September 21, 2020

God’s Sovereignty in Lutheranism: An Interview With Josh Strodtbeck (5- Providence in Tragedy)

luther2.jpgHere’s the last in our “Lutheran Theology and God’s Sovereignty Series.” I appreciate all the work Josh put into this and the good comments from those of you involved in the discussion.

How would Lutheran theology speak about God’s role in a tragedy like the I-35 Bridge collapse? Would you say God ordained it for his glory?

The important thing to remember in any question like this is that questions don’t happen in a vacuum, and neither is theology something floating around in a platonic realm of ideals. Generally, these questions are posed to pastors by real people, so what we always have is a pastoral situation. Even if you’re just a layman, you still have to deal with the person. But this is complex, so you’re going to get a long answer.

Abstractly, in the “ultimate reasons” sense, I don’t have any satisfying answer. Luther’s idea of being a theologian of the cross, which he develops in his Heidelberg Disputation, is hugely influential in the Lutheran tradition. You could probably add the theological part of the Disputation to the Confessions and no one would object. Anyway, Thesis 19 says, “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.” In other words, you just can’t look around at the events of the world and making declarations about the mind of God based on them. First of all, everything in this world is tainted by sinful humanity and the work of the devil. You’re looking at a fallen creation that is not the way God wants it to be. Second, your intellect doesn’t give you access to the mind of God. It’s amazing how many people will say you can’t be saved by works, but then turn around and basically try to find God through rational deduction without seeing any contradiction in that.

The next thesis is really important. In Thesis 20, Luther says “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” This is part of the answer to the pastoral question. You don’t answer a suffering person, such as someone who lost limbs or loved ones in the collapse, by assuring him God caused it and is being glorified. That’s basically saying, “God has carefully orchestrated things for the purpose of screwing you over, because in some obtuse, incomprehensible way it helps him achieve a greater level of satisfaction. And that alone should make you feel better.” You remind him of Jesus’ suffering, not just how Jesus suffered freely for his salvation, but how because of Jesus and that ineffable mystery we call the Incarnation, God actually knows what it’s like to suffer. He’s with you in your suffering as one who empathizes because he himself has suffered in his own flesh and his own human soul. And it’s in his own suffering that God promises to redeem you of yours, to set right everything that’s gone wrong in this life. So you don’t explain the event except to affirm it’s wrongness and point people toward Christ’s suffering and the redemption he promises.

But sometimes people aren’t asking you as those suffering, and that’s what one of my favorite profs at Concordia, Carl Fickenscher, would call a “Law moment.” Sometimes people are asking questions like that because they want you to say that those people must have had secret sins, or they’re trying to trick you, or whatever. And I think that’s the time to say something like Jesus said in Luke 13:1-9. Something like “Yeah, those people got it bad, but if you don’t repent, you’re going to get it worse. Let this remind you that everyone dies, including you. Without Christ, you’ve got no escape, either.” But you have to recognize whether people are hurting or just asking idle questions.

In the 21st disputation, Luther says, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.” Usually, when people try to rationalize some life-taking tragedy, such as saying God caused it for his glory or some other way of saying, “Well, it’s all for the best,” they’re calling evil good. They’re actually calling death itself, that which Christ came to abolish, good because “it redounds to the glory of God.” Death is an evil, satanic thing. I think the “best of all possible worlds” theory is absolute bunk, because God himself tells us the best of all possible worlds is one where there’s no death and no sin, the one that Christ came to create through his own death and resurrection. God himself condemned death, so what are you doing justifying it? I was baptized out of this crappy world and into the best of all possible worlds. This is all part of this psychological need many Christians have to justify God before the throne of the human ego. We’re the ones who need to be justified, but we act like God is the
one who needs it. So when you start off with some kind of natural theology, seeing God as the one who does everything in the world, you quickly find yourself trying to justify God and ultimately end up declaring evil to be good.

So don’t water down the evil of death. Call the thing what it is, and that will allow you to give real comfort in the Cross and the resurrection. And unlike consoling yourself that God is screwing you to the wall because it makes him look awesome somehow, the Cross brings real comfort.

That’s it for the questions, thanks for the opportunity. I’m glad people are finding some of this worthwhile.


  1. brandontmilan says

    I really appreciate everything you’ve said… so much that i’ve actually checked the lcms website to find which lutheran church I would attend in case I get fired from my Baptist Student pastor job… good stuff…

  2. Josh,

    I can’t say enough how much I’ve enjoyed this series. I sort of wish you and Michael would make this a more regular thing. I’m sort of ashamed to say that I thought Lutherans and Calvinists were more or less the same but there are some key differences in approach that I’ve found so interesting and enlightening.

    Thanks again to you and to Michael.

  3. From Matthew Oxendale (sorry I deleted all your posts accidentally)

    Wow. What a cresendo to a series of wonderful messages. Luther’s theology of the cross is so powerful. We don’t need to pretend that we know every thing. Rather, we can trust the God who hides himself and does His best work in places like the cross.

    A good friend of mine just recieved word that her husband would be leaving her as well as their 2 year old son. What do I say? “It’s for a greater good”? Or , “This is for God’s glory”? What kind of comfort would that bring? Rather, as Luther, I can come alongside her and call her situation what it is; a mess. I don’t need to pretend I know the future. I can point her to Christ and comfort her in the fact that He can sympatize with her. Now that’s soul care.

    Internet Monk: Thanks for this series. I’ve been blessed daily by these articles. I suppose, being a Lutheran makes it easy to stomach these words. However, I’d love to hear the same questions asked to other level headed pastors from other traditions.

  4. I really enjoyed the series Josh (i-monk) and thanks for smashing the last question out of the ball park!

  5. This post sounds very different from John Piper’s Desiring God book, which I just finished. Whom should I believe? Sigh. John Piper depressed me, but I had no idea why. Maybe it’s because, as you said, God screws you over for his glory.

  6. In all things, point people to Christ. The only really pastoral response there can be. Thanks, Josh.

  7. Spotted a typo: ” In other words, you just can’t look around at the events of the world and making declarations about the mind of God based on them. ” should read “…and make declarations about the mind of God…”

  8. Matthew, something else of Luther’s that may be helpful, at least it’s helped me to forgive other Christians and myself if Luther’s concept of the Christian being simultaneously a saint and a sinner. This has helped me to not be so judgmental of other believers.

  9. This is a timely post. A friend of mine (LCMS) recommended On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde. I bought it and started it, but life interfered. Just before your post I had pulled it off the shelf again. If I hadn’t read part of the book I don’t think I’d understand the distinctions you are making between the Theology of Glory and the Theology of the Cross. Forde tendency to generalize the beliefs that are foundational the theology of glory bothers me at times. Anytime you try to summarize the beliefs of thousands, even millions of people, you’re going to over state the case. But even so, this is a valuable book that I look forward to finishing.

  10. Michael, I agree with Mathew Oxendale. I’d love to see the same set of questions, or similar ones, asked of other thoughtful people from other faith traditions. This has been a wonderful way to increase my understanding and appreciation for Lutheranism.

  11. I think this is a very helpful piece on Christian response to tragedy.

    This has also been a very timely series for me since my wife recently started studying at a Lutheran seminary.

  12. Patrick Kyle says


    Thanks for posting this series. Rarely does the Lutheran side of things get a hearing alongside some of the more popular views. I’d like to request another post or series of posts interviewing Josh on the subject of the theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory. As you can see from Josh’s final installment it would be a very interesting discussion.

    Josh, excellent job. Way to Represent

  13. This series has been great Michael. It’s nice to hear a critique of reformed theology that isn’t throwing throwing mud, but just acknowledging the differences and bringing up pastoral issues. Very helpful.

  14. Like many others, I’ve enjoyed this series and appreciate the look into Lutheran theology. I think many other traditions would do well to adopt the cross-centered focus that seems so evident here.

    One question about this last post in the series. I don’t think I understand how death can be called “evil” and “satanic”. Yes the circumstances that lead up to death can be tragic and even evil. But death itself? Our mortality seems like such an essential part of how God “speaks” to us that I have a hard time seeing it that way. My theological background has been a little anemic so perhaps someone can educate me on this?

  15. Brian,

    It’s interesting that you should bring up the point on death, because Josh and I discussed this as he was writing his post.

    Death is absolutely antithetical to who God is. One way we confess Him is as the “Lord and Giver of Life.” Satan, in the Garden, knew the consequence of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He wanted to kill them.

    He is a liar and a murderer. Death is what Satan wants for us. Life is something that can only be given by God.

    We try to make sense of death by minimizing its evil. We say things like, “She’s in a better place” and “There was a reason.” But these platitudes try to make death not so bad. They try to rob death of it’s pain and hurt.

    And by doing that, they rob the cross of its comfort. The cross can only give comfort because it is the most evil act ever done in the history of humanity. God, in love, took on human flesh. We responded by murdering Him.

    The great joy of the cross is that by this evil act, the murder of God, He wrought salvation for all humankind. Our evil, our murderous desires, our bloodthirsty nature… they are all impotent before Christ’s love.

    So Lutherans don’t downplay the evil of death. We, in a certain sense, extol it. We let evil be evil so that the love of God can be shown to be the outrageously comforting thing that it is.

    No one does any favors for anyone in saying that death is good. Anyone who is told that death is a good thing knows that they’re being lied to. They know that their experience of grief and pain is being ignored. Jesus didn’t do that for Mary and Martha. He cried. Then He gave them the greatest comfort imaginable by destroying death… raising Lazarus, and then going through death and destroying it from the inside.

  16. If death isn’t bad, why was Jesus so intent on destroying it? See especially the numerous passages in John where Jesus emphatically describes himself as deliverance from death, going so far as to say in chapter 11 that he himself is the resurrection and the life. Paul in Romans 5 says that death is both the consequence of sin and the context in which sin reigns. And of course, there is the famous Romans 6:23:

    “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Just do a search for death in the New Testament. It is always described as an enemy and the embodiment of sin except in the case of one particular death, that of Christ, who will throw Death itself into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14).

  17. Thanks Josh and Pr. Lehmann. It’s interesting how some traditions address issues that never come on others radar. For me, the example of death being somehow evil is a prime example.

    But you’ve given me plenty to think about and several passages to read over again. And for that, I am appreciative.

    God bless,

  18. Eric Phillips says

    Great stuff, Josh.

  19. Theology of Glory Vs. Theology of Cross was one of THE most eye opening things I’ve seen since becoming a Christian. It’s all over the Scriptures. I would recommend ANYBODY to study Luther’s HD, it is in my opinion the center of all his thought and in reality the heart beat of the Reformation. Gerharde Forde’s treatment of it is short and graspable. I never tire of rereading it after a while to get something I missed. YOu have to really “chew” on the thoughts though. Because I’ve seen many outside of Lutheranism take the ToC, misunderstand it, and make a fresh ToG out of it.

    To me the HD is why Luther ultimately says, and rightly so I think, “the Cross is our theology”.

    Even the statements “theology of glory” and “theology of Cross” are packed and we kind of just brush over them. Forde points out that “theology” derives from theos and logos, which is word of God or God’s word. So that both statements are ‘ways’ man understand God, rightly or wrongly. “theology of Glory” is literally a wrong way of understand the/a word from God…to rephrase “God’s word of glory”. It’s a way that men think (in this case) they have received word from God. And so it sets forth how they see all things including and especially God’s favor upon them. “Theology of Cross” or rephrased “God’s word of Cross” to us (in Word and incarnate Word) though is a different Word from God to us, which happens to be the REAL word received. Its kind of grasped this way: We often say to a person, “What’s the word”. Meaning what has so and so said regarding XYZ. The ToG thinks the “What’s the word (from God)” is assessed fundamentally from obedience to the Law in some form or another. Thus he reads the “tea leaves” of time and space to “read God”, if good happens it must mean favor for something well done, if bad happens it must mean punishment for something not done right. The ToC sees through all that and finds the favorable Word FROM God in the Cross and resurrection for them at the Cross and resurrection, REGARDLESS of what’s going on down here in our lives.

    ToG in ANY form, even its false Christian claiming forms is PURE fallen religion, ToC is THE faith. Back during Katrina I found it quite interesting that people like Pat Robertson thought Katrina was a judgment on New Orleans. And so did Islam except they expanded the “judgment” to America. Both, fallen religious leaders, one labeled as “Christian” the other openly “Islam” where in reality puking out the same fallen idolatrous religion of ToG.

    You have to really digest the principle between ToG Vs. ToC because a ToG can turn ANYTHING into a ToG even suffering. The ToG can find, like the ole monks of old, suffering to be a ToG pleasing to God. In this case suffering itself becomes a “good work” pleasing to God, a self sacrifice. But its just false religion redressed. The ToC looks to Christ alone always. A ToG even looks to him/herself to assess their “Christian growth”, if its not happening the way it should he/she assesses that some how God is not moved by something they should be “giving over to God/Jesus” and that’s why they still struggle. Again, it’s the testing the water of time and space with the big toe to detect if “what I’m doing or not doing is moving God yea or nea concerning me”, in this case “growth”. The ToC really doesn’t concern him/herself with works. That’s shocking to the ToG, in fact incredible. But the ToC is happy if he/she does NO good works but suffers all the more so that he dies and Christ is all the more. The ToC doesn’t in essence “sweat it”. That’s incredible faith to so rest in Christ, but the ToG sees that as a lacking of faith because, again, he measures by works and the reaction of God through the fabric of time and space. What ever his thing of favor he thinks God is looking for a positive thing (like Word of faith movements) or even a negative thing (suffering as in giving much of ones self) he develops a reciprocal time/space metric to measure its success by. If that metric is in the opposing direction of what means he/she has done right, positive or negative thing, then God is displeased and if it is IN the direction he expects it, well then God is pleased. The ToC calls it like it is, God is pleased with Christ alone, works at any time are nothing.

    The ToG at length constricts and his list of works, that are enumerated become more and more restricted. Pretty soon only church yard piety and a handful of duties will do. The ToC at length relaxes and has no list of works, and does not enumerate them (enumeration is a signature of ToG and works righteousness). At length all that he does is fine for he rests at the well spring of faith alone in Christ alone. The ToG says, “you need to get busy doing X.” The ToC says, “I’ll have a smoke.” The ToG grows more and more impatient in the ‘faith’, the ToC more patient (which ironically is a fruit of faith a faith that doesn’t “try to be patient” which is counter productive). The ToG’s inpatients develops into increase judgmentalism and loveless ness, even when he says, “Love!”. The ToC increases in love, because he knows for sure he has the treasure of Christ.

    I would recommend studying Luther on this a great length, you’ll be shocked how much it shows up in all of Scripture.


    Larry KY

  20. Larry,

    Theology of Glory and Theology of the Cross (as you have stated them) sound a lot like (respectively) the “knowledge of good and evil” vs. the “knowledge of God” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s incomplete work, Ethics. Considering that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a direct correlation.

  21. Ironically, Luther didn’t talk about the theology of glory or the theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation. He talked about being a theologian of glory and being a theologian of the cross. It’s a little different.

  22. Josh T,

    Hmmm. I’ve never read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work Ethics. I may have to check that out. I was at one church were they turned “suffering” into a new kind of ToG. It was a new form of “give your all” in order to be saved. It wasn’t overt and if asked about justification they’d give a solid reformed answer. But the preaching and over all climate was, “you cannot be sure unless you do _______”. They never really grasped that the way to make a Christian strong so that they can do such things if called to it, is to assure that Christ is ALREADY FOR THEM, not IF they do something. BIG difference for the soul.

    Your “Law moment” was very helpful, I run into those a lot. When I’ve explained ‘what happened’ the way you outline above, the silence is deafening. A fellow believer and co-worker of mine observed once that atheist we know (we have a lot of atheist in our profession) are very righteous about things/morals. That may be surprising for some to hear but some of the most “moral” folks I know are practicing atheist and agnostics, hands down. At least the type of atheist we know. One time he was with a guy who was haranguing on this issue and my buddy told him that morality damns a man as much as immorality, the guy’s face just froze up and he didn’t know what to say.

    You are right, it is a Law moment, people are always trying to justify someone else’s death. I was talking to my wife about that a few weeks back but could not formulate it completely in my thinking then. The lights went on when you spelled that out here. I was telling her, it was related to death in general, “Do you ever notice that when someone dies everybody tries to look for the reason. If they die of heart disease or something they will wonder ‘did they smoke’, ‘over eat’, what did they ‘do wrong physically’ that they should have done better”. As if we can stop death some how. “If they had a car wreck how did they ‘drive wrong’, were they sleepy, etc…” Always justifiying it somehow with the implication that “I could’ve/should’ve” done/do better. It’s a ‘hidden’ for of law justifying over death or injury in general. You run into it ALL the time at ALL such events, big or small. I’ve even caught myself doing it! But that’s a Law moment as you said.

    You made something even more clear about ToG I’d not seen before, calling evil good that is death. We especially do that with the elderly don’t we, “well, they lived a good long life at least”, we say if they die somewhere around 65+ years. AS if death is good, calling evil good. But it’s not is it, it never is. Death is death no matter how old one is and the loss of the beloved is REAL pain, even torment.


    Larry KY

  23. Larry,

    I think you’d like Ethics… and like I said, I think it parallels some of what you’re talking about here with regard to ToG and ToC, especially as it applies to the issue of looking at oneself vs. looking at Jesus. I did an independent study on Bonhoeffer (for credit) at school, and I noticed (what seemed to me) to be a definite change in his thinking between The Cost of Discipleship(CoD) and Ethics. In my experience, [CoD] led me to look very hard introspectively at my own actions/life to make sure I was on the Narrow road, whereas Ethics pointed me to the incarnate Jesus–“Behold the Man” as Bonhoeffer says–so I can live life as a real man without fretting over my own sins and such.

    I could possibly say that the difference between the books was merely my own personal impression (and perhaps some of it is–as filtered through whatever theological stuff in my head at the time), but Bonhoeffer himself seems to hint at it in one of his Letters from Prison — “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.”

  24. Chris Stiles says

    Is there a contemporary book that explains the theology of the cross, shows how the lutheran view of sovereignty develops and contrasts it with other contemporary takes on sovereignty – I’m thinking particularly of the Calvinist and Open Theist views.

  25. Chris:

    Veith’s The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals may be what you are looking for. Here is a link:

  26. Chris, I can’t think of any Lutheran literature that specifically addresses Open Theism, and as divine sovereignty isn’t the focus of our theology, it’s not going to be the focus of just about any book you can find. I would suggest Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross.

  27. Patrick Kyle says


    I want to apologize for the misunderstanding regarding my comment on the previous Interview with Josh (part4). I in no way intended to criticize Mike Horton. I consider him a friend and was a volunteer for CURE (the organization that gave rise to the White Horse Inn) back in the early days of the old CURE house. My intent was to comment on the fact that dialog with Lutherans has tempered his Reformed Theology.(Sometimes to the displeasure of some Reformed folks, and to the secret delight of some Lutherans.) I think that is a good thing, being a Lutheran myself. I was trying to relay this in a quick shorthand way. I’m sorry that it sounded harsh. It was not meant in that spirit.

    Thats one of the things I dislike about this medium(email, internet, etc.) You have naked words on a page, often written ‘stream of consciousness’ and sometimes with little context. Misunderstandings result.

    I am grieved however, that my extensive commentary on this blog has been so poor that I have been perceived as Reformed, and not the Lutheran that I am.( I had hoped to be clearer in communicating my dislike for much of what passes for Reformed Theology.) Furthermore, I make no claim to be a teacher in the church, a pastor, or in any way speak officially for a particular denomination. By God’s grace I am a Lutheran layman who has been privileged to know personally,and to sit at the feet of giants like Mike Horton, Rod Rosenbladt and Bill Cwirla. These guys have had a huge effect on my faith and life.

    Larry, I have read and enjoyed your comments both here and on Mr. Ritchie’s blog, and am sorry if I have given offense. None was intended.