The Heidelberg Disputation-Part 3

In this post, we continue our look at the Heidelberg Disputation by looking at Theses 3 and 4.

Thesis 3

Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.


Human works appear attractive outwardly, but within they are filthy, as Christ says concerning the Pharisees in Matt. 23[:27]. For they appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances but searches “the minds and hearts” [Ps. 7:9]. For without grace and faith it is impossible to have a pure heart. Acts 15[:9]: “He cleansed their hearts by faith.”

The thesis is proven in the following way: If the works of righteous men are sins, as Thesis 7 of this disputation states, this is much more the case concerning the works of those who are not righteous. But the just speak in behalf of their works in the following way: “Do not enter into judgment with thy servant, Lord, for no man living is righteous before thee” [Ps. 143:2]. The Apostle speaks likewise in Gal. 3 [:10], “All who rely on the works of the law are under the curse.” But the works of men are the works of the law, and the curse will not be placed upon venial sins. Therefore they are mortal sins.

In the third place, Rom. 2[:21] states, “You who teach others not to steal, do you steal?” St. Augustine interprets this to mean that men are thieves according to their guilty consciences even if they publicly judge or reprimand other thieves.

Thesis 4

Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.


That the works of God are unattractive is clear from what is said in Isa. 53[:2], “He had no form of comeliness,” and in 1 Sam. 2[:6], “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” This is understood to mean that the Lord humbles and frightens us by means of the law and the sight of our sins so that we seem in the eyes of men, as in our own, as nothing, foolish, and wicked, for we are in truth that. Insofar as we acknowledge and confess this, there is no form or beauty in us, but our life is hidden in God (i.e. in the bare confidence in his mercy), finding in ourselves nothing but sin, foolishness, death, and hell, according to that verse of the Apostle in 2 Cor. 6[:9-10], “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as dying, and behold we live.” And that it is which Isa. 28[:21] calls the alien work of God that he may do his work (that is, he humbles us thoroughly, making us despair, so that he may exalt us in his mercy, giving us hope), just as Hab. 3[:2] states, “In wrath remember ercy.” Such a man therefore is displeased with all his works; he sees no beauty, but only his ugliness. Indeed, he also does these things which appear foolish and disgusting to others.

This ugliness, however, comes into being in us either when God punishes us or when we accuse ourselves, as 1 Cor. 11[:31] says, “If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged” by the Lord. Deut. 32[:36] also states, “The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.” In this way, consequently, the unattractive works which God does in us, that is, those which are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit.

We look at these two theses together because they begin a series of contrasting theses discussing the works of man with the works of God.

Gerhard Forde contrasts these theses thusly:

3. The Works of Humans

  • Always look splendid
  • Appear to be good
  • Are nevertheless in a probability Mortal sins

4. The Works of God

  • Always look deformed
  • Appear to be bad
  • Are nevertheless in very truth Immortal merits

(Being a Theologian of the Cross, 31).


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