During the time of Martin Luther there were theological presuppositions that had been ingrained in the lives, thoughts and actions of the people. For the sake of simplicity, two things summarized the theological culture and attitudes of the day: ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness.
It was commonly held from medieval teachings that mankind needed to ascend to God. It was taught that one needed to climb a metaphoric ladder towards a Holy and Righteous God through: pious good works, devotion to God, accomplishments, indulgences, holy living, penance, religious duties, etc… Eugene Klug comments on this saying,
“Ascetics (i.e. those trying to climb to God) desired to achieve more and greater conformity with the will of the holy God, climbing rung by rung the ladder of God-pleasing acceptance before the throne of the loving Lord and Savior.” (Note: Parentheses added)
People during the time of Luther saw themselves in a spiritual journey that required strenuous effort and endurance to elevate ‘self’ to the same level of God.
In ascent theology the emphasis is placed on mankind and the strategic goal becomes mankind’s climbing pursuit of God. As a result, man does not need a descending Christ; which means that Jesus becomes a simple model of holiness that needs to be emulated in the ascending journey. Consequently, how does one know if he/she has ascended enough? What are the best methods to ascend to God? What methods get the best bang for the buck?
The other presupposition that was commonly held during the time of Luther was the theology of active righteousness. Active righteousness simply taught that if one were to be considered righteous that he/she needed to achieve righteousness by the way of the Law and effort. For example: the Law says, “Do” and the person actively “Does it” which results in a presumed “Righteousness.”
The teaching of active righteousness goes right in line and is in harmony with ascent theology. Both put the emphasis on mankind’s efforts. Both have a starting point of mankind. Both appeal to the flesh. Both undercut the centrality of the work of God in Christ.
During the time of the reformation, Luther understood these theological presuppositions that were embedded in the church. He furthermore realized that he needed to rebuild the theological foundation of the day in order that the Word and fundamental teachings of scripture might be adequately understood. Eugene Klug says that Luther,
“…first had to rebuild theology in the church on a truly biblical base; he had to knock down, destroy, and clear the away the rubble, getting down to the bedrock on which Christian theology must rest: God’s grace alone, through Christ alone, by faith alone.”
According to Klug, in the Heidelberg Theses’ of 1518, Luther,
“…publicly broke from a theology of glory—the frenetic effort to climb into God’s favor through personal pious strivings—to a Gospel-centered theology of the Cross.”
According to some historians, the Heidelberg Disputation is considered as more important to the 16th century reformation than the 95 theses of 1517. The reason being, the teachings of the Heidelberg Theses adamantly argue against ascent theology and active righteousness and shows forth from scripture a completely contrary and opposite way of seeing the Christian life: descent theology and passive righteousness.
The theology of descent puts the emphasis on Christ and His strategic goal of drawing close to and pursuing mankind. As a result, man does not (and cannot) ascend to God; which means that Jesus is the one who descends to mankind as to rescues and bring sinners home to God. Consequently, one is granted confident assurance as scripture continually reveals the glory of the descending Christ to a bloody cross to completely atone for mankind, us!
The teaching of passive righteousness taught by Luther and the scriptures puts the focus on what Christ has accomplished on behalf of mankind. Passive righteousness simply teaches that if one is to be considered righteous that he/she needs to receive this righteousness by the way of the Gospel and Gift. The Gospel says, “Believe This And Receive It As Gift” because “Everything Is Already Done For You.” (Note Theses 26 of the Heidelberg Disputation)
Luther from scripture proposed a theological foundation in 1518 that was fundamentally different and completely contrary to the already established theological foundation of the day. He held that ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness contradicted the Gospel itself. “For Luther, there was no substitute for the Gospel-centered theology of the cross.”
“At the Heidelberg conference, the theology of the cross gained a new and necessary hearing in the life of the church. According to Luther, under the cross, the church finds its life and hope. With this foundation, the church goes forward with lightened step, joyfully and willingly bearing its crosses and burdens in the knowledge of salvation through faith in Christ’s vicarious suffering and death for sinners’ sake.”
It is in this same context that the church of the 21st century can move forward in joyful step. The church of the 21st century can be reminded of and gratefully embrace the theological foundation that has already been laid forth for it by Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Upon this already established foundation, the church of the present day can gracefully yet confidently cast aside ascent theology and the theology of active righteousness. For as long as the presuppositions of ascent theology and active righteousness go unrecognized, these fundamental teachings of scripture (i.e. descent and passive righteousness) will continually grind against them.
May our foundation be the theology of the cross in which all of our theology flows in and out of. May we rest upon this rich foundation and great news of God’s descent to us in Christ and the simple gift of faith that receives the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us.
Our Savior has descended to gift us His righteousness… may we receive Him by faith! What a foundation!
Source: The previous material is highly indebted to Eugene Klug’s comments from his book, “Lift High This Cross: The Theology of Martin Luther” [(Concordia Publishing, 2003), 49-55]