Obedience and Exaltation
What is a theology of cross and glory? We all know what a â€œtheology of the crossâ€ is: since our Lord suffered, his followers must as well (John 15:18-21). Oppression and suffering provide the context in which hatred of God is revealed for what it is, in which the perseverance of the saints is proven, and in which sanctity increases in the lives of the saints. We also know what a â€œtheology of gloryâ€ is: the servant receives better treatment than his master; victory and exaltation are achieved without passing through the testing of fiery trials.
Theologians of the cross are humble men who place no hope in this world because of its irremediable corruption by sin and Christâ€™s absence from it. Theirs is a sober â€œnot yetâ€ assessment regarding the presence of the future kingdom. Theologians of glory are proud men who downplay human limitation and act as if Christ were come already. Theirs is an obnoxious triumphalist insistence on the â€œalreadyâ€ presence of the kingdom. So, on one hand, there is a theology of cross without glory, and on the other, a theology of glory without suffering.
This cross/glory bifurcation is calculated to buttress anabaptist secularism and malign theocracy. However, overweening ambition is not the provincial characteristic of any of the major eschatological options. There are plenty of arrogant amillennialists and not a few humble postmillennialists. Amills can be just as adept at finding comfortable accommodation with the reigning spirit of the age as were the liberal postmillennialists and social gospellers of yore, perhaps more so. Furthermore, history shows that the Church has both suffered and enjoyed outward prosperity. This variance of
disproportionate experience cannot be attributed to the attitude, piety, or eschatology of any church.
Suffering cannot be manufactured like pre-washed faded jeans. Lacking the outward circumstances of oppression, Western amills who wax eloquent about pilgrim suffering can no more conjure up the perseverance, character & hope such experience shapes than can theocrats cultivate qualities of wise statesmanship, all their plans for world domination notwithstanding. The Lord decides who to exalt to high office and when to chasten his people under tribulation. Faithful martyrs and good leaders become such, not through breeding or schooling, but essentially through the trials they have been chosen to pass through. In life, it is a general rule that every genuine accomplishment comes after a period of testing in which commitment is proven.
Not all such testing is governed by the Covenant of Works (CoW). While the works principle (â€œDo this and liveâ€) is operative for all who remain outside of Christ and under Adamâ€™s headship, it is not operative for the elect. The believer has â€œdied to the lawâ€ in this sense (Rom. 7:1-6). He has been covered by the robe of Christâ€™s righteousness and freed to a new obedience, without condemnation, through the â€œlaw of the Spirit of lifeâ€ (Rom. 8:1-2). Under the economy of grace a role remains for trials of obedience: â€œTo him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nationsâ€¦just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning starâ€¦To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throneâ€ (Rev. 2:26,28; 3:21). It should be evident that all Christians must endure testing of trials throughout their lives whether they face any actual oppression or not. Any victoryâ€”any rewardâ€”they â€œachieveâ€ as a result, is fundamentally based not on their own merit, but on Christâ€™s, who fulfilled the CoW for them.
I have no desire to get embroiled in a controversy over legal merit and the â€œFederal Vision.â€ Men on both sides of the debate should be able to agree that whatever merit is, it is not operative in the “economy of testing” that Christians endure. With some qualification, James Jordanâ€™s insights regarding â€œcovenant maturityâ€ should be generally acceptable touching this point.
â€œWhen someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invitedâ€¦But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, â€˜Friend, move up to a better place.â€™ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exaltedâ€ (Luke 14:8,10-11).
It is not pious to prefer the lowest station over others that are higher. To love the â€œlowest seatâ€ for its own sake is unbalanced piety, or, pharisaical piosity. It is the sort of piety on display in Spielbergâ€™s Last Crusade, when Indiana Jones discovers the Holy Grail, a simple wooden cup, hidden among hundreds of gold and silver chalices.
It makes no sense to praise the virtues of poverty, folly, and weakness. The whole point of choosing (not desiring) the lowest place is to faithfully endure testing and wait on the appropriate occasion to be exalted. It is unseemly to grasp for greater glory before the proper time. In this, Christ is our model (Phil. 2:3ff.). In passing, Iâ€™ll pointed out that there is no evidence here of an incommensurability between natural and Christian ethics. Pagans are just as capable of seeing the wisdom in Christâ€™s illustration as are Christians.
When Jesus enjoins humility he in no way implies that impotence, poverty and hunger are preferable to power, wealth, and prosperity. These good things are not to be refused when offered. In terms of Christâ€™s illustration, it would be unseemly to refuse the banquet hostâ€™s beneficence out of some morbid preference for dishonor. Throughout the course of a Christian life there are numerous occasions for such honors. Of course, at the end of a life faithfully lived, the greatest glories will be bestowed.
It is the anabaptist-leftist error to suppose that the Sermon on the Mount extols outward poverty. The â€œpoverty of spiritâ€ Jesus blesses (Matt. 5:3ff.) has to do with an inward disposition of the heart instead of outward circumstances. Certainly, Jesus has outward lowliness in view, but only because spiritual humility befits a low estate. We are not to invert the priority of genuine inward humility over bodily condition. Not that outward circumstances are unimportant–they are–but the essential thing is a matter of the spirit.
Darryl Hart manifests this interpretive distortion when he writes, â€œMaybe the apostle Paul will help. He wrote: â€˜God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of Godâ€™ (1 Cor. 1:27ff). If the Bible, nay God, is our model, why would we choose the wise, the strong, and the high and reputable (say Christendom) for our cultural model if God chooses to use the opposite in his work?â€
The ante-Nicene Church followed the exact same model as St. Paul: the Lord Jesus Christ. After accomplishing his course of obedience unto death, our Lord was resurrected and glorified to sit at the Fatherâ€™s right hand. The pattern is first suffering, then glory. After two centuries of often fierce persecution, the Roman emperor was moved to convert and raise the Church to high prominence. It is only by means of an invalid differentiation between Christâ€™s providential and redemptive rule that such a momentous event can be conceived as a sort of fall from the original grace of impoverishment. Such is Anabaptist, not Reformed, historiography.
There is no contradiction between the ultimate glorification of the Church and its various lesser â€œglorificationsâ€ in history. Did Jesus refuse the crowdâ€™s acclaim on Palm Sunday? No, it was an appropriate time for him to receive their praise. Should Christians refuse cultural responsibility in this life because they have a better inheritance in the next? Of course not.
In the same passage Darryl cites, we read the following: â€œBrothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birthâ€ (1 Cor. 1:26). The apostle did not say, â€œNone of you were wise, etc.â€ The Church honors great reformers (Gregory the Great, Martin Luther) and thinkers (St. Augustine, John Calvin) in her memory. Such men and women (e.g., St. Joan dâ€™Arc) are rightly regarded as great persons. But the wonderful thing about Christianity is that it holds up the exemplars of great humility in the highest place (e.g., Moses, Mary, Jesus).
Yes, God chooses the low and humble things to shame the proud and mighty. This is how he works and continues to work. But we do not do this. Again, suffering cannot be manufactured: God alone creates the unique circumstances of each individualâ€™s testing. The theology of cross and glory I am proposing is able to account for tests of commitment (of whatever kind) along with the legitimate temporal blessings Christians and the Church at large have had and continue to experience. To promote a theology of cross without glory is an obvious ploy to disparage Christendomâ€™s true and proper glory in light of the supposed genuine piety of separatist enthusiasm. It is anabaptist piosity.
More to come…