BY MATT JOHNSON
Americans love the vicarious sense of pride they get from the odds-defying underdog myth. But often, all the attaboy-ing translates to spiritual performance and a definition of sin that is closer to good intentions gone awry than war against the maker of the universe. Old habits die hard, and roughly 500 years ago Martin Luther saw a similar self-congratulating theology and dissected it with uniform precision.
MARTIN LUTHER: NAILED IT!
Historically, Martin Luther is best known for igniting the Reformation by nailing the 95 theses to the Wittenberg cathedral’s door. But what really got the conceptual ball rolling was a meeting of an Augustinian monastic order at Heidelberg in 1518. There, Luther defended his theological position in 28 cryptic theses against scholastic theology in an effort to re-focus theologians on Jesus’ work on the cross.
GOD: NOT MR. DREAMS-COME-TRUE
In Luther’s day, medieval theology defined God as fully embodying the glory of human achievement. Accordingly, glory was best represented by the monarchy. Royalty was conceptually understandable, so obviously God is a really, really, really glorious King. In effect, the scholastics reinvented God in their own image. Sound familiar? In John 14, Phillip thought that Jesus was holding out by playing a sort of spiritual pat-a-cake with the disciples. Phillip wanted to cut to the chase and see the Father. Jesus’ reply was: “he who has seen me has seen the Father.”
God doesn’t get things done through spiritual pick-me-ups, but through death and resurrection.
Likewise, Jesus was rebuked by Peter (!) for bumming the disciples out with all that dark, going-to-the-cross-to-die-talk. Jesus’ reply? "Get behind me, Satan!" The disciples had selfish plans for Jesus. He had something else in mind.
THE CONTEMPORARY GLORY STORY
God, as told through the glory story, is domesticated in our image and put into our service for our purposes: health, wealth, success and political power is ours for the taking. After all, we’re Kings Kids! In contemporary terms you can just fill in the blank: God and country, God and your full potential, God and activism, God and healing, God and money, God and church growth, God and...whatever. That is the glory story.
GOD PUTS SIN AND SINNERS TO DEATH
At the cross, God shatters our preconceptions by meeting us in our deepest need—at the cross—where both sin and the sinner are put to death and resurrected to new life. At the cross, good advice, positive affirmation, and speculative theology is destroyed. Rather than dispensing moral encouragement, at the cross, Jesus bids sinners to come die. Luther’s disputation masterfully closes all possible escape hatches for the glory story to hide.
FOOLISHNESS TO GREEKS (LIKE US)
The Corinthians were a people, much like ourselves, who liked sexy ideas of religion. But Paul reminded them, and us, that God most clearly revealed his glory by dying for his enemies on a cross. God doesn’t get things done through spiritual pick-me-ups, but through death and resurrection. Ingeniously, we are both implicated in the cross (our personal sin put him there) and saved at the cross.
PASTORAL IMPLICATIONS OF CROSS-CENTERED THEOLOGY
Both the average churchgoer and those seeking one-on-one pastoral care are generally seeking two things: spiritual life-coaching for sin management and deliverance from pain and chaos. Self-improvement advice is more palatable than proclaiming death to the believer and their indwelling sin. So there will be resistance!
If God redeems what appears to be the ultimate catastrophe, the crucifixion, surely he can redeem our life disasters.
The cross calls a spade a spade. Jesus didn’t climb that hill to deliver a pep-talk. He suffered and died to deal objectively with the sin problem. There, and only there, are people saved. Death always comes before a resurrection.
Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Many moons ago Matt forwent a proper education and traveled the country playing drums in 90 Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument and other bands you've never heard of. He likes long walks on the beach, puppies, and has questionable taste in music.