by Charles Fry /
TWO OUTWORKINGS OF THE TRUE GOSPEL, Part 1
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise;
and God hath chosen the weak things of the world
to confound the things which are mighty;
And base things of the world, and things which are
despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not,
to bring to naught things that are;
That no flesh should glory in his presence.
1 Corinthians 1:27–29 (KJV)
Around A.D. 50 the apostle Paul completed his missionary visit to Athens. He then looked to the western horizon and began his journey to Corinth, a city of power and pride. He had confidently determined to arrive in Corinth with only one weapon in his arsenal: the word of the cross, the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB).
A short time after leaving the Corinthian church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul wrote to the factious and proud believers of Corinth, rebuking them and reminding them that the gospel leaves no room for arrogance and is diametrically opposed to the so-called “wisdom of the world.” The gospel message, its application by God’s sovereign decree, and the peculiar choice of those whom God would call by it, left no room for pride. Indeed, the gospel permitted “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29, KJV).
Just as Paul faced a city of pride with the “foolish” and “weak” message of the cross, so did Martin Luther face a wall of pride in the Holy Roman Empire and her ally, the Roman Catholic Church. It was a world of religious arrogance and self-effort. Luther came to discover the true gospel from the Word of God and, like Paul, was convinced that the gospel gave all glory to God, leaving man humbled. God humbles and strikes the whole world not so much by cataclysmic events, but rather by a weak and foolish message! As Luther noted from the pulpit, “The gospel which (Jesus) placed into the mouths of the apostles is the sword by which he smites the world like thunder and lightning.”[i]
Luther loved the message of the cross. Many of his writings highlight the gospel’s ability to expose man’s depravity, humble his pride, and free him to produce genuine fruit for the glory of God. Earlier in this series, we observed Luther’s personal encounter with the gospel. We also gave attention to what he recognized to be the gospel message.
In this and subsequent posts, we will see how the gospel message gives all glory to God. We will also see something of the ruckus that occurred as Luther took the gospel in his hands to battle the world. While also drawing from other sources, this subseries on the outworkings of the true gospel will focus on four of Luther’s works: The Heidelberg Disputation (1518), The Freedom of the Christian (1520), Lectures on Galatians 1–4 (1535), and Against the Antinomians (1539).
The Gospel Exposes Man’s Inability and Humbles His Pride
In sixteenth century Europe, as we saw previously, the splendor, pomp, and pride of the Renaissance had sunk its roots deep into the Roman Church. Medieval Christianity’s mysticism, zeal, and perfectionistic teaching merged with the Renaissance’s pride of human achievement. The result was a secular vision of man as a creature of great power, freedom, wisdom, goodness, and nobility. This produced an atmosphere of religious fervor filled with sacrifice, self-purgation, and man-made systems of merit aimed at gaining access to heaven.
Luther did not miss the tragedy of such thinking, and dedicated himself to exposing it for what it truly was—a sham and an illusion. As we mentioned previously, early in his career (1518) Luther presented his Heidelberg Disputation to a group of Augustinian monks in Heidelberg, Germany. In it he outlined two categories of thinking he had observed in the Scriptures: the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. It could be argued that it was here, in beginning form, that all the rest of Luther’s theology would be found.
Church historian W. Robert Godfrey summarizes Luther’s teaching found in the Heidelberg Disputation:
He came to talk about the Roman Church’s theology of glory: the glory of the use of the human mind and reason to understand theology, the glory of the human experience in gaining merit before God to attain salvation. This theology of glory he contrasted with the theology of the cross where a man comes to recognize that his own mind could not bring him to the truth and his own works could not bring him to God. Only on the cross, the ultimate place of foolishness, was God to be found… Where ought God to be? He ought to be found in the beauty of nature, in the glories of this world. But God was not to be found there. Rather, he was to be found on the cross.[ii]
Theses 16–21 of the Disputation explain the core of Luther’s argument:
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. 17. Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ. 18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ. 19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which [have been created]. 20. That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross. 21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.[iii]
In theses 25 and 26, the beginning of Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone makes its appearance, confronting efforts to be justified before God by keeping the law: “25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ. 26. The law says ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”
Elsewhere, Luther wrote concerning the arrogance of the one who trusted his own righteousness:
To trust in works… is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work. But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself in one’s own works, and to adore oneself as an idol. He who is self-confident and without the fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner. For if he had fear he would not be self-confident, and for this reason he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.[iv]
Part 17 of an extended series drawn from A World Upside Down: The Life and Theology of Martin Luther, by Charles E. Fry.
Chuck Fry holds degrees from Marshall University, Moody Bible Institute, and Christ College. He has been in discipleship ministry since 1989 and is on staff with The Navigators in Huntington, West Virginia. He and his wife, Lisa, organize and host the annual Majesty of God conference, held each April.[i] Festival of Christ’s Nativity, Fifth Sunday, December 27, 1532, in Sermons, 247.
[ii] W. Robert Godfrey, Reformation Sketches (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 12, 13.
[iii] The version of The Heidelberg Disputation used for this series is found in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 1997.
[iv] Quoted in Forde, 39, 40.