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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.

Where There’s a Will, There’s no Way

In his Heidelburg Disputation of 1518, Martin Luther moves from the problem of good works (last blog post) to the nature of the human will.  This brings to mind “decision for Christ” language that is so prevalent in Evangelical circles.  Is it really true that we become believers by an exercise of our will, thereby making a “decision for Christ”?   If we are really saved by grace alone by faith alone, and if faith is really a gift of God, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8), then what part if any does our will play in salvation?

A tenet of reformation theology is that the human will after the fall is no longer neutral.  It is corrupted, bent in on itself so that the natural person cannot chose the Good, but can only do what the sinful nature does which is to sin.  Hence, the will is bound.  It not forced to sin, but its nature is corrupted so that it cannot do otherwise.  It is as Jesus said, “He who sins is a slave to sin”(John 8:35). Of course, if the Son sets one free, they are free indeed the next verse concludes.

So I had always thought that, in the state of innocence before the fall that Adam and Eve had a morally neutral will, in that they were free to do good or to sin.  After the fall, they became unable not to sin because their will was now bent in on itself and bound, their natures being thus corrupted.  Those in Christ Jesus, are recreated, filled with the Holy Spirit and are released from this binding of the will and are able now to chose to do good, but are also free to sin should they fail to put to death that sin that dwells within, the old self inherited from Adam and Eve.

Luther, however, introduces another nuance to the concept of human will by proposing that it has never had an active capacity to do good, but only a passive capacity.  The analogy of water helps here.  Water has a passive capacity for heat.  It can be heated by an external force, but it has no active capacity to heat itself.  In the same way, even in the state of innocence, the human will had no active capacity to choose good, but only a passive capacity.  Because we are completely contingent creatures, we can only do good to the extent that we are empowered toward the good by the God who alone is Good.  As long as Adam and Eve trusted completely in God and took their cues from God they were maintained by God in that state of innocence. This was completely passive on their part, “God working in them to will and to work for His good purpose” (Phil 2:12).  Any active move of the will away from God turns out to be evil.  In actively pursuing another “good” (i.e. why not be like God?), they actually embrace evil.  So any active capacity that the human will has always moves towards evil.  After the fall, the relationship with God is severed and Adam and Eve’s will is now isolated even further from God.  Wishing to be independent of God, their rebellion corrupted their link to the Good, binding their will so that they become slaves of sin.

We must remember of course that such discussions of the will are limited to those things, which Luther says lie “above us” .  With reference to the things of God, who is above us, our will is indeed bound.  However, with reference to things “below us”, such as what to have for supper, whom to marry, and what church to attend, these things are “below us” and as to such creaturely pursuits, we do have freedom of will.  But not towards the things of God.  We are simply not able to choose the Good.

Now Theologians of Glory, find such a stance repulsive.  Surely, this is much too pessimistic, they say.  Surely, there must be in us some capacity, ever so small perhaps, to prepare ourselves to receive grace.  But by insisting that we must have even a tiny capacity to actively seek the Good, this stance violates the scripture which says “There is no one righteous, not even one… there is no one that seeks for God.” (Rom 3:10)  In fact, any human endeavour to do good apart from the God who is good, invariably leads to evil.  Even in works of civil righteousness which benefit humanity, their performance as “good works” done apart form faith, draw us further from the truth that we are sinners to the core.  These “good works” become a defence mechanism against God and against the gospel, and in the realm of eternity actually hurt us. (see last post).

The Theologian of the Cross, recognizes that Luther is right and that the will is indeed incapable of doing any good apart from God.  What sort of “good” could we do?  Making up our own minds about what is really good is the essence of original sin.  The Nazi death camps were a culturally driven humanistic attempt to will that a German Reich, and a world, without Jews was “good”.  The depths of depravity that the human will is capable of knows no bounds.    And so, God must operate on the human heart by first putting to death the will.  Only in dying is there rebirth.  Regeneration is an entirely alien act of God upon the sinner, that kills the will and recreates it so that it now has a passive capacity energized by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ.  We participate in this death by complete surrender and repentance.   We participate in this new life by exerting the faith given us, becoming again those continent beings that take their life from God alone.  “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20)

The only “decision” that I can ever make for Christ is a subsequent one, a decision to allow my will to now be ruled by another.  But that can only happen after the rebirth, never before.  That’s what the cross does.  That is how how God works.  The Theologian of Glory does not like it because there is zero room, nada, for the human will seeking the Good.  But that is why God alone gets the glory.

Halleluia for the cross!

Grieving and the Fear of God


It has been just over a month since our very close friend Maxine was taken to Glory.  During that time, we hosted our entire family – all 13 of us (including 7 kids under the age of 10) for Christmas, moved my wife’s 93-year-old mother to a new residence, saw everyone off, got rid of the decorations and I began to think in earnest about my upcoming trip to India.  January cold has always tended to clear the head, but this year grieving seems to muddle it and takes the zip out of any sort of ambition. A nasty head cold contacted just a few days ago has dealt yet another blow.  But today I am actually up and around and so life goes on.

One thing that Maxine’s death has left me with is a rekindled fear of God.  Watching someone you love come to grips with their own death as a reality, not just a theory, pretty much takes the wind out of your sails.  Impending death moves a person to get serious about making things right. Ancient wrongs get confessed (yet again), and Satan mocks our normal self assuredness, as we come to grips with the reality that God really does hold our lives in his hands.  I remember in one of our small group exercises, I asked people to spend ten minutes reflecting on their own deaths: imagining the scenario, the family, the arrangements, thinking about what people would be saying.  The point of the exercise was that the best way to live is really to die, that is to die to self.  But imagination and experience are two very different things.  The night that Maxine died, I was shoved into an awesome fear of God.  Not a terrorist type of fear, but a holy reverence laced with the realization that I too could be called home at any time.  And was I ready?

It’s not the kind of thing that you can share with people because the world is full of theologians of Glory.  This phrase, coined by Martin Luther, is used to sum up all theologians other than those of the Cross.  Theologians of Glory  will always call evil good and good evil.  Human good works, for example, are considered by theologians of Glory as good and commendable.  Theologians of the Cross will always say what a thing really is.  Good works, says Luther, done apart from a reverent fear of God are in reality deadly sins.  They take us away from the “naked trust in the mercy of God”  and place our confidence in them and their doers.  The problem is that none of our works, even those done with divine grace are sinless.  How can they be?  We are sinners to the core.  Fully justified as well, of course, but only by the mercy and suffering of God himself.  And so everything I do, even writing this post, must be done with absolute humility, trembling and fear of God.  God forgive me for those times when I have been self-confident and even arrogant.

The fear of God does not play well on today’s theological landscape.  It is seen as much too negative, too depressive.  Yet it is the greatest good.  “Do you not fear God?” says the one thief on the cross to the other.  Obviously he didn’t for he continued to rail at and mock the LORD.  Yet the one who feared God was transported that day into paradise with Christ.  “The fear of the LORD is [just] the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).  So everything I do must be done under the umbrella of a holy reverent fear of God.  If I ever get away from that, I am done.  Luther writes:

To trust in works,which one ought to do in fear, is equivalent to giving oneself the honour 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.” (Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehnmann (Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1958-72), 31.46)

Oh, that there would be so much more fear of God in everything that is done in his Name!

And so that sets the stage for my upcoming trip to India.  I confess that I have not been all that excited about going this time around.  One reason is that my dear wife will not be accompanying me.  She really is my strength in social circles.  And true to form in any trip to India, I am not sure exactly what I will be doing there.  I have some vague ideas, but in India everything always comes together at the last-minute, and so it will again.  I have also had some physical issues to deal with over the last few months.  And so I guess that this sets the stage for “naked trust in the mercy of God” and so off I will go.. next Tuesday.

Stay tuned for more life lessons along the way.  May the Lord of all mercy and grace, the God of compassion who inspires awe and holy fear, be with me and with us all.


Two Kingdoms – The Great Divide


There are two theologies that are locked in mortal combat.  The Theology of Glory represents all human effort and religion that seeks to find its way to the Ultimate. The Theology of the Cross is God’s negation of this through the cross of Jesus Christ. God’s answer to human effort is the cross.  Jesus inaugurates his Kingdom through crucifixion.  It is there that he is proclaimed  “The King of the Jews”, by a skeptical and cynical Pontius Pilate.  Little did Pilate know that in crucifying Jesus, he was lifting him up to define forever that great divide between two kingdoms, two theologies,  the kingdom of darkness, sin and death and the kingdom of light, righteousness and life.    The two criminals crucified with Jesus symbolize these two kingdoms through each man’s reaction to the crucified Lord.  The one joins with the religious leaders, the Roman soldiers and the mindless crowd as they deride Jesus, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ, the Chosen One.”  This man adds his own mocking insult. “Arn’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us.”  (Luke 23:39) Full of bitterness and gall, even as he is dying, he writes Jesus off as a powerless loser.  He would rather die bitter and angry than turn and be saved.  This is the world’s response to Jesus crucified and it seals their fate as they align themselves with the powers of the day, with the religion’s response to the cross. The other criminal rebukes the first.  “Do you not fear God?” he says.  He declares God just in that they are getting what they deserve for their deeds. He understands and acknowledges that Jesus is the Righteous One, who  is giving himself up for Sin in order to inaugurate his Kingdom.  His words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom”  reveal his confidence and faith in the the crucified Christ.  This is truly remarkable!  Here is Jesus, powerless,  lifted up on a cross, the antithesis of majesty and authority, yet this man confesses his faith in him as King!  He is miles ahead of the disciples in understanding and faith.  And he is the first entrant into the Kingdom of light. Jesus’ response to him confirms it:  “Today you will be with me in paradise”. And so the crowd divides, as do all human beings henceforth.  “What is your take on the man crucified in the middle?” becomes the question that now defines all people.   The skeptics and scoffers move to the left of Jesus and align themselves with the world of unbelief.  They prefer their own way, the Theology of Glory.  That world will soon be judged and punished.  Those born of God, move to the right and believe.  Jesus is Lord!  His Kingdom will never end.  Though hidden now, except to eyes of faith, it will one day be revealed for all to see.  Thy Kingdom come.

Three men crucified on a hill.  One died for sin.  One died in sin. One died to sin.  Which one are you?  

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem


There is deep in the human heart a yearning for peace, for security, for rest. We don’t feel that much in North America, because it has been so long since we have had a war on our soil. But in places like Syria, Somalia, Chechnya, and the Congo, people are tired of war. Imagine devastated buildings, lack of water, food, and the daily tension of knowing that your life or that of a loved one could end at any moment.

The passage below from Isaiah 2, promises that there will be a day when nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks” and that they will give up war forever. This theme has long motivated peacemakers and anti-war demonstrators to work towards this dream of a warless existence for humanity. Those of us who are Christians, understand that we are expected to be peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” is the promise that rings from Jesus’ own lips. (Matt. 5:9). So we applaud and pray for those who work for peace. May God give them success.

However, we must note that this passage from Isaiah refers to a time when the house of the Lord will be established as the highest of the mountains. It shall be lifted up above all the hills. The nations shall flow into it. looking and seeking justice and guidance from God himself – that is YHWH, the God of Jacob. Jerusalem will be the worship, justice and peace capital of the world and God himself will dispense it from Jerusalem. We certainly do not see that now. I do not believe that we will see it until that day when Jesus returns. The scriptures promise that in the last days there will betimes of great tribulation. Jesus prepared his disciples to expect tribulation, wars, rumors of wars and hardship.

Concerning Jerusalem, Jesus lamented and wept over it. What would have brought it peace was hidden from it and Jesus said that it would be destroyed because its people did not recognize the days of its visitation. (Luke 19:42-44) And so Jerusalem, that city that symbolizes so much has been in turmoil ever since.

But there will come a day, when it will achieve its destiny as the worship capital of the world. It will become the peace and justice center of humanity. It will be the abode of God himself and will be recognized as such by everyone. The nations will flow into it.

It the meantime, we yearn and pray for that day when this will be so. Every time, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”, we are praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and when we pray for that, we are praying for peace on earth.

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob,come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  Isaiah 2:2-5