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The Theology of the Cross

1 November 2021

In the lectures and writings of Martin Luther, it was clear that he was focused on promoting the idea of a “theology of the cross.” This is the phrase that he chose to encapsulate the Reformation insight of the gospel of the crucified Christ, in contrast to the theology of glory taught by the institutional church of his day.

According to Luther, true wisdom does not come from recognizing God’s invisible attributes from what is seen or experienced around us (Rom. 1:20). Instead, a theologian of the cross understands the things of God seen through suffering and the cross. Real wisdom is not to be found in the majestic and glorious work of God in His creation, but in the work of Christ, who was humiliated and shamed.

We find an example of this in John 14:8, when Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father. Philip assumed that understanding who God is, must be through the means of the mighty and glorious. Instead, Christ directed Philip to Himself, because who has seen Christ has seen the Father (John 14:9). Philip was to see and understand who God is, through Christ who was in servant form, washing feet and laying down His life for many.

Another point that Luther makes about the theology of the cross is that it does not boast in the works of the law. It has no room for this, because it knows that man must first confess that he has no ability to save himself, before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ. The righteous man is not someone who does a lot but a man who believes much in Christ.

According to Luther, the law says, “do this,” but it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done, because we fulfill everything through Christ, who has fulfilled all the laws of God.

Finally, Luther expects a theologian of the cross to identify with its weakness and suffering. Only those who hate the cross will pursue earthly wisdom, glory and power. Luther goes as far as to say that the suffering man is the only man who can enter into community with God. In other words, no one can be a theologian of the cross unless he has first been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20).

In Luther’s view, once we have been emptied through suffering, we will no longer boast if we do good works. Nor are we disturbed if God does not do good works through us. This is because we have been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until we know that we are worthless, and our works are not ours but God’s.

Luther’s theology of the cross is a stark contrast to the popular preaching we hear on the Internet today. Many of today’s famous pastors are nothing more than modern-day theologians of glory. Only a few are living up to Paul’s motto, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). As we consider the Reformation this Sunday, let us remember to set aside every human work and proclaim the work of Christ as the only foundation for assurance and hope.

Article summarized and adapted from: Macleod, Donald. “The Work of Christ.” In Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, edited by Matthew Barrett, 347–391. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

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