A Theology Of The Cross vs. A Theology About The Cross

Last week was Holy Week, which meant, as a minister, that there were a lot […]

Jacob / 4.14.09

Last week was Holy Week, which meant, as a minister, that there were a lot of services I had to attend and inevitably a lot of sermons I had to listen to… Ugh! One was a sermon that initially sounded like the theology of the cross. For a brief moment I wanted to shout, “AMEN!” However, in the end, the sermon turned into a therapeutic message about Jesus being with us as we go out to serve the world. It felt like a betrayal. In light of that sermon, I would like to focus on the distinction between the theology “of” the cross verses a theology “about” the cross.

This distinction, which may sound rather slight, is actually very significant; and while both seem to focus on Jesus and his death, a theology about the cross inevitably is nothing more than a theology of glory. It sees the cross as a means to an end as opposed to the end itself. A theology about the cross quickly becomes what some might call a “Hallmark Card Theology.” That is, it is sentimental and therapeutic as opposed to healing and salvific. It understands our role in this cruel world to be chiefly that of victims, and hence, because misery loves company, we are called to gaze upon Jesus as the ultimate victim, one with whom sufferers can identify. What we need most profoundly therefore is affirmation and support, to be told that it is OK when sin pricks our conscience.

“The language of sin, law, accusation, repentance, judgment, wrath, punishment, perishing, death, devil, damnation and even the cross itself—virtually one-half of the vocabulary—simply disappears. It has lost its theological legitimacy and therefore its viability as communication.” -Gerhard Forde

A theology about the cross sounds very close to a theology of the cross, but it moves us beyond the cross; from a place of need and forgiveness, to a place of self-pity and self-identification with God.

Jesus says in John 10:18 “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” In John 19:30 we are told that Jesus gives up his Spirit. Indeed, a theology of the cross sees the world through the lens of suffering and death, but not with the view of, “poor me and poor Jesus.” Rather, a theology of the cross points out that Jesus suffered and died alone because we are more than mere victims, we also enemies at odds with God and were in the crowd shouting “crucify him.” As Forde points out, a theology of the cross allows us to call “a spade a spade.” It sees us as more than just victims who are misunderstood but also as victimizers who have killed Jesus. We are both. It is a theology that recognizes us as sinners for whom Jesus became sin and died in order to forgive (2 Cor. 5:21).

A theology of the cross, therefore, instead of simply inoculating our conscience to sin and our own culpability in it, finds us guilty of the sin that we have committed, and states that we should be justly condemned for it. At the same time it proclaims that the penalty has been paid, and we are 100% forgiven. A theology of the cross keeps us in our proper place, as helpless sinners, and keeps Christ in His proper place, as our Lord and Savior.


14 responses to “A Theology Of The Cross vs. A Theology About The Cross”

  1. David Browder says:

    VERY helpful. Jacob, a true breath of fresh air for me, personally, was going to your 9:30 service. After it was over, I turned to Kyle and said, “Now THAT’S a Christian service.” Service and sermon were excellent. “How Firm A Foundation” brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Michael Cooper says:

    This is a true saying, worthy to be believed. With the Cross, the “about” is always trying to euphemize the “of.”

  3. Todd says:

    Great post Jacob, though it stirred a question for you… Does the cross then have a word to speak to the reality of despair, powerlessness, and indeed, victim? Far from being an agent who has willed the curse of life, it seems that some of life is the product of forces that lie beyond myself.

  4. Jacob Smith says:


    I would say that the cross does have a word to speak to the reality of despair, powerlessness, and indeed the “victim” (especially when it is the result of powers/circumstances outside of myself). I think it is a powerful word of comfort to know that Jesus, God incarnate, enters into the muck of our despair, and does not escape it, but conquers it with his own death. I guess that is where the hope of the resurection comes into play: that this despair, etc does not have the final word and say over you.

    However that being said, a theology of the cross will not simply allow us to see ourselves as victims. If that is the case, we are left with Jesus asking “my God why have you forsaken me?” The cross provides the answer and forces us to recognize our own culpability in our despair, powerlessness and victimhood. It is a tough word in the sense that it says sin is a state, and the things that are even out of your control you are responsible for, while at the same time providing the comforting word of assurance that it is forgiven and God is for you.

  5. Matt McCormick says:


  6. MK says:

    Really nice post- thanks for calling a spade a spade. While I agree that a theology of the cross points us to our perpetual need for grace, I wonder if we have a propensity to over-individualize the gospel, and in turn minimize Christ’s work on Calvary. Here’s what I mean- I too often get so wrapped up in my own internal battle over Law and Grace (questioning my motives for serving, feeling the pressure of law, fear of failure vs. accepting grace, etc) that I end up wallowing. I wallow in my own darkness and in my inability to serve or love my neighbor, and I need to be reminded that in Christ I am justified (it is finished) and that Christ intends to redeem the whole world. As heirs of God (Eph 1:18, Gal 3:29), we remain helpless sinners, but Christ frees up His people to love and serve despite themselves. I didn’t hear the sermon, but I wonder if that liberal clergyman’s words that “Jesus is with us as we go out to serve the world” are, by necessity, only therapeutic. Are they not true? Do they have to reek of law, or can they speak to God’s larger work of redeeming His creation? Just a thought. Thanks again for the post.

  7. JDK says:

    Great discussion!

    Browder–I completely agree. I’m still replaying that service in my mind! Its becoming sort of my “how to have church” template:)

  8. Todd says:

    thanks for the response jacob, it’s helped my thinking of this through… it seems as though the solution lies in seeing a unity between sin as a culpable action and sin as state. The reality of being powerless in the face of what seem like external powers in fact points to my identity as a sinner. In the same way that I sin because I am a sinner, I am helpless because I am a sinner. If I am a victim, I am merely a victim of my own devices and inability.

    Even more, could it be said that seeing myself as powerless over my life is in fact the necessary preparation for grace. Thesis 18 of the Heidelberg Disputation says, “It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.” It could even be said that it is NOT ENOUGH that I see myself as guilty, but that I see myself as powerless, helpless over that guilt and sin.

  9. JDK says:

    What a great discussion!

    Some quick thoughts:

    My take on this issue–a theology “about” or “of” the Cross–is that it is an incredibly helpful and necessary insight (thanks Jacob:) that, like many such theological concepts, begins to break down when pushed into the realm where the question is over the order in which the Gospel is subjectively appropriated.

    This is not to say that it is an unhelpful discussion, quite the contrary, (IMHO) it is the crucial point. However, I think that its not incidental that Forde titled his book “On being a theologian of the Cross.” Meaning that, I think, a theology OF the cross–with its proper distinction between law and gospel– creates a theologian of the Cross.

    In other words, the ability to view oneself as primarily culpable and only secondarily as a victim is as much a fruit of the Gospel–a creation of faith–as the assurance brought by absolution. And, this viewpoint can only come after the work of the Gospel–death to life–has been wrought in the heart.

    I look forward to continuing to flesh out these questions with you guys, because they get at the heart of the extent and ways in which we can proclaim the existence of a God of Love whose Christ, by his death, was the end of the Law. . .

  10. Matt McCormick says:

    “is” the end of the law 🙂

  11. Todd says:

    JDK, if the knowledge that one is a sinner in need of grace comes in light of the Gospel, then how does one view themselves prior to this revelation?

  12. JDK says:

    Hey Todd, you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the debate, I think

    . . . you wrote:

    if the knowledge that one is a sinner in need of grace comes in light of the Gospel, then how does one view themselves prior to this revelation? If I understand your question correctly, here are some thoughts:

    After the Fall, the default setting for human self-understanding is victimhood, which, in varying degrees, is expressed through righteous indignation.

    Life brings to everyone a growing awareness of suffering and pain and even a general sense of powerlessness; the Law brings specific knowledge of complicity–no matter how seemingly insignificant–to that awareness.

    What do you think?

  13. Todd says:

    ah, yes, I believer we’re headed in the same direction…

    1-After the Fall, man is aware of his powerlessness through the universality of suffering, I would say that this suffering can produce righteous indignation, to which the only cure is for the law to kill more thoroughly.

    2-Yet if the experience of pain and suffering truly does produce death (if one has truly hit rock bottom), such that the “I” no longer lives, this despair is the necessary preparation for grace and one does not need the law.

    The real question is how many people live in option 1 vs. option 2. It may be that knowldge of despair is implicit in everyone, and the preaching of the law simply confirms that which everyone already knows.

    But despair, either through suffering directly, or through the condemnation of the law, is not faith per-se, but it awaits the revelation of grace and love which produces freedom, love, joy, etc.

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