A Theology of the Cross: An Exploration on Suffering from 2 Corinthians

I would argue that the greatest contribution to theology is Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Its genesis is the Heidelberg Catechism. The important section is below:

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

Out of this came Luther’s theology of the cross. To introduce this vital doctrine, consider Carl Truman’s summary:

At the heart of this new theology was the notion that God reveals himself under his opposite; or, to express this another way, God achieves his intended purposes by doing the exact opposite of that which humans might expect.  The supreme example of this is the cross itself: God triumphs over sin and evil by allowing sin and evil to triumph (apparently) over him.  His real strength is demonstrated through apparent weakness.  This was the way a theologian of the cross thought about God.

The opposite to this was the theologian of glory.  In simple terms, the theologian of glory assumed that there was basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is: if strength is demonstrated through raw power on earth, then God’s strength must be the same, only extended to infinity.  To such a theologian, the cross is simply foolishness, a piece of nonsense.

The difference is clear. The Theology of the Cross places the work of Christ on Calvary as the primary work of God, the source of knowledge of God, and the power of God. Whereas the Theology of Glory places the work and ability of the self as the source of knowledge, power, and the work of God.

How we view the world must be through the paradox of the cross. Though we don’t want to admit it, we buy into a soft prosperity gospel. We are often more American than Christian. We presume that salvation will make life better and easier. As a result, we do not know what to do with something like suffering?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is concerned about reconciliation, but instead of investing in a “let’s all just get along,” the apostle points his readers to the cross and away from his critics. One of the key ways he does this is through the matter of suffering. Considering the opening passage of the book, 2 Corinthians 1:3-11:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

So what do we do with suffering? The Theology of Glory tries to minimize or rationalize suffering. Suffering is explained by negative vibes, karma, etc. We believe that we can overcome our suffering by hard work, fighting our emotions, blaming others, etc. We hold fast to control and easy answers. So, for the theologian of glory, the cross is a means to an end.

The Theology of the Cross, on the other hand, sees God’s work even through our suffering and weakness. Again, consider Luther in Heidleberg 20:

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

As one commentator summarizes:

As God is known through the suffering of Christ, He also makes himself known through our suffering. Luther sees suffering and temptation as means by which man is brought to God. God plays an active role in our suffering. The theologian of the cross does not see suffering and evil as a curse, as an intrusion contrary to the will of God, but as his most precious treasure. Hidden in such suffering is the living God, working out the salvation of those whom He loves.

This shows up throughout 2 Corinthians. Consider the following:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. -2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Likewise, in chapter 6 we read:

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12 You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. -2 Corinthians 6:3-12

And again, in chapter 11:

16 I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. -2 Corinthians 11:16-33

In summary, Paul notes near the end of the letter, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Paul is not suggesting that suffering is good, but that suffering is not contrary to the gospel. In fact, suffering comes with faithfulness. The false teachers taught the opposite, and more natural message. As do most in the church today.

Yet the cross draws us to see strength in our weakness, meaning in our pain, and glory in our lowliness. The Theology of the Cross lies at the core of Christianity. To take our eyes off of Jesus is dangerous indeed. It nearly destroyed the Corinthian church.

 

 

 

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