Lenten Series: Advancing in the Path of Righteousness

Meditation on Luther's Theses Three:
 Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. 

Meditation on Luther's Theses Four:
Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.

Text: Romans 10:4

Theme: The Damnable Paradox that Saves

By Steven Hein


In this series of Lenten meditations on the theology of the cross, as Dr. Luther developed it in His Heidelberg theses, we have bumped continually into one paradox after another. We have seen the paradox that the cross of Christ is not only our goal, it is also our life on the way to the goal. We have seen the paradox that the law of God, which is God's most salutary, clear, and holy teaching about righteousness, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but in fact hinders their way to righteousness.

And there are more paradoxes yet to come. We meet two more tonight as we consider the Scriptural meaning of Luther's 3rd and 4th Theses: Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins. Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits."


Now, before you hear how these two paradoxes are, in fact, the Scriptural truth, it is good to understand how it is that we are running into one paradox after another in Luther's theses. The answer is a simple one, but one often missed, ignored, or denied in the Church. The fact is that God's revelation in and through Christ continually comes to you through paradox. Christ's revelation of Himself is a great paradox: Here we have one person who is, simultaneously, God and man. Christ's revelation of God is likewise a great paradox: God is one Divine Being, indivisible yet comprised of three distinct persons. Christ's revelation of the fallen human condition is a paradox:

You, I, and all humankind are born simultaneously alive, and yet spiritually dead. Christ's revelation of the Christian life is another paradox: Every Christian is, simultaneously, 100% saint and 100% sinner. And, tonight, we see that the Law of God is good and holy, and yet produces sin and death in fallen humankind; and, the works of God are always so unattractive to the supposedly discerning eyes of humans, even to the point of being despised by them, and yet these ugly and base works of God, done on a gory cross, and in plain water, and in bread and wine, and in words spoken by sinful men, yet remain eternal merits and the way in which God gets unsurpassable glory.

The plain fact is that God has chosen to reveal Himself in Divinely authorized and instituted paradox. Therefore, true Christian theology approaches God's revelation with a humble mind, bent on receiving God's truth in the very paradox in which God couches it, and determined not to mess with God's revelation by attempting to eliminate the paradox through the juggling acts of human reason and logic. True Christian theology receives what God has given, and delivers it to the faithful. True Christian theology is what Dr. Luther calls it: "the theology of the cross," in clear distinction and opposition to any other approach to God's Word, which Luther calls "the theology of glory." God's Word is rightly divided, understood, and delivered to you, if and only if it embraces and proclaims the paradox which is the theology of the cross.


In this light, your attention is invited to the two paradoxical statements that comprise Luther's 3rd and 4th Theses in his Heidelberg Disputation. The first, again is this: "Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins." Now, the first question to be faced is this: Is it true that the works of humans always seem attractive and good? Notice, when Luther here uses the word "works," he is not speaking about just anything that humans due, some of which is downright despicable, but rather he is using the term "works" as short-hand for "good works." You can thus clearly see that Luther is correct: The good works of humans always seem attractive and good! The common assumption, both on the streets and in the pews, is that religion is for bringing it about that people do good works. Or, to put it in terms that Luther uses, the common assumption is that religion is about making people righteous. 

And what is it that gives a measure, a standard of what is righteous? It is the Law of God. And the Law of God does a perfect job as the ultimate standard of what is righteous and what is unrighteous. It has God's own "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." That's why, through His apostle St. Paul, He calls the Law holy and good: "Therefore the Law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good."

Thus, both on the streets and in the pews, people expect religion to produce righteous persons according to the measure of God's Law. They think, because the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, just, and good, that it serves the job that they have, in their minds, assigned to the Church, namely, to make people righteous.

Now, here's the first paradox of the night: The Law doesn't do that! It doesn't produce righteousness. In fact, it produces the opposite. "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" [Romans 3:20]. "The law brings about wrath" [Romans 4:15]. "The law entered that the offense might abound" [Romans 5:20]. "The strength of sin is the law" [1 Cor. 15:56]. "By the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (i.e., "made righteous") [Galatians 2:16]. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse." [Galatians 3:10]. "That no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith'" [Galatians 3:11]. No wonder Jesus says, "none of you keeps the law" [John 7:19].

So, here is the first paradox of the evening: What appears good, according to the good Law of God, is not good, but rather is likely to be mortal sins. How might obeying the Law be a mortal sin? If the person doing according to the Law, doing good works, thinks that he or she is becoming righteous, then that person sins, because such thinking is a denial of the fact that only Christ makes people righteous. Righteousness comes from Him alone, not from the works of the Law.

So the Law is righteous, but, paradoxically, it does not, indeed cannot, produce righteousness in humankind. This is so because God does not intend the Law to produce righteousness. He intends it to expose sin, and when sin is exposed, humans become rebellious. This is why St. Paul says that "the Law brings about wrath" [Romans 4:15]. And this is why Luther declares, "Although the works of humans always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins."


This brings us to the second paradox, which is the flip-side of the coin of the first paradox: "Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits." Just as the man or woman on the street, and all too often the man or woman in the pew, view the outward appearance of righteous works as good, when in fact they are, as Isaiah says, "filthy rags" before God, even so they view the things of God as unattractive and even evil. People want a God who is impressive. They will tend even to take evil if it is impressive. Surely, if humans can do such impressive things, then God's works should even be more impressive. 

But God doesn't think or act that way! His greatest works are lowly, unimpressive, and even downright repulsive. God brings His miraculous, faith-creating power in simple, everyday water, called "Baptism." God brings His authorized Word of both judgment and forgiveness through the mouths of mortal, sinful men chosen by Him as spokesmen for Him. God brings the forgiveness of sins through consecrated bread and wine, and tells you that as you are eating and drinking this bread and wine you are really, truly, actually eating and drinking Christ's body and His blood. Yes, as Luther says, "the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil!" 

And the greatest of God's works is seen in the midst of literal blood, sweat, and tears, on a wooden cross outside Jerusalem. God's greatest work is the atonement for all sinners of all time, worked by the suffering and death of Christ, turning an ugly instrument of capital punishment into the holy cross. Yes, these lowly, repulsive happenings are the truly great works of God. And, they are the things to which the Law is intended point you. 

Tonight's paradoxes from the pen of Luther serve to point you to the cross, and to keep you there throughout your earthly life. In these paradoxes lies the wisdom of God that the world can never know. But they come to you, by grace, that you might see what others do not see, and rejoice in what others despise. Amen.

Steven A. Hein is currently Headmaster of Shepherd of the Springs Lutheran High School and the Director of Shepherd of the Springs Christian Institute in Colorado Springs, CO.  He was formerly Professor of Theology (24 years) at Concordia University-River Forest, IL.

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