Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross for the Suffering and even the Arrogant Among Us

I was first introduced to Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, or “Theology of the Cross,” in seminary, in my Reformation Theology class. Once I heard of it, I was hooked! It is absolutely brilliant, and represents the best of Martin Luther’s theological offering for the church. My previous post was a tribute to Rory Wheeler, who just went home to be with the Lord as a result of the effects of cancer. Death, even for the Christian, presents lingering questions; the primary one being “why dear Lord, cannot you just vanquish this curse, right now?” It is obvious to all of those with eyes of faith, that the Lord works in ways that would appear “hidden.” He became man, a babe
christcrucifiedwrapped in swaddling cloths in a manger. He was born into a poor-man’s family from ridiculed Nazareth. The list of God’s hiddeness (Deus absconditus), of course, can be enumerated over and again. Indeed, this is where Luther’s theology of the cross finds its footing; that God works in ways that to the naked eye seem foolish (see I Corinthians 1:17-25, the passage of my Master’s thesis, and motivated by Luther’s theology of the cross). Randall Zachman provides one of the best descriptions of Luther’s theology of the cross that I have ever read. I am going to quote it in full, it is worth it; in fact if you want to continue to read my blog, your ticket 😉 is that you have to read this whole post because what Zachman has to say is that good! Here we go:

In the context of theologia crucis, faith means believing with certainty that God’s Word is true even when the whole world, the heart of the believer, and even God himself contradict the truth that is revealed in the Word, particularly the Word of promise. Thus, when God begins to show mercy, God does so by first revealing wrath (in law); when God makes alive, God does so by slaying. The same contradictions apply especially to those who have already come to faith. God promises the forgiveness of sins, yet our conscience feels nothing but sin and wrath; God promises life, yet we see nothing but death. Faith, therefore, is the art of believing the Word while experiencing, seeing, and feeling the opposite. We believe that Christ is the Son of God, even though we see and abandoned man on the cross; we believe that God cares for the church, even though we see nothing but a church persecuted by the world and apparently abandoned by God; we believe in eternal life, even though we see and feel nothing but death.

However, the primary locus of the theology of the cross is the experience of trial or tribulation (Anfechtung), when the very heart and conscience of the believer sense that God’s promise of grace and forgiveness is a lie. The believer must regard the promise of forgiveness as true and certain even though the conscience testifies to the contrary.

But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. . . . We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.

This is the very meaning of being simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator): to believe that we are righteous coram Deo even though we feel like condemned sinners.

Within the context of the theology of the cross, the grace of sanctification and its attestation in the testimony of a good conscience would necessarily be subordinated to the grace of justification and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. This is because the testimony of the good conscience confirms one’s faith in the promise, whereas the theology of the cross emphasizes that testimony of the conscience that contradicts faith in the promise; that is, Anfechtung. Therefore, although Luther continually insisted upon the necessity of sanctification and of the testimony of the good conscience, within the framework of theologia crucis he could not help but consistently subordinate the grace of sanctification to that of justification.

Luther’s concentration on the theology of the cross also accounts for his refusal to involve the Reformation directly in the external reform of the church. The Word of God does not deal with external, temporal things, but rather with invisible, eternal things; and such invisible things are revealed under an external appearance that contradicts what is being revealed. The theology of glory, in contrast—such as Luther found in the papacy—emphasizes externals to the point of neglecting the invisible truths revealed by the Word: indeed, to the point of calling God’s Word a lie. Thus, those in the Reformation who would introduce concern for externals—such as Karlstadt with his rejection of idols and the papal mass—misunderstanding the whole nature of the Word of the cross, and divert the attention of believers from the invisible, eternal things of God’s promises to the visible, temporal things of human reason and senses. Yet it is precisely reason and the senses that must be mortified if we are to believe that the Word of the cross is true.

Luther’s theologia crucis also explains his suspicion of those, such as the Anabaptists, who emphasized the external holiness and moral behavior of the church. If the Word of the cross reveals the truth of God under a contrary appearance, then one would expect the true church not to look like the church at all, but rather to look like God-forsaken sinners. The “synagogue of Satan,” on the other hand, with its theology glory, would look like the true church of God and would demonstrate a superior holiness externally—as in the monks and friars—but inwardly it would be rejected by God. The theology of the cross would therefore lead one not to stress the conformity of the appearance of the church with its faith, but rather stress the ways in which the appearance of the church denies its claim to be the people of God. The church looks like a gathering of sinners rejected by God and the world, whereas it is in truth the beloved people of God. The church cannot be judged by its appearance, but only by whether it has the Word of Christ crucified. Hence the primary task of the church is to preach the Word of God, while letting externals take their course. [Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith, 9-10]

How can that not bless you?! There is a lot in this, too much to talk about in toto; as far as the implications and applications, let me grab just a couple. But first I should also notice something else for us. You see Zachman refer to Luther’ “theology of glory,” this was in contrast to the theology of the cross; and it refers to (oversimplified) focusing on doing things for the praise and glory of men, instead of God (just do a word study or theology of glory study in the Gospel of John, you’ll see how this plays out) [Luther attacked the scholastic theology of his day as based upon the “theology of glory” instead of the “cross”]. Now to my applications.

1) It seems like a loving God would vanquish death so that humanity would no longer have to endure the torment of it. Indeed, he has, but it is only with eyes of faith that we understand the significance of the cross and resurrection and ascension. To the world if God is all powerful, and loving (David Hume) why doesn’t he do something about it now? The wisdom of God is displayed in hiddeness, in the unexpected; God is the God whose ways are not our ways, but the way of the cross, the unexpected! Why did the holocaust happen? Why do little kids die from cancer, or starvation? We have to interpret these kinds of questions through the hidden ways of God, through the cruciformity and cross-shaped work of God’s life. That’s the answer to Luther’s theology of the cross; the wisdom and knowledge of God is only penetrated by those who are wedded to him, in Christ, by the Spirit. And it is when we are pressed up against the most dastardly things of this life—tribulations—that we quit depending on ourselves, and throw ourselves on God’s mercy that we enter into the kind of life that God gives himself in his inner-life of mutual and interpenetrating love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is when we are pushed beyond ourselves that God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ is just waiting to smile on is in the midst of our thlipsis, tribulation! Here is the wisdom of God, to take what is intended to destroy, and bring resurrection life out of it!

2) The second application here is a quicker observation. This one has to do with Luther’s/Zachman’s point about how the church should look vis-á-vis the theology of the cross. Frankly, it shouldn’t look like what Western, and in particular, American, upward mobile churches strive to look like. It shouldn’t look like people who have it all together. It should look like people who are broken, needy, and beggarly. When did Jesus do his greatest work of atonement? What was the crescendo of his work? When he went to the cross. When he was most broken. It was here that he brought life to all of humanity, through his death; by rupturing the bonds of self love (homo incurvatus in se), with the unbreakable bond that he shares consubstantially with the Father and Holy Spirit. That is, a life is given shape, by self-giveness; between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is through this kind of brokeness, in the mirror image of the cruci-shaped Son, that we can be the church for the world. That we have something to offer them; only when we are broken, and realize that we receive life as gift from the Father, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

Much more to say, but this has run long enough. I think I will talk more about the theologia gloriae “theology of glory,” in the near future.

*This is a repost, I really like what Zachman has to say on Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’; I hope you’re blessed by it today as well! Blessings.

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2 comments

  1. Ticket punched 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous · ·

    punched here too.

    Liked by 1 person