Conrad Cordatus and Solus Christus

On 24 July, 1536, Conrad Cordatus heard a lecture that troubled him deeply. While commenting on the Gospel of John, the Lutheran preacher Caspar Cruciger said, “Christ alone is the meritorious cause; meanwhile, it is true, in a way, that man must be active in a manner; we must be contrite, and must rouse our conscience by means of the Word, in order that we might conceive faith.”[1]

            Cordatus was leery of that language. Adding a “but” or “meanwhile” after “Christ alone” is dangerous – especially for listeners who are just beginning to grasp the foreign concepts of Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Solus Christus.

            Cordatus was willing to allow that Cruciger meant well, and waited for a clearer explanation. The next words were more troubling, “Thus, our contrition and our effort are indispensable prerequisites (causa sine quibus non) of justification.”

            Still, Cordatus didn’t face the preacher immediately. He spent an entire evening discussing the matter with Melanchthon, who had written similar statements. He listened, and kept ruminating on these thoughts for almost a month. On August 20, he decided to write Cruciger, asking him to put his heart at peace. When he didn’t receive a reply, he followed with a heated letter. Cruciger held his ground. Without contrition there can’t be faith, he said, nor consequently justification.

No Resting Place

            For Cordatus, this was not a simple matter of expression. He had been imprisoned twice for preaching justification by grace alone through faith alone. The first time was in his thirties, during his first assignment as Roman Catholic priest in a parish in Hofen, in Lower Austria (about 200 miles west from his native Weissenkirchen).

            He had been raised a critical thinker. His parents were Hussite sympathizers and his studies at the University of Vienna had put him in contact with open-minded teachers. By the time Luther’s works began circulating around Europe, Cordatus was ready to embrace them. Not all his parishioners, however, shared his enthusiasm, and the authorities placed him in jail.

            In 1524, he was able to escape and flee to Wittenberg, where he lived as a poor refugee. Inspired by the progress of the Reformation in Germany, he decided to move back to Roman Catholic Habsburg lands, including Hungary, where the gospel was still unfamiliar. Once again, his activity caught the attention of the local authorities, who sent him back to prison. Nine months later, he gained the favor of a sympathetic guard who purposely left the cell unlocked, allowing Cordatus to escape again.

            It took Cordatus time to find a suitable position, in spite of Luther’s repeated attempts to help him. In 1526, his enthusiastic commitment to join Duke Frederick II’s new evangelical university in Liegnitz, Silesia, was frustrated by strong local opposition. By the time the university opened in 1530, Cordatus had left, probably out of disappointment over his seemingly unreceptive audience.

            In 1529, Luther encouraged him to accept a call to Saint Mary's parish in Zwickau, but his attacks of the city council from the pulpit caused him a suspension. Unwilling to submit his preaching to civil authorities, he returned to Wittenberg, where he recorded some of Luther's Table Talk speeches.

            His controversy with Cruciger and Melanchthon on the necessity of contrition (and other good works) happened around this time. Eventually, Luther put the matter to some rest by suggesting the alternative wording, “Contrition and good works are necessary for the Christian life”[2] (not for justification, which is always only by grace alone).

An Anxious Disposition

            Luther enjoyed Cordatus’s letters, which were frequent and full of interesting stories. He also admired him for his faithfulness to the gospel. He was, however, concerned about Cordatus’s recurrent complaints about his health. Fearing it might be a form of hypochondria, Luther reminded him how strongly mind and body are related.

            Real or imaginary, Cordatus’s ailments continued in 1540, when he settled in a steady position as superintendent of the church in Stendal, Brandenburg. While the post allowed him a measure of stability for himself and his now growing family, these health problems compounded his growing discouragement about the people’s lack of interest in the gospel or even outright opposition.

            Once again, he sought comfort from Luther, who reminded him of Christ’s words, “You will be hated by all for my name's sake” (Mat. 10:22). “Outwardly we are living in the kingdom of the devil,” Luther said, “and so we should not expect to see and hear good things on the outside. But inwardly we are living in the Kingdom of Christ, where we may behold the riches of God’s glory and grace. ... We shall make our way through glory and shame, through good report and evil report, through hate and love, through friends and foes, until we arrive where there are none but friends, in the Kingdom of the Father.”[3]

            Cordatus’s soul arrived in that Kingdom on 6 April 1546. Eight years later, when a collection of his notes were published, Melanchton added a generous preface, showing how the Wittenberg circle was united in Christ, in spite of occasional disagreements.

[1] “Cordatus Controversy with Melanchthon,” Theological Quarterly, vol. 10, Concordia, St. Louis, 1907, p. 203

[2] Robert Kolb, Luther's Wittenberg World: The Reformer's Family, Friends, Followers, and Foes, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018, p. 64.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, transl. and ed. by Theodore Tappert, Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1960, p. 170.


Simonetta Carr