Cross theology, also known as theology of the cross, is a key tenet of Lutheran and Protestant theology that emphasizes the crucifixion and suffering of Jesus Christ as the main focus of God’s actions on earth. This differs from a “theology of glory,” which focuses more on human ability and achievement. The theology of the cross stresses humility, sacrifice, and God’s grace in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.
The concept originated with Martin Luther, one of the main leaders of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Luther critiqued the Roman Catholic church for emphasizing human works and downplaying the focus on Christ’s sacrifice. He argued that a proper understanding of the gospel centers on the cross and God’s revelation in Christ’s suffering. The theology of the cross sees strength in weakness, life in death, and emphasizes that God often works in hidden, mysterious ways rather than through human power or wisdom.
Some key elements of cross theology include:
- Christ crucified is at the heart of the gospel message. 1 Corinthians 1:23 says, “But we preach Christ crucified.” The cross reveals God’s wisdom and power in a paradoxical way.
- God’s ways are hidden and mysterious, often contradictory to human expectations. Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Cross theology stresses God’s hiddenness.
- Human nature is sinful, rebellious, and prideful. A theology of glory wrongly sees human works as meriting salvation. The cross highlights humanity’s need for grace. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
- Suffering has redemptive value when united to Christ’s passion. Believers participate in Christ’s sufferings. Philippians 3:10 says, “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings.”
- Strength is found in weakness. God’s power shines in human frailty. 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
- The Christian life involves repentance, humility, and bearing one’s cross in discipleship. Mark 8:34 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
In summary, the theology of the cross recognizes human depravity and God’s grace. It sees Jesus Christ and him crucified as the interpretive key to all theology. The cross reveals the heart of the gospel message – God’s redemptive love and salvation offered freely despite human sin and unworthiness. Cross theology contrasts human pride with Christlike humility and repentance. It provides comfort to suffering believers by connecting their experiences to Christ’s passion. Overall, it is a vital perspective that keeps the church rooted in the foundational truth of the crucified and risen Savior.
The theology of the cross has several important implications for Christian belief and practice:
1. Centrality of the Atonement
Cross theology emphasizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as the central event of history and essential for salvation. Jesus bore the punishment for sin, satisfied God’s wrath, and redeemed humanity (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:12). The atonement is not just one aspect of Christ’s work – it is the very heart of the gospel. The cross reveals God’s love, grace, and reconciliation with sinners.
2. Justification by Faith Alone
Since the cross is fundamentally about God’s redemptive action in Christ, salvation is by God’s grace rather than human works. Sinners cannot save themselves but are justified by faith alone in Christ’s finished work (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). The theology of glory wrongfully teaches that works earn merit before God.
3. The Hiddenness of God
The unexpected, scandalous nature of a crucified Messiah reveals that God’s ways confound human wisdom. His power and majesty are paradoxically revealed in lowliness and weakness. Luther emphasized God’s hiddenness in the “theology of the cross” versus a “theology of glory” that downplayed mystery.
4. The Problem of Human Pride
Cross theology exposes the root sin of human pride. People wrongly seek to be “like God” and attempt salvation through their own effort (Genesis 3:5). The cross opposes self-reliance or boasting before God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Salvation depends on Christ’s work, not merit.
5. Embracing Suffering
Believers are united to Christ in his sufferings and death (Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5). God uses hardship to cultivate faith, humility, and perseverance. Suffering takes on new meaning and value when joined to the passion of Christ.
6. Dying and Rising with Christ
In baptism, Christians are identified with both Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). Dying to self is part of the converted life, as is new life through the Spirit. The cross theology sees death leading to life.
7. Living the Cruciform Life
Cross theology impacts Christian ethics and practices. Following Christ requires denying self, bearing one’s cross, and conforming to Christ through repentance and humility. The cruciform life reflects the gospel.
In contrast to the theology of the cross, a “theology of glory” has characterized errors and heresies old and new. A theology of glory:
- Minimizes sin and human depravity
- Rejects the hiddenness of God, wanting to rationally understand all His ways
- Sees human merit, works, or abilities as contributing to salvation
- Downplays the centrality of Christ’s atoning work on the cross
- Rejects justification by faith alone, adding human efforts
- Emphasizes human autonomy versus reliance on God’s grace
- Focuses on human success, prosperity, achievement, and triumph
Luther strongly critiqued the theology of glory as characteristic of human pride and antithetical to the gospel revealed in the crucified Christ. He associated it especially with medieval scholasticism’s confidence in human reason. The theology of the cross keeps the focus on God’s revelation in Christ rather than human speculation.
While Luther is most associated with this perspective, the theology of the cross has roots in the New Testament and insights from other church fathers. Paul, for example, wrote much about the paradoxical nature of the gospel of a crucified Savior (1 Corinthians 1-2). Church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine articulated important concepts about human sin and dependence on God’s grace that cohere with cross theology.
The theology of the cross continues to be relevant and vital for the church today. It provides a faithfully biblical way of understanding God’s work in Christ that counters both theological liberalism that denies core doctrines like the atonement as well as prosperity gospels which see glory rather than the cross. Cross theology keeps the focus on Christ’s sacrifice for sin. As John Piper says, “The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. The gospel is the power that unleashes salvation from sin through faith in Christ.” The theology of the cross rightly recognizes this good news.
In summary, the theology of the cross:
- Stresses Christ crucified and the atonement as central to the gospel message
- Affirms justification by faith alone, not human works
- Sees God’s ways as mysterious and hidden, challenging human pride
- Diagnoses the depth of human sin and need for salvation
- Connects Christ’s suffering to the believer’s life of discipleship
- Contrasts human weakness with God’s glory and power
- Critiques theologies of glory which over-emphasize human autonomy and abilities
Cross theology remains integral to understanding the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and practicing humble discipleship. Church history and pastoral ministry show that this emphasis on the crucified Savior stays vitally at the center of true Christian faith.
Key Bible Passages on Cross Theology
Here are some important Bible verses associated with the theology of the cross:
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
These and other Scriptures testify to the centrality of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. They reveal God’s wisdom in redemption, humanity’s sinfulness, and the path of humility and discipleship for those who trust in Christ alone.
Historical Figures Associated with Cross Theology
Here are a few key people connected to the development of the theology of the cross through church history:
Luther strongly critiqued the Catholic church’s theology of glory and emphasized the theology of the cross in his debates and writings. His focus on Christ crucified was core to the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin emphasized human depravity and need for atonement. He preached the cross as central and stressed that the Christian life involves dying to self.
Bonhoeffer was a 20th century German theologian who wrote about costly discipleship and embraced suffering in resisting the Nazis. His life and writings displayed cross theology.
Packer was a contemporary evangelical theologian who defended penal substitutionary atonement. His book “Celebrating the Saving Work of God Through Christ” develops a biblically grounded theology of the cross.
Piper is a Reformed Baptist pastor whose ministry has emphasized God’s glory in the gospel of Christ crucified. He critiques theologies of glory and celebrates the theology of the cross.
These and other Christian thinkers recognized the vital importance of keeping the cross at the center of sound biblical theology. They lived out and defended the concepts of cross theology.
Objections to Cross Theology
While cross theology expresses an important biblical perspective, some raise objections. Common critiques include:
- Overly negative view of humanity – Critics say the emphasis on human sinfulness and pride goes too far in devaluing human worth or potential.
- An abusive concept of suffering – Some argue that seeing redemptive value in suffering can lead to accepting abuse or declining to alleviate suffering.
- Penal substitution problems – Objections are made to Christ suffering God’s wrath in place of sinners as divine child abuse.
- Limited focus – Some say cross theology focuses too narrowly on atonement and fails to consider the breadth of Christ’s life and ministry.
- Minimizes resurrection – Critics contend this view does not celebrate resurrection hope enough by focusing on the crucifixion.
Defenders of cross theology respond that proper biblical understanding of human sin and grace does not negate value but is the path to redemption. They also argue that there are no easy answers to complex questions of suffering. Additionally, they assert that Christ’s entire ministry culminates in and points toward the cross event. Lastly, they note that the resurrection is the vindication of the cross and the two stand together in the gospel message.
Application of Cross Theology Today
The principles of cross theology remain deeply relevant for Christians and churches today. Some key applications include:
- Evangelism – The cross remains the heart of the gospel message we proclaim.
- Discipleship – Dying to self and embracing the way of the cross stands at the core of following Jesus.
- Theology – Christ crucified remains central rather than sidelined or reinterpreted.
- Worship – Hymns, sermons, and the Lord’s Supper focus on Christ’s atoning work.
- Humility – The cross counters pride and calls us to Christlike humility.
- Community – Cross theology enables diversity in the church since all ground is level at the foot of the cross.
- Social Justice – A crucified Savior identifies with the suffering and compels compassion.
- Perseverance – Fixing our eyes on Christ gives endurance amidst trials and pain.
In all aspects of life and ministry, the cross remains a vital reference point. It recenters the church on the beauty and scandal of grace. The theology of the cross brings gospel renewal in every generation by elevating Jesus Christ and him crucified.
In conclusion, the theology of the cross emphasizes Christ crucified as the heart of the gospel message. This perspective originated with Martin Luther but has roots throughout church history. Cross theology stresses human sin, God’s hiddenness, Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and the paradoxical nature of a crucified Savior. It critiques theologies of glory that over-value human autonomy and ability. Despite objections, cross theology offers profound insights into God’s redemptive work in Christ. It calls for humility, repentance, faith in grace alone, and embracing the way of the cross. Cross theology remains critically important for understanding the Bible, proclaiming the gospel, and following Jesus faithfully today. With Christ at the center, the church finds renewal in every generation.