12 Books Every Christian Should Read. Book 4.
“On Being a Theologian of the Cross” was written by my professor at Luther Seminary, Gerhard Forde. The book is a commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. The crux of Luther’s argument in the Disputation is that evil deeds are less of an impediment to salvation than good works. Evil deeds are obvious: murder, theft, slander, etc. No one would dare say these are good things. Good works, though, can be externally done, but with a wicked heart. Sinful pride can be the source for many good works, which makes it more dangerous than evil works because it blinds itself with exterior “goodness”. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time are proof of this. Luther called this self salvation a “theology of glory”, in that it glorifies the self and works righteousness. He called the gospel message, which is God’s descending to and saving us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the “theology of the cross”. This can only be yours through faith in Christ and not works of the law. Below are some excerpts from the book.
“As sinners we are like addicts – addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new.
Since the theology of glory is like addiction and not abstract doctrine, it is a temptation over which we have no control in and of ourselves, and from which we must be saved. As with the addict, mere exhortation and optimistic encouragement will do no good. It may be intended to build up character and self-esteem, but when the addict realizes the impossibility of quitting, self-esteem degenerates all the more. The alcoholic will only take to drinking in secret, trying to put on the facade of sobriety. As theologians of glory we do much the same. We put on a facade of religious propriety and piety and try to hide or explain away or coddle our sins….
As with the addict there has to be an intervention, an act from without. In treatment of alcoholics some would speak of the necessity of ‘bottoming out,’ reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help. Then it is finally evident that the desire can never be satisfied, but must be extinguished. In matters of faith, the preaching of the cross is analogous to that intervention. It is an act of God, entirely from without. It does not come to feed the religious desires of the Old Adam and Eve but to extinguish them. They are crucified with Christ to be made new.”
“Here is a drastic parting of the ways with a theology of glory. The Christ of the Cross takes away the possibility of doing something. The theologian of glory might be able to follow to the point of accepting the truth that Christ has fulfilled all things, but then that will have to be used as a motivational tool to make sure the law gets its due. The point is precisely that the power to do good comes only out of this wild claim that everything has already been done. The language has to break out into preaching. Never mind that when we look to ourselves we find no sign of good works. Never mind our fears and our anxieties. We are looking in the wrong place. Look to Christ! He has done it all. Nothing will be gained by trying to shore up the Old Adam. Christ leaves nothing for the Old Adam and Eve to do. The old can only be killed by the law, not given artificial respiration by recourse to it… To the theologian of the cross the language of grace and faith must be pushed absolutely to this length – until it kills the old and raises the new.”