Martin Luther and the Cross of Christ

Martin Luther is a name that all Christians have heard, but most take the name for granted.  They know him as the leader of the Protestant Reformation, and rightfully so as his theological endeavors led to a split from the Catholic Church.  Though this was a sad time in history, Luther was a brilliant theologian and he blessed Christendom with many theological insights.  One such insight into the cross of Christ, and to Luther authentic Christian theology was included the theology of the cross.

In the time of Christ, the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  People were left to hang for hours until they suffocated.  It was a brutal death and was mostly used to serve as an example to political rivals.  In the view of Luther, the cross represented two different things.  Firstly, the cross represented the evil of sin and the promise of the judgement of God.  However, as sinners we are forced to face the judgement of God.  In his holiness we become afraid, and we when we confront this fear we come to recognize it as something entirely different.  We come to recognize it as the mercy and love of almighty God.  In this regard, the cross becomes good because it represents the very instrument of our salvation. We see this in Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians where he writes, “Christ is Lord over the law, because he was crucified unto the law.  I also am Lord over the Law, because by faith I am crucified with Christ” (Luther 44).  Here we see Luther’s theology of the cross played to its logical conclusion.  In the crucifixion, Christ makes something good out of a horrible situation.  An instrument that was used to torture and kill is now seen as an instrument of love and mercy.  The salvation received is passive on our part because Christ did all that was needed.  We accept salvation when the law drives us to desperation (as it did for Luther) and thus to faith in the mercy of God revealed in the cross.  Basically, Luther was teaching that a Christian was one who had the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.  Regarding this Luther writes, “In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that he should pay for the with his own blood.  The curse struck him.  The law found him among sinners” (Luther 68).  In exchange for taking our sin upon his shoulders, the Father now sees us as righteous.  According to Luther, when this happens the righteousness of Christ is imputed into the Christian.

This was a great consolation to Luther and not a terror.  Luther was plagued by fear and anxiety for many years.  In his early years as a monk, Luther fell into nominalist tendencies.  He was trying to do everything within his being to please God, but when we do it on our own we are doomed to frustration and not feeling good enough.  This is what happened to Luther, as he thought that doing works would then lead to God giving him grace.  This is what Luther called“an experience in hell” and led to Luther hating God.  His insight into the cross of Christ allowed him to see the victory that the cross stood for.  It was now a symbol of great joy, and no longer a cause of pain and anxiety.


Luther, Martin.  Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Project Gutenberg. Web. Accessed December 9, 2017.

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