What is the theology of the cross?

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During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther contrasted what he called the “theology of the cross” with the “theology of glory.” To Luther, the cross of Christ was the focal point of salvation and of the Christian life. The work of Christ on the Cross is the only basis by which sinful humanity can approach God. Luther said, “The cross alone is our theology,” which sounds much like the Apostle Paul when he wrote, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2 (ESV)

The theology of the cross is a corrective of the theology of glory, which represents mankind’s attempt, through self-effort, to climb his way into God’s favor. Those who adhere to the theology of glory are marked by a constant striving to climb onward and upward, to be in on the newest thing, whether a new teaching or a so-called new movement of the Spirit. They are constantly looking for a “new level” of spirituality from which they can look down on the poor sinners, the unspiritual, the ignorant people who just don’t get it. The theologian of glory reasons that since Jesus suffered and died on the cross, we don’t have to suffer. We should expect only spiritual blessings of health, wealth, and happiness; in essence, our best life now.
Is this really what the Christian should expect in this life? Are we not confusing the already and the not yet? Aren’t we still looking for the city whose builder and maker is God, and still hoping for heaven where the present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that awaits us (Rom. 8:18)? The disciples on several occasions argued who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God (theology of glory), but Jesus reminded his disciples that to follow him meant denying themselves and taking up their crosses. The disciples wanted glory; Jesus offered a cross.

Like the disciples, we want to climb the ladder of glory. We want instant success, instant healing, and instant spirituality; the last thing we expect is suffering. In some circles, to suffer is a sign of insufficient faith, but suffering for the sake of Christ is the mark of a true follower.  Philippians 1:29 says “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul says that his goal in life is, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Romans 7:17 says that we are, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
The theology of the cross reminds us that the way up is down; the way to exaltation is through humiliation; the way to glory is through suffering. This is the path Jesus took, and it is the path on which he calls us to follow Him (Phil. 2:5-11).

Billy Elkins is the pastor of Trinity Church. He is a graduate of Chickasha High School, has a B.A. in Fine Art from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, and a Master of Divinity with Biblical Languages from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, FT. Worth, TX. He is currently in the final dissertation phase of a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Philosophy from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.