One of the persistent themes of the conservative evangelical movement has been a recovery of a “theology of the cross” from its eclipse by a “theology of glory.” In general, this is a positive development.
The distinction between these two categories is generally attributed to Martin Luther. In brief, a theology of glory reflects in a praxis born out of Pelagian assumptions. Those who hold to it see God’s purposes best achieved through strength and power. In Gerald Forde’s words, theologians of glory “operate on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works.” He adds that while theologians of glory sometimes speak positively of grace, “the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power” (Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 16). In such a model the best case scenario, in Michael Bird’s commentary, is for the theologian of glory to “see the cross as a means to an end rather than the end itself.” At worst, the cross becomes fundamentally unnecessary—even a stumblingblock or object of scorn.
Theologians of the cross, on the other hand, reflect Christian presuppositions. Those who hold to it see God’s purposes best achieved through weakness and death. They begin with the fact that the natural man is totally depraved and thus incapable of mustering the power and energy of will to improve his standing. For this reason, Forde opines, “theologians of the cross know that we can’t be helped by optimistic appeals to glory, strength, wisdom, positive thinking, and so forth because those things are themselves the problem.” Instead of “coddling the sinner with false optimism,” the theologian of the cross insists instead that hearers of the Gospel “all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true” (17). In this model, the cross is central to the Christian existence, and all thought of glory is suppressed.
The paragraphs above, of course, leave little doubt as to the superior model of the two. If I have to make a binary decision, the latter is the obvious choice. At the same time I cannot help but feel that I have been forced into something of a false dilemma. If it is true that to be a theologian of the cross I must see the cross as the end of all things (and never the means to a greater end), and can advance in my Christian walk by perpetually reminding myself that I am merely a sinner until Christ’s return, then I am not sure that I am a theologian of the cross in the purest of senses.
There are two primary reasons for my dissent: First, while I am confident that relative to my justification the cross is not a means but the end, the cross is also the means to ends that are other than and greater than my justification: “God was pleased…through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col 1:19–20). The great “end” of all things is not my justification, but Christ’s delivery of his kingdom to God the Father, with the result that God will be all in all (1 Cor 15:24–28). Now, to be sure, such an end could never occur apart from the cross: there is no ethical basis for the restoration of lost glory outside the cross. But the end of all things is not the death of Christ much less my salvation; it is, in fact, glory—both for God and for his elect (Rom 2:7, 10; 8:17–18; 9:23; 1 Cor 15:43; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:17; 2 Thess 2:14; etc.).
Secondly, I find myself critical of any view of sanctification that sees forensic rectitude as its primary impetus. To be sure, justification is a tremendous impulse to godly living, but of itself it offers no empowerment or enabling energy. The vitality of sanctification flows instead from regeneration. The believer does not advance in his sanctification by fixating on the fact that he was once a sinner and is now a sinner saved by grace—i.e., a sinner unchanged save for the legal reception of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Instead, a believer advances in his sanctification by appropriating what Christ has imparted in regeneration: escape from the total inability that once gripped him and participation in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3–4). By the grace of regeneration in Christ, the believer advances from the humiliation that made the cross necessary to a remarkable experience of glory with Christ and in Christ. In short, I count myself a theologian of glory of the stoutest variety—but of a glory that accrues only by means of the cross.
One might of course look at the preceding and complain that I am making too much of a minor issue that, were one to confront the modern evangelical theologians of the cross with it, would largely meet with agreement. But I am deeply troubled that much of what subsists today under the label ‘cross-centered,’ ‘Gospel-centered,’ and even ‘Christ-centered’ is really about being justification-centered. And I find that center to be much too small.