As in our Lord's day, few today who seek miracles are interested in that to which signs point. "A wicked generation seeks for signs," Jesus said, followed by Paul's reminder that his fellow Jews were so busy looking for miraculous wonders that they stumbled over the Gospel of Christ crucified. Seeking direct experiences with God without the mediation of Scripture, preaching, and sacraments is a theology of glory. Longing for "power encounters," we trip over the weakness of the cross. This is also true of our triumphalism, long a problem of evangelical revivalism. With its vision of conquering and reigning, the cross-bearing life of Christ which our Savior graciously allows us to share with him is traded in for a crown before the appointed time. Often, we behave like the disciples during our Lord's ministry. Philip saw Jesus as a means to an end: "Now, just show us the Father and we'll be satisfied," he said. "Philip, have you been with me so long and you still don't get it? He who has seen me has seen the Father!" Those looking for God in demonstrations of power miss the true appearance of God in the humiliation and weakness of the Suffering Servant.
His disciples never did understand him when he said he must suffer and die, and whenever he brought it up, they tried to ignore it. Or, as in Peter's case, they rebuked him: "Surely this will never happen to you!" As Satan had offered Jesus a crown without a cross, so even Jesus' own brothers, impressed with his success as a miracle-worker, anxiously offered a tour of the major cities. Similarly, James and John wanted to call down fire on their enemies, and their mother came to Jesus to ask him to allow her sons to sit on his left and right hand in his kingdom. Everyone was planning for glory, but Jesus was planning for the cross. "You do not know what you are asking," Jesus told their proud mother. "Can they drink the cup that I am about to drink?" "Of course we can!", they eagerly replied. Triumphalism ignores the cross, and when the hour of trial (sin, failure, loss of popularity, shame, and abuse) comes, we, like the disciples, flee for cover instead of sharing in Christ's suffering. The triumphalism of theologies of glory can be discerned in much of today's popular Christian music. Here the realities of life are replaced with platitudes and sentimentalism, a far cry from the emotional and moving words of the psalmist. Contrast much of contemporary Christian music with the depth of the classic hymns of the Moravians, Lutheran and Reformed hymn writers, Charles Wesley, and the old African-American "spirituals."
Sadly, evangelicals and liberals often read the Bible in a similar way these days. While the former may be more conservative in their interpretations, both tend to read (and preach) the Bible moralistically: that is, either as positive tips for better living or as scolding for not being what one should be. Thus, the key biblical characters become heroes to imitate rather than figures in a redemptive-historical plot centering around Jesus Christ. Jesus told the Pharisees that in spite of their ostensive devotion to the Scriptures, they did not really understand what they were reading, since he (Jesus) is the point of all of Scripture. Similarly, after his resurrection, he rebuked his disciples for not understanding how his death and resurrection were foretold. So "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).
If an obsession with "power encounters" stumbles over the weakness of the cross, the preoccupation with moralism finds the preaching of the cross "foolishness." How can the wicked be declared righteous while they are still sinful? If I could know right now that nothing I did counted for my salvation, why would I even try to be holy? It's unfair for God to elect people without basing his choice on anything in or foreseen in those who are chosen. Or, as we have seen already from Feuerbach's pen: "The Christian theory of justification by faith is rooted in a cowardly renunciation of moral effort," and belief in the hereafter nothing more than "an escape mechanism." Our fallen sensibilities rebel against the utterly gracious character of God's way of saving. When sin and grace are replaced with therapeutic, ethical, political, and pragmatic concerns, it is a sure sign that we too have stumbled over the Rock of offense.
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin warns us of our tendency even as Christians to attempt to turn faith into a work. Seeing the condition of his ship of faith and obedience, one sets out to rebuild another ship, "so he undoes himself in what he endeavors, and goes to hell by striving to go to heaven."
As liberal theologian Paul Tillich pointed out (and exhibited), mysticism and rationalism are of one piece. Like Plato, the mystic-rationalist does not care much for this world and wishes to escape the world of "appearances" by abstract contemplation of "the Divine." Christianity is deeply committed to this world (creation, providence, redemption through historical events, restoration of the whole creation at the end of the age, including the resurrection of our bodies), and announces that God cannot be known directly by our reason, but must reveal himself by condescending to our capacity. The mystic-philosopher who attempts to penetrate God's hidden council, either by speculation or claims to secret knowledge of God's will beyond what is revealed in Scripture, is a theologian of glory. The theologian of the cross is content to know God as he has graciously manifested himself in the Living and written/preached Word.
The end of the year is upon us and once again we need raise a significant amount of support in order to ensure that White Horse Inn can continue to advance a "modern reformation" by "helping Christians know what they believe and why they believe it."
We’ve put together a great gift for you. With your donation of $100 dollars or more we'd like send you "Is the Reformation Over?" an MP3 CD loaded with 20 episodes of WHI that have not aired since the 90's along with related Modern Reformation articles. This keepsake can be a wonderful addition to your library or a perfect gift to someone you'd like to introduce the major themes of the Reformation.
Click the Order button below and support us by making a gift today.If White Horse Inn has been a blessing to you, help us with a financial gift by December 31, 2012, so we can continue making the same great programs and articles available to others. With your donation of $100.00 or more, we will send you an MP3 CD* called "Is the Reformation Over?" The MP3 CD includes 20 extended length episodes—most of which haven't been aired since the '90's—plus bonus material including: Modern Reformation articles and extra WHI audio. Please send your tax-deductible gift by December 12, 2012 in order to receive your gift by December 25, 2012. (Qualified donations received by December 12 will receive the gift CD by December 25.)