This morning our local pastors’ fellowship discussed On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Gerhard Forde’s commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. What a feast this was for the soul! I was converted all over again!
Luther caused no small stir with his informal “attack” on papal indulgences (the “Ninety-Five Theses”). Luther was asked to formally defend his views before his fellow (and supportive) Augustinian monks at their formal meeting in Heidelberg, Germany. He did so in April, 1518, the result of which is now immortalized as the Heidelberg Disputation. However, he did not address the content of the “Ninety-Five Theses” as expected. Instead he formulated another set of theses defending what was far more fundamental than indulgences. With 28 “theological theses” Luther defended the substance of the gospel itself expressed as a grace-based “theology of the cross” over against a works-based “theology of glory.” This disputation was arguably more important for the church than the Ninety-Five Theses.
Although all the theses are worthy of meditation, three in particular gripped me this morning.
Thesis #25: He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4.5). Despite how much we profess “faith” in Christ we’re ever tempted toward works-righteousness. Will I have done enough in the end? Perseverance is not simply lifelong obedience, but is the ongoing display of an enduring faith. We are “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pt 1.5). The question will not be if I’ve done enough but if I’ve believed the right thing.
The gospel (the theology of the cross) is so powerful that if you truly believe it then it will create what it demands (Rom 1.16). If I persistently believe the right thing then I will increasingly behave the right way. But my heart rebuts, “I’m still a screw up!” And I always will be in light of God’s glory. This is why we rejoice God doesn’t credit righteousness where it is due, but where Christ is believed.
Thesis #26: The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “Believe in this,” and everything is already done.
God’s pleasure forever rests in Jesus Christ whose obedience unto death (Phil 2.8) earned the Father’s favor once-and-for-all (Heb 7.27) for all those the Father gave him (Heb 2.13-15). God demands to be loved with all our heart, soul, mind and strength or else be damned. Who can do so? Jesus has loved God as God deserves and freely shares that Trinitarian love with those who believe (Jn 17.23, 26).
Thesis #28: The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.
In other words, we (man) love those things that demonstrate some inherent ability to please us. As we have no inherent ability to please God or merit his love, God creates what he can love. He makes us into the sort of people from whom he can derive pleasure.
God loves in us the reflection of his glory in Christ, implanted by the Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son supremely as there is nothing more lovable. And for him to love us as he’s promised he conforms us to Christ (Rom 8.29), so that we can share in the very thing that pleases him above all else. There is no greater pleasure in the universe than that which pleases God, and by our union with Christ God lets us share in that pleasure. God creates what is pleasing to him: people who reflect the excellencies of his Son.
The more we try to be worthy of that pleasure the less of it we will enjoy. The more we believe Christ has done all and is all, the more we experience God’s love.