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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

What is the Theology of the Cross?

by Robert Kolb posted April 14, 2017

Editors note: Robert Kolb gives a brief description of the theology of the cross that Martin Luther developed through reading the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians.


The theology of the cross directs us away from all attempts to speculate about God as he is hidden behind nature or the clouds of our imagination. The theology of the cross directs us to God in human flesh, God on the cross, God raised from the dead. To all the modern questions about what truth might be and what kind of claim truth might have on us, the God who is revealed in crib, cross, and crypt seizes us anew as we present him to those who have lost their way. We introduce our God on his cross. We witness to God revealed as Jesus, on the cross.

For people who are dissatisfied with their old identity, the cross helps explain why they do not "feel good" about themselves. The theology of the cross helps us understand the fullness of what it means to be human, and thus how broken humanity is. The theology of the cross points us to the center of our humanity, our trust in Jesus Christ. From the foot of the cross we see how wrong we were-no matter how well we behaved-because we did not love and trust in Yahweh above all things. We witness to the God who calls us to trust him and who bestows our new identity in this trust.

For those who are seeking the right way of living and thrashing about for a new identity, the theology of the cross confirms what the disciples of psychologist Erik Eriksen all know. Successful human life begins by learning to trust, and trust accompanies those who can live at peace throughout the progression of their lives. The theology of the cross leads us to place our lives in God's hands, through the power of his Holy Spirit, rather than try to master life on our own terms. It helps us understand fully what the biblical writers mean when they say that those who are truly human-the just-do live, in fact, by faith.

The theology of the cross also shows us how God restores the true identity of those whom he has called to be his children. He does that by taking us through the death of Christ into our own death as people who have fouled our own nests and have to live with the consequences of our sin. The theology of the cross leads us from our old life being crucified with Christ into a new life which is raised with him. We witness to new life for old, dying sinners by carrying people on the Lord's words to his cross.

The shape of that new life becomes clear through the theology of the cross. For those who have learned no boundaries and delight in finding sure boundaries through some kind of regulations of the law, the theology of the cross comes as a freeing word. It puts the whole world at our feet because the whole world is at our Lord's feet. And following the example of our Lord, we learn that we stoop to lift the world at our feet and hold it, with all its misery, in our arms.

In modern America many people are searching for a formula for a satisfying and successful life. When the Lord says to us that we find that kind of life by taking up our cross, our initial reaction is surprise. Christians help one another to practice the kind of life that does not depend either on temporal success or temporal suffering but depends only on faithful following of the Lord into the lives of those who need us in the course of daily life.

Therefore, we come to hurting people with the word from the cross. For the prodigals whose broken lives seem beyond repair and who find no way out of their apostasy, despair can be broken by the theology of the cross. The light from the other side of Christ's tomb may again shine into their hearts through an evangelistic approach which grows out of this theology.

For those who hate themselves so much that they wish they were dead because they have been betrayed and exploited by others, or because they have failed to live up to their own understanding, Christian witness can give the gift of death to an old identity and a horrible past. The theology of the cross then gives witness to the gift of new life which replaces the wages paid by Christ's death.

For those who long for a new identity, or a new sense of security and safety in life, or a new meaning and feeling of worth for life, this death to the old way of living expressed in the theology of the cross will come as the life-bestowing breath of fresh air direct from Eden.

The theology of the cross is not only a good way of approaching the content of Scripture for study and learning. It also offers an analysis of human experience, and of God's way of dealing with the human experience, which provides power and insight for evangelistic witness. For the theology of the cross presents God's message for North Americans at the turn of the twenty-first century in a dynamic and meaningful way which will reshape their lives and give them the gift of faith in Christ Jesus. His dying and rising are the truth and the only way to life.

Adapted from Adapted from Robert Kolb, Is Anybody Home: What To Do When It Seems Like God Isn't There, Modern Reformation, July/August 1997. Used by permission.

Photo of Robert Kolb

Robert Kolb

Robert Kolb is a professor emeritus of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri.

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