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Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the False Gospel of Self-Fulfillment

Are you a theologian of the cross or a theologian of glory?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Probably not. But it’s a great question to ask (really, I promise) as we approach the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, kicked off when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on October 31, 1517.

The centerpiece of Luther’s Reformation theology out of which everything else flowed was the theology of the cross, which he contrasted with the theology of glory.

For Luther, “theologians of glory” are those who build their theology on what they expect God should be like—and, surprise, surprise, they end up with a God who looks a lot like themselves. A God whose justice is a lot like our own, rewarding those who do good and punishing those who don’t. A God who is strong and victorious, and so the marks of his blessing are success, health, wealth, and happiness.

“Theologians of the cross,” however, are those who build their theology on God’s own revelation of himself, a revelation that comes to its fullest expression in Christ hanging on the cross. It is here, in the cross—a picture of humiliation and weakness and defeat—that we see the clearest expression of God’s power, his victory, and his love. It is in the cross that we learn that God is gracious towards us.

But it’s not only in their understanding of God that theologians of the cross and theologians of glory differ. It’s also in their understanding of life as followers of Jesus.

Theologians of glory want glory without the cross. Theologians of the cross, though, understand that if suffering and weakness are the ways God works in Christ, we should expect that these are the ways he will work in those who seek to follow Christ. The cross is the basic pattern for understanding how God works in and through us, his people—the church.

The implications of this are . . . well, reformational. Let me give just a few.

  • The nature and cure of sin:

Theologians of glory assume that we can overcome sin with just a little more will power, greater self-discipline, with a little grace sprinkled in. Leading up to the Reformation, Luther had come to see how radically sin affected humanity. That it was so all-consuming that no optimistic appeals to glory, strength, wisdom, and positive thinking could bring about a remedy, and that nothing short of death could cure it. And this death he found in the death of Christ on the cross.Theologians of the cross recognize there is no cure for sin in ourselves. At the cross, sinners are no longer coddled by false optimism (“I can do better,” or, “I’m not really that bad”). At the cross, we give up on ourselves and die to sin with Christ and are raised a new creation in Christ (Rom. 6:3–4; 2 Cor. 5:17). We never move on from Christ and his cross. Only deeper into the realities of Christ’s death and resurrection.

    1. Expectations about the Christian life:Historian and Reformation scholar Carl Trueman asks,

      “What is the Christian to expect from life? Health, wealth, and happiness? Is this how God shows his grace and favor? That’s certainly what a theologian of glory would assume: if God is good to me, then he will give me all those things I most want. Thus, spiritual success must be judged in a manner analogous to earthly success, in terms of income, status and general social credibility. But that is not true Christian theology as Luther understands it, for it has no place for the cross. True Christian expectations center on the cross and involves an acceptance, if not the willing embrace, of the suffering, weakness, and marginalization that inevitably come to those who follow in the footsteps of the Master.” (Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, p. 53)

      Luther understood that once we are saved, we can expect suffering and weakness as part of the Christian life. We shouldn’t be surprised when difficulties arise in our lives. They are an essential part of the way God works in us to achieve his purpose of our ultimate salvation and glorification.

  • The false gospel of self-fulfillment:

We live at a point in history in which the goal of existence is no longer thought to lie outside oneself (living for the good of others). Rather, self-fulfillment is the name of the game. This is the gospel that permeates the air we breathe – health, wealth, and happiness at all costs.But the theology of the cross sounds a different note. It is in dying to self that we find life (Matt. 16:24–25). In sacrificially pouring our lives out for others, we find deeper joy and meaning. As Christ gave himself to the uttermost to serve others, so believers should give of themselves sacrificially to serve their neighbors.

Keeping these implications in mind here’s a challenge for us all:

“Let us take time every day to remind ourselves that we follow a king, but a king whose crown came through making himself of no account and dying a terrible death on the cross. There is a lesson there which no words from me and no amount of meditation by you can every fully grasp.”(Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, p. 69)

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