January 22, 2021

Reformation 500: How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (3)

Note from CM: It is October 2017, and many of our posts this month will be about the Reformation. This year marks 500 years since Luther’s 95 Theses, and we will do our best to look at the subsequent world-changing events and movements from as many perspectives as possible.

We begin with my own personal journey. This week, I am re-posting about why I am now a Christian who practices my faith in the Lutheran tradition.

• • •

Reformation 500
How the Lutheran Tradition Answers Many Post-Evangelical Concerns (3)

This week I have been giving some examples to show how concerns I have had over the years about evangelicalism are answered by the traditional teachings of historic Lutheranism. Today, I want to discuss an emphasis that Martin Luther and his heirs have stressed, which I think is one of their greatest contributions to Christian theology.

Today’s subject is introduced by an important quote from Luther, which came early in the Reformer’s career.

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

The manifest and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1:25 calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn “wisdom concerning invisible things” by means of “wisdom concerning visible things”, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering (absconditum in passionibus). As the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 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 him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isa. 45:15 says, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”

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 seeing 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, as it is also stated in John 10 (John 14:6), “No one comes to the Father, but by me;” “I am the door” (John 10:9), and so forth.

• Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Thesis 20

This is one of points Luther debated in a meeting of the Augustinian Order in 1518, the year after he had posted his 95 Theses. In the editor’s introduction to this disputation in the Book of Concord it is noted that these points represent an important development in Luther’s thought and show his “growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.”

At the heart of his argument was that the Church had been overtaken by a “Theology of Glory,” whereas God has revealed himself and brought us salvation through a “Theology of the Cross.”

I met with a Lutheran pastor recently, and we discussed some of the unique contributions the tradition has to offer to contemporary American Christianity. The one he felt was most important was the theology of the cross. He spoke eloquently about how much that passes for “faith” today is in reality little more than “positive thinking.” People are attracted to this upbeat message, but when things start going wrong, when the bottom drops out of their lives, suddenly they discover that clichés and platitudes are not enough to sustain them.

The theology of the cross, in contrast to teaching that continually promotes a “victorious Christian life,” proclaims that God hides himself in the most unlikely disguises.

Martin Luther loved the Christmas story for this reason. In a most unexpected manner, God took on human flesh and was born in an obscure village to an unwed mother, laid in a manger among farm animals, and acknowledged only by rough and simple shepherds.

Then there was Jesus’ life and ministry. Throughout its course, the words of the prophet Isaiah characterized him: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (53:2-3)

Jesus did not live a “successful” life in worldly terms. Riches, power, luxury, wide influence — he knew none of these. He had nowhere to lay his head. He walked on dusty paths in forsaken regions of the empire, far from the halls of power. Even the parochial leaders in Palestine — the big fish in the small pond of Israel — dismissed Jesus as a small-time pretender from the sticks.

We know the ending of the story. Betrayed by one of his closest followers, convicted through a mockery of a trial, tortured, abused, and publicly shamed by his captors, he was executed as a criminal on a Roman gibbet.

And this is our God.

Those who follow Christ most faithfully know that the cross is also the key to the Jesus-shaped life for his people.

The Apostle Paul, for example, testified, “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’” (2Cor 12:9-10)

Through these words, Paul was trying to provide his Corinthian friends an antidote for the deadly triumphalistic teaching being promoted in their midst by certain “super-apostles” in Corinth. These leaders were always “boasting” about their spiritual credentials, experiences, and victories, promoting a “power religion” that despised weakness and humility. This was faith for winners, with no room for losers.

Paul, however, determined only to boast in those things that revealed his weakness (2Cor 11:30), for those were the experiences in which he believed God was present, though hidden.

Do I need to set forth evidence that a similar “power religion” which unabashedly calls people to a “faith” that seeks spiritual enthusiasm, spectacle, ecstatic experiences, “abundance,” “victory,” “prosperity,” and “deliverance” from sin and suffering, and which despises weakness, struggles, doubts, and helplessness characterizes much of what we see in American cultural Christianity today?

What happens when enthusiasm fades? When spectacle no longer titillates? When you “crash” and can’t find that spiritual “high” anymore? When prayers for deliverance aren’t answered? When poverty replaces abundance? When Christian “answers” no longer ring true? When healing doesn’t come? When your marriage falls apart or your children go astray? When all the principles and steps and methods and programs you were counting on to bring success turn out to be ineffectual? When your “faith” and your “confession” and your “decision” don’t seem to make a difference?

Where is God in all of that? Is he in any of that?

Yes, that is exactly where he is. This is the life in which God is present and active, for this is the God who hides himself. This is the God of the cross.

This is the One who meets us in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness, as well as in every experience of our ordinary, human lives. He may be hidden so that we cannot see him, but he is present and active. As Jesus said yes to the cross as the way God had for him, so must we. Baptized into Christ, we reject the way of glory — the way of human power, wisdom, technique, control, and manipulation — and we embrace the way of the cross — the way of trust, receptiveness, and the freedom to be human, weak, and vulnerable.

I have been crucified with the Messiah.
I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me.
And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

• Galatians 2:20, The Kingdom NT


  1. +1000

    I guess I am a closet Lutheran then. This is what I have believed for a very long time. Cannot tell you what I have read in books or whom I have heard speak in person that brought me to this conclusion, but it or they were all evangelical because I have not been in other circles. Perhaps what I read was the Bible and the one I heard was the Holy Spirit.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      I know it is very hard to believe, but there has been a strong strain of the Theology of the Cross in Evangelical Protestantism as well. I experienced it primarily in Armininan Keswick circles, and among first-wave Pentecostals guided by such traditional Holiness teachings than by those after 1970 who were mostly influenced by the “New Light” teachings of E.W. Kenyon and those who followed him.

      The Theology of the Cross is always going to be a minority taste. It will never fill hangar-sized churches. Even among the Orthodox, sadly, it is considered “something for monastics”. I don’t think it does any good to piss and moan about that. We’re all Cain’s children. For people who want to know Jesus intimately, pecho a pecho, though, it’s the only way.

      Still falls the Rain—
      Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
      He bears in His Heart all wounds,—those of the light that died,
      The last faint spark
      In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
      The wounds of the baited bear—
      The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
      On his helpless flesh… the tears of the hunted hare.

  2. Steve Newell says

    “Your Best Life Now”, “Purse Driven Life” are just examples of two popular books that are about a “theology of glory”. When is the last time you heard a church talking about the “Cost of Discipleship”

    Also if you look at many churches today, you will not see crosses but doves.

    In addition, the alter has been replaced with the jumbo tron as the center of the worship.

    • Dan from Georgia says

      Great comment Steve!

    • When is the last time you heard a church talking about the “Cost of Discipleship”

      Sadly fairly often, as it’s been claimed by the holiness types. How extreme can your discipleship get. Any weakness or sin means you aren’t extreme enough and clearly don’t want it, you love your sin, how can you hate God so much?

      Not exaggerating. That phrase is very triggering.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        I had that talk about a month ago:

        “Asinus, your indulgence in that sin means you aren’t extreme enough and clearly don’t want Jesus. You love your sin, how can you hate God so much?”

        [Sighs] “I guess I do love my sin, Aquila. It’s part of the warp and woof of me, tied in with my very sinews.”

        “So what are you going to do, Asinus?”

        “Sin, I guess. If past performance is any indication of future performance I’ll lie low for a while, then struggle manfully against it for about six months to a year, then I’ll indulge it just a little, and bhoom! I’ll be right back at it just like I’d never stopped. Aquila, it doesn’t matter if it’s porn, alcohol, weed, gossip, checking out women at the gym, Dungeons and Dragons, whatever, the pattern is the same.”

        “Oh well, Asinus, you’ll either glorify God in heaven or glorify Him in hell. And there won’t be any sin in heaven”.

        “Well, then, Aquila, I’ll pray for you from hell.”

        • Ronald Avra says

          I can thoroughly identify with you, Mule.

        • +11111111

          Thus, I’m off the rollercoaster, and happier and freeier than ever.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I assume “Aquila” was one of those Christians whose FAITH has NEVER faltered or wavered since they Walked the Aisle and Said the Words? Always Serene Utterly Unshakable FAITH FAITH FAITH? 24/7/365 “Walking with The LORD” Prayers and Devotions? Angels holding them up when they walk so (unlike YOU) they NEVER dash their foot against a stone? Quick with the pitying look and “O Ye Of Little FAITH — Tsk, Tsk”?

          (You can tell I’ve been on the receiving end of such FAITH FAITH FAITH, can’t you?)

          My writing partner (the burned-out preacher) says the FAITH of that type of Super-Christian shatters completely the first time they run into REAL hardship. No exceptions he’s seen.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Sadly fairly often,


        When was the last time a church talked about “The Joy of Discipleship”? Discipleship is always discussed as being a terrible burden – like being a friend to your neighbor is so horrible, volunteering at a non-profit is such a terrible burden, helping an elderly person in the neighborhood get their house sealed up for the winter. Oh, my! How can we ask such things from anyone? On the flip side – you might have a great time and meet beautiful and interesting people. Yep, there will be some clinkers in the mix . . . do you actually believe you can avoid those? They’ll find you either way.

        All I can think of when I meet those people is of Denethor – blinded to the beauty of the world by the whispers of a worm.

        A meaningful life is not easy – neither is a meaningless one. So? The former is a lot more fun.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      No, No, No, … I have too much respect for the modicum of good that can potentially come from the Theology Of Glory than to ascribe The Purpose Driven Life/Church to it; The PDL/C is a Theology Of Sad Bland Mediocrity, there is no Glory [light or dark], there. Ugh! Those books were such completely vapid trash. They were the sad dying whimper of spent tradition.

      Luther, even at his most opaque, is a blazing fire of literary clarity compared to Mr. Warren.

      Lutheranism was my first exposure to Christianity; due to the fever of youth and other factors I couldn’t see how much good was before me. I’m not Lutheran now, doubt I ever will be, but I’ve certainly come back to a profound respect for that tradition.

  3. Ronald Avra says

    Appreciate today’s post greatly; I needed this.

  4. Christiane says

    And I appreciated the remarkable comments

  5. “Jesus did not live a “successful” life in worldly terms.”
    No, he did not. I find it mystifying and frustrating that the church has become so enamored with political access, marketing principles, and self-help counseling to make Christians successful members of a corrupt world. Being the salt and light of the world has become following Kingdom Advisor’s financial plans, eating healthy foods, and encouraging your local or national politician to vote for what you consider godly legislation. Making disciples has been turned into making yourself into something others will be in awe of your great spiritual gifts and successful living and want to emulate you.
    God is made perfect in our weakness, but no one seems to want to be weak. We want to fix the weakness instead and leave God out of the picture.

    • “I find it mystifying and frustrating that the church has become so enamored with political access, marketing principles, and self-help counseling to make Christians successful members of a corrupt world.”

      That’s always been the way of things, I fear. From Israel desiring a king like all their neighbors had, to marriage of church to state after Constantine, to the “spiritual lords” of medieval Europe, to the court evangelicals today… we’ve always looked for the shortcut around, and not the hard path up and over, the hill of Calvary.

  6. Chaplain Mike: Thanks very much for this week’s articles on church history and theology, and for the ensuing discussion. Keep it up! This is shaping up to be a very thought-provoking examination of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century, in light of the path laid out by those who’ve gone before us.

    I came to faith in Jesus Christ ten years ago and have stayed pretty close within the Reformed camp, but the mentions here on this blog in the past of Theology of the Cross (by yourself and also Michael?) is one of those things that has helped me over the years, in making sense of the hills and valleys of the Christian journey.

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