Martin Luther coined the phrase “theology of the cross” in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. The cross, he held, is where differences between human and divine loves are sharpest. Human love seeks personal benefits and satisfaction—whatever is good. While God’s love forms what is good in humans. “Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive” [thesis 28]. He was dismissing a common assumption of his day that “like attracts like”—so that God only shares his grace with those who are most like him.
Tuomo Mannermaa in Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World endorsed Luther’s claim. “God’s Love does not find, but creates, that which is loveable to it. Human Love comes into being through that which is loveable to it” [p1]. Thus God’s love is visionary as he makes new things out of nothing. Just as he did in the beginning by creating all things ex nihilo.
Luther’s thought also engaged, indirectly, the question of whether God anticipated sin when he created angels and humans with their capacity to rebel. Critics of the Bible see the fall as God’s flawed plan. How could the first couple, made in God’s image, quickly turn against him? And then cause the entire creation to be accursed? Wasn’t God a bit inept or naïve here?
No. And we need to press into this question so we can grasp and be grasped by God’s wisdom and goodness. He knew what was coming. And as terrible as sin was and is God has a plan to bring about eternal communion with his people. But it only comes about by way of the cross.
To begin, we know God’s love is ongoing despite the fall. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made the point, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” [Mt 5:44-45].
Yet this love by a tender-hearted God has a balancing reality. He is also a jealous God; and we are his beloved creatures. We hear this in the Ten Commandments: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” [Ex 20:5]. And this, in turn, sets out sin and salvation in an affective frame. So Adam’s fall, given God’s love-and-jealousy, represents God’s salvation aims as a heart-based ambition and not as a divine chess match. God certainly wasn’t naïve or helpless in the face of human arrogance. Everyone is still invited to become “sons of your Father.” Yet salvation is the fruit of desire. Whatever we love most shapes our destiny, and it is in this context that Jesus came to “winnow” the creation [Mt 3:12]. He offers his love but never imposes it.
This is also where unending debates over contingencies in salvation go awry—by treating salvation as a product either of God’s will; or the human will. Yet neither view fits the affective, compatibilistic portrayal of God as one who “draws” souls to Jesus. As in the story of the wealthy moralist who approached Jesus about eternal life [Mark 10:17-31]. “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” [v21]. Sadly, the man walked away from Jesus despite the latter’s love. The man displayed the power of wealth and success as deep heart attractions. And that those who lack such attractions—the poor, the lame, the weak, and the despised—respond to Christ’s love more often than those who already have godlike comforts. Nothing is impossible for God. Yet as Jesus winnows hearts, more figures like Lazarus, rather than the Rich Man, respond to God’s love [Luke 16:19-31]. We also see implicit heart-based distinctions separating the mighty and the poor in the parable of the wedding feast [Matthew 22:1-14]. It concludes, “For many are called but few are chosen.”
This aligns with Adam’s fall as we recall what Satan offered him in Eden: life without God. And this status of independence—“freedom”—is the stubborn aim of unbelieving souls. So that souls continue onward without turning back to God, despite the known outcomes. “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” [2 Thess. 1:9]. So for now humans still benefit from God’s goodness, but a day is coming when each soul will finally receive what it wants. Souls who remain curved-in-on-self—illustrated in Adam’s fallen profile—will have the empty, lonely autonomy of freedom as an eternal destiny.
Death, then, is God’s grace to us as he winnows humanity with warnings of a coming day of judgment. And this confronts the enduring confusion about the meaning of death that began in Eden when Adam faced a contest over the question. God told him not to eat a forbidden fruit or he would die. But the serpent promised the couple they wouldn’t die. Adam, we realize, could see the serpent’s liveliness even as it denied God’s word. So was God wrong?
God speaks truth, and faithful souls realize the serpent was gaming the difference between death as a separation from God’s life; and death as the cessation of bodily activity. A basic lie. The serpent, in fact, was already dead, without God. And he intended to draw humanity into his own realm of living death. To a life, in other words, without God’s Spirit. Adam joined him in this death when he embraced the lie. It was God’s word against Satan’s word, and Satan won.
This launched an ongoing contest in the world today over whose word people embrace. In Adam’s case God walked into the garden after Adam ate the fruit. And the man’s immediate, fearful response was wholly selfish. He blamed both God and Eve for what he had done. It was self-justification, displaying the heart-based autonomy of spiritual death.
Death continues to confuse hapless souls. As with the upright Pharisee, Nicodemus. He was dead—without the Spirit—but he assumed he was alive. And he was both religious and impressive, even apart from God. Adam and Eve had dismissed the Spirit of life, not just for themselves but for their progeny. So despite the Jewish Bible telling stories of those who lived by the Spirit, Nicodemus was missing it all. Even as David pointed to the Spirit’s key role in Psalm 51; and Ezekiel in 36:26. So Jesus reminded him, and us, that what is born of the flesh is merely flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Jesus calls souls to the new spiritual life and love. He did it by entering into Adam’s regime of living death, as he unites himself to sinners who trust him. To souls willing to die to their former loves. Jesus used the analogy of wheat here [Jn 12:24-33]. Only when kernels of wheat are planted will they germinate. So the seeds “die”—no longer being available for flour and bread—in the planting. And only as stalks of grain grow out of the earth does this cycle of life operate. Multiplied life, Jesus taught, only comes by death, burial, and new life—a theology of the cross. This is where his followers join him. Paul, for one, grasped this as we see in Galatians 2:20.
Again, Jesus broke into Satan’s realm of living death by being united—married—to spiritually dead sinners. And after his death on the cross, he arose and shared resurrection life by sharing his love. And this formed into a faith working through love. So just as Jesus loved his Father and received his words, believers are also formed by his love. It dismisses Adam’s love of the creation—as first expressed in the forbidden fruit. As this new love is seen it then turns unlovely souls into beloved children of God. Birthed ex nihilo as lovers of God and others.
This love then extends itself into building up others. As God’s glory extends from “glory to glory” [2 Cor. 3:18] when the Spirit pours out God’s love to and through believing hearts. The product is beautiful: the true image of Jesus. And he then displays the Father’s love in us. It’s profound!