Fascinations that Lead Away from the Cross

January 17, 2014

Maze of Fascinations

by Michael Horton

Martin Luther opposed the “theology of the cross” to all “theologies of glory.” The latter can be generally placed into three categories: three types of “ladders” we try to climb in order to see “God in the nude,” as Luther put it. These ladders were mysticism, speculation, and merit. I would like to suggest a few contemporary expressions of the theology of glory along these lines.

Fascination with the Miraculous

As in our Lord’s day, few today who seek miracles are interested in that to which signs point. “A wicked generation seeks for signs,” Jesus said, followed by Paul’s reminder that his fellow Jews were so busy looking for miraculous wonders that they stumbled over the Gospel of Christ crucified. Seeking direct experiences with God without the mediation of Scripture, preaching, and sacraments is a theology of glory. Longing for “power encounters,” we trip over the weakness of the cross. This is also true of our triumphalism, long a problem of evangelical revivalism. With its vision of conquering and reigning, the cross-bearing life of Christ which our Savior graciously allows us to share with him is traded in for a crown before the appointed time. Often, we behave like the disciples during our Lord’s ministry. Philip saw Jesus as a means to an end: “Now, just show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied,” he said. “Philip, have you been with me so long and you still don’t get it? He who has seen me has seen the Father!” Those looking for God in demonstrations of power miss the true appearance of God in the humiliation and weakness of the Suffering Servant.

His disciples never did understand him when he said he must suffer and die, and whenever he brought it up, they tried to ignore it. Or, as in Peter’s case, they rebuked him: “Surely this will never happen to you!” As Satan had offered Jesus a crown without a cross, so even Jesus’ own brothers, impressed with his success as a miracle-worker, anxiously offered a tour of the major cities. Similarly, James and John wanted to call down fire on their enemies, and their mother came to Jesus to ask him to allow her sons to sit on his left and right hand in his kingdom. Everyone was planning for glory, but Jesus was planning for the cross. “You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus told their proud mother. “Can they drink the cup that I am about to drink?” “Of course we can!”, they eagerly replied. Triumphalism ignores the cross, and when the hour of trial (sin, failure, loss of popularity, shame, and abuse) comes, we, like the disciples, flee for cover instead of sharing in Christ’s suffering. The triumphalism of theologies of glory can be discerned in much of today’s popular Christian music. Here the realities of life are replaced with platitudes and sentimentalism, a far cry from the emotional and moving words of the psalmist. Contrast much of contemporary Christian music with the depth of the classic hymns of the Moravians, Lutheran and Reformed hymn writers, Charles Wesley, and the old African-American “spirituals.”

Fascination with the Moralistic

Sadly, evangelicals and liberals often read the Bible in a similar way these days. While the former may be more conservative in their interpretations, both tend to read (and preach) the Bible moralistically: that is, either as positive tips for better living or as scolding for not being what one should be. Thus, the key biblical characters become heroes to imitate rather than figures in a redemptive-historical plot centering around Jesus Christ. Jesus told the Pharisees that in spite of their ostensive devotion to the Scriptures, they did not really understand what they were reading, since he (Jesus) is the point of all of Scripture. Similarly, after his resurrection, he rebuked his disciples for not understanding how his death and resurrection were foretold. So “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

If an obsession with “power encounters” stumbles over the weakness of the cross, the preoccupation with moralism finds the preaching of the cross “foolishness.” How can the wicked be declared righteous while they are still sinful? If I could know right now that nothing I did counted for my salvation, why would I even try to be holy? It’s unfair for God to elect people without basing his choice on anything in or foreseen in those who are chosen. Or, as we have seen already from Feuerbach’s pen: “The Christian theory of justification by faith is rooted in a cowardly renun-ciation of moral effort,” and belief in the hereafter nothing more than “an escape mechanism.” Our fallen sensibilities rebel against the utterly gracious character of God’s way of saving. When sin and grace are replaced with therapeutic, ethical, political, and pragmatic concerns, it is a sure sign that we too have stumbled over the Rock of offense.

The Puritan Thomas Goodwin warns us of our ten-dency even as Christians to attempt to turn faith into a work. Seeing the condition of his ship of faith and obedience, one sets out to rebuild another ship, “so he undoes himself in what he endeavors, and goes to hell by striving to go to heaven.”

Fascination with the Mysterious

As liberal theologian Paul Tillich pointed out (and exhibited), mysticism and rationalism are of one piece. Like Plato, the mystic-rationalist does not care much for this world and wishes to escape the world of “appear-ances” by abstract contemplation of “the Divine.” Christianity is deeply committed to this world (creation, provi-dence, redemption through historical events, restoration of the whole creation at the end of the age, including the resurrection of our bodies), and announces that God cannot be known directly by our reason, but must reveal himself by condescending to our capacity. The mystic-philosopher who attempts to penetrate God’s hidden council, either by specu-lation or claims to secret knowledge of God’s will beyond what is revealed in Scripture, is a theologian of glory. The theologian of the cross is content to know God as he has graciously manifested himself in the Living and written/preached Word.


The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to call the church, amidst our dying culture, to repent of its worldliness, to recover and confess the truth of God’s Word as did the Reformers, and to see that truth embodied in doctrine, worship, and life.

This article appeared in the  July/August 1997, Modern Reformation/ACE

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