The full title is actually: Theology of Glory vs. Theology of the Cross. But that is long for a blog post title.
These two approaches to life (and theology) meet us head-on every day. The theology of glory vs. the theology of the Cross can be confusing. All Christians believe in the glory of heaven—that is not the issue here. Rather, the problem comes when someone tries to impose that future glory into the present realm through our own efforts. You will hear statements such as, “It is God’s intention that you be rich.” (Note: from my perspective, that seems fitting in light of my first name!)
Such a claim shows the theology of glory has imposed itself into this current life. The reality under the cross is that we should expect persecution, suffering, and even death. Living in this world as Christians means life under the cross of Christ.
[Jesus said:] “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12 NAS)
[Jesus said:] “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NAS)
Notice that these realities have present consequences. And Paul wrote much about the present world in which we live and the suffering and persecution of this life.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. (Philippians 1:29-30 NAS)
Theologies of Glory
God’s desire for humans is that they receive all his gifts, especially his righteousness; this righteousness is called passive righteousness, entirely God’s work and gift to us. But sin skews all that. Humans want to do, achieve, control their lives and their destiny. In order to do that humans construct their own theology in which their works contribute to salvation or are the basis of salvation.
Robert Kolb and Charles Arand wrote about it this way:
They find that putting their faith in the promises of God alone is too unsatisfying and too risky. It is like putting all their eggs in one basket. This is not to say that God cannot be involved or a part of the picture. But we want to minimize the risk, and so we want to keep one hand on the wheel, or have a backup system in place; to be a part of a cooperative partnership where we rely partly on God and partly on ourselves. This would allow us to exercise a certain amount of control over our own destiny. Luther called these attempts “theologies of glory,” in which human deeds elicit and thus predict (at least in part) God’s deeds. (The Genius of Luther’s Theology, CPH, 2008, pp. 80-1)
Common to all theologies of glory is the role humans play in assisting God to “make things work out right in this life.” Thus, a key component of these theologies is to try to impose all the future glory of heaven into the present world. You might hear statements such as:
Christians should never be sick!
If you just give to the Lord he will blessing you in far greater riches (in this life)!
Real Christians are always successful!
And the list could go on. As Kolb/Arand note the theologians of glory have to rewrite the script for the relationship between God and humans, the script for the human, and the script for human relationships with each other.
Theology of the Cross
The theology of the cross looks at life realistically. That includes recognizing the devastating effects that sin has brought into the world. The theologians of the cross see life as it really is, not as they wish it to be. They call a spade a spade. They recognize that God is God, we as humans are his creations, and that calls us into a life marked by service to others.
We often do not have the answers to many questions about this: Why does God allow suffering? Why does it take so long? When will there be relief? But in the Bible we find many expressions of the theology of the cross. Take a look at the many Psalms of lament, such as Psalm 55:1-8 (HCSB).
God, listen to my prayer and do not ignore my plea for help. Pay attention to me and answer me. I am restless and in turmoil with my complaint, because of the enemy’s voice, because of the pressure of the wicked. For they bring down disaster on me and harass me in anger.
My heart shudders within me; terrors of death sweep over me. Fear and trembling grip me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, “If only I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and find rest. How far away I would flee; I would stay in the wilderness. I would hurry to my shelter from the raging wind and the storm.”
The Son of God came to defeat sin (1 John 2:2), death (1 Cor. 15:26), and the devil (1 John 3:8). We live between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and his return in glory at the end of time. This life is marked by the struggles associated with each of the three enemies.
Paul had preached Christ to people in Thessalonica, but they was run out of town after a short period of time (perhaps as little as three weeks). Paul writes two letters to them concerning the Christian life and what these new believers were facing.
and you became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 1:6 HCSB)
For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, since you have also suffered the same things from people of your own country, just as they did from the Jews who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and persecuted us; they displease God and are hostile to everyone, (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 HCSB)
Therefore, we ourselves boast about you among God’s churches—about your endurance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you endure. It is a clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5 HCSB)
Comfort in the Theology of the Cross
Paul and Peter give the theologian of the cross the proper perspective on glory, the glory that awaits all Christians in heaven.
and if children, also heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—seeing that we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (Romans 8:17 HCSB)
You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials so that the genuineness of your faith—more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. You love Him, though you have not seen Him. And though not seeing Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9 HCSB)
For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. (1 Peter 2:21 HCSB)
Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13 HCSB)
Then in relationship to others who suffer in this life, we do not offer them false hope or temporary solutions. This is how Paul expressed it to the Corinthians believers in Christ.
Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 HCSB)
What does this mean?
We live under the cross in this life, not as defeated, but as sharers in the cross of Christ. God’s Word, Baptism, Lord’s Supper, and absolution all speak to our hearts words of comfort, forgiveness, renewal, and hope. That sustains us in the worst of times. For we know that “whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.”
We live realistically in light of what God’s word declares about who we are: saints-sinners, redeemed by Christ. We are not deceived by the temporary fixes of our own doing, that of a community, or that of a government. Perhaps a challenge is for us to re-read the New Testament and take note of how much is focused on the theology of the cross. I suspect that we will discover in the process how much of the theology of glory may be more American civil religion and individualism and not based on the Bible. In my interactions with Christians from other countries, I have found that this theology of glory stuff does not relate to their experiences and life, but the theology of the cross speaks to the heart. That they know and live with every day.