Legacy of Reformation: The Paradox of the Cross

Many of us associate Martin Luther the great reformer with dramatic events like the nailing of the 95 theses on the Castle Church’s door; his discovery of justification by faith and his famous confession before the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, I can do no other!” But few would associate Luther with his deep insights into the theology of the cross. Its obscurity may be due to the fact that Luther was sharing his thoughts at a convention of Augustinian monks in Heidelberg in 1518. At this convention, he quietly unveiled his theological insights that have shaken the Church ever since. He centred his thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1: 25: “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” It was here that he discovered the paradox of the cross as a key to understand other biblical truths. What is a paradox? Mark Shaw, in ‘Ten Great Ideas from Church History,’ defines it as “… a statement that seems to contradict apparent truth but actually contains a deeper truth.” As he delved into Romans and the Corinthian epistles, he made a stunning discovery. God works through opposites. The only salvation that works is one that renounces works. The power of Christ was revealed in His death or weakness. When we are weak, then we are strong.

The medieval salvation system in Luther’s day had built ladders on which man could ascend to God through good works. This system taught that every man has a ‘divine spark’ within him. If we do our best, God will fan that spark and we will become fuller each day with holiness and love. Thus through grace and good works we can climb the staircase of religious and moral success so that God will be so impressed with our performance that he will reward us with the gift of eternal life in heaven. If we slip, we could get up again through the sacrament of penance. In this way we will get another chance at the staircase. Luther followed this system but failed to find God. However through God’s word, he found that God’s saving love is given at the bottom of the stairs to crippled pilgrims, not at the top of the stairs to spiritual overachievers. The cross is thus a paradox: God rejects the proud but gives grace to the humble; he rejects beautiful heroes but gives success to ugly failures. The sinner at the bottom of the staircase needs only to believe in order to be delivered.

What does this mean for us? The theology of the cross should change our preaching of the cross. Preaching the cross is not preaching only evangelistic sermons but preaching about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us and what he calls us to do for him and for one another. When we lift up the cross of Christ each week, we will turn an audience of passive spectators into an active army of servants and consumers into the committed.

Rev. Mark Tay