Theologians Priests and Kings

Chapter 2 of  Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom Copyright © 2015 by Carl R. Trueman

All I want is to enter my house justified. - JOEL MCCREA, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY

The Heidelberg Disputation

In chapter 1, I briefly noted that shortly after he became a controversial figure through his call for a debate on indulgences, Luther had an opportunity to present a more positive exposition of his theology at a meeting of the Augustinian Order in the city of Heidelberg in April 1517. At this meeting, called to transact regular order business, Luther presided at a disputation in which a colleague, Leonhard Beier, defended a set of theses that Luther had prepared in advance.

The event has come to be known as the Heidelberg Disputation, and it can be regarded as one of the theologically foundational events for later Lutheranism. The debate consisted of forty theses, the first twenty-eight being theological, and the last twelve being philosophical and particularly concerned with the damaging influence of Aristotelianism on Christian theology. In many ways, the theses represent an extension and elaboration of the positions adumbrated in the Disputation against Scholastic Theology of September 1517.

At the heart of the theology elaborated that day is one of the most famous distinctions Luther makes, and one that is of fundamental importance to his theology in general: that between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross. He defines these in theses 19 and following, but before we can understand what Luther means by this somewhat enigmatic terminology, it is important to understand how it fits into the overall argument of the disputation.

Luther starts the disputation by examining the role of God’s law. The foundation is laid in the first two theses, which propose that the law of God is indeed salutary and good but that it is not able to advance human beings toward salvation (thesis 1), and that good works are even less capable of achieving that end (thesis 2). These theses summarize Luther’s new theological convictions, which had emerged as a result of his immersion in the writings of Paul in the immediately preceding years. God is righteous and his law is an expression of his holy character, but human beings are incapable of making themselves worthy in his sight. The next pair of theses draws epistemological conclusions from this foundation: human works appear attractive but are actually “likely to be mortal sins” (thesis 3). Luther means here that human works seem to us to be worthy of God’s acceptance but are in fact as filthy rags before him. There is a disconnect between our perception of their merit and the reality, which points toward the moral nature of human knowledge. The same is true, in reverse, of God’s works, which appear sinful to human beings but are actually meritorious before God (thesis 4).

Thesis 5 is, on the surface, a quite confusing statement: “The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.”1 Luther’s own published explanation of this thesis is that mortal sins, those which damn us before God, are not what we might think—outrageous acts such as adultery or murder—but rather any acts, even those which seem good, that flow from a sinful heart.2 Luther is both deepening the understanding of what constitutes sin and at the same time pointing to the profound epistemological corruption to which human beings are subject. We might say that he is emphasizing that the theologies we create for ourselves are false in that they fail to understand the seriousness of the fallen human condition. This is reinforced in thesis 6, which declares that the works God does through human beings are not meritorious.

This latter point is, of course, crucial for Luther’s mature Protestant theology. In the system of the via moderna the one who does what is in him or her receives grace on the basis of congruent, not condign, merit. Now for Luther the work that God does through human beings can never be strictly meritorious in a condign sense. As he comments in his explanation of this thesis, human beings are like damaged and defective tools, and however perfect the workman might be, any work he does with such implements is inevitably flawed.3

Theses 7 to 12 further elaborate the issue of mortal sin, specifically in relation to human attitudes toward and understanding of good works. Luther’s key if somewhat paradoxical point here is that it is precisely those works which we do not regard as mortal sins that are in fact mortal and soul damning. Here we see the emergence of a constant theme in Luther’s theology: the fear of self-righteousness. It is of a piece with his theology of humility: if it is only as we completely despair of our own works and cast ourselves onto God’s mercy in all humility that we are made right with him, then our attitude toward our own works will be a key indicator of how real that humility is. The true Christian lives in a place of great tension: fear of God as righteous and holy is central to understanding the unrighteousness of our own works. With logic reminiscent of the old saying that the wise man is the one who knows that he knows nothing, thesis 12 captures Luther’s understanding of works well: in the sight of God, sins are then truly venial when they are feared by men to be mortal.4

In theses 13–15, Luther now draws out the conceptual framework for what he has said thus far by attacking the notion of free will. Luther does believe in post-fall free will, but only insofar as it is able to do evil. There is no active disposition of the human will toward the good, only a passive one. As a corpse can stand only in a passive relationship toward the possibility of life, so we stand only in a passive relationship toward God. This is the inference of his changed understanding of baptism: if baptism is about cleansing, then there is some active principle in the subject of baptism toward the good; but if, as Luther has become convinced that Paul taught, baptism is about death and resurrection, then the subjects of baptism are, like Lazarus, utterly and passively dependent upon the unilateral and sovereign action of God.

In 1525, this would form part of the debate with Erasmus, when Luther responded to his Diatribe on Free Will with his own masterpiece of theological polemic, The Bondage of the Will. As mentioned earlier, this, along with his two catechisms, was one of the few works Luther considered worthy of outliving him. He also famously thanked Erasmus in the work for being the only one who had actually engaged him on the point on which all the rest of his Reformation theology turned.5 Thus, it is important that we understand the structural importance of the bondage of the will to Luther’s overall theological project.

The bondage of the post-fall will is foundational for Christian certainty, for how can we ever be certain of our salvation if even a fraction of it depends upon ourselves, weak, sinful, and vacillating as we are? Here, in the Heidelberg Disputation, it undergirds all that Luther has thus far said about good works and, indeed, intensifies the point: good works are an impossibility not just because our wills are corrupted; they are an impossibility because our wills are utterly bound to sinful ends.

This leads Luther to the most directly polemical thesis so far, number 16: “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.”6

This thesis is a fearsome attack on the theology Luther learned from his medieval masters. The language used is clearly associated with the pactum theology of Gabriel Biel and the via moderna, and the conclusion Luther draws could scarcely be more offensive: such theology involves a compounding of humanity’s sinful state. There is no ground for compromise or for agreeing to differ at this point: Luther has made his position very clear and allowed himself no escape route from confrontation. He then proceeds to reject a potential false inference from this by stating that such a manner of speaking does not lead to despair (thesis 17) but actually paves the way for the abject humility that is the precondition for receiving the grace of Christ (thesis 18).

This brings Luther to the point where he makes the famous distinction between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. In short, this distinction rests upon a view of salvation that assumes various truths. First, he radicalizes sin such that it is equivalent to being morally dead before God, as revealed to us by the holy law of God. Second, the will is entirely impotent for salvation. Third, the rejection of these basic truths is a moral issue that itself involves the compounding of sin and guilt before God.

The Two Theologians

Against this background Luther now introduces one of his most famous theological distinctions:

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 actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.7

The theology of these theses is an extraordinarily rich starting point for reflection upon Luther’s theology in general, and it has very particular implications for his understanding of the Christian life. It is important at the outset to note that he does not speak here of an abstract theology of the cross, even though the term “theology of the cross”—or, more pompously, theologia crucis—occurs with some frequency in discussions of Luther. Instead, Luther speaks of theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. That is a reminder that he is not speaking here about something that can be reduced to the level of an intellectual technique or method. Theology is thought by real, embodied people, and it is thus a part of what makes them who they are. Theology (as the act of theologizing) and anthropology are thus indissolubly connected.

Before returning to this last point, we should note the theological points underlying Luther’s statement. First, he is making a plea for theology based on God’s revelation of himself. In terms of the objective sources of theology, the distinction turns upon the theologian’s identification of the sources for knowledge of God. The mistake the theologian of glory makes is to think that the way the world appears to be is actually an accurate account of who God is.

As we will note below, this clearly connects to Luther’s understanding of justification. It is sufficient here to note that the world around us operates on the basis of reciprocity: those who do good are the ones who consequently receive a reward; those who do evil receive punishment. Thus, by identifying the world around us as providing the basic criteria for understanding the actions of God, the theologian of glory assumes that the same dynamic exists between human beings and the Creator in matters of salvation. In short, if I want God to look with kindness upon me, then I need to do something good to earn his favor.

The theologian of the cross, by contrast, draws his understanding of God from looking at how God has revealed himself in the place where God has chosen to do so. On this point, Luther exhibits considerable continuity with the theology of the via moderna. Late medieval voluntarism accented, from a human perspective, the priority of God’s will in determining God’s actions. This was an important epistemological development, as it preserved the otherness of God’s actions. From the perspective of human knowledge, it made God’s actions unpredictable in advance of how he had actually revealed himself to act. Thus, in stressing the need for what we might call special revelation in order to understand salvation, Luther builds here on his medieval training: if one wishes to know how God acts, one must look at how God has revealed to us that he will act.

Yet even as he develops this late medieval emphasis on revelation, Luther goes further than his medieval masters, intensifying this point in two ways. First, he has made it clear from the argument of the earlier theses that he regards the distinction between theologians as having not simply an epistemological dimension but also a moral one. Indeed, we might say that Luther has made epistemology a moral issue. Anything less than Luther’s view of the moral death that sin involves and the moral bondage that thus flows from it compounds sin. Those who do not despair but who think that doing what is in them will lead God to give them grace are actually engaged in a sinful act of rebellious self-deception. Luther’s theology here connects to that of Paul in Romans 1. For his medieval masters, knowledge of God was essentially an epistemological issue: because God is omnipotent, he appears from a human perspective to be unpredictable; thus, his revelation binds him to being a certain kind of God toward us. The moral crisis of sin does not have a great impact on this picture. For Luther, it is not simply God’s apparent unpredictability that makes it necessary to pay attention to how he has revealed himself; it is the fact that human beings are dead in sin and ever inclined to invent a god who conforms to their expectations.

This is clear in the second way in which he goes beyond the teaching of his medieval masters: he focuses the revelation of God on the crucifixion of Christ on the cross. Of course, Luther does not reduce God’s revelation to the cross in such a manner that God is not revealed elsewhere, but he does make it the fundamental criterion for the theology of the gospel, in light of which God’s revelation as a whole must be understood. The fact that God humbled himself, took flesh, and died a painful death via a method typically reserved for the scum of the earth is itself a powerful revelation of who God actually is and how he acts. Christ’s hanging on the cross is constitutive of the very identity of God toward fallen human beings. Further, by setting the cross at the center, Luther reinforces the fact that the knowledge of God is a moral issue. For him, epistemology is not something that can be abstracted from the moral stance of the knowing subject. In short, in line with Paul’s teaching, Luther sees theology as a function of a person’s basic moral orientation.

We might note that what Luther says at Heidelberg stands in particularly positive relation to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. There the cross is presented as the moral and epistemological test for the human race, with responses to the cross placing human beings in one of two camps. That Jews sees the cross as an offense and Greeks see it as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23) actually reveals the state of their hearts and their attitudes toward Jesus Christ and his gospel: they are perishing because they fail to see the cross for what it is, the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). Their respective interpretations of the cross are no doubt grounded in their own cultural contexts, but these contexts explain only the specifics of their views and do not excuse, relativize, or legitimize them. They are still perishing. In short, the Jews and the Greeks refuse to accept God on his own terms, as he has revealed himself; they instead demand that he must be measured by their own cultural criteria. It is only those who start with the cross and accept that it is what God has declared it to be—the power of God for salvation—rather than what it appears outwardly to be—the execution of a filthy sinner—who are being saved.

This distinction has both theological and existential implications for Luther. Theologically, it demands a basic rethinking of vocabulary in light of the cross. This is the teaching of thesis 21, where Luther plays with the language of good and evil. The theologian of glory appears to call things what they are because his sinful nature causes him to operate within the canons of meaning operative in the world around him; but the cross stands as a contradiction of these canons and thus requires a counterintuitive use of standard vocabulary when applied to God and his actions. Luther presses this point home in thesis 22, where he defines such theological errors as having their origin in humanity’s basic sinfulness and rebellion.8

Theologians—whether of glory or the cross—use words to express their beliefs. For Luther, the conceptual content of these words needs to be defined by the act of God’s revelation that takes place in Jesus Christ upon the cross. Thus, the theologian of glory will no doubt understand the word power, when applied to God, as referring to something analogous to a king’s power: imposing and coercive. Yet the theologian of the cross gives the word different content: power is there revealed in and through weakness. Then there is the idea of wisdom. The theologian of glory will understand wisdom in terms set by the world around, perhaps seeing it as intelligence or the knowledge of how to play the system. The theologian of the cross understands wisdom in terms of the incarnate God hanging weak and broken on a cross: a contradiction of all that the wise of the world around us would expect from the sovereign Creator. The theologian of glory will understand righteousness as an outward, visible quality constituted by good works. The theologian of the cross sees it in the one who is sinless yet made sin for others. The theologian of glory sees life and death as antitheses, and the latter as something to be avoided. The theologian of the cross understands that death is actually the gateway to true life.

Later in his career, while commenting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther makes this comment:

But true Christian theology, as I often warn you, does not present God to us in His majesty, as Moses and other teachings do, but Christ born of the Virgin as our Mediator and High Priest. Therefore when we are embattled against the Law, sin, and death in the presence of God, nothing is more dangerous than to stray into heaven with our idle speculations, there to investigate God in His incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty, to ask how He created the world and how He governs it. If you attempt to comprehend God this way and want to make atonement to Him apart from Christ the Mediator, making your works, fasts, cowl, and tonsure the mediation between Him and yourself, you will inevitably fall, as Lucifer did (Is. 14:12), and in horrible despair lose God and everything. For as in His own nature God is immense, incomprehensible, and infinite, so to man’s nature He is intolerable. Therefore if you want to be safe and out of danger to your conscience and your salvation, put a check on this speculative spirit. Take hold of God as Scripture instructs you (1 Cor. 1:21, [23–]24): “Since, in wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Therefore begin where Christ began—in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, and at His mother’s breasts. For this purpose He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty.9

This is really an extension and elaboration of the understanding of the theologian of the cross. God in his majesty, apart from the flesh of Christ, is a terrifying, unknowable, powerful God before whom no fallen human can stand. The terror of coming before this God is the terror induced by trying to build a relationship with him on the basis of law and thus to make God’s perfect righteousness and naked power the context for approaching him. The idea of the incarnation is utter foolishness, for it contradicts all expectation of what a powerful, terrifying God would do. Yet it is there—in the weakness of human flesh, and especially in the supreme moment of that flesh’s weakness, the agonizing death on the cross—that God has come to his people as a God of grace and tender mercy.

This is where Luther sees the law as playing a key role: the law—that expression of God’s holiness, a standard utterly unattainable by any sinful human being—is good and necessary because it is the great reminder of human limitations and of the inability of men and women to aspire to God in their own power. Luther makes this clear at Heidelberg. Neither in their thoughts nor in their actions are people commensurable with the divine, and the law operates to keep that continually before our gaze; and only in the context of the cross can this be properly understood (theses 23 and 24).

Before noting the greatest piece of theological redefinition demanded by Luther’s use of the cross as the criterion for theological vocabulary, we should also note that this also has significance for the believer’s life in terms of both expectations and experience. We shall return to this point in later chapters, but it is important to understand that the theology of the Heidelberg Disputation has implications not simply for the morality of Christian epistemology but also for the nature of the Christian life as a whole.

Redefining God’s Love

Luther’s radical redefinition of theological vocabulary demanded by the cross involves nothing short of a virtual inversion of meaning. This is most evident in the last of the theological theses. In fact, while the distinction between the two kinds of theologians has tended to grip the imagination of subsequent generations, the greatest thesis, the capstone of the whole Heidelberg theology, is arguably 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.”10 Immediately prior to this, theses 25 and 26 adumbrate Luther’s mature understanding of justification by faith: the doing of the law is seen as woefully inadequate as a means of being right with God and is contrasted with simply resting on God’s Word by faith.11 This is followed by thesis 27, which states that Christ’s work is an active work, and our work in salvation should therefore be regarded as a passive, accomplished work. This then provides the platform for the thesis on God’s love.

Here the glory-cross antithesis undergirds the distinction between human and divine love. Human love, Luther claims, is reactive: it responds to something intrinsically attractive in an object, which consequently draws it out. In other words, human love is attracted to what it first finds lovely. When a husband recalls the moment he fell in love with his wife, he remembers that he saw something intrinsically attractive within her—perhaps her physical beauty or her charming personality—and his heart was moved to love her. There was something in the object of his love that existed prior to his love and drew him toward her. This is the basic dynamic of human love; but we must remember that the revelation of God on the cross inverts such human logic.

Thus, divine love, by contrast, is not reactive but creative: God does not find that which is lovely and then move out in love toward it; something is made lovely by the fact that God first sets his love upon it. He does not look at sinful human beings and see among the mass of people some who are intrinsically more righteous or holy than others and thus find himself attracted to them. Rather, the lesson of the cross is that God chooses that which is unlovely and repulsive, unrighteous and with no redeeming quality, and lavishes his saving love in Christ upon it.

It is arguable that Luther never wrote a more profound or beautiful sentence than the first part of thesis 28. A moment of reflection indicates that it contains in embryonic form much of his mature Reformation theology. For example, given his position (already stated in earlier theses) on the impotence of the human will, it is theologically necessary that God take the sovereign, unilateral initiative in salvation. This thesis defines the content of the love of God in precisely such anti-Pelagian terms. Theologians often express God’s sovereignty and predestination in somewhat abstract terms. Here, Luther articulates a doctrine of God’s love that provides a framework for both with accents on the personal.


No doctrine is more commonly associated with the name of Martin Luther than justification by grace through faith. We noted in chapter 1 how a combination of his own existential issues, his exegetical studies of Scripture (especially the letters of Paul), and the wider politics of the European church all conspired to throw this obscure German monk and professor from an obscure university into the center of the great ecclesiastical drama of his time. And right at the doctrinal center of that drama was his notion of justification.

In the medieval understanding, justification was a process of growing righteous via the impartation of Christ’s righteousness connected to the infusion of grace via the sacramental ministry of the church. Thus, justification was simply one part of a much larger structure. Strictly speaking, Luther could not be heretical on justification prior to the decrees on the doctrine approved by the Council of Trent at its sixth session in 1547, the year after Luther died. Before that—during the whole of Luther’s lifetime!—the church really had no official position on the doctrine. Yet Luther’s teaching on the topic had been highly controversial for many years. This was because his understanding of justification, rooted as it was in a divine declaration, undercut the significance of the sacraments and thus of the priesthood and, by implication, the papacy. It also had ethical implications that his Catholic opponents feared: if sinners are simply declared righteous, will they not be free to behave in any manner they choose?

Luther’s mature understanding of justification by grace through faith emerges clearly in his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of the Christian Man. In a manner reminiscent of the cross, where outward appearance contradicts inward reality, Luther builds his argument in this treatise on the notion that human beings can be considered both as outer and as inner. This allows apparently contradictory things to be asserted about one and the same person.12 Thus, a man may appear outwardly righteous (before the world) but in reality be inwardly unrighteous. Likewise, he may appear outwardly unrighteous and indeed despicable but inwardly be perfectly righteous before God. This distinction is absolutely basic to Luther’s understanding of justification, for it is the basis upon which he asserts that no external thing (in terms of works righteousness) can actually affect standing before God.

For Luther, therefore, what makes the difference between the one who is justified and the one who remains in a state of sin is not infusion of grace or a slow transformation of moral being through the sacramental tutelage of the church. Rather it is grasping the Word of God by faith. We noted earlier how Luther in 1517, and even on into 1518, was committed to seeing humility as the key that made someone a passive recipient of God’s grace. By 1520, humility had been absorbed into, and transformed by, his broader understanding of faith as trust in God’s Word.

Such faith assumes humility, in that the Christian’s life involves despair of one’s own righteousness and repentance toward God; but it also involves the positive grasping of God’s revelation of his gospel in the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in the promises that Christ embodies. One thing only is necessary for righteousness, Luther declares near the start of the treatise, and that thing is the Word of God.13 This means that Luther’s understanding of the Christian life is very different at a practical level from that of late medieval Catholicism. As we will see in the next chapter, the centrality of the Word has implications for how the Christian life is understood and then lived.

Luther uses dramatic language to speak of the power of faith in the matter of justification. When faith grasps the Word, the power of the Word is imparted to the believer as heat is imparted to an iron placed in fire.14 Then, faith gives the greatest honor possible to Christ by ascribing to him truth and trustworthiness.15 Finally, and supremely, faith in God’s Word unites the believer to Christ and thus provides the context for what Luther calls the joyful exchange, whereby the believer’s sins are passed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is passed to the believer. Using his favored image of the bride and the groom, Luther gives a famous description of this in The Freedom of the Christian Man:

The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31–32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage—indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?16

This joyful exchange indicates that Luther’s thinking on justification is in one sense driven very much by the late medieval notion of divine declaration. As the one who did what was in him was extrinsically declared by God to have merited grace even though intrinsically he did not merit it, so the one who has faith receives Christ’s righteousness as an extrinsically declared reality parallel to Christ’s reception of the believer’s sin. As Christ died on the cross not because he was intrinsically sinful but rather because our sins were imputed to him, so the believer is declared righteous not because he is intrinsically righteous but rather because he receives Christ’s righteousness by imputation. The whole matter is rooted in the external declaration of God, based upon the union of Christ and the believer. Luther calls this justifying righteousness, received by faith, alien righteousness.17

There are, however, significant differences between Luther’s position and that of his medieval teachers. For them the instrument of justification was ultimately the sacraments. It is true that late medieval theology, with its emphasis upon the pactum, might be seen to have weakened that point: the necessity of the sacrament seemed thereby to have been subordinated to God’s decree and to the individual’s effort; but even in the circles of the via moderna, the importance of the sacrament was still maintained, however inconsistently. Further, medieval teachers regarded God’s declaration that a person was in a state of grace as the foundation for actual consequent meritorious righteousness; thus justification remained a process by which the Christian became more and more actually, intrinsically, righteous over time.

For Luther, however, faith is the instrument, and there is no place for merit, either before or after the individual comes to trust in God’s Word and be united to Christ. Justifying righteousness is alien righteousness, and justification is always the extrinsic declaration of God, not based upon any intrinsic quality. Further, while Luther does regard the sacraments as important, they are not strictly speaking necessary for salvation, since faith is the one thing needful in this regard.18 As we shall see in chapter 6, Luther’s theology of justification led him to a fundamental reconstruction, theologically and liturgically, of the sacraments.

Simul Justus et Peccator

One phrase that Luther used to characterize his understanding of justification is simul justus et peccator, Latin for “simultaneously righteous and a sinner.” The phrase plays off of the classic Lutheran opposition between outward appearance and inward reality. The cross is again the supreme example of this: outwardly, Christ appears to be a sinner and cursed, though inwardly he is actually the only perfect man who ever lived and is blessed by the Father. By contrast, the religious rulers who gather at the cross that day are outwardly righteous (they are, after all, the religious elite) but inwardly sinful (they are responsible before God for the death of the Christ).

This notion is crucial to one’s understanding of Luther. All human beings, the Christian and the non-Christian, are simultaneously righteous and sinners. The non-Christian, the theologian of glory, is righteous in his own eyes and, quite probably, in the eyes of the world around him. Any who are confident that, though not perfect, they will still be found acceptable by God on the day of judgment would be great examples of such. Christians, by way of contrast, know that they stand as sinful and condemned already, and that there is nothing in them that will lead to anything other than condemnation when they stand before God’s throne. There is also a sense in which all Christians are people divided against themselves: clothed in the righteousness of Christ and yet always striving to justify themselves by their own righteousness. That inner conflict is part of the very essence of what it means to be a Christian in a fallen world this side of glory. As we will see in chapter 7, this is one reason why the law remains a permanent part of the arsenal of the Christian.

Numerous other aspects of justification need to be addressed. For example, how does the individual come to faith? And what place do good works have in the Christian life? These will be best addressed in subsequent chapters. There are, however, two further foundational points to make before we move on to more specific discussion of the theological practicalities of Christianity: the priesthood and kingship of all believers.

Priesthood and Kingship

At the heart of Luther’s earliest Reformation battles in 1518 and 1519 lay a basic distrust and dislike of what the formal priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church represented. There was significant anticlericalism in the northern European air at this point anyway, and Luther’s salvoes against priestly elitism played very well with the crowds.

By 1520, however, his critique of the priesthood was becoming much more theologically grounded. The debate with Eck at Leipzig in 1519 had brought matters of church authority to the fore in his mind, as the practical implications of his protest against indulgences and the theological implications of his emerging understanding of salvation became clearer. Thus, his three great writings of 1520, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, The Freedom of the Christian Man, and An Appeal to the German Nobility, all in different ways offered critiques of church power and alternative approaches to the various issues addressed.

In The Freedom of the Christian Man, Luther draws out most clearly the implications of the cross as the criterion for theology as it relates to the self-understanding of the Christian. We noted above that the cross demands a counterintuitive inversion of meaning in standard terms when applied to the gospel. Power is seen in weakness, wisdom in foolishness, and so forth. As the believer is united to Christ and thus is to understand her identity in light of that union, thus her understanding is to be transformed too.

For Calvin and later Reformed theology, Christ’s office of Mediator is typically divided into three: prophet, priest, and king.19 Luther, however, divides the office of Mediator into two: priest and king.20 Priests sacrifice and offer prayers; kings rule. Crucially, of course, Christ’s priesthood and kingship need to be refracted through the revelation of the cross: Christ sacrifices himself and offers prayers for those who are his enemies; and his kingship is inaugurated not through the expected routing of his enemies but through his surprise submission to the will of his enemies and then to death itself.

Luther makes a provocative statement at the start of The Freedom of the Christian Man, which would appear at first glance incomprehensible:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.21

In many ways this is vintage Luther: a dramatic, paradoxical statement that immediately grabs the reader’s attention. To juxtapose lordship and servitude in such a way seems to be playing with words. In fact, of course, it is entirely consistent with Luther’s developing theology since it rests upon three basic theological assumptions: the cross is the criterion for theology; Christ is Lord, king, ruler; the Christian is united to Christ by faith.

Using 1 Peter 2:9 as textual support, Luther argues that all believers, united to Christ, are part of a royal priesthood and thus can be counted as kings and priests.22 This must then be understood within the context of both the cross of Christ and Luther’s related anthropology, which makes the clear distinction between the outward and the inward. Inwardly, by faith, the Christian rules over all things in the sense that nothing can happen to him that will harm him; moreover, all things, even the most evil, must actually serve to further his salvation (Rom. 8:28).23 This point has powerful ethical significance.

First, it preempts any ambition Christians or the church may have to earthly, coercive power. This is not to say that Christians cannot hold high office in the state or become significant and powerful figures in their earthly callings, as we shall see in chapter 8. It is, however, to make clear that the Christian as a Christian has a power that is to be conceived of in cross-shaped terms, and the church, as the body of believers, is also to see its power and its role in a spiritual manner.

Second, it makes Christ the ethical paradigm for Christianity. Christ as example has been a commonplace throughout Christian history and in Luther’s own day was central to the thinking of his greatest polemical opponent, Desiderius Erasmus. What Luther does, however, is make union with Christ the foundation for Christ as example and then make Christ’s sufferings and death central to this exemplary role in a profoundly existential manner: because the believer is united to Christ, suffering is inevitable. Christian power in this context—indeed, Christian liberty—means that all this suffering, all these persecutions, all these painful wounds inflicted on body and mind by the forces of evil, can make no impact upon the state of the Christian’s soul and in fact are harnessed to work to his ultimate salvation. For Luther, Christ is the great example of this: a life marked by suffering and rejection, culminating in death at the hands of deadly enemies, was in fact the means by which he inaugurated his kingdom.24 Christian kingship thus means an analogous life experience for those united to Christ. Indeed, in his treatise On the Councils of the Church (1539), Luther will make the cross—that is, suffering—one of the seven outward marks of the true church.25

If Christians as “lords of all” means that suffering and evil are subverted for the believer’s good, Luther regards priesthood as an even greater privilege. The church of Luther’s day made the priesthood an elite caste that actually held the power of salvation because it alone had the authority and the power to administer the sacraments. Yet, Luther argues, united to Christ, all believers are priests. This raises the immediate question, Is Luther simply universalizing the established pattern of medieval priesthood? Of course, this is not his meaning; again, “Christ on the cross” as the criterion of theology demands that the notion of priesthood be remade in accordance with this theological reality. Thus, priesthood for the believer means that we, through our union with Christ, can now appear in God’s presence and intercede for others. In reformulating the notion of earthly priesthood, Luther has removed the sacrificial aspect of the role, as this is fulfilled in Christ, and instead focused on the ongoing intercession that now takes place.26

This latter concept, often known as “the priesthood of all believers” or “the general priesthood of all believers” was explosive in Luther’s day because it struck at the very structure of medieval piety. By demolishing the notion of a special, sacramental priesthood, Luther effectively demolished the ecclesiology of his day. It was also a notion that would become increasingly controversial and problematic within Protestant ranks. One obvious question it raised was, Is there any need for a special, clerical calling? If all are priests, after all, why would one need to have some people ordained to conduct worship services and pastor the flock? Cannot all be preachers, all baptize, all administer the Lord’s Supper and hear confession?

The problem became acutely significant for the Reformers, and especially Luther, in 1525, with the Peasants’ War. At that time, radicals used Luther’s language of freedom as part of the rhetoric of rebellion, for understandable reasons. Such language resonates powerfully with the oppressed and disenfranchised in every age. The problem, of course, was that Luther was using such words in a manner that assumed their refraction through the cross. The same applied to the language of universal priesthood: the obvious democratizing tendency of the language was popular with those seeking more social equality. Yet the anarchy of the war placed Luther in an impossible position: he was no democratizing radical; he needed to reassure his secular lords that reformation did not mean revolution; and he needed to make sure that his teaching was clearly understood. The result was that, from 1525 onward, language of universal priesthood was decidedly muted in Luther, as it was to be in other magisterial Reformers, such as John Calvin.

Luther would also proceed in later writings to develop a clearer understanding of the need for a properly constituted and ordained church leadership. In 1520, however, that line of argument was not strongly developed, with Luther simply commenting that not all can be public leaders in the church because not all are competent to teach.27 Later, he would make ordination a mark of the true church.28 He would also emphasize that ordination to an office is defined by functions, not by status or rank, as is clear from the ordination rite he composed in 1529.29 Freedom for Luther must be understood through the incarnation and the cross: it is freedom to serve others and freedom to die for others. The whole of the Christian faith, and therefore the whole of Christian ministry, needs to be constructed in light of who God is for us as he is revealed in his incarnate Son hanging on the tree at Calvary.

Concluding Reflections

Luther’s distinction between the theologian of glory and the theologian of the cross is foundational to his understanding of the Christian life because it makes clear the two—and only two—ways in which human beings can approach God. They do so either on their terms or on God’s terms. For Luther, as for Paul, Christ on the cross is the watershed of the history of redemption and the discriminating factor regarding eternal destiny. And it is Christ in his flesh, crucified on the cross, that permeates Luther’s entire theology.

Throughout the centuries, theologians have often been preoccupied with the cross for what it offers: penal substitutionary atonement, expiation of sin, triumph over the Devil, an example of devotion to God that others should strive to follow. Luther’s understanding of the cross, however, brings out another important aspect: the cross as revelation of God toward us and also as an indicator of where we stand before God.

As the young Luther had been terrified of a righteous, holy, and wrathful God, so he was liberated by the discovery that God had made himself weak and vulnerable, subject to abuse and to death at the hands of the powers of evil. This transformed everything for Luther. Both theological language and human expectations of God are inverted by the great inversion of the cross. God’s strength is revealed in God’s weakness; and we are declared righteous extrinsically even as we are intrinsically sinful.

This offers Christians today a powerful foundation for theological reflection. What Luther provides is a theology that draws richly on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. We have a perennial tendency to make human nature the measure of reality, but the cross stands as God’s judgment against that and as his positive revelation of the right way to approach him and think of him. First Corinthians 1 is a reminder that the criteria for doing theology are not the expectations of human beings, whether we think of those expectations in terms of some transcendental human reason or the horizons of plausibility and particular norms of our own specific cultures.

The cross, however, is also an existential paradigm for the Christian. As noted above, it is significant that Luther talks in concrete, personal terms of theologians and not theologies when he makes the distinction between glory and the cross. Theology is thought and known by real, specific people. To be a theologian of glory is not simply to construct an image of God in one’s own image; it is to live in line with that image, with all of the expectations and interpretations of experience that follow in its wake. The same is true for the theologian of the cross. So here is the rub: the theologian of glory will ultimately not be able to make any sense of this world, for this world ultimately ends for each of us in physical decline, weakness, and death. That is incomprehensible in terms of the theology believed by the theologian of glory. But the theologian of the cross knows that this world is fallen and evil; that life leads inexorably to the grave; that the longer one lives, the more loved ones one loses. Yet in the midst of this desolation, the theologian of the cross can see the logic of the cross at work.

This is not a logic that simplistically declares that all this misery is God’s will and that one should stoically endure it. The logic of the cross says that weakness and death, painful as they are, have been utterly subverted by God in Christ, that pain and mortality have ironically become the means of strength and power, and that the grave itself has become the gateway to paradise. And that is the lesson of justification by grace through faith too: the outer man may well be fading away, but the inner man goes from strength to strength. Nothing can be done to the physical body that will ultimately jeopardize the soul. In fact, the greatest evil that can be inflicted on the body—death—is simply the pathway to resurrection.

This is powerful pastoral medicine. It can be preached to that single mother in the congregation who is poor, has a hard life, and sees little hope that these things will change. It can be applied to the old man whose body, full of years, is rapidly breaking down and racing only toward eternity. It can be applied to the widow and the orphan, to the despised and to the things that are not. It is, after all, simply the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ whereby strength is made perfect through weakness. Suffering is not good in itself, but it has been subverted for good, as dying has been made the gateway to paradise through Christ’s own death and resurrection.

Luther makes a significant statement of this in his 1539 work On the Councils of the Church, where suffering is made the seventh mark of the church:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5[:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” They must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. No people on earth have to endure such bitter hate; they must be accounted worse than Jews, heathen, and Turks. In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service. No one has compassion on them; they are given myrrh and gall to drink when they thirst. And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5[:11–12], “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.30

As God himself suffered in Jesus Christ, hanging on a cross, reviled and despised by others, so the church, his body, can expect the same. Yet, as with the incarnate Christ, the church is blessed by God in harsh circumstances because her pain and her weakness are the points at which God is able to demonstrate most decisively his power and his strength. As vocabulary is inverted by the cross, so are the experiences and expectations of the church.

And it is now time to see what this life of the theologian of the cross, this life that leads through death to resurrection, looks like.


Chapter 2 of  Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom Copyright © 2015 by Carl R. Trueman


1 LW, 31:39.

2 LW, 31:45. In medieval theology, mortal sins were serious and deliberate breaches of God’s law that caused the Christian to fall from a state of grace. Such things would have included idolatry, murder, and adultery. Venial sins were trivial sins that did not involve a fall from the state of grace. Such sins might have included an act of trivial gossip.

3 LW, 31:45.

4 LW, 31:40.

5 “I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute, and have not wearied me with irrelevancies about the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and such like trifles (for trifles they are rather than basic issues), with which almost everyone hitherto has gone hunting for me without success. You and you alone have seen the question on which everything hinges, and have aimed at the vital spot.” LW, 33:294.

6 LW, 31:40.

7 LW, 31:40.

8 “22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.” LW, 31:40–41.

9 LW, 26:28–29.

10 LW, 31:41.

11 “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.” LW, 31:41.

12 LW, 31:344.

13 LW, 31:345–46.

14 LW, 31:349.

15 LW, 31:350.

16 LW, 31:351. Luther uses the marital image in an adumbration of this later passage in the important 1519 sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” LW, 31:297. While Melanchthon, Luther’s close colleague, preferred to use more strictly forensic analogies in his discussions of justification, there is no significant difference between the two men in terms of the underlying concept. This is clear from a postscript, written in Luther’s own hand, that he appended to a letter from Melanchthon to the Lutheran theologian Johannes Brenz, dated May 12, 1531. Here Luther comments that he and Melanchthon prefer to express the idea in different ways but are in conceptual agreement: see Weimarer Ausgabe Briefwechsel 6:98–101.

17 LW, 31:297.

18 Luther makes this clear in his 1521 treatise Against Latomus: “St. Paul says (Rom. 10[:10]) that, ‘A man believes with his heart and so is justified.’ He does not say that it is necessary that he receive the sacraments, for one can become righteous by faith without the bodily reception of the sacraments (so long as one does not despise them). But without faith, no sacrament is of any use, indeed, it is altogether deadly and pernicious.” LW, 32:15.

19 For the distinction in Calvin, see his Institutes, 2:15; for a confessional statement of the same, see Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.1.

20 LW, 31:353–54.

21 LW, 31:344.

22 LW, 31:354.

23 LW, 31:354.

24 The key passage on Christian power is worth quoting in full for its dramatic intensity: “As a matter of fact, the more Christian a man is, the more evils, sufferings, and deaths he must endure, as we see in Christ the first-born prince himself, and in all his brethren, the saints. The power of which we speak is spiritual. It rules in the midst of enemies and is powerful in the midst of oppression. This means nothing else than that ‘power is made perfect in weakness’ [II Cor. 12:9] and that in all things I can find profit toward salvation [Rom. 8:28], so that the cross and death itself are compelled to serve me and to work together with me for my salvation. This is a splendid privilege and hard to attain, a truly omnipotent power, a spiritual dominion in which there is nothing so good and nothing so evil but that it shall work together for good to me, if only I believe. Yes, since faith alone suffices for salvation, I need nothing except faith exercising the power and dominion of its own liberty. Lo, this is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians.” LW, 31:354–55.

25 LW, 41:164–65.

26 LW, 31:355.

27 LW, 31:356.

28 On the Councils of the Church, in LW, 41:154. Here Luther emphasizes that Paul’s teaching excludes from office women, children, and those who are simply incompetent, reserving ordination only for competent males.

29 LW, 53:124–27.

30 LW, 41:164–65.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links