Lesson 1: Luther’s Theology of the Cross

A Theology of the CrossThe pandemic has brought clarity to the current situation in Christianity. As it rages on, it has become apparent there are two incompatible camps not necessarily identified with denominational boundaries. One of these consistently speaks of fighting a battle against evil and clearly regards the other camp as the opposition. The anger and threats being expressed surpass anything I experienced in the anti-Viet Nam war protests and civil rights movement. People are daily accused of killing babies and destroying the family.

This war going on between people who claim to follow Christ Jesus resembles in many ways that which took place during the Reformation. Both sides claim the other is not Christ-centered. Both claim Martin Luther is on their side.

For this reason, I felt it would be helpful to examine what Luther really said. He described his work as a theology of the cross and that of the established institutional church as a theology of glory.

People usually associate the theology of glory with proclaiming salvation by works rather than faith. However, “works” implied a lot more than actions. The church (she/her/hers) could only come up with specific requirements for the works by claiming to possess a set of propositions representing God’s truth. And she could only support this claim by maintaining that the organization represented by her hierarchy was infallible.

Luther believed this scheme ended up judging the success of the Church by worldly standards. Wielding power took priority over following Christ. In fact, he claimed the theology of glory ended up calling evil good and good evil.

A theology of the Cross, on the other hand, operated by faith rather than certainty. Actually, Luther spoke of salvation by grace through faith. Faith is trust that God’s love for humanity and not human accomplishments saves us. The Christian life is then based not on a set of doctrines but simply on God’s word as revealed in the scriptures. Because human nature pushes back against God’s ways, there is always an uncertainty, always a continuation. Individuals must repent daily and institutions reform continuously.

You could argue a theology of glory fails to express the full gospel message, because it proclaims Easter without reference to Good Friday. And it is impossible understand Christ’s victory over death unless you remember he was executed by the established authorities of his day as an enemy of humanity.

That certainly makes suspect any Christian group judging its success according to worldly standards. Seeking political power and privilege is bound to challenge important parts of the Gospel message. When a group places the economy above caring for people, the nation above the global community, the status quo above God’s future of justice, peace, and love, it is calling evil good. When a politician can claim to support God and guns in the same breath, or a pastor put family values and huge defense budgets in the same sentence, they call good evil.

A group associated with theology of the cross on the other hand, would always recognize the sin and evil in all human projects, including its own. Faithful to Jesus’s teachings, it would speak prophetically to political power, never sacrificing truth for success. Acknowledging the reality of the human situation, such a group would humbly seek to practice love, not pursue power.

In the next few weeks, I intend to further use a theology of the cross to critique what is going on around us.

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