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Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, in contrast to a theology of glory, greatly pervaded many of his other theological systems.  This theme is immensely significant because it attacks the very root of all our sinful tendencies—pride.  A robust theology of the cross not only draws us to exult in the glory of Christ in his humiliation, but it also calls us to imitate his ‘kenosis’ even to the point of death on a cross.  The cross and the crypt must precede the crown.  This is the mysterious wisdom of God.  However, in our pride and selfishness, we are prone to live out of sync with this gospel truth.  A theology of the cross leads us to know the fellowship of Christ in His sufferings.  For the sake of knowing Christ, we must be mastered by such a theology of the cross.

Luther’s theology of the cross permeated all of his other theological convictions.  Theologians debate as to whether Luther’s theology was chiefly marked by a cross-centered theology, a word-centered theology, and a theology of two kinds of righteousness.  There is good reason to suggest a cross-centered theology is the case.  Here’s a brief review of how the theology of the cross is central in Luther’s theology.  The theology of the cross affects God’s special revelation to us.  It is a mystery hidden by the pride and wisdom of man.  Too often our understanding of God is that he is a wrathful and capricious God who demands human contribution.  But, God has revealed himself through the Incarnate Word, in the Written Word, through the preached Word, and in Sacramental Word.  The apex of God’s self-revelation in the Word is always the death of the Son.  God’s power is revealed in his humility on the cross.  God’s power in the lives of believers is revealed in our weakness.  The wisdom of God is revealed in the foolishness of the crib, cross, and crypt, yet the last place human wisdom would look for God is in a manger, on a cross, and in a tomb.  Such places mysteriously reveal his amazing love for fallen sinners.

The theology of the cross affects our discipleship.  Our personal sufferings (or crosses) don’t save us or others, but they do serve the neighbor.  The crosses of daily life convey the love of Christ to others in a world of suffering.  We overcome evil by living life under the cross.  We must avoid the temptation to think that we are something special for suffering or for success.  There can be a false pride in suffering, but if we learn to suffer well, we will know the fellowship of Christ as we make sacrifices to serve others.  These crosses are not only illnesses and inconveniences.  They arise out of serving in ways that twist us out of our comfort zones for the sake of loving others.  Our personal preferences go to the stake for the sake of other people.  We should not fall into the temptation that God calls us to be masochists or self-made martyrs.  Conversely, we should not fall into the trap that says God wants to bless us with ease, comfort, convenience, and fun.  The true Christian life should be one of triumph and power through suffering, not in escape from suffering.  In other words, we experience the power of the resurrection through a cross-like life.

Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

Book Review: What is the Mission of the Church?

[Editor’s Note]: Kellen Criswell, student in the MAGL program at Western Seminary, has contributed a thoughtful and well-reasoned review of What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert.

It is imperative that the people of God discern the church’s God-given purpose. That noble and essential task is why Kevin Deyoung and Greg Gilbert wrote, What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. This review will summarize the primary conclusion of the book and discuss several strengths and weaknesses therein.

To the authors of the book, the people of God are in a state of mission confusion. The word mission, as they point out, is used to describe almost any good thing a follower of Christ does in the modern church. On an individual level, doing nice things for one’s neighbor is considered doing the mission of the church. On a congregational level, formally engaging in any number and sort of activity deemed to fit in the categories of humanitarian aide or social justice are often referred to as part of the church’s mission in the world. According to the authors, the term mission is used in connection with so many things that it has all but lost clarity of meaning and practical usefulness.

To Deyoung and Gilbert, the over-generalizations and ambiguity related to the discussion of the church’s mission is extremely problematic. Out of this conviction, they spend lots of time seeking to provide a biblical understanding of the church’s mission, the nature of justice, and the meaning and reality of biblical shalom. All of these efforts ultimately serve the main goal of the book, which is defining the church’s mission in a way that is understandable, biblical, and doable. As they put it,

as we grasp key concepts like kingdom, gospel, and social justice, we will be better able to articulate a careful, biblically faithful understanding of the mission of the church. And just as important, we’ll be able to pursue obedience to Christ in a way that is more realistic, freeing, and, in the long run, fruitful.[1]

The central point of the book is that God’s people must think of the Great Commission as the biblical portrait of the church’s mission. According to the authors, the mission that is specifically set forth in the Great Commission is that of making disciples. They attempt to demonstrate the discipleship-centric mission of the church by providing a survey of both the similarities and unique characteristics of the various iterations of the Great Commission in the New Testament. Along the way they connect the principles of these passages to the model and emphases in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Further, they spend a good amount of space contrasting the implications of Great Commission texts with an expositional survey of social justice proof texts. This latter group of texts are often employed by those who advocate connecting social justice and acts of Christian service with the essence of the mission of the church. In the end, they contend that the biblical understanding of justice (doing what is right, telling the truth, treating people fairly) is far more simple and individual than modern ideas of social justice, and in no reflect the primary mission of the church.

One of the strengths of the book is the generous tone in which it was written. While the authors certainly have a strong opinion on what is and is not the mission of the church, they talk about those with whom they disagree with maturity and respect. Many conversations about the core mission of the church need to continue to take place. The church needs leaders who can have open, honest, and frank discussions about such matters, to engage in healthy discussion if believers are to understand the issues, and form a biblical perspective. Oftentimes, the spiritual deposits and biblical understanding that can result from interaction over important matters like the church’s mission get lost in the weeds of human pride and disrespect. The end result is that spiritual matters become points of further division instead of missional unity. It was a joy to read a book on a controversial topic that presents a strong position, but with a gracious tone. The example the authors set regarding how to engage in what can be tense discussion with love and respect may be worth as much as any point they intended to make in their arguments.

Another strength of the book was the attention that was given to defining justice biblically. Indeed, this author agrees that much of the confusion and division that surrounds topics like the mission of the church and social justice are born out of ambiguity. People talk of social justice and mission as if everyone is working from the same definitions. It seemed wise to not only offer a definition of these terms, but specifically regarding justice, to develop a biblical definition. How can true understanding about the place of social justice in the mission of the church (or lack thereof) be gained if agreement on the basic meaning of the terms has not been found? The authors do a service to readers in providing at least the beginning of a remedy to all of this unhelpful ambiguity.

Another strong point of the book was the authors’ encouragement to readers to try to discern between actions that are merely good verses those that necessarily embody the church’s God-given mission.  God may lead individual believers to do many different expressions of good acts, but this does not make all such acts part of the church’s mission. God might lead a Christian to tutor children at an afterschool program. This does not mean that tutoring kids in afterschool programs is part of the God-given, biblically defined mission of the local church. This author does not view this logic as full proof per se, but valid and deserving of further reflection.

The greatest strength of the book is the overall call it sounds to the church to renew her focus on Great Commission understanding and action. While the Lord may lead church leaders to lead those in their care into many joint works of love in a respective community, the essential mission of the church (disciple-making) is universal and unchanging.  Having witnessed and experienced the frustration that can come when church leaders feel the need to have a unique vision for the church they lead, this author finds the call back to the simplicity of the Great Commission task extremely refreshing. At a foundational level, all local expressions of the universal church have the same mission. There is no need to go through the stress and agony of coming up with a special mission for the church’s we lead.

Having said all that, a possible weakness of the book may be a flaw in understanding how creatively the Great Commission imperatives can be applied. Follow this thought pattern: The mission of the church is to make disciples. Fruitful discipleship will produce people who feel, think, and live like Jesus. As people begin to feel, think, and live like Jesus, they become compassionate toward the plight of hurting people. For some disciples, the compassionate heart of Christ that beats in their chest will create a passion in them to work with organizations that focus on feeding the poor, combating human trafficking, and other philanthropic endeavors, often viewed as social justice engagement. In this sense, even social justice can be a by-product of effective Great Commission work (disciple making), though none of these good things reflect the Great Commission task inherently. Social justice work is not Great Commission work, but it can be the fruit of Great Commission work that has been done well.

 

[1] Deyoung & Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Crossway, 2011.

Reflection & Book Review on “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”

Reflection & Book Review on “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”

[Editor’s Note: D. J. Baber is a student in the MAGL program at Western Seminary. As a field-tested missionary, he provides much insight into the claims and propositions of the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by Brandon O’brien and Randy Richards.]

 

“…the most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said”, write Richards and O’Brien’s in their book “Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes”.[i]  The authors labor diligently, not so much to bridge the cultural gap so that the Scripture is perfectly understood, but rather to attempt to expose the cultural blind-spots of the modern, rational, individualistic, (and you guessed it) Western reader.  As someone that has lived in SE Asia for the last ten years, I can resonate at a very personal level when the authors write: “In whatever place and whatever age people read the Bible, we instinctively draw from our own cultural context to make sense of what we’re reading.”[ii]  We all suffer from the challenges of historical particularity.

Bridging the Chasm between Hermeneutics and Missiology

This books is a primer for those who are unacquainted with the complexities of cross-cultural communication.  It is a well-articulated attempt to bridge the chasm between the subject of hermeneutics and missiology.  Indeed, the book is concluded with the admission that even the idea to write such a book stems from the western drive to examine, evaluate and synthesize a particular subject.

I found the author’s referencing to the Western “famine forgetters” to be particularly interesting.[iii]  As someone who has never encountered a famine, I can surely resonate with this bias.  The closest equivalent I could fathom would be the American Great Depression of two generations ago, which is hardly a firm memory in my parents or grandparents’ minds.  While my maternal grandparents were wheat-farmers, they worked the ground using modern tractor technology, and never suffered what would be categorized as a famine.  Few, if any, ever starve to death in America.

The authors helped me to see the majority-world perspective on money and material goods as a limited resource.  I found this a striking contrast to the reality that often majority-world cultures see time as an unlimited resource.[iv]

Trying to “Read the Air” of Scripture

While I agree with much of what they write, I did find some of their confidant assertions to be forced.  There are some serious challenges when we attempt to properly “read the air” of Scripture.  If we are honest, sometimes we simply don’t know what exactly “goes without being said” because God’s word is, well…words.  We are inevitably going to fill in meaning, and sometimes we’re still just making educated (dare I say Western?) guesses, particularly when considering the significant historical distance.  There can easily be an excluded middle when it comes to making judgment calls on meaning of a text.  Language and culture have always been understood by interpreters as inextricably connected, however there are reasonable limits (and room for further research) for what can be confidently asserted by modern readers.  This is why the study of ancient Mid-Eastern history is a very valuable endeavor.

While emphasizing the original cultural context of the Text, I feel that the authors do nearly as much good (if not more) in helping modern readers consider their own cultural setting and worldview than giving new insights to the biblical setting.  Their observations, for example, of our own current mores regarding sexuality, namely, that singleness is somehow deviant and that marriage is always preferential in the life of a Christian leader.  Likewise, the concept of modesty as related both to sex appeal and to a flaunting of wealth is a helpful corrective in our age of material abundance.

Regarding Race

Regarding race, I didn’t find the argument that the divisions in Corinth (over following leaders such as Alexander or Cephas) as primarily a culturally driven to be convincing.  While surely cultural divisions may have had an effect on how these leaders were revered, I don’t believe that we can confidently assert that this was the root.  However, the authors do make some good observations about how the rich cultural diversity (and the accompanying cultural biases) are evident throughout the Scripture.  The reflection questions at the end of this section were helpful for me, even as a cross-cultural servant, I yet have prejudice that needs to be crucified in my flesh.[v]

Regarding Honor and Shame

I found this paragraph to be helpful in defining the concept of shame and honor for a majority of the world:

In shame cultures, people are more likely to choose right behavior on the basis of what society expects from them. It is not a matter of guilt, nor an inner voice of direction, but outer pressures and opinions that direct a person to behave a certain way. Rules and laws are less a deterrent for bad behavior than the risk of bringing shame on oneself or one’s family. In fact, one should not regret actions that, in the words of Dayan and Pitamber, “have been approved by those considered significant. When a person performs any act in the interest of the community, he is not concerned about the wrongness or rightness of the acts.”[vi]

For their example of this concept, they highlighted the encounter of David with Bathsheba.  I personally disagree with a fair amount of their supposed cultural insights on this biblical narrative.  I do not believe, for example, that Bathsheba is somehow culpable taking a bath in the view of the palace.  Nor does the text imply that David had no sense of inward guilt before Yahweh before he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.[vii]

Client/Patron System and the Greco-Roman Concept of Grace/Faith

In Chapter seven, the authors propose that the model that Paul refers to when considering the concept of grace and faith:

Because it was impossible to escape the patronage system, Paul worked within it, even in his explanation of the Christian message of salvation. Patronage had its own vocabulary. Words we usually consider particularly Christian terms—grace and faith—were common parlance before Paul commandeered them. The undeserved gifts of assistance the patron offered were commonly called charis (“grace” and “gift”). The loyalty the client offered the patron in response was called pistis (“faith” and “faithfulness”). Roman philosophers noted that when one received a god’s favor (charis), one should respond with love, joy and hope. When Paul sought to explain the Christian’s new relationship with God, then, one of the ways he did so was in terms of the ancient system of patronage—something everyone understood. In other words, it went without being said that relationship is the premier and determinative aspect of charis, grace.[viii]

While I find this idea compelling, I’m not sure that the mere vocabulary is enough to prove the point, as the semantic range could allow for other interpretations.  What kind of grace the pagan god’s offer?  What kind of loyalty was expected?  If patronage is a valid model for faithfulness to Yahweh, how has the modern societal structure in the West hindered proper interpretation?

Conclusion

Overall, I would recommend a person read this book, simply as a tool to better understand Western worldview blind spots.  The book is not exhaustive, but it is a good starting place for the conversation.

 

[i] Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Print.  Page 12

[ii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14

[iii] Ibid. Introduction, Page 14

[iv] Ibid. Chapter 1, Page 41

[v] Ibid. Chapter 2, Page 66

[vi] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 116

[vii] Ibid. Chapter 5, Page 122

[viii] Ibid. Chapter 7, Page 165

“The Grand Theme of the Christian Ministry”

“The Grand Theme of the Christian Ministry”

In a sermon entitled, “Preaching Christ,”[1] Particular Baptist Pastor, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), carefully considered what it means for true ministers of the gospel to truly preach Christ.  His sermon is very relevant in that he argues for the central place that preaching Christ must take in the ministry of a true gospel minister.

From his main text—“We preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:6)—Fuller considered the preaching model of the apostles and asked these questions: What did they not preach?  What did they preach?  What did they consider themselves to be?[2]  Negatively, he argued that the apostles did not preach themselves because their goals were not “worldly advantage… ease and indolence… applause… [and] proselytes to ourselves.”[3]  Positively, he contended that as the apostles preached, by extension, ministers today ought to preach, “Christ Jesus the Lord….  [Ministers should] exhibit his Divinity and glorious character…, hold up his atonement and mediation as the only ground of a sinner’s hope…, hold up the blessings of his salvation for acceptance, even to the chief of sinners…, [and] preach him as “the Lord” or Lawgiver, of his church, no less than a Saviour.”[4]  And he concluded by claiming that as the apostles did, ministers today should consider themselves to be servants for Christ’s sake.

In Fuller’s introduction he warns that not all ministers are true Christians.  The ministry is not a mere religious occupation.  It is a service to Christ.  The gospel truths which ministers must teach are worthy of meditation by the ministers themselves and not just their flocks.  Ministers themselves must meditate on the Word in order to feed their own souls before they can feed their churches.  The Word will not benefit a minister and his preaching unless his preaching is mixed with his own faith and religious affection.

Fuller’s sermon is relatively short but full of many timeless instructions.  Here are three of the choicest excerpts from Fuller’s sermon:

What the apostles did preach:—We preach “Christ Jesus the Lord.” This is the grand theme of the Christian ministry. But many have so little of the Christian minister about them, that their sermons have scarcely any thing to do with Christ. They are mere moral harangues. And these, forsooth, would fain be thought exclusively the friends of morality and good works! But they know not what good works are, nor do they go the way to promote them. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.”.… Preach Christ, or you had better be any thing than a preacher. The necessity laid on Paul was not barely to preach, but to preach Christ. “Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel!”.… Some are employed in depreciating Christ. But do you honour him. Some who talk much about him, yet do not preach him, and by their habitual deportment prove themselves enemies to his cross.… If you preach Christ, you need not fear for want of matter. His person and work are rich in fulness. Every Divine attribute is seen in him. All the types prefigure him. The prophecies point to him. Every truth bears relation to him. The law itself must be so explained and enforced as to lead to him.[5]

Hold up his atonement and mediation as the only ground of a sinner’s hope.—It is the work of a Christian minister to beat off self-righteous hope, which is natural to depraved man, and to direct his hearers to the only hope set before them in the gospel. Be not concerned merely to form the manners of your congregation, but bring them to Christ. That will best form their manners. The apostles had no directions short of this: “Repent, and believe the gospel.” They never employed themselves in lopping off the branches of sin; but laid the axe to the root. Your business with the sins of mankind is, to make use of them to convince your hearers of the corruption of their nature, and their need of a radical cure.[6]

Preach him asthe Lord,” or Lawgiver, of his church, no less than as a Saviour.—Christ’s offices must not be divided. Taking his yoke, and learning his spirit, are connected with coming to him. Believers are “not without law unto God, but under the law to Christ.”  The preaching of Christ will answer every end of preaching. This is the doctrine which God owns to conversion, to the leading of awakened sinners to peace, and to the comfort of true Christians. If the doctrine of the cross be no comfort to us, it is a sign we have no right to comfort. This doctrine is calculated to quicken the indolent, to draw forth every Christian grace, and to recover the backslider. This is the universal remedy for all the moral diseases of all mankind.[7]

 

[1]Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 1: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc., ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 501-04.

[2]Fuller, The Complete Works, 502.

[3]Fuller, The Complete Works, 502.

[4]Fuller, The Complete Works, 503-504.

 [5]Fuller, The Complete Works, 503.

 [6]Fuller, The Complete Works, 503.

 [7]Fuller, The Complete Works, 503-04.