Martin Luther’s View of Cross-Bearing -- By: John C. Clark

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 163:651 (Jul 2006)
Article: Martin Luther’s View of Cross-Bearing
Author: John C. Clark


Martin Luther’s View of Cross-Bearing

John C. Clark

John C. Clark is a Ph.D. Candidate in Historical Theology, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

At Heidelberg on April 25, 1518, Martin Luther was called on to defend his controversial theology at the triennial gathering of his fellow Augustinian monks. He used the opportunity to articulate a set of developing insights that exposed what he considered the most prominent shortcomings of the late medieval theological enterprise, and in the process, provided impetus to the emerging evangelical reform then taking place in sixteenth-century Europe.1 Prominent among Luther’s insights was his insistence that the Cross must constitute both the substance and the ultimate evaluative criterion for all Christian theological reflection.2 The Reformer’s mature theology remained profoundly influenced by this insight, commonly called his theologia crucis (“theology of the Cross”).

It would be difficult to overstate the historical importance and enduring significance of Luther’s “theology of the Cross,” which

Alister McGrath described as “one of the most powerful and radical understandings of the nature of Christian theology which the church has ever known.”3 As such, this motif in Luther’s thought has commanded much interest.4 Yet there remains a correlative aspect of the “theology of the Cross” that attracts somewhat less attention in the secondary literature of Luther scholarship, namely, the Reformer’s understanding of cross-bearing.

Luther was convinced that just as the Cross provides the substance of Christian thought, so too does it provide the shape of the Christian life. And because he understood the goal of the Christian life as conformity to the Crucified One, Luther maintained that the way in which that life is lived must necessarily be “cruciform.” “The holy Christian people,” Luther wrote, “are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh. .. by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.”5

Luther did not mean by this that Christians help Christ bear His cross or that Chri...

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