At the conclusion of Luther on the Christian Life (2015), church historian Carl Trueman recollects being interviewed for his first tenured appointment at a university. He was asked by one of the interviewers, “If you were trapped on a desert island, who would you want with you – Luther or Calvin?” Trueman chose Luther. And later that day he was hired.
According to Trueman, “I have rarely if ever used any of Luther’s commentaries or lectures in order to help clarify an exegetical point. Frankly, he lacks the precision and the sensitivity to the biblical text that one finds in Calvin. So why is it that, despite many attempts over the years to move on from studying Luther, I find myself drawn back again and again?” (28) If one were forced to supply only one answer, it would be found in Luther’s astonishing combination of genius and humanity. Unlike Calvin, who rarely spoke about himself, Luther was an open book. He spoke of flatulence. Of constipation. Of his wrestling with God. Of his marriage to Katharina von Bora. Luther wasn’t simply a theologian. He was a sinner simul iustus et peccator. This also gave Luther remarkable skill as a pastor.
As pastor and theologian, Luther understood the everyday sinner and the desperate need for assurance. Plagued by the Anfechtungen of God’s judgment, Luther knew where to flee and where to point other sinners for rest: the cross. In fact, in Luther’s distinction between theology of the cross and theology of glory, he left perhaps his best gift to pastors:
- That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. [Rom. 1:20]
- He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
- A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
If a pure “theologian of glory” could be identified in the 21st century, he would be found peddling a version of the prosperity gospel, enticing idolatrous hearts with the promise of wealth and comfort, meanwhile pilfering their joy when conflict and pain and trial inevitably ensues. Luther knew that pain well, and he knew that his people did too. Unlike the cross, where an ignominious, crucified Jew triumphed over evil and the world, theology of glory measures success and health by the world’s standards, by what can be seen. In other words, a theologian of glory perceives the will of God not by divine revelation, but by whatever the world puts in front of him. If a church is large, it must be “healthy.” If a church is wealthy, it must be “blessed.” However, Luther knew this wasn’t reality. Christian knowledge looks foolish to the theologian of glory.
For Luther, the theology of the cross wasn’t simply the logic of the Gospel; it was integral to the very identity of God. God’s logic doesn’t operate like worldly logic. The world says a criminal dying on a cross is pathetic and defeated; the Word says this “criminal” is a King. What appears on the outside isn’t necessarily what takes place on the inside. Not in 16th Germany and not in a 21st century evangelical church.
For the American pastor shepherding a hurting cancer patient, or a family torn apart by divorce, or a congregant battling depression, the theology of glory has nothing to offer them. According to the theologian of glory, in these instances, God isn’t there or God isn’t pleased. At best, God is watching or waiting. Theology of glory carries no meaningful glory for suffering, much less the precious truth that God intends suffering for the good of His people. However, the theologian of the cross knows that God can be working His grace and His strength and His glory through the worst of circumstances. This is absolutely essential for the ordinary Christian life and just as necessary for the pastoral tool belt. We can’t judge tribulation by its cover. Unlike the world, and just like the Gospel, God uses suffering to build His kingdom and to secure the faith of His people.
As one plagued with severe mental and emotional turmoil from his youth, Luther’s theology was deeply personal. It was tied to his own well-being. In his mind, the failure of scholasticism was its detachment from real life. In his magisterial biography Here I Stand, Roland Bainton remarks, “There is just one respect in which Luther appears to have been different from other youths of his time, namely, in that he was extraordinarily sensitive and subject to recurrent periods of exaltation and depression of spirit. This oscillation of mood plagued him throughout his life.” If we are to think rightly of Luther, we should think of him first as a sinner seeking peace with God. In his lowliness, in his suffering, he found the cross.
“God hides his power in weakness, his wisdom in folly, his goodness in severity, his justice in sins, his mercy in anger.”