This a part of our series on Luther's, Heidelberg Disputation.

21. A theologian of glory says that evil is good and good is evil. A theologian of the cross says that a thing is what it actually is.

This is clear: He who disregards Christ disregards God hidden in suffering. For this reason that theologian prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are whom the Apostle Paul calls “enemies of the cross of Christ," for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and their glory. This is why theologians of glory call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a work good. God can only be found in suffering and the cross. As was said before, the allies of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross, works are torn down and with them the Old Adam, who is constructed by works, is crucified. In fact, it is impossible for a person not to be inflated up by his good works who has not first been deflated and torn down by suffering and evil, that is until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but are God’s.

We are all theologians of glory. We all believe that we have something precious to offer God. Maybe it is our good works; mission trips, teaching Sunday School, helping the poor and downtrodden. Maybe that thing we believe God needs from us is subtler. Perhaps, we imagine, He simply needs our good intentions or our desire to be better. Perhaps, we think, what God needs from us is our faith. And if our faith is not enough, perhaps what He needs is our piety, our complete reverence, religiosity, and desire to follow His will come what may.

We concoct good-work notions and schemes intended to “give God what He needs.” These are also meant to convince ourselves and those around us that what we do for God is needed by Him and worthy of reward and praise. We so love praise. We love it so much that we most often lavish it upon ourselves when the world, our family, or the church fails to do so for us.

In our pursuit of praise, we even convince ourselves that verses of Scripture which are intended to show us how much God does not need our help to personify precisely why He needs us. As with Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” This means the Law we love so no longer has the power it once did over our lives. While the Law certainly still accuses, its accusation is met with Christ for us saying, “Your accusation has no power. For I have covered this child in my own righteousness.”

This then, we say, cannot mean what it clearly says. For surely God needs me to completely fulfill the Law in my life. We tell ourselves and others that He needs me to obey the Sabbath and He appreciates when I do. Surely Paul cannot mean that God no longer needs me to be a good parent, husband, or citizen. Doesn’t this passage in Romans merely tell me that Christ has taken away the ceremony of the Law? Certainly, God sees my efforts to fulfill the Law here on the earth and believes they are worth something to Him. And of course, God still needs me to perform the works of the Law. Right?

We as theologians of glory answer every summation and question above with a yes, yes indeed. Furthermore, we see it as our divine duty to perform the works of the Law. And when we do, we wait for God to look upon them and declare them “good.” Rather, we call these works “great” and “worthy” and “meritorious” and “righteous” before God has had a moment to gather His thoughts and speak on the matter. We say yes, they are good, they are very good indeed. So, good, in fact, that we can hardly wonder how God ever managed things without them. We convince ourselves of God’s reliance on our works so much that relying on them ourselves takes us no more than a half a step.

Yet, this half of a step is a full step in the wrong direction. Maybe more. Reliance, or the assigning of worth or merit to anything we do “for God” is, as Luther said above, calling evil good and good evil. And we are experts at this sort of confusion. It is much harder for sinners like you, and me, to ever admit that God does not need us. He who created heaven and earth by merely speaking, and who sent His most precious Son to save us without our consultations does not actually need our works, our piety, or our religiosity. He needs nothing from us and gives everything to us.

This one-sided reality is what has often been called the Scandal of the Cross. The cross we see as evil and horrid. We cannot imagine that by the suffering and death of the only good man who has ever lived on a horrible tree meant for torture, evil men could be set free. We see this as unjust and deplorable. This is a situation we would never, of our own accord, call “good.” Our way says that we get what we deserve. Bad men get punishment, and good men receive their just reward. But we trust in a God who took that earthly logic of ours and turned it on its head in Christ.

In Christ, the evil men receive the reward and the Only-Good-Man, the Christ, received the ultimate punishment. He exchanged His righteousness for our unrighteousness. We contribute nothing to our salvation except for our sin. When we begin to think that we do contribute more than our sin and need for salvation, we are calling evil (ourselves) good and good (Christ) evil. Christ is evil to the theologian of glory because he saves sinners. In truth, good people are none of Christ’s concern, He only wants to know and save those who have nothing in them upon which they can rely. This is our Christ.

God in Christ removes our ideas of fulfilling the Law to be saved. He removes our ideas of giving God a pious faith to earn our salvation. In Christ, all our schemes are laid bare and our machinations of self-salvation destroyed.

It is much harder for sinners like you, and me, to ever admit that God does not need us.

And so, a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. A theologian of the cross confesses, “O Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all of my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee, and justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment.” And yet hope through the cross remains for a theologian of glory who admits, often reluctantly, that even the faith which we possess, and which we so desperately wish to offer to God as a sacrifice, is not a sacrifice we bring to God, but rather, a gift which He grants to us.

The ultimate lie we theologians of glory tell ourselves is that we are good when we are in fact evil. Then Christ breaks in and breaks our lies. He who claims to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. Even more absurd to us, He claims that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). The theologian of glory will boast of his "goodness" though he is evil. Yes, He who is the Truth breaks in with the truth that He is the only way. And that is the truth; He is the Truth. Thanks be to God for destroying our lies and revealing to us truth because of Christ!

Then what do we do with God's declaration of righteousness? The Law calling me evil is not the end of the story for me. It is the end of the story for the “old man” in me. But, God has declared a new me in Christ. That is, I am now simul iustus et peccator, at the same time a sinner and a saint who is saved in Christ. "In Christ" I am righteous for the sake of someone else's blood.

So then, a theology of the cross calls us what we are: evil sinners in need of a Savior, and calls Christ what He is: our good Redeemer and only hope for salvation and victory over sin, death, and the power of the Evil One.

God has chosen to look upon you, the glorious sinner, rip your works from your hands, and kill the old man, dead. Then, in a remarkable twist, God declares you righteous for Christ's sake. You have the victory because He said so, not because you contributed. Sorry, theologian of glory, but you are now a sinner made saint!