It would be all too easy to singularly define the Reformation as polemic against salvation by works. Martin Luther was greatly concerned about the Roman Catholic Church and its practices that promoted salvation by works such as the selling of indulgences. But, behind the Roman Catholic Church’s theology was a theological system that was corrupt not only because of its belief in salvation by works but also because of its denial of the theology of the cross. Luther charged the Roman Catholic Church with abandoning the theology of the cross in favor of a theology of glory.
It might, to many today, seem obvious that the cross ought to lie at the center of our theology. Luther never called himself the theologian of the cross, but he would later be referred to as such because of some powerful statements he made in the Heidelberg Disputation. Instead of speaking for Luther about what it means to be a theologian of the cross, I will let him speak for himself, here are some highlighted points of the Heidelberg Disputation:
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded and hardened.
23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4.15].
24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
26. The law says “Do this”, and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this” and everything is already done.
At the heart of Luther’s polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, was the assertion that Rome completely misunderstood and misrepresented the cross of Christ. They not only missed the fact that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone to the glory of God alone, but they also missed the essential truth that the way of glory is the way of the cross. We cannot buy our salvation, but once we come to believe in Jesus, we can sell everything we have and follow Him! Once we see the grace of God for what it really is, we can actually, by the power of the Holy Spirit, take up our crosses and follow Him.
The Roman Catholic Church erred in thinking that we could contribute to our salvation because in their pursuit of glory they abandoned the cross–“without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.”
- Joshua York is a guest contributer at Elect Exiles, a husband, and a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.