Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

22 Aug 2012

Harmonizing a Theology of the Cross with a Doxological Center


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.

11 Responses

  1. paul

    Are there any books,articles, etc. that deal with this deficiency of “gospel-centeredness” that you could recommend?

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    About a year and a half ago Jason B. Hood wrote a fairly provocative article ( that introduced issues similar to those I raised in my post. The article resulted in a response by Tullian Tchividjian ( This in turn led to a rejoinder by Kevin DeYoung and a sustained exchange between DeYoung and Tchividjian, which is compiled at William B. Evans later joined the fray (, siding with Hood in DeYoung and arguing that Tchividjian (and I would add a large block of conservative evangelicals) is fixated so exclusively on Christ’s justifying work that he is failing to give proper due to other elements of the work of Christ, especially regeneration.

    If you are looking for an outstanding book-length treatment of this concern, Evans also has a superb contribution in his Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology. Among other things, the book is concerned with properly balancing the doctrine of imputation (i.e. justification and its benefits) with the doctrine of impartation (regeneration and its benefits).

    My post was an attempt to offer a fresh angle on this problem, with Evans as something of an inspiration.

    Edit: Also, I was just pointed to a very recent blog entry by Tim Bayly encouraging his Gospel-centered colleagues in the faith to give due attention not only to justification but also to “sanctification and glorification” (

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      That is probably not the totality of the issue, Phil, but it may be part of it. A few months ago I happened upon a conservative evangelical blog that too umbrage with the hymn “Immortal Invisible” because it made no reference to Christ, only the Father. As a healthy Trinitarian I took exception to that comment—after all, Christ himself went on record as saying “The Father is greater then I.” It’s OK to sing about God non-specifically, or about the Father, or even about the Holy Spirit.

      It seems counter-intuitive to caution against being too Christ-centered, but if in being “Christ-centered” one tips into Christomonism, then it is possible to go too far with a very good thing.

      1. So, would it be theologically inappropriate to say the Son’s work on the Cross is a means to an end and not the end itself? (I’ve been trying to work through some these things for myself and our congregation lately.) Thanks for the posts and for taking the time to respond to comments.

        1. Mark Snoeberger

          I would say that the cross is both an end and a means to an end. It is an “end” to the Mosaic Law and and the end-all liberation from the law of sin and death (Rom 6, 10, etc.). That’s why I’m happy to say that in terms of our justification Christ’s death is an end unto itself. But it also renders possible a greater end that we have yet to realize: glory.

  3. Doug

    As I read through the NT I see repeatedly that’s God’s purpose in His work is for His glory – whether it be our salvation (2 Cor., 4:15, Eph. 1:5-6, Rom. 15:7), the work of spreading the gospel to bring people to salvation (2 Cor. 8:18,19), God’s predestination of Jewish believers (Eph. 1:11-12), giving to the sealing of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14), being filled with the fruit of righteousness (Phil. 1:11), the Father’s exaltation of Christ (Phil. 29-11), and the marriage of the Lamb and the bride (Rev. 19:7). He even intends for our work as believers to be for His glory (Matt. 5:16).

    To acknowledge this does not lessen our appreciation for justification, and we can argue that the remarkable work of the cross is God’s greatest work; but it helps us realize that God’s purpose is bigger than what He does for men.