Theology of the Cross

THESIS 26. The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe this,” and everything is already done.

Permit me, if you will, a deep dive into an aspect of the Reformation. In 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The 95 Theses were 95 arguments that Luther wished to debate. As you may know, these 95 Theses caused quite a stir in the church of Luther’s day. Yet, Luther was hardly the first theologian        to claim something outlandish in the church. Wild things had been said before and what usually happened was the theologians would split hairs and walk their statements back. A year after the 95 Theses were posted, (that is, in 1518) there was a meeting in Heidelberg of Augustinian Monks of which Luther was a part. It was expected that Luther would take this opportunity to walk back some of the more outlandish things he claimed the year before. What happened,    however, was that Luther let fly with what we now call the Heidelberg Disputation. He prepared 28 further theses (arguments) that were a bit sharper and more developed than the 95. While Luther’s 95 Theses may be more famous, the 28 theses of his Heidelberg Disputation are arguably more “Lutheran”. One monk who was there to hear them delivered remarked that there was this crazy brother who, “propounded some paradoxes, which not only went farther than most could follow him, but appeared to some heretical.” Let’s have a brief look at thesis 26.

When Luther says that “The law says, “do this,” and it is never done.”, we should probably define what he means by “law.” For our purposes in this case, the “law” is anything good that God says you are supposed to do. Some synonyms might be ‘good works’ or the 10 Commandments or living the Christian life. One might think of the young man who comes up to Jesus and asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him, “You know the [10] Commandments.” To which the man replies, “All these I have kept.” Jesus then points out that there are even more good works to do when He tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. In this story from Mark chapter 10, Jesus is demonstrating that there are always more good works to do. It is true that you can get to heaven by being perfect, by doing all the good works, but that path to heaven is only open to Jesus. For us mere mortals, the law will never get us to heaven. The law only shows us, like it did for this man from Mark 10, where we have failed to do what we should. The law only shows us our sin.

If what I have just said in the previous paragraph seems rather basic to you it’s probably because you’ve listened to a lot of pastors over the years who are either Lutheran or were influenced by Luther in one way or another. For Luther to suggest that it was impossible for a person to be perfect and thereby earn heaven was a novel notion at the time. In Luther’s day, people would’ve been more inclined to look at Jesus’ words as helpful to the young man in Mark chapter 10 because He was telling him what to do next. He was being helpful by giving him more good works to do. What     Luther and others before and since have learned is that though we are told by God’s word to do good works, we will  never be able to check that off our to-do list. “The law says, “do this,” and it is never done.”

So, if being good is not going to get you to heaven, how do you get there? “Grace says, “believe this,” and     everything is already done.” How do you get to heaven? That job is already done, by Jesus, on the cross. This is what has come to be known as the ‘Theology of the Cross’. It is the concept that Jesus alone has done the all the good works     necessary for you to go to heaven. God alone makes you good enough to get into paradise. Salvation is truly salvation, you being saved from something as opposed to you being rewarded for your good work. Grace is a gift, not payment from God. Believing this is to let Jesus be the one who has done all things for you on the cross.

If that paragraph also sounds like something you have heard before, it is because of the Reformation. It can be surprising how much of what we might think of as normal or standard messages about Jesus were thought of as novel “paradoxes” that might have even been “heretical” 500 years ago. Today there are many Christians of many different stripes that would comfortably point to Jesus and say that He alone is the reason they will find themselves in heaven. Luther wouldn’t have it any other way, except that “many Christians” might be too few. It would be best that all people know that the work of salvation is finished. Believing that Jesus has died on the cross for you is to have the assurance that everything, everything necessary for your salvation, is already done.

Paster Mehl