Luther and the Heidelberg Disputation

The year 1517 is remembered as the year that the pendulum shifted in history and the Reformation began in full swing, and for good reason: This was the year that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. But it was in 1518, at the Heidelberg Disputation, where Luther had fuller opportunity to articulate some of his views, and where he began to more fully explain the doctrine of justification by faith alone. 

The Heidelberg Disputation’s Significance in History

Historically, a great deal happened and a ripple effect was started when on April 26, 1518, the Augustinian order held the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther, serving as a delegate for his order, was defending the 95 Theses. The catch was that Johann Staupitz, Luther’s superior who called the meeting, asked Luther to avoid some of the controversies created by the 95 Theses. Instead of speaking about the problems associated with things like indulgences, or the countless papal sins that could be named, Staupitz requested that Luther instead focus on issues like free will, justification, and faith. 

Though Luther had never formally received the theological debate he was hoping to have with the nailing of the 95 Theses, he obliged Staupitz's request. Ironically, what Luther defended here was perhaps more controversial than what he would have said otherwise. While it should have come as little surprise that he did hold to a thoroughly Augustinian view of free will, justification, and faith, the shockwaves sent out from the Heidelberg Disputation rocked the world with a cataclysmic force that Luther could hardly have anticipated.

In some ways, the audience that day was composed of a “who’s who” of Reformation history. Martin Bucer, who would become a great Reformer in his own right, sat in the crowd to listen to Luther’s defense. It was perhaps this moment that turned Bucer into one of Luther’s followers and helped produce the Reformer of Strasbourg (who later mentored the great John Calvin).

Whereas the 95 Theses were primarily concerned with the issue of indulgences (the Roman Catholic church's medieval practice of basically selling a spot in Heaven to the theologically duped), the Heidelberg 28 Theses revealed a considerable development in Luther's theological thought and argumentation. The issue was not solely the sale of indulgences, which were merely a symptom of a much greater problem. The true issue and disease that the Doctor now set out to address was the matter of how a man is justified before a holy God. 

Luther held to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. The Heidelberg Disputation provided the opportunity for him to more fully articulate and defend this Augustinian view of sovereign grace. Contra Rome’s teaching of justification by faith coupled with works of penance and sacraments, Luther superbly defended the Augustinian (Pauline) view of sovereign grace and free justification by faith alone in the Gospel of Christ. 

From here, the undeniable power of the Gospel was clearly proclaimed, and the light of the Reformation began to travel across the continent of Europe.

The Big Question

The Heidelberg 28 Theses can basically be summarized with the following two questions and answers: 

Question: How is a man justified before a holy God? 

Answer: By faith alone. 

Question: Does the faith that justifies a man remain forever alone? 

Answer: Faith alone justifies, and from the root of faith is produced genuine fruit of repentance and good works. 

Those two questions and answers above summarize not only Luther's 28 Theses, but much of the conflict between the Protestant view of justification and the Roman Catholic view of justification. While the majority of Protestants would affirm what is written above with a hearty, "Amen!," many Roman Catholics (and some confessing Protestants, even), would take issue with the doctrine of justification by faith alone. 

The alternative to the above is that a man is not justified by faith alone, but by faith and works. While those statements may read or sound similar, they are really two worlds apart. Either faith alone is the true instrument of our salvation, or faith must be coupled with works to secure redemption. If the former, then salvation is all of grace, and it is eternally secured in Christ. If the latter, then the best the Christian can hope for is possible salvation, if perhaps enough works are performed and God is pleased with the mortal in the final analysis.

Perhaps nothing could be more serious than this. Outside of the question, “Does God exist?” the most important question to ask is, “How can a man be justified before a holy God?” The answer changes everything by creating either assurance or fearfulness; peace or anxiety; love for God or hatred for the God who refuses to justify.

Luther later saw justification by faith alone as the doctrine upon which the church stands. To reject this doctrine is to cause the church to fall into an infinite abyss of uncertainty and dreadful fear. In fact, Luther expressed the heart of the one who denies, or misunderstands, justification by faith alone when he admitted that before he properly understood the gospel, he hated God:

"Is it not against all natural reason that God out of his mere whim deserts men, hardens them, damns them, as if he delighted in sins and in such torments of the wretched for eternity, he who is said to be of such mercy and goodness? This appears iniquitous, cruel, and intolerable in God, by which very many have been offended in all ages. And who would not be? I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!"

Luther’s honest assessment of his feelings before truly understanding justification by faith alone may be shared by many others, countless times over. If God does not freely justify according to His grace, and if He does not justify by faith alone, then mankind is doomed. No wonder Luther felt such strong animosity toward God!

The 28 Theses

To understand the great significance and importance of the Heidelberg Disputation, some of Luther's statements must be taken into consideration from his 28 Theses

Luther wisely began his 28 Theses by expressing his complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit to lead him into truth, knowing that human wisdom or cunning would be of no avail in this dispute over the matters of justification. He then immediately leads into the first of the Theses stating that, “1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” Here, Luther makes his intentions clearly known: He is going to argue that works do not contribute to the state of the sinner’s justification. The only logical conclusion from here must be to defend faith alone as the sole instrument of justification.

If faith is the instrument, however, the question must then center around the role of the sinner’s will. Is man free to believe in God? Can he believe in God on his own? What role, then, does free will have? Luther answers in his thirteenth statement that, “13. Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.” In other words, the will is free to do what it is bound to do by nature. Thus, left to his own devices, the sinner is only capable of sinning, for his will is bound to his nature which has been enslaved to sin.

The only hope for the sinner’s nature to be free from enslavement to sin and his will to be cut loose from its bondage to wickedness is for the grace of God to enter upon him in a sovereign way. This, Luther explains, is what happens when the sinner recognizes his helpless and deplorable condition before God: “18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” And, again, Luther insists that the Law cannot save: “23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4.15].”

So, what is man to do? Where is he to turn? The answer is, and always has been, Christ. Sinners must turn to Christ, as Luther so powerfully states: “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.” Salvation depends on the finished work of Jesus Christ, since the sinner has no good works of his own to contribute.

It is in Theses 28, however, that Luther penned one of the most important and beautiful sentences he contributed to Reformed thought: “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.” 

Here’s the most beautiful truth of all to come from the Heidelberg Disputation: Not only is man saved through faith alone in Christ alone, but it is the sovereign and loving grace of God that transforms the wretched sinner into a blessed saint, upon whom God sets His eternal affections. The saint now possesses good works, not to contribute to or uphold his salvation, but precisely because God has lovingly transformed and saved him through the gospel.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two sons.  He is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace, releasing late 2022.

Related Links

"The God of the Cross" by Carl Trueman

"Elders at the Reformation" by Vern Poythress

"Luther and Calvin's Quiet Discussions in Heaven" by Nick Batzig

Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Carl Trueman

Church History by Simonetta Carr

p/c Khaled Ali