Christ powerless on the Cross is where the false definitions of glory theologies are exposed and everything is turned upside down; destruction is vivifying, the godly become powerless, weakness is strength, and the Cross is God’s mightiest work.
The old pagan rule that like attracts like had become determinative for how theologians came to define the Cross leading up to and including Luther’s day. For the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, Christ had to become a curse substantively rather than in fact. Anselm, for example, posited that Christ, to be the world’s Redeemer must have been a pure lamb without spot or blemish. He argued that when St. Paul declared Christ became sin and a curse he was speaking substantively. Paul does not intend to say that Christ was literally sin and curse but rather that Christ was covered by the substance of human sin in much the same way a pearl could become encrusted with mud. However, what lay at the heart of the matter for Anselm and others was their desire to escape blame for Christ’s death.
To avoid having Christ’s Cross applied to their own persons they appealed not so subtly to the old pagan ideal that like attracts like. This then allowed them to teach that Christ became like sinners as a sign of God’s love. This theory of atonement also provided the opportunity for sinners to pursue their own righteousness by following Jesus’ pure example of faithfulness to God’s immutable law. As Thomas Aquinas professed, for example, faith must be formed by love or by acts of love added to faith as directed by the law. Luther recognized that those who make a fiction of Christ’s sin likewise construct a fictitious means of salvation. As Luther later wrote:
“This knowledge and most delightful comfort, that Christ became a curse for us to set us free from the curse of the Law - of this the sophists deprive us when they segregate Christ from sins and sinners and set Him forth to us only as an example to be imitated. In this way, they make Christ not only useless to us but also a judge and a tyrant who is angry because of our sins and who damns sinners. But just as Christ is wrapped up in our flesh and blood, so we must wrap Him and know Him to be wrapped up in our sins, our curse, our death, and everything evil.” (Martin Luther, LW 26, 278.)
For Luther, those who refuse Christ as a curse want their sin removed not in Christ but in themselves. As a result, theologians such as Anselm and Thomas Aquinas manufactured righteousness for themselves by attaching faith to works of law which produce not only counterfeit sinners but a fictitious Savior as well. For Luther:
“All this means that human reason would like sin to have no greater force and power than it itself dreams of. Although hypocrites, who do not know Christ, may feel sorry for sin. they still suppose that they can get rid of it easily by their works and merits. And in the privacy of their own hearts they wish that these words, ‘who gave Himself for our sins,’ were merely an expression of humility, and that their sins were not serious and real at all but mere trifles and figments. In short, human reason would like to present to God an imitation and counterfeit sinner, who is afraid of nothing and has no sense of sin. It would like to bring one who is well, not one who has need of a physician (Matt. 9:12); and when it has no sense of sin, only then would it like to believe that Christ was given for our sins." (Luther, LW 26, 34.)
In their attempt to segregate Christ from sinners Anselm, Thomas and those who followed their teaching had caused a basic confusion that would captivate many of the authoritative theologians of the Late Medieval Church. They had committed themselves to a basic confusion in the distinction between law and the Gospel. In their confusion of law and Gospel they were driven to search for a hidden and unknowable God apart from the Cross. Fleeing to the hidden God in this way they attempted to erect a god from the finest moral tenants of philosophy and theology: a Manichaean god who is not behind death but is a good, benign god devoid of the Holy Spirit.