Luther and the Global Pandemic: On Becoming A Theologian of the Cross

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim’

Leonard Cohen

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life’.

Jesus Christ [John 12:24-25]

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rumble on, there are many people who, understandably enough, are still worried about the possibility of dying of the disease. My concern, however, is that I have not yet died enough.

One of the things that has become apparent over the last few months is that we all, myself included, seem to have an opinion as to what can best be done to resolve the current crises. And we’re all too happy to voice that opinion. Why is that I wonder?

Perhaps it is because we have a need to think that we’re in control, that there is something that we can do about the problems that we face. Whilst, perhaps, some of us are comforted into thinking everything will be a OK by believing that the government and their advisors are doing everything that is required, there are others of us are who are less sure and instead draw comfort by believing that at least we know what needs to be done and that, if we shout loudly enough, somebody will hear and implement our sage advice thus ensuring that all will still be well.

But what if that wasn’t the case. What if there really was nothing that we could do? What if we really were helpless? What then? Might we have to look elsewhere for our comfort?

Recently I have been working my way through a book entitled ‘On being a theologian of the cross’. It takes a look at Martin Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputation. If that sounds rather heavy that’ll be because it is a little. Even so, it really is quite brilliant.

God is who he is. And we need to understand him in relation to who he has revealed himself to be rather than on the basis of how we would like him to be. The two or often very different. Luther sees the cross as central to Christianity. He calls it God’s ‘alien work’, an attack on sin which, since our aspirations are as fallen as the rest of us, is also an attack on who we are in our fallen state. In short our desires are not what they ought to be and, as a result, those things that we want and which we might expect God to be pleased to deliver, may not necessarily be what God wants. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, that wholly unexpected event in history, is central to God’s revelation of himself. At the cross, seemingly paradoxically, we see him manifesting his glory through suffering and death. Luther calls those who understand God in these terms, ‘theologians of the cross’. They are those who see God as he really is.

‘Theologians of glory’, in contrast, is Luther name for those who, along with the world, see the crucifixion of Jesus as foolishness. They are those who consider the cross to be ‘folly’ [1 Corinthians 1:23] and, as a result of their fallen nature, not only glory in the same things that the world glories in, but also imagine that God does too.

But when we expect God to act in the way that we want him to, when we expect him to want for us what we would want for ourselves, we are in fact creating for ourselves a God in our own image. In so doing we are usurping the ‘God who is there’ and seeking to place ourselves on his throne. God however is God. He is who he wills to be. His ways are higher than ours, as are his thoughts, [Isaiah 55:9], ‘his greatness is unsearchable’ [Psalm 145:3], and ‘the thunder of his power who can understand?’ [Job 26:14]. And so we find that God often works in ways that surprise us, in ways that we would not chose. Frequently, as he did at Calvary, God works through pain and suffering and, just as it was through the cross that he most fully revealed himself to the world, so must we be prepared for Him to sometimes use pain and suffering as the means by which he most fully reveals himself to us.

However, because of our fallen nature, we are all, by default, theologians of glory. And because we can not be what we are not, it is impossible for us to see God for who he really is without him breaking into our lives and changing who we are. As theologians of glory, those who think as the world does in terms of performance and reward, we find it impossible to understand what was achieved through the death of Jesus on the cross. Rather than being the recipients of the grace and mercy that was poured out there, we keep trying instead to merit God’s approval. We like to think that, somewhere deep within us, there is a kernel of goodness that might allow us to do something that would impress God enough to earn his favour. We comfort ourselves by imagining that if we try just a little bit harder, we might, by our efforts, make progress in our search for his acceptance.

But what if that wasn’t the case. What if there really was nothing that we could do? What if we really were helpless? What then? Might we have to look elsewhere for our comfort?

Luther is convinced that in our fallen state we really are helpless. There really is nothing we can do to change. Everything about us is flawed and, as has already be stated, our default position is such that we are all, myself included, theologians of glory. This inherent tendency in me was made apparent when in an earlier draft of this, I initially wrote of how I needed to ‘allow’ God to be God! ‘Allow’? Really? What pretension on my part to think God needs permission from me to be who he is!

Not only then do theologians of glory imagine that God wants for us what we want for ourselves, that he will provide our best life now, a life characterised by health, wealth and prosperity, they also believe that we are inherently worthy of God’s love and that we can, by an effort of the will prove ourselves to be so. But they are wrong, and we can’t. In fact, according to Luther, a belief that we can earn God’s favour in our own strength is sinful in itself, and only worsens our situation further. By maintaining that by keeping the law we can make ourselves any more acceptable to God, we deny the need for his grace and thus compound our guilt. The first thesis of Luther’s disputation states that, ‘The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them’. This is wholly in keeping with Paul when he writes that ‘by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ [Romans 3:20]

Our problem then is far greater than we would like to imagine.

It’s not merely that we need to try harder – rather it is that the task is too hard.

It’s not merely that we need to think more highly of others – rather it is that we need to think less highly of ourselves

It’s not merely that we need to humble ourselves – rather it is that we need to be humbled.

God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble [James 4:6]. It is only when we come to despair completely in the effectiveness of our own efforts that we are able to receive the grace that God is so eager to pour out on us. And to be brought to this point, to be humbled so completely, our old selves need to die. It is my concern, as I said above, that I have not died enough.

Theologians of glory think as the world thinks, they stress our worth and minimise the necessity of the cross. They see the crucifixion as merely a demonstration of God’s love for us rather than the bloody sacrifice that was required for our salvation. In contrast theologians of the cross see things as they really are. They acknowledge our inherent sinfulness and the perilous danger we are in if we fail to appreciate this reality. And they accept that God, just as he did 2000 years ago through cruel nails and a bloody cross, still sometimes works in ways that are incomprehensible to the world in bringing about his purposes.

Sometimes he works through heartache and sorrow,

Sometimes he works through pain and suffering.

And sometimes, perhaps, he even works through a global pandemic.

Along with Bob Dylan, my favourite musician is Leonard Cohen. Following his death a few years ago I wrote a short blog after I came across something interesting he had said in response to being asked why so many of his songs had a melancholic feel to them. If you’re so minded you can read that blog here, but this is what he said:

‘We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the side-lines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole…thing. Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat’.

Cohen here is speaking like a theologian of the cross, one who acknowledges the normality of sadness and appreciates how life is about ‘the recognition of defeat’. But here’s the thing. Is there, I wonder, a joy to be had in being conquered by someone who is greater than ourselves, who is worthy of our admiration and in whom we can delight? I think there is. By seeking satisfaction in ourselves we ‘have committed two evils: [we] have forsaken [God], the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for [ourselves], broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ [Jeremiah 2:13]. There is though real refreshment to be had in the contentment that comes from no longer having to win, a relief that comes from having the burden of being awesome lifted, a real pleasure that flows from admiring the God who really can satisfy our souls.

I believe that to be conquered by God is good for us all. It would most certainly be good for me.

And so, when life is difficult, as it sometimes is, for me as well as others, and when I am tempted to wonder where God might be, I need to think more like a theologian of the cross, one who sees God working through the pain and sadness, breaking my fragile dependence on myself in order that I might depend securely on him, lessening my unsatisfying obsession with who I am in order that I might be fully satisfied in who he is, and lovingly putting me to death in order that I might one day rise again in Christ.

Perhaps it is when the difficulties seem to be genuinely overwhelming that it is time for me to believe that ‘this light momentary affliction [really] is preparing for [me] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as [I] look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’ [2 Corinthians 4:17-18].

Only as God lovingly brings me to this point will I find real comfort in ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’ [2 Corinthians 1:3-4]

But as these verses continue we see again the paradoxical nature of God, one who refuses to conform to worldly expectations. For it is ‘as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.’ [2 Corinthians 1:5-7]

God comforts us in our suffering. Paradoxically, it is as we suffer that we are comforted and it is as we suffer that we are able to comfort others who, as they themselves suffer, are themselves comforted.

Having started with a statement on the inability of man to contribute anything to their salvation, Luther completes the Heidelberg Disputation with words which once more are totally contrary to how the world thinks. This is what he says: ‘The love of God does not first discover but creates what is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through attraction to what pleases it.’

And here too is real comfort. Whilst our love is only ever a response to what we find lovely, God’s loves originates within himself. Therefore he loves us, not because we are lovely, but because he is the one who is love [John 4:8]. Furthermore he loves us in order to make us lovely. Though we can not do anything to warrant it in and of ourselves, God, through the foolishness of the cross, through the pain, suffering and death experienced both there and in our lives, does everything necessary to make us how we were always meant to be, everything necessary for our salvation including all that is required to make us humble enough to accept it. And, because he loves us, he does it regardless of how painful it might seem to us at the time.

‘For the Lord disciplines the one he loves…he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’ [Hebrews 12:6,10-11]

‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!’ [Romans 11:33]

God is a theologian of the cross.

‘[He] is God and there is no other; [he] is God there is none like [him]’ [Isaiah 46:9]

‘[He] kill[s] and [He] make[s] alive; [He] wound[s] and [He] heal[s]; and there is none that can deliver out of [his] hand’ [Deuteronomy 32:39]

Oh that I might know and be known by the one true God, the God who is like no other. Oh that he would wound me that I might be healed – that he would kill me that I would be made alive. Oh that I might forever be in his hands.

And oh that He would do everything necessary to make me a true theologian of the cross, even if , in order to make me ‘rely not on [myself] but on God who raises the dead’ it makes me feel, like Paul, I ‘had received the sentence of death’ [2 Corinthians 1:9].

Jesus said ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.’ [Mark 8:34-35]. May I be brought to the point whereby I know what it is to follow Jesus in the way he calls me too. And may I also know what it is to put to death, by the Spirit, the deeds of the body and thereby live. [Romans 8:13]

Because, after all, though ‘to live is Christ…to die is gain’ [Philippians 1:21]. He will raise me from death and it is only then that I ‘shall see him as he is’, it is only then that I ‘shall be like [Jesus]’ [1 John 3:2], and it is only then that I will know the full joy of of being with him forever. [Luke 23:43].

So, ‘Now to him who is able’, sometimes by trials or tribulations, sometimes by death or disease, ‘to keep [us] from stumbling and to present [us] blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen’ [Jude 1:24-25].


For ‘Reflections on the death of Leonard Cohen’, click here

And for some more thoughts on suffering, click here


ADDENDUM – LUTHER ON THE BLACK DEATH

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.

If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.

If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.

See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Luther’s Works Volume 43,,pg 132: the letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess

2 Comments

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s