I’ve not seen the old perspective on soteriology, as framed mostly through one reading of Paul, expressed any better than in Carl Trueman’s sketch of Luther’s theology at work in the Heidelberg Disputation (slightly reformatted):
To get a fuller view of the old perspective than is found in what is quoted below one has to bring in not only the Old Testament and law but also Judaism and works of the law and tie them to an Augustinian anthropology. Not all of this is present in this summary, but the anthropology of self-deception is the foundation on which the whole posture toward law and works of the law and ultimately Judaism will be formed — and what Luther had to say about Judaism later in his life is, in the words of Trueman, “nauseating” (54). There are a number of factors at work in Luther’s statements about the Jews, but one of them had to do with his anthropology as it was aimed at “law.”
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 he 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.” 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.
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 de:lares that the works God does through human beings are not meritorious (pp. 58-59).
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 (71).
He says it more forcefully in a later chapter but it gets to the core of justification’s existential reality for Luther and deserves to be included here:
Fear and terror are the products of the law, the inevitable result of that tendency within all of us to be theologians of glory, who wish to approach God on our own terms and thus find ourselves confronted with the terrifying God of perfect righteousness and holiness (129).
Luther’s approach was in a way self-protected for if you deny this sketch is your own experience, you are either not a Christian or you are trapped in self-righteousness. When Krister Stendahl’s famous essay about the introspective conscience was published many saw the old perspective for what it was more clearly — but Stendahl’s point was that this was Luther and this was Luther against his world but it was not Paul nor Paul against his world. On this new perspective hooked its anchor and sought to pull the whole out of its footing.
I have always had an ambivalent attitude toward Luther — I love some of what he accomplished and taught and I despise some of what he accomplished and taught. I am “suspending” all my thoughts about Luther as much as I can as I read this fascinating and well-written introduction to the person and thought of Martin Luther by Carl Trueman. The book is called Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom.