Very often we celebrate the soteriological advancements of the Reformation for the church and individual Christians alike. We remember with gratitude the soothing, Christ-exalting doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Could we ever remember and laud this rediscovery of the biblical gospel too much?
One underrated advancement that people tend to overlook, however, is the pastoral implications of the theology of the Reformation for those who suffer. Until one has suffered under a theology of glory, which Luther critiqued and overhauled with a theology of the cross, one cannot appreciate the pastoral aid that the theology of the Reformers offers to those in tragedy.
Since the unexpected and sudden death of my three-year-old son, I have spent a great deal of time analyzing and writing about the theological foundations that offer me hope, comfort, and stability. Before Cameron died mysteriously in his sleep, I feared that a tragedy, such as the loss of my child, would ruin my faith. I found myself surprised that, in fact, my confidence in Christ became stronger at his death. I had greater resilience in this “worst of the worst” tragedy than I demonstrated with the commonplace disappointments of my young adult days when I lived under a theology of glory.
I have found that theological orientation has everything to do with our ability to trust God in the wake of tragedy. In particular, the Reformation’s theology of the cross provides a foundation that can sustain a person’s faith and comfort their heart, even in unimaginable pain.
Suffering under a Theology of Glory
I remember my response to commonplace disappointment as a young person who lived under a performance-based understanding of Christianity. While setbacks, such as a sports failure or a dating break-up, compare on no level to losing a child, they demonstrated the emptiness and flaws that a theology of glory necessarily yields for those coping with life’s difficulties.
My reactions to disappointments as a teenage or college-age Christian with a performance-based bent typically went in one of two directions: shame or bitterness. On one hand, when I injured my ankle five days before the swimming championships for which I had trained my entire senior year, I felt as if God was punishing me in some way. I supposed that I was pridefully focusing on my own glory too much, so God caused me to sprain my ankle to punish me for my lack of spiritual purity.
On the other hand, when I prayed, sought God’s will, and observed proper physical self-control in my dating relationships, I felt a sense of bitterness and anger toward God when girls dumped me. Didn’t God see just how “good” and noble I was, relative to other college students my age? Didn’t my virtue deserve to be rewarded with a nice Christian girlfriend?
In neither circumstance did I really trust the Lord or draw closer to him. The performance-based mentality, however subtle and mild, did more to magnify my suffering than it did to alleviate or redeem it. Some fundamental fallacies of the theology of glory, which undergirded the medieval Catholic theology that Luther and others corrected, resided in my spiritual beliefs. These views, rooted in my view of salvation, had significant implications in my ability to cope faithfully with suffering.
My soteriological mind-set told me that I retained some credit for my salvation. I was a sinner. God did the hard work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, I had analyzed the facts and made the right choice in choosing Jesus. A certain percentage of my salvation—however minuscule—involved my response and, therefore, reflected some level of self-generated merit on my part.
No Reformed person would argue against the need to repent and believe. Certainly, we call all people to do just this for salvation. At the same time, the doctrines of grace credit God with every ounce of our salvation. In retrospect, we even attribute our repentance and faith as a passively received gift of grace from the Lord, such that he receives all glory for our salvation.
The fundamentals of the theology of glory’s view of salvation can wreck a person in suffering. Certain precepts leave a sufferer with a false notion of God and how he relates to humanity. First, a works-righteousness mentality suggests that God’s disposition toward us depends on our performance. When we choose well, we are accepted. When we choose poorly, then God’s displeasure and wrath now stand against us. Because of the performance-based, works-righteousness orientation of a theology of glory, no true stability exists in our relationship with God. God’s feelings toward us vacillate from day to day, sin to sin, good work to good work.
As a result, the natural temptation at the existential level is to interpret the trials and travails of life as a statement about our performance. The woman who has suffered multiple miscarriages can be misled to believe that her past sexual sins or lack of prayer caused these tragedies. The man whose house flew away in a tornado may believe that his failure to tithe fully instigated this misfortune. The family who encounters tragedy wonders if their lapsed church attendance provoked the wrath of God. While you may dismiss this mind-set, any pastor will tell you that many Christian people live with this karma-like thinking. Such thinking, however, can only alienate us from God at a time when we need him the most.
Second, the works-righteousness orientation of the theology of glory intrinsically breeds a partnership mentality between God and humanity. Several implications of this theology creep into the sinful mind-set of people. The partnership first suggests an unbiblical level of equality between God and humans. If “Jesus is my copilot,” then humanity is elevated and God brought low. While a theologian of glory would never give humanity more than a crumb of credit in his or her salvation, the prideful flesh of a sinner wants to take that morsel and reconceive our salvation as a 50/50 joint venture. When this soteriological perspective carries over into our attempt to cope with suffering, all kinds of problems occur. A sense of entitlement creeps in. God has not upheld his end of the bargain. He has failed and broken the contract. The believer feels wronged.
I know these sentiments well from living under such a theological narrative in my youth. The sense of entitlement and resentment was spiritually toxic. Given how easily I used to slip into this bitter attitude with merely everyday disappointments, I cannot imagine where I would be after the loss of a child were I still living under the same works-righteousness narrative.
In addition, the theology of glory can seduce us into the false notion that we can control God. In extreme manifestations, if I throw the penny in the coffer then my relative escapes perdition. If I believe with enough force, then God will produce health, wealth, and prosperity on my behalf. In more subtle but equally dangerous ways, if I live a pious Christian life, then I can insulate myself from heartbreak and pain. I can oblige God to withhold the normal sufferings of this transitory life.
When tragedy enters the life of a theologian of glory, their whole theological framework can collapse. There is no constructive category. The glory story of the god we can manipulate for our comfort and happiness does not have an answer to the questions of why. He becomes simply the god who let us down. I remember thinking as a young adult Christian, “Why isn’t this working?” I figured I was taking the right steps and following the formula, and yet life continued to be painful and disappointing. My confidence in my faith wavered in moments because my expectations of God’s response to my self-perceived obedience did not match the difficult life I encountered. The theology of glory leaves a person bereft of the tools and resources they need to cling to Christ in tragedy, the very thing that will give them hope and redemption.
Certainly, there is generally no on-paper theology of glory that explicitly states how I’ve described the theology of glory above. However, it’s the notion of our role at the center of the salvation story that our prideful flesh distorts and inflates to land us in these desperate places, where we struggle to trust in God’s grace.
The Theology of the Cross for Sufferers
The theology of the cross protects and comforts the believer’s heart in innumerable ways— three of which I found particularly helpful in my own worst nightmare.
First, the theology of the cross shielded me from thinking that my son’s death came as a product of my moral or spiritual shortcomings. It was not a statement of God’s displeasure with me. The penalty of my sin fell fully on Christ on the cross. God’s pleasure with me comes not as a product of my works but entirely from the imputed righteousness of Christ in me. Therefore, my circumstances in no way reflect God’s love for me. That love remains stable because it depends on the obedience of Jesus Christ. Therefore, I do not have to worry that my tragedy means that God has a grudge toward me. I know that God’s favor toward me never wavers. This reality enabled me to trust God throughout my darkest hours.
In addition, knowing that God’s love for me rested entirely on the life and death of Christ protected me from the feelings of entitlement and bitterness that characterized my response to disappointment as a young adult. The partnership mentality no longer existed. Jesus receives 100 percent credit and responsibility for my salvation. All glory belongs to him. No internal merit or work of my own obligated God to save me. Consequently, no room existed for me to think that God had done me wrong. Because of my sin, I deserved none of the grace or blessings in my life nor did I deserve any more exemption from sufferings than the next sinner.
Second, the theology of the cross taught me to interpret life through the cross. In point twenty of the Heidelberg Disputation, Luther writes, “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and cross.” A theology of glory tends to delineate comfortable, happy things as “from God” and pain and suffering as from the devil (or some other source, but certainly not from God). The cross leads us into a more mysterious and hopeful place.
The cross tells us that anyone united to Christ will suffer like Christ. The path to redemption always runs through pain. Simultaneously, the cross tells us that pain is not a random, cosmic accident. God has redemptive purposes in our sufferings. While those specific purposes remain a mystery to us in our individual trials, we know our pain is not meaningless.
As a younger person, pain for me just didn’t have a place in the life of a Christian. I considered it an aberration from the normal expectations. As I deepened in the theology of the cross, though, I came to see suffering as more of the norm for the follower of Christ. When tragedy entered my life, my understanding of the Christian life was not rattled.
Finally, a theology of the cross places a believer in a passive position for salvation. The Christian comes to salvation when they rely entirely on the saving grace of Jesus through faith. Anyone who has suffered deep tragedy knows the red line pain can cross when the idea of picking yourself up by your bootstraps is a despair-inducing thought. On the day after my son’s funeral, I remember finding myself alone for the first time since receiving the horrifying call about his death. As I cried with my face in the carpet, I felt the sensation as if I would never be able to stand up. Pain consumed me.
As I lay helpless, I remembered what I had read in Scripture and seen reinforced in Luther about our need to passively find God’s grace in our powerlessness. In terms of the theology of the cross, I was in a good place. I was in the place where I knew that my only hope was in Christ and his redemption. I had been conditioned theologically to find and trust Christ in powerlessness. While the misery did not vanish, the hope that came from trusting God dwelled in my heart.
God has spared me no ounce of pain that inherently comes with losing a child. Simultaneously, however, I find myself grateful for the ways I have deepened in the gospel over the course of my life. The Lord has helped me understand the cross as my primary lens for understanding the Scriptures, myself, and God. In doing so, he has enabled me to weather the worst storm of my life with hope and comfort. I am grateful for the ways that God protected and sustained me through a cross-centered theology.
Cameron Cole is the director of children, youth, and family at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the founding chair of Rooted, a ministry that fosters gospel-centered youth ministry, as well as the author of Therefore I Have Hope: 12 Truths That Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018) and coeditor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide (Crossway, 2016).