Shining Glory or a Bloody Cross?

Gary Wilkerson

Are we following a theology of glory or a theology of the cross? The difference may seem small, but it’s incredibly significant for the power and efficacy of our faith. 

In 1518, the government of Germany had a problem. The Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian had just died, and his successor needed to be decided with the help of the Pope. However, a noisy monk named Martin Luther was causing a stir with some controversial theological debates.

The powerful Duke Frederick took interest in Luther’s arguments, and he personally oversaw Luther being transported to Heidelberg for a large debate among the Augustinian church leaders. The controversy and dialogs would later become known as the Heidelberg Disputation, particularly Luther’s presentation. He humbly submitted to a skeptical audience that there were two types of theology: the theology of the cross, and the theology of glory. 

A large part of Luther’s position in this debate was based around this verse. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. (1 Corinthians 1:21-25, ESV).

Let’s look at the theology of glory first. It might sound like a good thing at first, right?

When Luther talked about the theology of glory, he wasn’t talking about the glory of God or when believers honor and exalt the Lord. Luther was talking about man-made glory which focuses on the self. It’s a mentality of “I’ll make something of myself. What humanity lost in the garden, I can recover by living a glorious life.”

The church codified this lie in the prosperity movement, saying that believers can have glory through materialism. Claim that new house, new car, better job, success — whatever you claim and how it brings you glory proves that you have God’s blessing. Luther foresaw this mentality of self-glory in the church. It’s not that we want to sit here and point fingers at the prosperity movement, though, just because most of us are probably not in that movement.

There’s another type of theology of glory we often see in the church today, and it’s one that we’ve probably been touched by at some point. It’s the glory in our churches. Again, this is not the glory of God’s presence coming, but rather it’s a frame of mind that says, “I want my church to be a venerated place, a place of glory that awes people because my pastor is really impressive” or if we’re a church leader, “I want the glory of leading a really great church. I want the name of my church to be known because it’s a hip place to go.” The focus of the church shifts from God to people, and it seeps out in teachings that are more pop-psychology than scripture. The teachings become more about affirmations that people are worthy and wonderful, and people stop talking about how we’re sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. 

Church leaders and believers often fall into a theology of glory without even knowing it. It comes out in noble-sounding desires, “I will be a great leader, a compelling speaker, by being invited to conferences, by serving in a lot of ministries, by doing this or that for God’s Kingdom.” If you dig down, though, these resolutions boil down to “I will remedy the brokenness of my heart, the distance I feel from God’s presence, by my own work.”

I’m probably going to offend a few people with this one, but another form of this theology of glory is called Christian nationalism. It's the ‘make America great’ philosophy. Again, it draws people’s eyes away from God and onto men’s efforts to save ourselves or our culture. The desire to protect a certain country or government is fine for politics, but it doesn't fit in the church.

Now the other, opposite position that Luther discussed at  the Heidelberg Disputation was the theology of the cross.

Luther said that the only way to true glory is to go to the cross, take up each of our own crosses, and to suffer and die with Christ. It doesn’t end there, though; that would be pretty hopeless. The theology of the cross points to the resurrection and eternal glory in God’s presence. The glory in this theology is Christ’s, not our own.

At the beginning of Acts when Jesus was resurrected and found the disciples, do you remember what they asked him when they saw him? “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority’” (Acts 1:6-7). They wanted a type of Christian nationalism for Israel.

We have to be careful when we start asking God questions like “When will you heal the sick? When will you raise the dead? When will you bring addicts home? When will you take my prodigal children and bring them back to the cross? When will you cause churches to be holy and righteous?” When we ask these questions, are we asking deep down, “When will you come and let the glory of your name be known?” Or are we asking, “Will you at this time restore the nation of America to its former glory?”

If we are invested more in changing the morals of our nation than we are in people’s hearts turning to God, we are living under a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross. We used to be ‘moral’ in America. In the 1950s, our culture was very ‘moral’, but so many people were still lost. People down in the South almost all went to church. If you were a real estate agent or salesman of some sort, the best place to make contacts and build a better business was in church. So many people back then were no more Christian than they are, or aren’t, today. That’s why my father had the ministry that he did; people desperately needed a theology of the cross that didn’t depend on their hard work to perfect themselves or earn God’s blessing.

This is why Paul wrote, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). We should like him say, “I don't preach anything but the cross of Jesus Christ. I don't preach personal glory that comes through prosperity and materialism and God doing what I want for my life. I don't preach church glory that makes the name of my church more popular than the one down the street. Nor do I preach national glory that says my nation is better than yours.”

So how do we deal with our corrupt culture? How do we deal with dry spiritual lives and churches if we’re not going to strive for glory?

Once, there were three young men reading the Book of Acts together. They saw how the Spirit of God fell on the early church and how it changed everything. In one day 3,000 people were saved! So these three young men went to their pastor one Sunday as he was standing at the front of the church, and they said to him, “Pastor, we’re reading the Book of Acts, and it says that believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and power. They preached and thousands were saved. We’re not seeing that in the church today, but we want it. What do we need to do?”

Their pastor said, “That kind of thing has passed away. That doesn't happen anymore.”

These three young men said, “Pastor, we love you, and we want to honor you and older man. We respect you, but we want to respect the Word of God more than we want to respect you.”

This is a true story. Those three young men stood at the altar of that church and said, “We’re not moving, God, until you do this in our lives, until you touch us like the disciples were touched in the 1st century church. We believe you can do it again.” They stayed there for three days and three nights. After that, the Spirit of the Lord fell on these men, and the power of the Holy Spirit touched them in incredible ways.

After those three days, the pastor came back into the church to check on them. He asked them if they had heard from God. They said, “Yes, pastor.” He was getting a little frustrated with them, I think, because he said, “The power of the Holy Spirit is not—“ and as soon as he was about to say, “is not falling on people today”, he fell on his face. Fully awed by the presence and glory of God, he cried out, “Truly God is in this place!”

That was in Havana, Cuba many years ago. I preached in that church. All along the walls of the church, there are stacks of wheelchairs, crutches, braces and all kinds of stuff left behind by people who have been healed and set free from afflictions.

Those three young men weren’t looking for their own glory. They weren’t hoping to see their church become super popular. They weren’t trying to make their government different. They came to that altar desperate for God’s touch, hungry for a vision of God that transcended everything they knew. They wanted him to save and transform lives. They were stirred in their spirits, and God moved in response to their heartfelt prayers.

Do you sit daily in the presence of God? Do you cry out, “God, I need you. I need a word from you. When I point my finger into the Word, will you point to Word at me, God, and make it alive?” When the touch of God is on us, it’s noticeable. There’s power in God’s presence in our lives, but it only comes when we die to our plans and desires, when we take up our crosses, when we embrace our weaknesses for God’s glory. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

To God be all glory and honor forever.