Good reading makes for good preaching. If preachers only have the time and energy to read one book this summer, my nomination would be The Word of the Cross by New Testament scholar, Jonathan Linebaugh. Linebaugh is a professor at Cambridge and a fellow at Jesus College. Among many exegetes there seems to be a tendency to specialize in a narrow field of interest and avoid the wider context of systematic theology. Such is not the case with Linebaugh. He shows himself conversant not only with the latest in Pauline studies but also Luther and the broader theological landscape shaped by the Reformation. Linebaugh also knows how exegesis requires not only theological reflection, but it also leads to proclamation.

Martin Luther has not been exempted from criticism by New Testament scholars of late, particularly devotees of the so-called New Perspective on Paul. One cannot take it for granted that Luther’s great commentary on Galatians will be required reading for an exegetical course on the Pauline epistles at a Lutheran seminary these days. An Anglican by church affiliation, Linebaugh takes Luther seriously as an exegete and overall applauds his reading of Paul. Throughout the book, Linebaugh draws on insights from other readers of Paul, particularly Oswald Bayer, Ernst Kǻsemann, Gerhard Ebeling, John M.G. Barclay, Thomas Cranmer, and Johann Georg Hamann. In addition, Linebaugh compares and contrasts Paul with other ancient writings: The Wisdom of Solomon, the Epistle of Enoch, and Pseudo-Solomon.

Linebaugh writes elegantly in his exposition of Paul’s delivery of the word of the cross. Hermann Sasse reminded us that the theology of the cross does not shrink the church year into a perpetual Good Friday, but rather Advent, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are seen through the lens of the cross. In a similar way, Linebaugh asserts: “For Paul, the gospel is Good Friday: it is Christ going into and given to those in the grave. But the word of the cross is also an Easter sermon that rolls away the stone” (xvii). To preach Christ crucified is to announce that through His shameful death on the cross, God worked righteousness for the unrighteous, upsetting the wisdom of this world. This righteousness is established apart from the Law, and it establishes not the judgment of sinners, but their justification. The work of God outlined in Romans 3:21-24, “Is God’s eschatological demonstration and declaration of righteousness enacted and spoken in the gift of Jesus Christ” (13). The word of the cross is received by faith alone. Thus, Linebaugh follow’s Karl Barth’s lead in calling the sola fide the “great negation” of all which is not Christ.

To preach Christ crucified is to announce that through His shameful death on the cross, God worked righteousness for the unrighteous, upsetting the wisdom of this world.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the grammar of genuinely evangelical theology and preaching: “Justification is a criterion, an evangelical canon that makes possible the judgment: This is or is not the Gospel” (164). According to Linebaugh, we have a test case in Galatians: “The grammar of the Gospel, then, as it comes to expression in the antithesis of Galatians 2:16, is Christological and so charismatic, incongruous, and creative. It is Christ crucified: An unconditioned gift, given to sinners which re-creates them as righteous” (172). Paul denounces the Judaizers precisely on the grounds that they had confused the grammar of the Gospel: “This means that their message was likely one of complementation rather than competition: Paul’s opponents likely argued that it is not Christ or Torah; it is Christ and Torah. It is here where a Pauline ‘or’ confronts an unevangelical ‘and,’ that the grammar of justification functions as a critical criterion” (173). Linebaugh offers a strong defense of Luther’s understanding of Galatians 2:16, 19-20 over and against Richard Hays argument that the phrase, pistis Christou, be translated “faith/faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ.” Contrary to Hays, Linebaugh demonstrates the “Christocentrism” of Luther’s apprehension of faith.

The closing chapter of the book, “Until Christ,” is the tour de force of the entire work as the author demonstrates Luther’s grasp of the Pauline distinction of the Law from the Gospel. Only by recognizing that, “The Law is one thing and the Gospel another” (212), were the Scriptures opened to Luther. This distinction was the “nutcracker” which enabled him “to pry open the hard shell of Scripture” (215). Moses is not Christ and Christ is not Moses. “The time of the Law is, in Luther’s words, an era of ‘despair’ and ‘death,’ a time in which the hours are marked not by the clock, but by the creature’s cri de Coeur. But this time is not forever. It is only ‘until’: Until the One who, ‘at a specific time,’ loved me and gave Himself for me is also and always the One who, through the Gospel, loves me and gives Himself to me. ‘When He comes, says Luther, whether once for all or again and again, the Law’s condemnation stops and the shadows of ‘fear and sadness’ are scattered. The time of the Law may be the time of the question: Is there any comfort? But the time of the Gospel is the time of grace: Christ, the one who gives and is given, is in Luther’s phrase, the ‘Comforter’ (AE 26:348)” (222-223). The coming of Christ does not realize the Law’s latent potential but announces something new: The Gospel. This Gospel is God’s counterstatement to the previous conditions of life under the Law. In this life, we continue as simul, living in two ages, old and new at the same time even as our confidence is not in our own powers to renew ourselves or increase our holiness but in Christ who loved us and gave Himself for us.

When Luther was in the pulpit, he was teaching, and when he was in the lecture hall at the podium, he was preaching. Linebaugh’s outstanding book will help contemporary pastors to do the same.

*You can purchase Dr. Linbaugh’s book here: The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul by Jonathan Linbaugh (Eerdmans, 2022)