Luther’s Theology of the Cross

1 Cor. 1: 17-31

In this passage, we have set against one another, the wisdom of the world and the word of the cross.    We have here two competing theologies, two different ways of looking at life and at God. Martin Luther called these the Theology of Glory vs the Theology of the Cross.

The Theology of Glory, is naturally attractive, because it is based upon human wisdom, philosophy and effort.  We as people, always like to look good, to take pride in out endeavors and be seen as successful.  Even in the church, where we ought to see the theology of the cross articulated faithfully, we very often hear the Theology of Glory disguised in Christian language.

Now, perhaps we should define exactly what I mean by these terms.  The theology of Glory refers to every human way of approaching God apart from the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the way of every other religious system and  even many (so called) Christian systems as well.  It is based on the premise that human beings are really not all that bad, and by willing and working, we can impress God, so that God will reward us with everlasting life.   What we really need is just a little bit of help, a little grace, along the way.  What Jesus provides for us, by dying on the cross is that freedom from sin, and that extra help in time of need.  He gets us up over the hump.  He lifts us up when we are down.  His grace can be appropriated by faith, (like a shot in the arm) as needed so that we can be successful human beings.  We just need to make a decision for Him and move ahead to the glorious path that He has laid out for us, a path laced with health, prosperity, beauty and happiness. This is the gospel of the wonderful life. Just come to Jesus and He will give you a wonderful life.

This theological system embraces the power of positive thinking, it embraces philosophy, psychology, ethics, morality, strength and wisdom.    It embraces the best that human beings have to offer.  It sounds so good, so very, very good, so pleasing to the eye, to the intellect, to the heart.  It promises to lift us up to God.  But, it is not the way of the cross.  In fact, those who embrace this theology are actually enemies of the cross of Jesus Christ.  Phil 3:18-19. This theology embraces the folly of those who tried to build the tower of Babel, a way to reach the heavens, a way to make a name for themselves.  Those who embrace it become theologians of Glory, and end up calling what is actually good, evil and what is actually evil, good.  It is a deadly sin, the deadliest, because it takes us away from the way God actually works, which is through the cross.

The Apostle Paul describes it here in this passage as the plausible and lofty words of the wisdom of this age (v.6).  In fact he reminds the readers that when he first came to them, that it was much fear and trembling (v. 3) for he had decides in advance that he would “know nothing among them, except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2).

Why is Paul in fear and trembling?  He has been sent by God to preach the gospel (v 17).  It is not because of his audience so much as it is fear and trembling before God that he would be faithful to the message.  He wants to avoid the self-confidence of the wise, learned and eloquent.  Paul knows exactly where all his learning and law keeping got him.  It got him to the place where he was an enemy of the cross, a persecutor of Jesus Christ and His people. He wants to avoid the trap of boasting and self -confidence in his own ability and in his own work.

Martin Luther writes

To trust in works, which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honor and taking it from God, to whom fear is due in connection with every work.  But this is completely wrong, namely to please oneself, to enjoy oneself  in one’s own works, and to adore oneself as an idol.  He who is self-confident and without fear of God, however, acts entirely in this manner.  For if he had fear, he would not be self-confident, for this reason, he would not be pleased with himself, but he would be pleased with God.”  

So Paul fears that if he wows the crowds with his knowledge and eloquence, then the word of the cross, which is the real power of God will be stripped of its transforming power. (v.17)

For Paul, the message he has been sent to deliver is “the word of the cross” and it is “the power of God”(v 18).  But it is such power only to those who are being saved through it.  It is dynamite (dumamos)  to those who are being delivered from the domain of sin and Satan and lifted into the Kingdom of light.  Through it, they are made new creations in Christ. But to those who are unchanged, those of the world, it is foolishness (mohriah).

What is this word of the cross?  It is the pure gospel.  It presents the suffering Son of God, rejected, beaten and crucified by the religious elite of the day so that the best that humanity can offer is exposed. What is the best that human wisdom can do when confronted by God himself in the flesh? All they can do is crucify. That is the best that the theology of glory can do.  It will dismiss the suffering Son and hang onto its morality  and its “good works” upon which its hopes are based.

So what I hope to do in these next few posts, is to have a closer look at the relationship between the law of God, good works, human will, and the love of God in the light of the Cross.

Our guide will be ancient document, Martin Luther’s Heidelburg disputation of 1512. Although this work is not as well know as his 95 theses, it is a concise articulation of what a theologian of the cross actually does.  It consist of 28 theses that move from examining the problem of good works (theses 1-12), the problem of the will (13-18), the great divide between these two theologies (19-24) and God’s work in us, the righteousness of faith (25-28). It was at Heidelberg that Luther’s audience included no less that six future reformers who collectively fanned the flames of the reformation.

My reason for doing this is that I have discovered that there is a prevailing tendency in any church as it becomes more and more successful to move away from its roots in the Cross into a Theology of Glory.  I found this tendency even in myself, and so I have developed a regular discipline of studying the theology of the cross in order to keep myself grounded in Christ’s work on the cross.  This is the essence of a true Christian theology.  As Luther is famous for saying “the cross alone is our theology”

We will get started by looking at Thesis # 1.

 Thesis 1. The law of God, the most salutatory doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on the way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.

 Thesis 2.  Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with aid of natural precepts , so to speak, lead to that end.

 Why is the law (and human effort) seen in such a negative light by the reformers? (in contrast to the Psalms, ex. Ps. 19, Ps 119)

We must remember that when Luther refers to the law, he is referring to the moral law of God, primarily the ten commandments.  He is not using the law as the Psalmist uses the work “law” to describe the collective instruction and the testimonies of God.  The word of God, the testimonies of God, the precepts of God are praises in the Psalms as that which bring life and sweetness and direction.

The reason was that the moral law was never intended to be a means of righteousness. It was never intended as a list of “to do’s” that would earn us favor with God. It was never intended to isolate people from God in independence and pride. Those who work hard at keeping the law become self confident and proud of their accomplishments.  They become moralists.  They look down on those who cannot do likewise.  These are the Pharisees, who would rather kill the Son of God than admit that they are idolaters of law.  And so the law keeps them from seeing what is really going on at the cross.   It isolates them from the way of salvation.  Their “good works” become evil and take them straight to hell.  The law becomes the “written code that kills” (2 Cor 3:6)

All of this is exposed by the cross, where a righteousness apart from the law is revealed. This righteousness is not earned, but bestowed.  It is an alien righteousness. It comes from outside of us.  It is the righteousness of the Son of God, who exchanges it for our sin and our shame

at the cross.   On the cross, we see “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)  We see the power of God at work in suffering and death.  The cross demands that we enter into this suffering and death.  We are called to wrestle much with our conscience and with God and experience our own death.  We die with Him, so that something new is born in us.  We are born from above (anothen).  “If anyone is in Christ – a New creation” (2 Cor 5:17)

The full extent of the human disease, sin, is fully revealed by the cure…. the cross.

Now this is the power of God to those who are being saved by it.  It is God’s alien work.. putting us to death, so that something new might spring to life.  It is the death of Christ and His resurrection to a different sort of life, an everlasting life.  If you want this life, you must allow Him to do it to you,  You must allow Him to crucify you.

Paul writes: Galatians 2:20  I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Now to the world, and the theologian of Glory, this is going too far.  It is foolishness.   They say:  Let us find a role for the cross in our scheme of religious duties.  Let us say that Christ’s death provides that saving grace that helps us, that overcome the deficit, so that we can move onward and upward to God.  And so in doing so, they rob the cross of its power and the substitute their own schemes.  They take the suffering and death of the cross and call it evil.  I have heard it described as “divine child abuse”.  And so these theologians end up calling that which is very very good… evil. And the evil of their law and their religious works, they call good.  And according to Luther, they do not deserve to be called theologians at all. (theses 19 & 20).

And so the cross becomes a stumbling block to Jews (cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree) Deut 21:23  and foolishness to Greeks.  (vs. 24).. but it is actually the power of God and the wisdom of God.  It is how God works.  It is how he wants to be known by us.

And so this “foolishness” of God is shown to be infinitely superior to the wisdom of man. It is the power of God unto salvation. We must never lose sight of the essentials of the Christian life.  And centered in these essentials is the “foolishness” of the cross.. which turns out to be the wisdom of God and the power of God.

It is also how he calls us to live.

One thought on “Luther’s Theology of the Cross”

  1. Hey Les
    How are you?
    Long time no hear.

    Timothy E. Alexander
    Director of International Admissions, Great Lakes Christian High School
    4875 King Street, Beamsville, Ontario, Canada L0R 1B6
    Office 905 563 5374 Ext. 888 Fax 905 563 0818 Cell 289 407 9853
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