Serving and Suffering Under the Cross: Martin Luther on the Visible Sign of the Militant Church (Reformission Monday)

As I suggested in my post “Rediscovering the Scandalous God“, Martin Luther’s concept of the “theology of the cross”, as opposed to the “theology of glory”, is one that has significant implications for the mission of the church. Luther himself alluded to this in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church in which he outlined seven visible marks or signs by which the true church of Jesus Christ distinguishes itself from the world. After explicating the first six marks in terms of 1) the Word of God, 2) baptism, 3) the Lord’s supper, 4) the office of the keys, 5) the ordained ministry, and 6) corporate prayer and praise, Luther sets forth the seventh sign as the one that pervades and conditions all the others:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5[:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” after-lucas-cranach-the-younger-martin-luther-half-length-to-the-left-with-a-book-in-his-handsThey must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. No people on earth have to endure such bitter hate…

In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service. No one has compassion on them; they are given myrrh and gall to drink when they thirst. And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5[:11–12], “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.[1]

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance comments on this facet of the church’s existence and applies it to its missionary calling when he writes:

The Church presents a visible form in this world but of the kind that the world will not accept by its standards, for to it the Church presents a contrary picture as weak and deserted and without sign of power of worth…. The Church is always the Church militant under the Cross (sub cruce) and therefore ‘according to its external aspect’ it appears afflicted by God…. Because the Church in this world always lives [in between the realm of Satan and the Cross], it always presents a [scandalous face]. That may be due to its contemptible smallness in the eyes of the world, but is mostly due to the fact that it suffers and is persecuted and is maligned. God hides the Church, therefore, [under a dark and dreadful cover]. The Church lives in the flesh and in the world but lives there in no other way than by faith in Christ the Son of God who suffered for the Church. The Church for Christ’s sake suffers continuous abuse and vilification, is confounded and rejected by men, is mortified and dies, but it lives in Christ, and therefore all these opprobrious experiences and scandals which the Church has in the World are the precious gems with which God ornaments the Church….

That is Luther’s constant theme that it is only through [agony] and [temptation] that the Church exists and fulfils its mission, and therefore he insists on interpreting the whole idea of the essential form of the Church in history in terms of the Cross…. This argument convinces us that the Church is the Kingdom of God; all other kingdoms of the world fight against the one weak and despised Church but do not prevail at all. But the Church itself conquers at last all kingdoms and converts them to itself, by the very power of God. But before it increases like that its weakness and humility is scandalous.[2]

The theology of the cross, when applied to the church and its missionary vocation, cuts against all human expectations and standards. Whereas worldly wisdom prizes strength, size, status, and success, the wisdom of God reveals itself in weakness, smallness, insignificance, and defeat. We naturally want to imagine that the church of Jesus Christ would go forth into the world with great power and glory, stunning people into the kingdom with an impressive display of eloquent speech and visible wonders. However, as Luther rightly points out, the church of Christ exists only because of the cross of Christ, and thus its clearest mark is the opposite of what anyone would think: suffering, reproach, derision, poverty, contempt, weakness, persecution, and death. If God accomplished his saving victory over sin in the shameful death of his Son on the cross, then the church commissioned to herald this victory should not expect to do so in a different manner.

A couple of biblical examples bear this out and deserve mentioning. First, we should think of Stephen in Acts 7 whose Spirit-empowered, grace-filled witness ended in martyrdom by stoning. It would be easy to compare the outcome of his preaching with that of Peter in Acts 2 and conclude that he ended in utter failure. Such a conclusion would be premature and unwarranted, however, for Acts 8 reveals that his execution instigated a great persecution against the Jerusalem church, the result of which was the scattering of the first Christians into the regions of Judea and Samaria and a greater diffusion of the gospel. According to the narrative, it was not in spite of, but because of Stephen’s death the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1625and the subsequent persecution that the Word of God spread in fulfillment of Christ’s promise in Acts 1:8. In other words, Christ accomplishes his mission through the cruciform suffering of his church.

The apostle Paul knew this as well. His second letter to the Corinthians finds him defending himself against the so-called “super-apostles” who were undermining his apostolic authority on the grounds that he cut a fairly unimpressive figure for one who claimed to be an apostle of Christ. How could one who suffered so greatly as Paul, who was so constantly afflicted and persecuted for the gospel, truly be an apostle of the risen and ascended Christ? Would it not make more sense that the life of an apostle would be characterized by great power and glory and victory rather than abject weakness and shame and defeat? Quite the contrary, Paul argues:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4:7-11).

Far from discrediting his apostleship, Paul contended that his suffering actually validated it! For Paul, it was unthinkable to preach nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) in a way incongruous with the message itself. What credibility could be lent to the gospel of Christ crucified if it were preached by those who only know comfort and ease? How could one who has never known hardship or defeat or pain or weakness or shame ever commend the folly and scandal of the cross as the wisdom and power of God? No, for Paul, it was precisely his cruciform message that gave shape to his apostolic ministry. Only by bearing in his own body the death of Jesus could the resurrection life be manifested as well. Only by despairing of life itself could Paul be forged into instrument fit to reveal the power of God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:8-9).[3]

What Stephen and Paul knew, Luther discovered and handed on to us. The church of Jesus marching forth militant into the world on mission can do so only through suffering, shame, weakness, and death. The cross shows us that God has purposed to accomplish his saving victory not in spite of, but precisely because of a cruci-formed church. While this may appear scandalous and foolish to the world, as well as to other so-called Christians enamored, like the Corinthians, with a theology of glory, it is the means — indeed the only means! — by which the gospel goes forth in power. May we not, therefore, run from a cruciform life as though it were inimical to our mission; rather let us embrace the cross in order that we might, not only in word but also in deed, share in the sufferings of Christ, becoming like him in his death that we might attain, and lead others, to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).

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[1] Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 375-376.

[2] T.F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church: A Study in the Theology of the Reformation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 66-69.

[3] This is why the theology of the cross, and the mission shaped by it, does not exclude the resurrection. It recognizes that just as Easter Sunday was necessarily preceded by Good Friday, so also the revelation of resurrection power in the life and the ministry of the church can only come about through humble submission to the cross that is laid on it. Resurrection life does not appear prior to or independent of the cross, but through it and in the midst of it.

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