A Q&A for the Second Edition of "The Christian Life: Cross or Glory?
The Second Edition of “The Christian Life: Cross or Glory?” by Steven Hein is now available from 1517 Publishing.
1. What initially prompted you to write this book? And more specifically, to release a 2nd edition?
My desire has been especially to address Christians who are disappointed or disillusioned with the experience of their faith life. They have a sharp sense that it is not very fulfilling and their own sinfulness and failings are always in bold relief. Moreover, God often seems unfair, silent, and things in life continue to go wrong. They have read many of the best-seller books promising a rich experience of Christ within and great victories over nagging sins. Such outcomes promised by devotion to prescribed spiritual exercises have not come about. They have been left with feelings of bewilderment, confusion, and sometimes anger. My goal has been to convince especially troubled believers that on the basis of Scripture – and insights on Scripture from Luther – that such experiences of life in Christ are actually normal and healthy.
Baptism has united believers with the crucified Christ (Rom 6:3ff) not the risen Christ in Glory. This is the essence of what we call, a “theology of the cross.” For now, we have all the gifts of the gospel by faith alone, while our continuing sinfulness and this fallen world dominate our experience. Only in Glory shall we experience what it is like to be free from all the effects of sin and evil and not a day before. The second edition of the book expanded many chapters that describe this cross life of the Christian while also adding a new chapter devoted to identifying the elements of objective truth that anchor assurance of our salvation.
2. In the first chapter, you encourage Christians to become familiar with Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Why is this theology helpful, especially for modern Christians?
It was especially Martin Luther who refreshed Western Christendom with a recovery of the New Testament Gospel which the Apostle Paul declared to the Corinthians as nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). This word of the cross he identified as the “wisdom of God but folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18).
Echoing the apostle, Luther proclaimed early in his career as a reformer that “the cross is our theology.” What is most helpful for Christians is to realize that all of the gifts of the gospel have been bestowed and are possessed by faith in the here and now. There are no more. And yet, the experience of these saving gifts and life free from all aspects of sin and evil will only be ours when we translate into the resurrected life of glory. It is cross life now, glory in the life to come. What has plagued the Church through the ages has been attractive yet false promises that if believers will just please God more in certain prescribed ways, he will grant experiences of glory right now while we live with our sinfulness and the fallen world world. Luther called these false theologies of glory.
We serve Christ in the needs of our neighbors. We give our faith to God, and our works to the neighbors he has given us where we live, work, and play.
Cross theology also acknowledges that as baptized believers have received the perfect righteousness of Christ, they have also become new creation slaves to God and righteousness (Rom 6:18, 22). Therefore no spiritual improvement or reform is needed or possible. Believers in Christ just grow and mature as did our incarnate Christ. There are no works that can benefit the believer as none are needed. Therefore, Christians can focus all their attention on the welfare of their neighbors who are in need of the blessings that God has entrusted to us. We serve Christ in the needs of our neighbors. We give our faith to God, and our works to the neighbors he has given us where we live, work, and play. The new creation in Christ needs no improvement or reform, The old fleshly sinful self can be co-opted and disciplined, but it cannot be reformed or improved. God will destroy it when we enter glory.
3. You say in Chapter 3, “often the simple gospel is what we need—just the plain but full-strength words that absolve: I forgive you all your sins. Yet it is also true that the gospel is not simple. There is more to it in its implications and applications than we will ever grasp in a lifetime.” Could you further explain how the gospel can be complex?
The gospel is simultaneously simple yet complex in that it comes from a mysterious triune God through a paradoxical incarnate Lord Jesus. It is simple in that it promises and bestows the full forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of Christ. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. There is nothing we have to do to receive, have, or retain it. It is paradoxical in that complete forgiveness is both a constant condition of the baptized believer yet also a continual absolving declaration: “Your sins are forgiven.” So, about Christ’s forgiveness, believers have it all, but they always need more. Further paradoxes and mysteries include that only by death can we have life with God. This is what occurs in Baptism. Only by dying to sin can we live with Christ, and that not once, but daily through the ongoing ministry of God’s law and gospel. So, I was Baptized, I am being Baptized, I will be Baptized. In faith, while the simple gospel can be grasped by the most uneducated babe, none of us can yet grasp either the magnitude of our sinfulness, or the riches of God’s grace. Yet, about both of these as we grow in Christ, so also will our awareness and appreciation of these realities of sin and grace increase.
4. In Chapter 6, you talk about the nature of salvation. Why is it important to first understand that our assurance of salvation is an objective matter not tied to our subjective experience?
First, believing something does not make it true or real regardless of how sincere or intense your belief might be. This is true also in all matters of faith. Secondly, subjective experiences do not come self-interpreted. Who or what we are experiencing and what it means must be supplied from outside the experience itself. Our minds supply the interpretations of our subjective experiences. Among other things, this means that we are incapable of understanding or distinguishing experiences of God, the Devil, or self simply on the basis of what or how we feel. Our Lord Jesus is certainly united with us on the inside through Baptism. We are in Christ, Christ is in us, and we possess the fullness of the Holy Spirit internally (Acts 2:38). However, it is only through the external word that Christ makes himself known, carries out his saving work, and bestows his saving gifts.
Only by the external word can we know and be confident that it is indeed Christ that we are encountering and his saving gifts being bestowed. Through the external Word of grace internal faith is created and sustained (Rom 10:17). Yet, subjective experiences about faith neither provide the assurance of Christ saving gifts or even of faith’s own reality. Our trust in the promises of Christ is not anchored in some internal experience of our faith. It clings only and always to the external word.
Faith never clings to itself, only to the external gifts and promises of the Gospel.
What God has written on our hearts to experience Him and how we are in relation to Him is the Law, never the Gospel (Rom 2:14-16). As the Apostle taught, the law does not reveal our faith, our forgiveness, or any gift of the Gospel. Its purpose is only to reveal our sin (Rom 3:20). This means that to experience God on the inside is to confront and experience our sinful life apart from Christ. We pray, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” That we believe we are forgiven children of God and heirs of salvation are known and assured only by the external Word and promises of the gospel. That we are sinners lacking in faith is revealed by the internal experience of God’s law. This is why the human heart and its experiences were described by Luther as the Devil’s playground. He will use God’s law either to convince us that we do not qualify for God’s graciousness in Christ, or we don’t need it. Faith never clings to itself, only to the external gifts and promises of the Gospel.
5. When asking the question, “Are good works really necessary,” why is it important to respond (quoting Robert Kolb’s insightful return question, as you do in the book), “Why do you want to know?”
Paradoxically, God has two words about the necessity of good works - law and gospel. The law proclaims that unless our being and works flow from fear, love and trust in God according to all of its demands yesterday, today, and forever, we shall not enter the kingdom of God. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the Kingdom of God. You must be perfect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:20, 48). So, yes, according to the law, good works are necessary for salvation. However, the gospel proclaims that we are saved by faith only in the saving work and gifts of Christ apart from all works (Eph 2:8-9).
Dr. Kolb’s return question rightly reflects the understanding that God’s Word about works according to the law is intended to address sinners secure and complacent about their own sinfulness. It is intended to put the magnitude of their sinfulness and God’s wrath into bold relief, and through which the Spirit would work repentance and hunger for the gospel. However, God intends only to address alarmed and repentant sinners with the comfort of the gospel, assuring sinners that they are saved only by the saving gifts of Christ through faith apart from all works. Hence for any servant of the Word addressing any given sinner, the question, “Why do you want to know?” is intended to determine either complacency or alarm on the part of the sinner and thus which Word of God is relevant and should be applied to the question about the necessity of good works. We could also note that good works are necessary according to the gospel in that God promises that the saving faith of the believer will produce them of necessity (Eph 2:10, John 15:5).
6. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?
This work has very accessible language for all readers, however, the sentences and paragraphs are packed tightly with a lot of content. If you feel like you have to read and reread the texts slowly to grasp all of what is there . . . you are invited to do so, and should know that you are normal for needing to reread.