Is the Crucifixion Good?

A blog written by a Lutheran (Missouri Synod) pastor is getting to be one of my favorites. He recently wrote a piece he titled “The Way of Salvation: A Rant,” which reminded me of something I wrote in response to reading Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. As a way of saying amen, here’s my own rant on the subject:

Is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ good? This question is at the heart of Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross. The uttermost expression of God’s love is at the same time the complete satisfaction of His wrath. Justice and mercy (which is normally an injustice) cohabit the cross. The impassible God demonstrates His infinite compassion. Life participates in death and in doing so imparts life. In short, Luther proposed, the cross is the beginning point of the knowledge of God because at the cross God is revealing himself in a way that is only accessible by faith. The cross cannot be figured out—no human would have thought to propose it and no human can claim to understand it. But on the cross, we are confronted with the bare reality of the person of God—powerful and powerless—and the only appropriate response is that all our fuses should be blown.

The essence of Luther’s point is that we don’t get anywhere in theology (or in Christianity) unless we first blow all the fuses of natural theology and human philosophy. We must realize our spiritual poverty, and that necessitates coming to grips with the limitations of our intellect. On this point, Luther stands against the historical tide of humanism. In the cross, Luther sees God as the great reverser, elevating those who have nothing and destroying those who bring something of their own to the table. So the essence of Christianity is not progress, but regress—of constantly emptying oneself, so as to make room for grace. This will involve “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead,” (Php. 3:10-11) or as Jesus put it, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24).

In light of all of this, it strikes me that American evangelical presentations of the gospel are utter failures. We gloss over the cross, and consequently leave spiritual poverty unmentioned. We almost always present the Christian life as “the good life” more fully realized. In other words, we tell people that there is something they want, something they already think of as good, that can be found in a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Luther begins with the assertion that human beings don’t know “good” when they see it. Does the gruesome execution of Christ look like the good life more fully realized? People need to know that our deliverance involves crushing us—that the cross solves all of our problems…by killing us. Should we announce to people that sort of “good news”—what they need to hear but cannot accept as “good”? Are there any Christians in America who demonstrate the image of God by being happily crushed—who for the joy set before them endure the cross? Or should we just try to get people “saved” first and tell them the bad gospel later?

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3 Replies to “Is the Crucifixion Good?”

  1. yesterday, in my life of christ class, we discussed the theology of the cross. during that discussion, i told my students they smell like death to God.

    we concluded our discussion by talking about the cross as our standard of loving sacrifice

    and thank you for referencing the image of God.

  2. no, thank YOU for referencing the image of God. By the way, you should read this book we’re talking about in the Convivium; it’s all about the image of God in humanity. It’s called, Are Christians Human? by Nigel Cameron. It’s in the DTS library under its other title, Complete in Christ. If you need something about contemporary evangelical failure to grasp the significance or to explore the implications of the incarnation, this might be helpful.

  3. First, I’m honored and edified by your comments. And indeed, this is twice now that I’ve received what I consider a high complement from you. But you can color me curious. I can place you somewhere on the theological continuum, but where do you place yourself? I read some of your background in your “subsidiary awareness” and I’m just frankly curious. This is compounded by the fact that one of my good friends is a grad of DTS and has become an LCMS pastor through our colloquy process. And since the internet doesn’t always communicate everything we’re trying to communicate, please read this is utter curiosity in a positive sense, nothing less.

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