Theology of the Cross in the Thought of Martin Luther


In honor of Reformation Sunday I would like to share the following in which I trace out the the theology of the cross as the central aspect of Martin Luther’s theology.



Martin Luther serves as a transitional figure in the history of the Church. His theological distinctives played a major role in shaping the Reformation and continue to be with the Church to this day. In assessing a theologian and their impact it is often necessary to adduce what doctrine serves as the core for their theological endeavors. In Luther’s cases this is not an easy task, Luther has written broadly on many doctrinal issues. The goal of this paper is to prove that for Luther the central doctrine was that of his theology of the cross. First the theology of the cross will be defined as Luther understood it. Then the centrality of the theology of the cross in relationship to other doctrines will be addressed. Following this it will be shown how the theology of the cross takes priority in the theological structure over other centers such as Sola Scriptura or justification by faith alone.

Theology of the Cross Explained

The theology of the cross appears early in the Luther’s thought and precedes many other doctrines which were import to the Reformation. To understand Luther’s theology of the cross one must look at the Heidelberg disputation and the context from which it arose. The theological method of the time and in which Luther was thoroughly trained was that of Scholasticism. Scholasticism was a method of theology heavily indebted to the reintroduction of Aristotelian thought by Thomas Aquinas. Scholasticism focused upon human reason in doing theology and human works in salvation. It was chiefly those two areas that Luther spoke against in the disputation and throughout his career. In the disputation Luther contrasts the theology of the cross with a theology of glory. The theology of glory according to Luther seeks to know God according to the wisdom of this world. Luther says, “Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross, as has already been stated. Therefore, the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified.”1 If one is to know God it is only in and through the cross that this is possible. Luther in this early work sees the human desire to know God apart from suffering and in man’s own wisdom. Luther will have none of it, Luther will not allow the theologian to allow the bent and inclination of the old Adam to dictate how God is to be known. Suffering according to Luther is not evil but good for through it God is seen and known. Even at this early stage of his career Luther is closing the door to man’s desire to pluck down knowledge of the divine. It was this dichotomy between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory that shaped Luther’s emphasis upon the authority of Scripture as well as justification by faith alone. To summarize Luther in putting forward the theology of the cross points to the suffering of Christ on the cross as the way to God, and in so doing he shuts the door to human effort, it shows man’s powerlessness and God’s power. With this understanding it is now possible to see how the theology of the cross permeates the work and thought of Luther.

Centrality of Theology of the Cross in Luther’s Thought

The Centrality of the Theology of the Cross and the Bible

The centrality of the theology of the cross is first seen in regards to Luther’s understanding of the Bible and it’s authoritative nature. Whereas the theology of Scholasticism placed great emphasis upon the use of human reason in regards to revelation, Luther places his focus upon divine initiative in revelation. Luther said the following in a 1534 sermon:

The Bible is not a book that was produced by reason and by by the wisdom of men. The knowledge of lawyers and poets comes from reason and may, in turn, be understood and grasped by reason. But what Moses and the prophets teach does not stem from reason and the wisdom of men. Therefore he who presumes to comprehend Moses and the prophets with his reason and to measure and evaluate Scripture according to its agreement with reason will get away from the Bible entirely. From the very beginning all heretics owed their rise to the notion that what they read in Scripture they were at liberty to explain according to the teachings of reason.2

Luther in making this statement shuts the door to the ingenuity of man in coming to revelation. Man cannot of his own initiative come to a knowledge of God. Luther submitted all his theology to the Word of God, that is to the Bible. The truth was known in the Bible not through church canons or ecstatic experiences. This utter dependence upon the Bible as the only source of revelation is derived from Luther’s theology of the cross as put forward in the Heidelberg disputation. Timothy George in addressing Luther’s view of Scripture shows that even as early as 1515 Luther held to the cross centered nature of the Bible.3 It is from this cross centered understanding of the Scriptures, informed by the theology of the cross, that Luther’s other doctrinal convictions take their shape.

The Centrality of the Theology of the Cross in Salvation

The theology of the cross in the thought and work of Luther is seen very clearly in the outworking of his doctrine of salvation. The emphasis of Scholastic theology as seen in the Heidelberg disputation was that of a works based salvation. The theologian of glory is focused upon doing works to gain merit with God. The theology of the cross removes this as a possibility for fallen man. Luther addresses the Scholastic idea facere quod in se est, that by doing what was in oneself they one can merit salvation. Luther in the disputation said , “On the basis of what has been said, the following is clear: While a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks himself in everything. But if he should suppose that through sin he would become worthy of or prepared for grace, he would add haughty arrogance to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an exceedingly great evil.”4 All of man’s efforts to come to God and earn his favor end in man’s condemnation, this is the ultimate end of the theology of glory as Luther saw it in Scholasticism.

Luther goes on to point to ultimate distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory in the conclusion of the disputation. Luther does so by pointing to the nature of God’s love for unclean sinners. Whereas the theologian of glory believes that God seeks after that which is already pure, holy, and righteous; Luther shows that in reality it is the opposite of that. God loves sinners and through his love makes them lovely. He goes on to say, “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person.”5 This cross centered understanding of the love of God permeates the thought and writing of Luther as will be seen.

The outworking of doctrine the theology of the cross is further developed in Two Kinds of Righteousness. In this work Luther draws the distinction between two kinds of righteousness, these two kinds of righteousness are merely the theologies of the cross and of glory restated. The alien righteousness being the righteousness that is derived from the theology of the cross. Luther says that this alien righteousness is imputed to the believer apart from works, that the believer does nothing to merit this righteousness. In addressing the proper righteousness, which flows from the alien righteousness, Luther addresses the need to be conformed to the image of a servant as Christ himself was. Luther then concludes that true righteousness is not seen in self-glorification but in service to others. This righteousness of the believer sees those who do not seem worthy and shows care and concern for their condition, this is exactly how the love of God works as Luther stated in the Heidelberg disputation.6

This dichotomy between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross is made manifest again in Luther’s “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life.” In this sermon Luther uses the layout of a common church building and grounds as an analogy for those who are in the church. Luther says the following about the first group of church members:

How is it that a man can take such a careful sip of outward works that he even strains out a gnat, and can take such a gulp of the right works that he even swallows a camel? It is because he makes things which matter little if at all into strict matters of conscience, but has a very free and easy conscience in things of great importance on which everything depends. People who do this are all Atrienses Sancti, churchyard saints. They are only five cubits high. This means that their holiness is circumscribed by their five senses and their bodily existence. And yet, this very holiness shines brighter in the eyes of the world than does real holiness.7

These churchyard saints are the theologians of glory that Luther contended with in the Heidelberg disputation. They focus on outward works to the detriment of those things which matter most, and while they may draw attention to their works they will never merit the favor of God because they will never come to true holiness. Luther then proceeds to show the way to the Holy of Holies the true Christian life which is not dependent upon outward works but the grace of God.8

One cannot fully fathom the importance of the theology of the cross in connection to salvation without paying due attention to Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. In this work which Luther esteemed to be one of his greatest theological works, he addresses what he felt to be the most pivotal issues of the Reformation in response to Erasmus. In addressing the charge that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty should not be proclaimed Luther puts forward an answer that flows from his earlier work in the Heidelberg disputation. After stating that the doctrine would serve to humble the elect Luther puts forward his second reason for emphasizing the sovereignty of God. He says:

The second reason is this: faith’s object is things not seen. That there may be room for faith, therefore, all that is believed must be hidden. Yet it is not hidden more deeply than under a contrary appearance of sight, sense and experience. Thus when God quickens, He does so by killing; when He justifies, He does so by pronouncing guilty…Thus God conceals His eternal mercy and loving kindness beneath eternal wrath, His righteousness beneath unrighteousness…If I could by any means understand how this same God, who makes such a show of wrath and unrighteousness, can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith.9

This is easily seen to be an outworking of the theology of the cross in Luther’s thought. God working contrary to human expectation and experience to bring about His desired ends. Whereas Erasmus would look upon this understanding of God with disdain for Luther it is the very essence of Christian faith. Were we able to fully understand God as fallen sinners there would be no place left for faith. As it is though we must have faith, we must trust a God that we cannot fathom, we must trust a God who’s way is beyond finding out. The whole of Luther’s work in this book is dedicating to attack the notion that man has any ability to merit salvation in any way whatsoever and in this Luther is drawing from his theology of the cross which shaped his understanding of the ways of God with man.

The Centrality of the Theology of the Cross and the Eucharist

One can see the centrality of the cross as an important aspect of Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharist. Luther in responding to the attacks of the Zwinglian party states the following:

Now God is the sort of person who likes to do what is foolish and useless in the eyes of the world, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1[:23]: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” And again: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God though wisdom, is pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe in him” [1 Cor. 1:21]. Well then, if anyone does not believe this, let him believe accordingly that it is mere bread or a batch of bread. Anyone who has failed to grasp the faith may thenceforth believe whatever he likes; it makes no difference.10

Luther because his view of how God operates will not surrender his theology of the Eucharist to the charge that it is irrational. He will not allow human reason to dictate how Christ is to be found in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Whereas the the Zwingli party focused on having a rational understanding of the Supper and the sacramentalists focused on human works, Luther focused upon the cross and God’s working contrary to human expectations.

Theology of the Cross and the Church

Luther’s view of the Church was shaped by his theology of the cross. Luther in his work On the Councils and the Church put forward a seventh mark of the true church which was considered revolutionary for his time. Luther is speaking of how the Church is to be recognized says:

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possessions of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trails and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ…In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth, to the point where those who hang, drown, murder, torture, banish, and plague them to death are rendering God a service.11

The Church in the eyes of Luther was not to be a privileged institution, safe and secure in the world. The idea that the true Church could enjoy peace and affluence in the world was unthinkable to Luther. For the Church to be the Church it must suffer for the sake of Christ. Where there is no bearing of the cross for the sake of Christ there is no Church. This is owing to Luther’s theology of the cross, because God can only be known through the suffering of the cross and this necessitates that the people of God partake in the suffering that comes through the cross. The cross is at the center of what it means for the people of God to be the Church of Christ. Oberman in addressing Luther’s understanding of the suffering Church points out tolerance and acceptance as a great danger to the Church. Luther calls the tolerance that he saw emerging as the trap of the devil because it threatened this mark of the Church.12

Luther’s view of the role and gifting of the pastor display the outworking of the theology of the cross in the context of pastoral ministry. Luther says the following about God’s work in preachers: “God very wonderfully entrusts his highest office to preachers that are themselves poor sinner who, while teaching it, very weakly follow it. Thus goes it ever with God’s power in our weakness; for when he is weakest in us, then is he strongest.”13 Whereas human wisdom would think that the power of God would be evidenced in the strength and sufficiency of those whom he has called to proclaim his word, Luther sees that God works contrary to human wisdom. God will not allow human wisdom or human works to dictate whom he will use as his instrument. This is the outworking of the theology of the cross being worked out in regards to pastoral ministry. The theologian of glory would not accept this statement by Luther.

Luther’s dealings with those those whom he disagreed with such as the Anabaptists, paptists, and other groups show the importance of the theology of the cross in his work. The theology of the cross was the theological framework through which he evaluated all the groups and thoughts he came into contact with. For example in writing to Melanchthon he gives the following guidelines:

In order to explore their individual spirit too, you should inquire whether they have experienced spiritual distress and the divine birth, death, and hell. If you should hear that all [their experiences] are pleasant, quiet, devout (as they say), and spiritual, then don’t approve of them, even if they should say that they were caught up up to the third heaven. The sign of the Son of Man is then missing, which is the only touchstone of Christians and a certain differentiator between the spirits…Therefor examine [them] and do not even listen if they speak of the glorified Jesus, unless you have first heard the crucified Jesus…14

The mark of the Christian is to be quickened through being killed by the Word of God. God is the one who contrary to all expectation makes alive through killing. These prophets of glory spoke of wonderful experiences of rapturous delight and glory, that in itself was enough for Luther to call their teaching into question. That emphasis was entirely contrary to the core of Luther’s theology of the cross. One must have the mark of the Son of Man, the mark of the cross made upon the life of the believer. To have a glorious Christ divorced from the cross was to have a false Christ and was to be a false prophet. As suffering and persecution make the Church the true Church, so also bearing the cross on the individual level makes a Christian a true Christian. The mark of the Son of Man is to bear the suffering of the cross in this present world, this was something Luther felt was lacking in the experience of many of the false teachers he came in contact with.

Other Possible Centers

Solo Scripture Considered

In studies of Luther there has been much discussion as to what his central doctrine on which all of his other doctrines were fixed upon. Some have put forward the doctrine of Solo Scriptura as the center of Luther’s doctrine. This doctrine does have an important place in the thought of Luther. Historically speaking it was his studies of Scripture which did lead to his doctrinal shift that lead to the Reformation. In Luther’s understanding though one cannot divorce a proper understanding of the Bible without his theology of the cross. During Luther’s time it was Scripture and tradition, what forced the change in Luther was his theology of the cross. In eliminating the possibility of man coming to true revelation apart from divine initiative, Luther closed the door on placing church authority above Scripture. Luther’s theology of the cross helped him see how important the Bible was for believers in coming to know God. Theology was to be derived from the Bible and done on God’s terms. Whereas the method of the time placed great emphasis upon human reason, Luther placed the emphasis upon God’s freedom to reveal himself or to conceal himself. It can be seen that while vital to Luther’s doctrinal commitments Solo Scriptura is not the central doctrine for Luther, his understanding of the Bible was rooted in his understanding of the theology of the cross.

Justification by Faith considered

A second possible center that has been put forward in regards to a theological center for Luther has been that of justification by faith alone. It is understandable that this would be put forward as the center for Luther’s doctrine as this was a major doctrine for all the Reformers. It was important in that it lead Luther to speak out against the abuses and false teaching of Rome. In Luther’s understanding however the doctrine of justification by faith alone is rooted in the theology of the cross. It is the theology of the cross that shows man in his impotence before a holy and just God entirely incapable and gaining merit. It is this condition that requires salvation to be by grace alone through faith alone.

Whereas Catholic Scholasticism focused on works as the means of meriting grace Luther constantly and clearly taught that fallen man was incapable of doing anything to merit the favor of God. This demonstrates the power of God in justifying sinners contrary to all expectations. It would have been thought that God could only accept those who are already righteous, Luther teaches that God makes the sinner pure and holy because of His love. It is the dichotomy between the theology of the cross and theology of glory which shapes and informs Luther’s doctrine of justification. From his understanding of the human condition and the power of God Luther shaped his understanding of justification. For Luther the theology of the cross is the very center of the cross, and is therefore essential to the entirety of the Christian life.


Luther’s central doctrinal commitment was the theology of the cross. The theology of the cross teaches several things about God and fallen man. It points to the corruption and inability of man to know God apart from the cross. Man only knows God and the love of God through Christ crucified. Whereas some would put forward a glorious Christ divorced from the suffering of the cross Luther would not and could not allow this. The cross was the center of his theology. The theology of the cross informed Luther’s understanding of the nature of the Bible. Where Scholastic theologians sought to use their cunning and reason to come to a knowledge of God, Luther saw that that was not a viable option for a theologian. God will not be known by the wisdom of man, God confounds the wisdom of the Scholastics. God is known fully in the Bible which is a testimony of the crucified Christ. Scholastic theology, the theology of glory, left sinners attempting to gain merit from God. Luther taught that man is utterly incapable of gaining merit from God, all that is in man is corrupt and sinful and were one to attempt to work to gain favor all they would do is heap sin upon sin. Salvation and knowledge of God is tied up in the person of the crucified Christ. It is from the theology of the cross that Luther’s doctrine of salvation takes its shape. The condition of man and character of God given by Luther in the Heidelberg disputation form the basis of Luther’s later works such as The Bondage of the Will and Two Kind of Righteousness. Luther’s program was to make the theology of the church that of the cross in every way possible. His understanding of the calling of ministers, the suffering of the Church, and heretics were all shaped by the theology of the cross. Some have put forward other doctrines to be the center of Luther’s theology, however it has been shown that the two main centers that have been put forward are in fact derived from Luther’s theology of the cross. For Luther the defining and central doctrine is the theology of the cross.

1Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writtings 2nd edition ,ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 58

2Martin Luther, What Luther Says,ed. Ewald M. Plass, (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2005), 1163 .

3Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1988),83.

4Luther, Heidelberg, 56.

5Ibid., 60-61.

6Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writtings 2nd edition ,ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005),135-140.

7Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writtings 2nd edition ,ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 143.

8Ibid., 144-146.

9Martin Luther,The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Grand Rapids, MI:Revell, 1957), 101.

10Martin Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ- Against the Fanatics,” Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750 ,ed. Eric Lund, trans. Frederick Ahrens (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002),52.

11Martin Luther, “On the Councils and the Church -Part III,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writtings 2nd edition ,ed. Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 375.

12Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwazbart (New Haven, CT:Yale,1989), 256-257.

13Martin Luther, Table Talk trans. William Hazlitt (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 38.

14Martin Luther, “Luther’s Letter to Melanchthon on the “Prophets”,” Documents from the History of Lutheranism 1517-1750 ,ed. Eric Lund, trans. Gottfried Krodel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002),35.


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