The Glory of the Cross

Martin Luther, in his 1518 disputation at Heidelberg, compared a theology of glory with a theology of the cross.  Theologians of glory were—in a modern term—triumphalists.  They presented God as the basis for success; and in that success they impressed people with their intelligence, their erudition and their godliness.  Personal achievement and godliness were represented as a unity.  Theologians of the cross, on the other hand, were aware of their sin and embraced God’s mercy as the basis for their spirituality.  Their confidence was based solely on Christ’s work on the cross.  Theologians of glory, on the other hand, were reassured by their own emerging holiness.

What launched Luther’s thesis?  He doesn’t say but certainly his reading of the gospel of John had a role.  In the gospel we find two glories in competition.  One version of glory is from God, the other from men. 

John 5 offers one episode in which Jesus highlighted these competing sources of glory.  It followed his healing of the lame man by the Bethesda pool.  Critics in the audience were predictably upset by the day of the miracle—the Sabbath.  Jesus responded by intimating that his equality with God was the basis for the healing.  That, of course, ratcheted up the anger against him by a few more notches, moving him ever closer to his coming crucifixion.    Yet rather than moderate the issue Jesus pressed ahead by offering the evidence of several supporting witnesses in favor of his deity. 

Among the evidences he offered were the Scriptures of Moses.  But even this was apparently not enough.  Why not?  The problem, Jesus pointed out, was ultimately heart-based—his critics loved something other than God.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . .  But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. [John 5:39-42]

But if they didn’t love God, what did they love?  They were, after all, theologians and, with that, presumably students of the nature and works of God.  So one would presume God to be their focus of ministry and life devotion.  Jesus pressed the point and exposed their actual motives.

I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.  If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.  How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? [John 5:43-44]

The association of glory to believing is intriguing.  While Luther held that some theologians seek human glory, Jesus treated human glory as an obstacle to faith in him.  So on the one hand they seemed to be saying the same thing but, on the other, there was a real difference: the first century glory-mongers opposed Jesus, while those in Luther’s day held Jesus to be the object of their faith.

Luther understood that, of course. But his point would have been to show that any theologian of glory—whether in Christ’s day, in Luther’s day, or in any other day—is unable to truly believe in God.  Or at least to believe in a fashion that aligns a soul with Jesus as savior and Lord.

Before pressing that case let’s return to Jesus and his religious opponents.  In John’s gospel the twin versions of glory continued to be developed as a sub-theme.  Jesus unveiled the ultimate purpose of his incarnation ministry: death on the cross.  And his willingness to die was the basis for his glory.  The Father himself affirmed this in one of his few audible vocalizations of the Bible.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  . . .  Now is my soul troubled.  And what shall I say?  Father save me from this hour?  But for this purpose I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  [John 12:23-28]

The majesty of Jesus came in his humility.  Paul captured this in Philippians 2.  Jesus refused to count his equality with God as an excuse to avoid becoming obedient to the point of death.  He was prepared to sacrifice his own life in order to offer new life to all who believe in him; to all who embrace him in his crucifixion.  The resurrection comes only to those who die to sin by embracing the cross.

Compare this attitude with what was said of a group of spiritual leaders who recognized the compelling evidence of Jesus’ equality with God, yet who did nothing about it.  Pay attention to their faith-obstacle.

Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.  [John 12:42-43]

Let us now return to the claims of Luther. 

What did this group of silent theologians have in common with the theologians of glory in Luther’s day?  They all shared a misapplied love.  In both the first and the sixteenth centuries God had become a utility—a resource for personal benefits.  The focus of the Jewish religious leaders in the time of Christ was on God—seen as separate from Jesus.  In Luther’s time the religious leaders were ready to affirm Christ as God, but he was still simply a resource to be engaged for their own benefit. 

God as a utilitarian resource?  Yes.  A theologian who fails to respond to God’s love may still use God’s name and authority to leverage obedience from any and all who take them seriously.  But without a love for God all they offer is a human-to-human spirituality.  The glory they receive is from humans and for humans.  God, in the meantime, looks on with wry distaste (I’m thinking here of Psalm 2).  Enough distaste to condemn purveyors of utilitarian glory to death.

And, ironically, that death is what qualifies them to come to the true glory of God as they repent!  Paul himself was an example of this.  In his flawed but exuberant zeal for God as a budding theologian—which came with human glory as he matched and surpassed all his competing Pharisees—he finally experienced God’s actual glory.  It came in the blinding light of Christ’s presence on the Damascus road.  Paul’s old vision of glory was shattered and shuttered.  In Christ’s confrontation—“why are you persecuting me?!”—he came to see his sin.  And with that realization came his new vision of Christ crucified.  Crucified for him.  And that became his true glory.

What can we take away from this reflection?  Hopefully an honesty about what we actually love.  For those of us who do theology, may we guard our hearts from the love of theology as an end in itself and turn instead to the cross.  May we die to any appetite for personal elevation and success.  May we, instead, love God as revealed in Christ with all our hearts and then love our neighbors as well.



  1. Bobby Grow

    Amen, Ron!

    Luther’s Theology of the Cross is such a beautiful application of John’s theology of glory (I remember grading plenty of those 😉 [not to try to grab any glory or anything :-)]) . . . I think it is one of the most profound truths of Christ and scripture that I have ever been confronted with (and I have you to thank for my first real exposure to this whole paradigm — so thank you, Ron). It is a truth that can be plumbed, and then plumbed some more, and then some more (Jn 17:3)! And the Affective framing, esp. in John, is hard to miss (the only way this could be missed is if we were following a “theology of glory”); so thank you for beating that drum, over and again, Ron 🙂 !

    My favorite verse in scripture is:

    For I have determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified! I Cor 2:2

    And the theology of the cross (as God’s glory) is why!

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks for the good “this is a lesson learned” reflection, Bobby. In many ways I find the key to retaining this upside-down truth (upside-down when measured by the normal human disposition we inherited from Adam) is to keep looking to Christ: in Scripture reading, in prayer, and in the practice of caring for others. Again, thanks for your ‘cheer’ in that you’ve kept the focus where it belongs.

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