Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

Luther RoseThis twenty-sixth day of April in the year of our Lord, one thousand five hundred and eighteen

Dr. Luther glanced over his shoulder again.  Nobody there.  The road from Wittenberg to Heidelberg was always hazardous to one traveling alone—thugs and brigands could be anywhere, hiding among the trees, waiting in ambush around every next bend.  And it had not been so long ago that he’d nearly lost his life while walking back to college along another German road, surrounded by pounding rain, fierce thunder, violent lightning, and no place in which to take cover.  One lightning bolt had struck so close that the young man thought he was surely going to be killed.  “Help me, St. Anne!” he’d cried out to the patron saint of teachers, falling to the muddy ground.  “I will become a monk!”[1]

Luther did not die that day, so this man of his word kept his promise.  He entered the cloister as a monk of the Augustinian Order after graduating from college, pursued his doctorate, and was now professor of moral theology at Wittenberg University, lecturing on the epistles of the Apostle Paul and saying mass daily as required by his order.  Yet now another storm was brewing all around, rumbling with thunder and lashing out with strokes of lightning, but this time it was not the heavens that threatened Luther’s life but something far more menacing: the Vatican.

He’d posted some thoughts on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church the previous autumn.  He just wanted to start a conversation about one of the Catholic Church’s most lucrative fundraising campaigns, known as indulgences, through which penitents could buy time off from purgatory after confessing their sins and viewing a sacred relic, perhaps a patch from the very loincloth that Christ wore on the cross some 1500 years prior.  The program had even been expanded recently to allow the purchase of indulgences on behalf of the deceased—loved ones who’d already shuffled off this mortal coil.  What kind of son or daughter would not want to provide eternal bliss for dear old papa, a good man who toiled his entire life yet surely went to his grave with one or two unconfessed sins now barring his passage into heaven?  One particularly successful Dominican priest, name of Tetzel, had been meeting his quotas by marketing to the faithful with a clever little jingle:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.[2]

But Luther wasn’t so sure.  He’d been actually reading the Bible and could find no concrete evidence supporting indulgences anywhere in scripture, particularly in the Gospels, the teachings of Jesus, or the Letters of Paul.  For that matter, he’d found no mention of purgatory either.  So he thought maybe church leaders should talk about it, come to a better understanding, and, if need be, eliminate any problematic policies not based on scripture itself.  To that end, he’d posted some propositions, now known as his ninety-five theses, as a conversation starter.  Everyone did it.  It’s just how you started people talking about something before we got Twitter.

Unfortunately, Luther had not fully appreciated the distribution capabilities of a mass communications device that had already been developed, the printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg had invented movable type less than a century earlier, yet its products were quickly gaining market share.  Somebody took it upon himself to have the Ninety-Five Theses printed without Luther’s knowledge or consent, and it quickly became one of the very first publications to go completely viral.  Within a few weeks, Luther’s propositions weren’t just all over town; they were all over Europe.

And there were those who could see these ideas hitting them right where it hurts: in the pocketbook.  They were mostly people with titles—bishops, princes, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Pope—and they could see no merit whatsoever in Luther’s propositions.  So now a different kind of storm swirled about Luther’s head, intent upon eradicating this reform plague before it could spread any further.

And rumors began spreading as well.  Some said Luther would be burned at the stake within a month; others did not give him that long.  He had been warned of an assassination attempt waiting for him on the road to Heidelberg;[3] thus was he now traveling incognito, anxiously checking his back.  Nobody there.

Luther would have been on the road to Heidelberg this week anyway.  Having just completed his term as vicar, he was required to give a report during the Augustinians’ regular meeting, held every three years, which just happened to coincide with Luther’s recent notoriety.  And while indulgences were not actually on the agenda, Luther thought it would be a good opportunity to clarify his thinking for his peers, presenting what we now know as the Heidelberg Disputation.[4]

Surprisingly, and much to Luther’s relief, his fellow monks were quite glad to see him when he finally arrived in Heidelberg after four anxious days walking from Wittenberg.  When it came time for Luther to deliver his report, he began, “The law of God, although the soundest doctrine of life, is not able to bring man to righteousness but rather stands in the way.”[5]

Talk about an attention getter!  We can just see the furrowed brows on Luther’s colleagues as they sit up straight in their chairs, waiting to hear what this wild boar, this son of iniquity, as Pope Leo X would later call him,[6] might say next.

“Much less,” he continued, “can the works of men, often ‘repeated’ as it were with the help of natural precept, do so.  The works of men may always be attractive and seemingly good. It appears nevertheless that they are mortal sins.”  The problem, as Dr. Luther saw it, is that these “good works” actually do more for the pious than for anyone else, creating a theologian of glory whose own ego is exalted in such a way that it “puffs up, blinds, and hardens” the person altogether.[7]  Or as Jesus of Nazareth taught us:

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.  Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  (Matthew 6:1-2)

Clearly, the public and ostentatious atmosphere surrounding indulgences fell neatly into this category, with Dominican friars hawking indulgences like carnies at a county fair, the penitents sheepishly negotiating for better terms, and everybody gaping at sacred relics like yokels at a freak show.  That the penitents were often coerced into paying more than they could readily afford took the practice to an even higher plane of immorality in Luther’s view.

All of which is not to say that we should give up doing good, for that is one way that we can fulfill the Second Great Commandment:  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  Just don’t think it’s going to heighten your status in the eyes of God, or reduce your sentence in purgatory.  And by all means, don’t let it go to your head.  Just keep it to yourself.  Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.

On the flip side, Luther continued, is a theologian of the cross, “one who perceives what is visible of God […] by beholding the sufferings and the cross”[8] and finding in them humility, deflation of ego, and surrender to the grace of God alone.

In concluding, Luther said, “The love of God does not find its object but rather creates it. Human love starts with the object.”  Thus must we as humans always remember the First Great Commandment:  Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  The creature humbly reflects the Creator’s love, loving others just as we are loved.  For we cannot buy our way into heaven; we can only love.  Love your Creator; love your neighbor—and there you are.

Most of the monks in the room were baffled by Luther’s presentation.  Some thought it was interesting, if enigmatic, but two of the younger monks saw clearly what Luther was declaring that day.  They got it.  And those two monks—Martin Bucer and Johannes Brenz—would go on to fully support Martin Luther in the coming time of trials, and they were instrumental in the Reformation that blossomed thereafter.[9]

Still, the mood that day was convivial, and Luther’s colleagues offered to give him a ride back to Wittenberg after the meeting.  “I went on foot,” he later recounted.  “I came back on a wagon.”[10]


[1] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: the man who rediscovered God and changed the world (New York, Viking, 2017), 31.

[2] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: a life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press, 1950), 75.

[3] 73.

[4] ibid.

[5] Martin Luther, Martin Luther: selections from his writing, trans. John Dillenberger (New York, Anchor Books, 1962), 486.

[6] Bainton, 140-141.

[7] Luther, 486.

[8] ibid.

[9] Metaxas, 132.

[10] Bainton, 74.

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