The Cross Alone: Martin Luther’s Sixth Sola of the Reformation (The Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Recently I have written about the theologia crucis — the theology of the cross — that constituted in many ways Martin Luther’s most important discovery, a discovery that gave rise to his entire vision for church reform. Although Luther is perhaps remembered more for his doctrine of justification by faith alone or for his courageous stand at the Diet of Worms, it is arguable that his understanding of theologia crucis, based largely on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was a far more significant development in that it funded his entire theological project. Luther publicly put forward the theology of the cross — something that he contrasted with the theology of glory that characterized the theological method of much medieval scholasticism — at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. So what exactly was Luther’s cross-and-bible-1302668theology of the cross, and why was it so significant? The editors of Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings [Third edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 14, 24-25.], W.R. Russell and T.F. Lull, explain the background as follows:

In April 1518, the German Augustinian order held its General Chapter meeting in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg. By this time (six months after the publication of The Ninety-Five Theses), Luther was under a great cloud of controversy. When his superiors asked him to present his ideas to the Brothers, he used the form of a modified disputation; he wrote these theses, not for a debate he would chair in professorial style, but rather as a way to present his theology.

Already in this early document, Luther develops some characteristic theological themes as he expands his understanding of sin, grace, and free will. And in doing so, he offers his distinctive proposal for reform of the church—a reform centered in the “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis). Moreover, the Reformer moves beyond the mere content of theological propositions to offer a cross-centered method of theologizing.

Thus, for example, Luther argued in theses 25-28:

25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1[:17]), and “A person believes with the heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10[:10]). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that one’s works do not make him or her righteous, rather that one’s righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3[:20] states, “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3[:28]). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore, a person knows that works done by such faith are not one’s own but God’s. For this reason one does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. One’s justification by faith in Christ is sufficient. Christ is such a person’s wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1[:30] has it, that we may be Christ’s action and instrument.

26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

The first part is clear from what has been stated by the Apostle and his interpreter, St. Augustine, in many places. And it has been stated often enough above that the law works wrath and keeps all humans under the curse. The second part is clear from the same sources, for faith justifies. “And the law (says St. Augustine) commands what faith obtains.” For through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.

27. Actually one should call the work of Christ an acting work and our work an accomplished work, and thus an accomplished work pleasing to God by the grace of the acting work.

Because Christ lives in us through faith so he arouses us to do good works through that living faith in his work, for the works which Christ does are the fulfillment of the commands of God given to us through faith. If we look at them we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” [Eph. 5:1]. Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which Christ has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If Christ’s action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive according to the verse, “Draw me after you, let us make haste” [Song of Sol. 1:4] toward the fragrance “of your anointing oils” [Song of Sol. 1:3], that is, “your works.”

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. Human love comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

The second part is clear and is accepted by all philosophers and theologians, for the object of love is its cause, assuming, according to Aristotle, that all power of the soul is passive and material and active only in receiving something. Thus it is also demonstrated that Aristotle’s philosophy is contrary to theology since in all things it seeks those things which are its own and receives rather than gives something good. The first part is clear because the love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise, and strong. Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive. For this reason human love avoids sinners and evil persons. Thus Christ says: “For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Psalm 41[:1] states, “Blessed is he who considers the poor,” for the intellect cannot by nature comprehend an object which does not exist, that is the poor and needy person, but only a thing which does exist, that is the true and good. Therefore it judges according to appearances, is a respecter of persons, and judges according to that which can be seen, etc.

Russell and Lull helpfully summarize for us what all this means:

Luther had come to think that the main problem with the Scholastic theological tradition was its commitment to philosophical rationalism. Thinkers such as Thomas criticism-ml-hx-pg_1Aquinas unblinkingly followed the rationalistic trajectories of their first principles. Therefore, their opening theological moves tended to dominate the systems they developed.

For example, because the Scholastics believed they could prove the existence of God with philosophical reason, Luther thought they moved too smoothly from what could be known in nature to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Though Thomas himself was clear that reason could not explain the “saving mysteries,” much of the energy of subsequent Scholastic theology went into these foundational questions.

The Reformer thought the Scholastic project obscured what Paul had taught: the cross of Christ is not a concept compatible with conventional philosophy. To reason, the cross is foolishness and offense. The meaning of Christ’s death cannot be explained—that is, without obscuring its scandalous character. Therefore, writes Luther, the true theologian does not build a rational system, based on visible and evident things (following Aristotle). Rather, the paradox of the cross teaches that the ways of God are hidden (deus absconditus), even in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Here Luther provides not only theological and philosophical theses; he also elaborates each thesis as he connects the issues at stake with the Scriptures and various theologians.

Here we see Luther’s radically grace-centered theology, as he sets the righteousness of God not only against philosophical claims of “wisdom,” but also against all the best moral achievement of humanity. Thus, the Reformer appeals to the strong voice of St. Augustine, especially in his controversy with Pelagius, which apparently had become muted even in the Augustinian order.

Here we see the connection between Luther’s theologia crucis and justification by faith alone. Justification by faith alone is offensive to human reason that wants to assert its own wisdom and power instead of being utterly at the mercy of God’s sovereign grace. Thus, before we can understand justification by faith alone, our wisdom and power must be crucified so that we can submit to the “foolishness” and “weakness” of the gospel.

In short, a theology of glory is to be found wherever it is assumed that human beings can reach God through their own wisdom and power (even with the help of grace); the theology of the cross, on the other hand, is to be found only where it is believed, on the basis of the Word of God, that the gospel has nullified all human wisdom and power with the foolishness and weakness of God. To truly know God, we must become fools according to human wisdom; we must be crucified to human power. To truly know God, we must never form any thought or conception of him outside of his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross understands that the power of human wisdom need not simply be “elevated” or “perfected” by revelation (according to Thomas Aquinas’s famous dictum), but rather contradicted and demolished in order to be wholly reconstructed and set on an entirely new basis. In sum, the theology of the cross teaches that in order to know God, we must be crucified with Christ in order to be resurrected to a new way of knowing in him.

Perhaps to the traditional five Solas of the Reformation we should add a sixth: sola crux, the cross alone.

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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.

“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

Rediscovering the Scandalous God: Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (The Heidelberg Disputation of 1518)

Although we think of Luther’s famous 95 theses as sparking the Reformation in 1517, it would perhaps be more accurate to accord this honor to the theses that he prepared for the disputation in Heidelberg in 1518. It was at this event that Luther laid the foundation and set the trajectory for his later reforming work. In the scheme of things, the 95 theses penned in Wittenberg took aim at a fairly narrow set of issues, whereas the theses composed for Heidelberg set forth, in seminal form, Luther’s comprehensive vision for csm_luther_in_heidelberg_6ffae26474the church reformed under the authority of the Word of God. This comprehensive vision can be summed up in Luther’s own phrase theologia crucis — theology of the cross — in contrast to the theologia gloriae — the theology of glory — that he vociferously opposed in medieval scholasticism. It was here, not in the matter of indulgences, but between the theologies of cross and glory, that Luther drew his main line of battle. Stated simply, if we do not understand the theology of the cross, we cannot understand Luther. Speaking personally, I find this aspect of Luther’s teaching to be the most significant, most compelling, and most encouraging of everything that he ever said or wrote.

What is the theologia crucis? Entire books deal exclusively with this subject, so a mere blog post can hardly serve to do it justice. However, I think it is possible to get an adequate, if only cursory, sense of what Luther meant simply by sampling a few of the Heidelberg theses. Beginning with thesis 19, Luther argued:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

This is apparent in the example of those who were “theologians” and still were called fools by the Apostle in Romans 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.

20. One deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Corinthians 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because humans misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering—to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in the Divine works should honor God hidden in suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Corinthians 1[:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does one no good to recognize God in Divine glory and majesty, unless one recognizes God in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hides yourself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeking God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason, true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ. It is also stated in John 10[14:6]: “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door” [John 10:9], and so forth.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for human beings not to be puffed up by their good works unless they have first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until they know that they are worthless and that their works are not theirs, but God’s.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by humans is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

This has already been said. Because humans do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: “The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.” The same thought is expressed in Ecclesiastes 1[:8]: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” This holds true of all desires.

Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4[:13], where he says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking folly. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4:15].

Thus Galatians 3[:18] states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”; and: “For all who rely on works of the law are under the curse” [Gal. 3:10]; and Romans 4:[15]: “For the law brings wrath”; and Romans 7[:10]: “The very commandment which promised life proved to be the death of me”; Romans 2[:12]: “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without law.” Therefore, those who boast that they are wise and learned in the law boast in their confusion, their damnation, the wrath of God, in death. As Romans 2[:23] puts it: “You who boast in the law.”

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross a person misuses the best in the worst manner.

Indeed the law is holy [Rom. 7:12], every gift of God good [1 Tim. 4:4], and everything that is created exceedingly good, as in Genesis 1[:31]. But, as stated above, the one who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. Such a person thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.

Those, however, who have been emptied [Cf. Phil. 2:7] through suffering no longer do works but know that God works and does all things in them. For this reason, whether they do works or not, it is all the same to them. They neither boast if they do good works, nor are they disturbed if God does not do good works through them. They know that it is sufficient if they suffer and are brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. Christ says this in John 3[:7], “You must be born anew.” To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.[1]

Luther certainly gives us much to chew on and digest here. The theology of the cross is not a theology about the cross (which can often be hijacked and turned into another form of a theology of glory!) but rather a theology through the cross, i.e. formulated from the perspective of Christ crucified as the locus of God’s saving power and revelation. For this reason, it is better, as indicated in the theses themselves, to speak rather of a theologian of the cross, for the theology of the cross simply indicates the point of view that we are forced to assume in relation to all reality on the basis of the scandal and folly of the gospel. The perspective of the cross stains things with the martin-luther-and-frederick-iii-of-saxony-kneeling-before-christ-on-the-cross-german-schoolcrimson color of blood and molds them into a cruciform shape. For this kind of theologian, the cross is more than a religious symbol or mere instrument of salvation, it is the lens through which the entire world is reinterpreted.

Thus, whereas the theologian of glory (i.e. everyone who is not a theologian of the cross!) looks for God in the likeliest places — i.e. where power, glory, and success are visibly seen — the theologian of the cross knows that God actually manifests himself in the unlikeliest and least expected places: in weakness, shame, and defeat. The theologian of glory measures according to standards of strength, greatness, and tangible results, whereas the theologian of the cross is attuned to the ignominy, smallness, and folly with which God reveals and redeems. This is, after all, is precisely what Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 1:20-29:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

There are so many practical implications of this that it would be impossible to enumerate them all. Let me just suggest a couple. First, a theologian of glory can always be found prefacing statements with things like: “…but it doesn’t make sense that…”, “it seems logical that…”, “it’s unthinkable that God would…”, “surely if God had intended that, then…”, etc. To this the theologian of the cross will respond: “Yes, that does make more sense, and it does seem logical that God would act in such and such a way, but Christ crucified has put an end to all that makes logical sense to the worldly wise, and we can only seek to know the ways and works of God in the folly and scandal of the cross.” To use a biblical example, a theologian of glory stands at Golgotha and snides: “he who saved others could not save himself.” The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at Christ crucified and marvels: “truly this is the Son of God!”

Second, a theologian of glory will become easily discouraged when effort is rewarded with failure, when faithfulness is rewarded with fruitlessness, when good is rewarded with suffering. A theologian of the cross, however, will remain unflappable and unmoved even when assailed by the fiercest doubts, even when experiencing the costliest losses, even when consigned to shame or anonymity. This, not because of an innate inner strength, but because the cross has taught its theologians to expect such outcomes. If the supreme display of the power and wisdom of God was the weakness and foolishness of Christ crucified, then we should not be surprised to find his power and wisdom displayed in our own lives in the exact same way.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a salutary reminder that whereas we are usually looking for God to come as a conquering king, we will only find him as a crucified carpenter. When this scandalous truth becomes the focal point through which we view all reality, then (and only then) we will begin to think, reason, pray, work, minister, and live as true followers of Christ.

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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), 22-4.

An Ocean of Love Unspeakable: Martin Luther’s Rediscovery of Christ’s Centrality (Reformission Monday)

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It is Martin Luther week here at Reformissio! Last week I had the privilege (and fulfillment of a long-time desire) to visit Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther and the birthplace of the Reformation. Living in Europe has its perks, one of which is the possibility of visiting many significant historical sites. As an avid student of Reformation history, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store as I walked the streets of Wittenberg and envisioned the earth-shaking events that took place there five hundred years ago. I will have more to say about my visit later this week, but the purpose of this post (and those that will follow) is not to provide a travelogue but to examine some of the aspects of Luther’s reforming work that continue to challenge and inspire.

Since this is “Reformission Monday”, it seems opportune to pinpoint what was perhaps the driving force behind Luther’s efforts. We will remember that “reformission” is a shorthand way of referring to “mission as reformation”. Reformission is the form that obedience to the Great Commission takes in contexts where the name of Jesus Christ has once held prominence but has since lapsed into obscurity. In places where the church of Jesus Christ has either ceased to exist or continues to exist only as an empty shell, the need for reformission arises. As I wrote in a previous post on Martin Luther, it is when the church no longer bows its knee in humble submission and confesses with its tongue that Jesus is Lord that reformissionaries are needed to call it back to its first love. This is what Luther, for all his faults and failures, sought to do.

Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh helps us to understand Luther’s work in these terms when he writes:

It is not too much to say that with the Reformation, and especially with Luther, there came into the world a deeper understanding of the person of Christ than had prevailed since the apostolic age…. This was due to religious interest being now simply concentrated on Christ, and no longer dispersed vainly over a multitude of mediators and spiritual exercises. What emerges in consequence is a distinctive type of Christian piety. The Gospel is in the historic Saviour, and it is all there. Theology and Christology are no longer independent aspects of doctrine; they coincide. The Reformers, writes Dr. Lindsay, “knew no other God than the God who had manifested Himself in the historical Christ, and made us see in the miracle of faith that He is our salvation.”

Luther’s system of belief, if system it may be called, rests on and revolves round the person of Jesus Christ. To him faith in God and faith in Christ are one and the same thing. “I have no God,” he exclaims, “whether in heaven or in earth, and I know of none, outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary. For elsewhere God is utterly incomprehensible, but comprehensible in the flesh of Christ alone.” And again: ” Wilt thou go surely and meet and grasp God rightly, so finding grace and help in Him, be not persuaded to seek Him elsewhere than in the Lord Christ. Let thine art and study begin with Christ, and there let it stay and cling.” Hence the problems of the Trinity and the two natures ceased to be mere enigmas of speculative dialectic, providing the theologia gloriae, as Luther called it, with a field for keen intellectual play; at every point they remained in living touch with religion. Christ is for sinners the one mark on which saving trust must fix; elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.

It was among the rare excellences of Luther’s Christology that he fastened an indissoluble bond, as St. Paul had done, between the person of the Redeemer and His redeeming work. Any view of Christ, therefore, which may be developed in abstraction from what He actually did for men, in His life, death, and resurrection, is but a formal and delusive play of words. To start not from metaphysical presuppositions as to what Godhead and manhood are, and the possibility of uniting them, but from Jesus’ cross and victory and the working of His Spirit in the heart—this is the only true way. These two, the person and the office, are an organic unity, neither being intelligible apart from the other. Both are asserted when faith says “our Lord.” As the work is eternal, so must the person be. On the other hand, none but such a person could have accomplished a work so great. Therefore even in contemplating the passion we ought “mostly to consider the person, and study well quis, qualis, et quantus Christ is….”

Luther is quite conscious of a difference in accent separating him here from the scholastics and even from many of the Fathers; it is indeed his complaint against the Roman Church, that she never dreamt we ought to learn to recognise God in Christ. Too often the Fathers fled from the manhood of Christ to the Godhead, pleading that the flesh profiteth nothing. Whereas the fact is that except as man Christ could never have redeemed us by His cross and triumph. Sinners are guilty; hence none but the proper and true God could “purge sin, destroy death, remove the curse,” and only in flesh could even God Himself do it. Thus it is impossible to draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human. The mere juxtaposition of Godhead and manhood, as Luther never tires of repeating, is of no avail; we must have the Son of God fused and inwoven with humanity, and one person therewith. If Christ were not God, there were no God at all, but in Him God has entered into a bond with sinners closer even than a brother….

It is indeed the fact that acceptance of the deity of Christ had ceased, for Luther, to be a doctrinal preliminary of saving faith; but this is so because Christ, so far from counting for less in personal religion, now counts for infinitely more, and stands in the very centre of the religious experience itself. Belief in His Godhead, in other words, is no mere theoretic approach or avenue to faith; it was a living constituent in faith, to be afterwards analysed out and made explicit by the theologian. Here in Christ, Luther cries, I have the Father’s heart and will, coming forth in love for my salvation; and the heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus. We must not make “a Christ apart by Himself and a God apart by Himself,” but reckon the two all one.[1]

In contrast with medieval scholasticism’s “theology of glory” which sought to gain access to God through the power of human reason, Martin Luther was adamant, like the apostle Paul, that no one can ascend into heaven to reach God, save the only One who has descended from heaven to us in human flesh as the Word of God come near, Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:6-8). It is the “righteousness of the law”, i.e. the theology of glory, by which human beings presume to be able to discover and know God through their own innate capacities. However, only the “righteousness of faith”, i.e. the theology of the cross, is that by which such knowledge of God is truly possible inasmuch as it is the way in which God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. To seek God anywhere else, “whether in matthiasgrunewald_thecrucifixion-detail3heaven or in earth … outside the flesh that lies in the bosom of the Virgin Mary”, is a rebellious affront to God and a black abyss that will only end in despair and death. Only the God revealed in Jesus Christ (excluding, in Luther’s day and in ours, a God revealed through other mediators, ecclesial or otherwise) is God as he actually is and as he actually relates to us in infinte grace and love. As Mackintosh beautifully put it, “elsewhere God is known only as an angry and devouring fire, whereas in Christ He is a very ocean of love unspeakable.”

Ultimately, the only hope for a lost and dying world, or for a feeble and failing church, is Jesus Christ alone. As Luther would have argued, not even the best efforts of someone like himself would suffice for remedying the sinner’s plight. Only the God scandalously clad in human flesh and crucified on a Roman cross has the power to reconcile and redeem. Despite its folly in the estimation of the world (and of the church that has lost its center), the good news of the gospel is precisely this: we need not, nor can we, go behind the back of Jesus Christ to find another God or Savior or Lord. As irreverent as it may sound, we cannot “draw Christ too deeply down into nature and the flesh. We cannot make Him too human.” Christ is Emmanuel, “God with us”, the one who has descended in order to lift us by his Spirit to his Father. Not by looking to anyone or anything else will we find all that we need. Christ alone. Solus Christus.

This is why for Luther, as for us today, the “heresy of heresies is that which separates the mind and disposition of God from that of Jesus”. This is far more common that we may think. How often do we tend to think of God in abstraction from Jesus Christ, perhaps as the sum total of a series of attributes derived simply by intensifying or negating the qualities that we ourselves possess? Certainly a God conceived in such a manner cannot be the God who stoops down in grace to reveal himself and reconcile us, for such a God is ultimately a magnification of who we ourselves are. Is there any salvation in such a humanly-devised God? By no means. This is why Luther struggled so mightily, even at great personal cost, to bring reformation to the church that had lost sight of the God revealed in Christ crucified for the God construed along the lines of human aspirations. Insofar as this continues to happen today, reformissionaries such as Luther are still desperately needed in the church.

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Who will go? Will you?

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.230-232, 235.

The Danger of a Respectable Gospel: Karl Barth on the Greatest Threat to the Preaching of the Cross (Reformission Monday)

Many are the obstacles that we as a church face when we obey Christ’s commission to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. Depending on where we are and those with whom we speak, we may encounter opposition, resistance, indifference, derision, apathy, ridicule, hardheartedness, persecution, or even violence, just to name a few. To be sure, all of these are significant difficulties and each poses its own unique challenges, but there is one that seems, at least to me, to be far more insidious and, in some ways, much more dangerous. This is what Karl Barth sought to bring to light when he spoke of the perennial risk to turn the scandal of the cross into a “respectable” gospel, a safe and domesticated message that does not judge as it saves, that does not convict as it comforts, that does not wound as it heals, that does not kill as it makes alive. As Barth explains, the reason why this respectable gospel is so deadly is because it can be accepted and affirmed while being, in reality, rejected and denied. The greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make it less dangerous. Barth writes:

When the Gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen,Wuppertal, Evangelische Gesellschaft, Jahrestagung which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. What is all open unbelief, and how hopeful it seems, compared with a “victory of faith” in which man has really conquered faith by being a believer along with all the other things he is, by making even the Gospel into a means of his self-preservation and self-defence!

We can make only a brief reference to the abundance of religious, moral, political, philosophical and scientific forms in which this can take place. The important thing is that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, both in Church extension on the mission field and in the existing Church, it is exposed at once to the danger of respectability. Indeed, the danger has already been incurred, for as far as can be seen it does always succumb to this process of domestication. And the real hero in the process is always the man who maintains a typical respectability by intending to hold his own against grace, but knowing that the best way to do it is not to contradict its proclamation but to put himself into an orderly relation with it, not to deny but to affirm it—yet circumspectly and in such a way that he reserves his rights over against it, so that it cannot become dangerous to him.[1]

The temptation to make the gospel respectable by assimilating it into the life and mind of the natural man has existed since the time in which Paul rebuked the Galatian churches for “turning to a different gospel” that in truth was no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6)! Paul argued that those who were leading the Galatian believers astray “want to make a good showing in the flesh…and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12). Paul was keenly aware that the “word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18), leading many to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2) in order to blunt its sharp edges.

But Paul would have none of this: “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your [slaves] for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). The gospel summons us to nothing less than utter submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and enslaves us to the cruciformity of his will and ways. Yet it is precisely this that rebellious human nature cannot abide, and its natural instinct will be to kick against the goads in the struggle to assert itself as its own master and savior. Certainly human beings in their natural state of enmity against God will accept a gospel that proclaims a Jesus that makes them the lord!

If, as a result of this, we attempt to be “sensitive” or “tolerant” (or whatever else the case may be) and present the cross in a way that can be accepted without scandal or offense, it is likely that this more “respectable” gospel is in truth no gospel at all. A gospel that can be affirmed apart from the absolute demands that it makes upon its hearers — to deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow Jesus no matter the cost — does nothing but affirm sinful human beings in their sinfulness, making their latter state worse than before.

Barth’s words are therefore a sobering and salutary reminder to all of us engaged in the work of missions and evangelism: the greatest danger to the gospel is that we would make the gospel less dangerous.

Let us never forget, the gospel is not respectable.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.141.