Theology of the Cross in the Thought of Martin Luther

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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.

THEOLOGY OF THE CROSS IN LUTHER’S THOUGHT

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

What difference does Easter make?

Today is Good Friday but Sunday’s coming. My greatest fear is that many will gather together in churches, hear the Easter story, and never see real life transformation. It’s not enough to come to church on Christmas and Easter or every time the doors or open for that matter. The question we should all ask ourselves is what difference does Easter make or what difference should it make in our lives. Last year I preached a sermon on that very issue and invite you to listen to it:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/yhf8vzui9u42d9s/Easter%20Sermon.mp3?dl=0

Cheap grace and a theology of glory

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I have several heroes from church history. Two of them happen to be Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you could ask them what was wrong with evangelicalism, particularly in America, I am confident they would respond cheap grace and a theology of glory. We’ve bought into the lies of the world and fallen in line with the old Adam, thinking we know better then God. At the same time we’ve made grace, religion, and Christ something to market and sell rather then exult in and receive. Bonhoeffer begins his masterwork The Cost of Discipleship with an explanation of cheap grace. The following are some particularly pointed insights:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares…Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.(pages 43-44)

What is called evangelicalism has for the most part lost the evangel. In many churches messages are preached with little or no mention of the saving work of Christ. Men and women are given an invitation to follow a Jesus they do not know and never warned to count the cost of discipleship. H. Richard Niebuhr put it well when he said, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” He said that of the liberal social gospel, but now it is true of evangelicalism for the most part. We have bought into what Luther called long ago a theology of glory. Luther explains the theology of glory in the following:

Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isa. [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”

So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeing God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ, as it is also stated in John [14:6 and] 10[:9] “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door,” and so forth (Thesis 20).

We want to know God only in his glory and majesty, we don’t want to know him in suffering and in the shadow of the cross. We want a Christ without a cross, at least without the cross of the New Testament world. We’ll take the cross as an ornament and a decoration but not as the instrument of death and suffering that it is. For today I’ll close with Luther’s observation regarding the rejection of the cross by a theology of glory. Luther says:

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” [Phil. 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. 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. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.                    (Thesis 21)

 

 

 

Reflection on Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. It seems for all it’s faults, flaws, and many unbiblical aspects the Roman Catholic liturgical impulse has one advantage over the complete indifference to such matters of of liturgy in popular evangelicalism. The advantage is that while most professing believers can go through the year(with the exception of Christmas and Easter) without really pondering the life of Christ, without considering the obedience of Christ which now stands as our righteousness those who hold to a liturgy are confronted with those realities whether they accept them or not.

Today many will begin their Lenten season committing to fast from many different things, in order to remember Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. It seems on the surface of it an exercise in missing the point. The point of the New Testament writers in recording the temptation of Christ is not to call us to make vows or to call us fast (fasting is a good thing but it’s not the point of Christ’s temptation). The point is that Christ is the new Adam, that where our first father Adam was tempted and fell Christ was tempted and crushed the head of the serpent.

Christ was not without a special kind of food in the wilderness. In John 4:34, Christ states that his food is to to do the will who sent him. In his temptation Christ responded to the temptation to turn stones to bread by quoting Scripture, and saying “Man shall not live by bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Where Adam and Eve doubted and disobeyed the word of God, Christ treasured, obeyed, and feasted upon the word of God. What if rather then merely fasting from some aspect of life we in the midst of our temptations treasured, obeyed, and feasted on God’s word? That would indeed bring about true change.

That we need liturgical calendars to remind us of Christ’s life and work is saddening because this is the lifeblood the very impetus of the Christian life. If we only reflect upon these great truths once a season we rob ourselves of a chance to be encouraged and strengthened by the reminder of what Christ has done for us.

Visions of heaven and the theology of glory

If one were to look at the best selling books among professed Christians over the past decade, they would see one theme repeated in many of the books and that is visions of heaven. What are we to make of these accounts that have turned their authors into celebrities and spawned multimillion dollar movie deals. Whether our natural tendency is to be critical or accepting our natural tendency must be tempered by biblical testimony. To address these we will answer the following questions, are these works authoritative, are they necessary, do they contribute or detract from the truth of the Bible.

The first question when confronted with something like this is, what authority, if any, does it have. We as Christians are people of the Book. All of these authors share in the fact that they profess to be sharing from personal experience. Personal experience is a good thing, the truths of Christianity are meant to be experienced in the life of a believer. However experience does not define truth or reality. Peter an eyewitness to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ gives us a grid from which to base our understanding of authority in regards to revelation and experience. In 2 Peter 1:16-20 he gives testimony to his experience of being an eyewitness to the transfiguration of Christ. . He says that he was an eyewitness and heard  the voice, “borne from heaven.” What Peter says next is even more remarkable, “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention to as to a lamp shining in  a dark place…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit( 2 Peter 1:19-21.)” In the Christian life Scripture is to have authority, from it we are to interpret our experience and not the other way around. Given the nature of the nature of these so-called eyewitness experiences of heaven, we cannot give to them the authority we give to the Bible.

Do we need eyewitness testimony of heaven to win the world to the gospel? Another way to ask that question would be to ask, is the Bible enough? In Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of two men,a rich man whose name was never recorder and the other Lazarus a poor man. After being denied his initial request for comfort the rich man makes another request. He asks of  Abraham in regards to Lazarus, “‘Then I beg you , father, to send him to my father’s house- for I have five brothers- so that he can warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should be raised from the dead (Luke 16:27-31.)'”  If they won’t hear the Scriptures, they won’t be convinced by a resurrection. What is truly incredible about this, is that the one telling the story is the one who would be raised from the dead. What Jesus is in effect saying is that if people will not be convinced by the clear and authoritative word of God then they won’t be convinced at all. We have more then Moses and the Prophets, we also have the Gospels and Epistles the full story divinely inspired. If we are to take Jesus seriously in recounting this story we must acknowledge we have no need for a cottage industry based on heavenly tours, we have the Scriptures and they are enough. According to the testimony of Scripture these are unnecessary.

The Bible tells us of one man who who went to heaven and shared his experience. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:3-4, “And I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows- and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” It was not lawful for this man, the apostle Paul to bear witness to the thing he saw and heard in heaven. Yet many authors on the bestseller list who have made their fortunes would have us believe that God has granted them an exception. What these authors do is quite clever, they seek to do away with the biblical nature of the Christian hope in this present age. Hebrews 11:1-3 states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” If these account are true they erode away at the very nature of biblical faith and hope.

What these authors are doing, what many so-called Christian leaders are doing is not novel. What they put forward is really in fact a theology of glory. Martin Luther in 1518 painted a picture of what a theology of glory in the Heidelberg Disputation. In closing I would like you to consider these two statements from the Disputation, next week we will delve into a theology of the cross:

21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers ,works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls »enemies of the cross ofChrist« (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the »oldAdam«, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his »good works« unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened
.

This has already been said. Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks, as the poet says: »The more water they drink, the more they thirst for it.« The same thought is expressed in Eccles. 1:8: »The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.« This holds true of all desires

.Thus also the desire for knowledge is not satisfied by the acquisition of wisdom but is stimulated that much more. Likewise the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4:13, where he says, »Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again.«The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking »folly«. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.