Let Us Be Theologians of the Cross
What is a theologian of the cross? 501 years ago Martin Luther nailed up 95 topics for discussion and debate in the town of Wittenberg. And that was the beginning of the Reformation. But it wasn’t exactly the clearest and best beginning. People knew that Luther was against selling indulgences. But they didn’t know what he was for. Word of this monk, Luther was spreading. So the Pope ordered his order, the Augustinian order to deal with the Luther problem. So, a man by the name of Johann Von Staupitz, Luther’s superior, held a meeting of the Augustinian order. But instead of holding the meeting to crush Luther. He held the meeting to give Luther a chance to clearly explain these “new ideas” that he was thinking of. It was the perfect environment for Luther. For Augustinians loved Augustine. But they loved God’s word even more.
And so, one by one, Luther brought up one theological topic after another. And about half way through he gets to a theme. He writes: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”1 Luther shows us the bad guy. The bad guy is the theologian of glory. The theologian of glory tries to answer theological questions by looking inside himself and out there at the created world. But the one place he does not look is the bible. The theologian of the cross looks to the bible. So this morning, we have as our theme and prayer, “Let us be theologians of the cross.”
Free will, after [the fall into] sin, exists in name only.2 When I took history class in college, we learned about the Holy Roman Empire. And the first fact our professor taught us was that the name didn’t help us at all in understanding what the Holy Roman Empire was. For, he said, it was neither Holy, nor Roman, and not even much of an empire. Freewill is like that. It has a name. But it’s a name without much meaning. Humans have freewill when it comes to earthly issues, having to do with reason—eating a burger or burrito for lunch. But freewill is a useless name when it comes to spiritual issues. And Luther illustrates it this way: When we do what what comes naturally to us, it leads to death. There was this idea in Luther’s day (and it’s still here in our’s too), that people, as they come into this world do not know who God is. But there were two solutions to this problem. First, you do what comes naturally to yourself: you seek God and do works that are pleasing to him.3 Second, God will see your good works and then do the rest of the work to let you into heaven. And Luther lets us know that the bible tells us that this is wrong. Our will is not free to do good. As we come into this world, before we are Christians, we are not able to do good at all. We have no freedom to do good. But we do have a freedom to yearn for and plan evil. In that context we are perfectly free. A theologian of the cross what it actually is. Each of us has this selfish, sinful voice inside of us that wants to play a role in our salvation, to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. But at theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is. Freewill exists in name only. For we are slaves to sin. But the good news is that Jesus came into this world. And he set us free from sin. He set us free from sin by dying and paying for our sin. He set us free by giving us a new person to wage war against the old. A theologian calls a thing what it actually is: freewill, after the fall, exists in name only.
The invisible God is not known through what is visible. The theologian of the cross calls something what it is. God is invisible. What he is is invisible. The Holy Spirit and the work he is is invisible. The gift of faith that God creates in us is invisible. Luther reminds us that a theologian of glory tries to find out who God is and what his glory is by looking at what is visible. Instead, we should look at what is invisible. This is a statement that we have to think through a little. For one of the traps we can fall into as Christians is that we can know who God is by looking at creation, or even worse, thinking that God talks to us through creation. For example, if you go away camping for a weekend and you see the leaves falling, you can conclude, “God must be good because of all these pretty colors.” But another person could well and truly conclude that God is evil. Why? He turns these leaves pretty so that he can cause them to die. If you want to see who God really truly is, you cannot look to what is seen—especially creation around us. But this theology of glory gets even worse. The theology of glory concludes that since Jesus visibly rose from the grave, victorious over sin and Satan, the church and Christians in the church will have a victorious life. So then, according to the theology of Glory, the true church is the one that is always growing. The true church is the one in which its members have the best life now instead of having the best life in heaven.
The theology of the cross, however, calls a thing what it is. Luther writes: “The person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who understands the visible and the “back side” of God [Exod. 33:23] seen through suffering and the cross.”” 4 If you want to see Jesus; if you want to see the Father’s glory, don’t look at the leaves. The leaves do not sweetly sing to you. Do not look at your life. For there you will find many failures. Instead, if you want to see the Father’s glory, look at Jesus. Jesus himself tells us this in John 14: “8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” 9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8–9 NIV11-GKE) If you want to see the Father’s glory, look to Jesus. But even more than that, look at his suffering. Look at his shame. Look at your Savior bleeding and sighing there on the cross. Then and there you will begin to see your God’s glory. For there you will begin to see and take to heart your God’s love for you and forgiveness won for you. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.
What is a saint? You can tell a lot about people by the expressions they use. One of the expressions I’ve heard over the years goes like this: “Well, I’m no saint, but…’” Notice the point the person is making. There are really good people out there. There are people who are better than I am. They are better because they work harder with their hands than I do. They are better than I am because they work harder with their hearts than I do. They deserve to be called, “saints.” But, my friends in Christ, that attitude is wrong. To use Luther’s language, that is the theology of glory. How do? Luther puts it this way: “The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “Believe in this One,” and everything has already been done.””5 The theology wants to look to things it can see. The theologian of glory wants to see progress and improvement in his or her life so that there is proof of being a Christian and also then proof of having a place in heaven. The problem though is that if you look to yourself for proof, you always need more proof. And you end up in despair. That’s the theology of glory. But the bible and the theologian of the cross has a different definition. Luther puts it this way: “And the law… commands what faith obtains.” 6 God’s word demands that we be perfect if we are to get into heaven. Faith gives us that perfection. But make no mistake. It is not our perfection that faith claims. It’s Christ’s perfection. And the result is that when our Father looks at us, through this gift of faith, he sees Christ’s perfection on our behalf.
1 The Roots of Reform, The Annotated Luther 1; ed. Timothy J. Wengert; Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 99.
2 The Roots of Reform, The Annotated Luther 1; ed. Timothy J. Wengert; Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 95.
3 Facere quod in se est
4 The Roots of Reform, The Annotated Luther 1; ed. Timothy J. Wengert; Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 99.
5 The Roots of Reform, The Annotated Luther 1; ed. Timothy J. Wengert; Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 103.
6 The Roots of Reform, The Annotated Luther 1; ed. Timothy J. Wengert; Accordance electronic ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2015), 103.