Go Back to the Cross: The Cross Alone Is Our Theology (Part II)

(Photo : Courtesy of Aaron Burden (Creation Swap))

*This is a two-part article. Read part I here.

For theologians, the cross has been already long lost. Recent studies of theological issues are not for our human being, but for social and political issues. It has been in vogue for contemporary theology to focus on social issues rather than to commit theology to its duty, which is dealing with the problem of our sin and salvation. Theologians are making relentless efforts to provide theology to satisfy only pastors and church members. The theological propositions, like ‘the theology for the Kingdom of God’ and ‘the theology for proclaiming the cross of Jesus Christ’ have been replaced with the term ‘the theology for making pastors and church members satisfied.’ In this theological atmosphere, important theological meanings are becoming distorted. Sin no longer means that the body and soul of a human being are in suffering and death by breaking with God. Sin just means an ‘internal wound’ explained in psychological terms. The meaning of salvation has been changed in the psychological concept, losing the salvific power of the Cross for the salvation of human body and soul. For this reason, most Christians in Korea, now no longer kneel before the cross, confess their sin, and hope for the saving power of the Cross. They want to be comforted and healed by ‘positive thinking’ and ‘self-confidence’ in the human being itself. What they need is not the gospel of the cross, but psychological healing to comfort a wounded heart.

The situation of churches and society in Korea are very similar to those of the late Middle Ages. The Middle Ages had seen the political power of the church, and particularly that of the papacy, reach previously-unknown heights. While the spiritual authority of the pope, bishops and theologians within the church had long been recognized, the medieval period witnessed the extension of such claims to the secular sphere. The political success of the church during the Middle Ages was not, however, without its cost. To an increasing number of skeptics, within its ranks as well as outside them, the Christian church appeared as a vast legal, judicial, financial, administrative and diplomatic machine, whose spiritual concerns were frequently difficult to detect, to say the least.

Clergy began to have more interest in secular matters than in human sin and salvation. Being a member of the clergy was considered a position of high status. Therefore, it became common practice to pay one’s way up the ladder. What was worse, the Vatican was interested not in this problem, but in selling indulgences to build a larger Catholic Church. Theologians wrote a lot of articles to promote Vatican policies, rather than to point out its corruption and fault. Theologians of the Vatican had taught that we could be saved ‘by doing our very best’ (facere quod in se est), because we did not corrupt totally.

The Church in the late Medieval period was condemned in prevailing states in Europe because of a tired spirituality, moral bankruptcy, and doctrinal confusion. By the end of the Middle Ages, the need for reform and renewal within the Christian Church was so obvious that it could no longer be ignored. Reform of the Church and renewal of spirituality were the two themes that lay at the heart of the rising tide of dissatisfaction on the part of laity and clergy alike. Behind this background, Luther’s reformation began. It eventually sparked a conflagration which proved to be the greatest intellectual and spiritual upheaval yet known in Europe. Luther wanted to reform the church. For long time, he had prayed and agonized about how to reform the Church. He eventually realized that the answer is ‘theology of the cross’. Following Paul, Luther always emphasized “The cross alone is our theology”: CRUX SOLA EST NOSTRA THEOLOGIA (WA 5.176.32-3)

What is then, the subject matter of the theology of the cross? Is it simply a repetition of the Passion story? Hardly. Is it then perhaps just another treatment of the doctrine of atonement? No! “The cross is not only the subject of theology; it is the distinctive mark of all theology.” The theology of the cross is not confined to a special period. It will always provide the right direction and power for Church and Theology when they do not know where or how to go, when they are being criticized in the aftermath of spiritual and moral corruption.

The cross is always used as an example in God’s attack on human sin. The cross continues to reveal that all human beings are sinners. We miss the point of it if we do not see that first off it is an attack on Sin. The theology of the cross is, therefore, an offensive theology. The cross is, in itself, the first instance in the attack of God on the old sinner and the sinner’s theology. It constantly seeks to uncover and expose the ways in which sinners hide their perfidy behind pious facades. As a sinner, we must die on the cross. There is no resurrection of the new unless the old has been crucified. The word of the cross kills and makes alive. It does not allow us to stand by and watch. The cross makes us part of its story. The cross becomes our story. As Paul put it in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. ” Just as Jesus was crucified so we also are crucified with him. That is what it means to say, as Luther said, “The cross alone is our theology.” We see in the death of Jesus our death, and we remember that we are dust. We can begin to confess our sin. For the sinner, there is no cure for him on his own. However, there is the hope of resurrection. The crucifixion doesn’t end with the death of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is always taken together with the cross. We are made new with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can we equate the cross and resurrection to psychological ‘heart’ and ‘cure?’ How great is it for us that we arise from death with Jesus Christ? For a resurrection to happen, there must first be a death. The truth must be heard and confessed: then there is hope. A new life can begin.

In thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther said that a theologian of the cross “says that a thing is.” In modern parlance, a theologian of the cross would say, “It is what it is.” Now we must make a momentous decision before ‘the word of the cross’. That we want to be in ‘the word of the cross' presence is a great decision to make. Now, theologians and pastors in Korea should proclaim ‘the word of cross.’ The Church can be the gathering of the Body of Christ where ‘the word of the cross’ and resurrection is proclaimed and heard. Theologians should be ‘theologians of the cross’, not ‘theologians of the glory’. This ‘word of the cross’ should be the main subject of our theology. Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, “I am a sinner,” and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.

For this, the Bible tells us: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”(Luke 18: 10-14)

Here, Jesus does not criticize “Pharisee’s life of faith” - fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get - in itself. Rather, he condemns the attitude of Pharisee that demands salvation before God with flags flying, proudly reporting his work. On the other hand, the tax collector has nothing to say before God. There’s nothing he can say to make Jesus proud of him.

Today, the proclamation of the Church and the study of theology leads Christians to be Pharisees. This proclamation emphasizes that Christians should do visible work for God’s glory. Church and Theology encourage this work, and teach us that doing this work is the way to receive God’s grace. They say that if Christians pray like the tax collector, they will only be rewarded with pessimism. However, what the Church and theology first proclaimed and taught was the prayer of the tax collector. Today, these institutions should stress that the sole way to be a true Christian is not to demand his salvation before God by proudly reporting his work, but to humbly ask God’s grace by confessing his sin.

The clarion call to reform the government has been sounded louder than ever before. But where does it begin? What is our foundation? The answer is simple. We should go back to the cross. The ‘theology of the cross’ should be our theology. The ‘word of the cross’ should be our word.

Pastor Jin O Jeong
(Photo : Pastor Jin O Jeong)

Reverend and Doctor Jin O, Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yousei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email :

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