.

Now, after the theses there was a debate in May and Luther sort of wrote down his arguments from that debate, and in the writing down of those arguments this is what Luther says: “The love of God loves sinners, evil persons, fools and weaklings, in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good.”

So here we are: the evil persons, the fools, the weaklings. And because God loves us, He creates in us, makes us lovable by making us righteous and good and wise and strong. So, we all appreciate the 95 Theses. We also need to appreciate Luther's 28 Theses.