Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Crux sola est nostra theologia – the Cross alone is our theology. This phrase was coined by Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, almost five hundred years ago. Not that the Cross is the only thing Christians ever think about, far from it, but Luther’s point is that a right understanding of the Cross of Jesus (that is, his death, resurrection, and ascension) is essential to understanding Christianity. Luther pointed out that in the realm of ideas, of philosophies, literature, culture, religions and spiritualities, there are essentially one of two stories being told. The first is what he called a theology of glory, which is characterized by the upward struggle of the soul to attain to righteousness. A theology of glory appeals to our own sense of accomplishment, and while admitting we may not be perfect, seeks to spur us on to bigger and better things. When this theology of glory is applied to the Christian Gospel, the result is often simply Good Advice, rather than Good News. It ultimately leads us to ruin because the glory story fails to account for our inability to attain to that which it points, even if what we are striving for is good.

Contrasting this theology of glory is what Luther calls a theology of the cross. In this story sinners do not climb to heaven, but rather Heaven comes down to earth as a Perfect Person, Jesus Christ, who alone is able to rescue and save sinners. The story of the cross does not appeal to our sense of accomplishment, instead it holds up a mirror to our true nature and reveals out innate need of a Savior. This is at the same time horrible and life giving. Horrible because it shows that, as the old Prayer Book confessions put it, ‘there is no health in us’. It calls a spade a spade.

It is life-giving because in the Gospel a message is given to sin-sick souls that something has already been done to cleanse, forgive, restore, justify, and ultimately glorify them. The rub is that we sinners had nothing to do with it, and we just don’t like that part! That is why it is by God’s grace. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul declares, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness came through the Law, then Christ died for nothing” (2:21).To put it in Luther’s terminology, if the Glory Story worked, then we have no need of Jesus on the Cross. If we are helpless, and can see our own helplessness, then we have every need of a crucified and risen Savior.

The cross story creates faith in Christ, the glory story creates faith in ourselves.

As we enter the season of Pentecost, the longest season of the church year, our worship orients itself to the ongoing work of Christ through the Holy Spirit. Those who are in Christ are led by his Spirit to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, pray together, sing together, live together, and learn together. It is perhaps fitting that during the first part of Pentecost, through June and July, we will be reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This short letter is packed with the Apostle’s fiery explanation of the importance of the theology of the Cross. The work of the Spirit of life and freedom brings our life and our story into the story of the Cross, not the other way around (which is the glory story). “For I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live but it is Christ who lives in me; the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave his life for me” (2:20).
Luther's ideas did not arise in a vacuum, but from reading Scripture and having a gift at distilling the concepts of the Bible in clear terms. If you have never read Galatians, give it a shot. If you have, try reading it again and see if you can track with Paul's thinking regarding a theology of glory versus a theology of the cross.
Crux sola est nostra theologia.

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