“Grace cannot prevail…until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has
run out of steam and collapsed.” Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)
I first read this quote in one of my favorite books, The Christian Life: Cross or Glory by Steven A. Hein. This quote catches me by surprise every time I read it. For by nature we are theologians of glory and daily my thoughts of God pursue him as the One who will fulfill my will according to my prayers. But in all reality, again and again, I will be brought to the depths of pain and sorrow as God thwarts my will in order to make room for His own. It is a holy anguish.
Hein makes no soft talk page after page he discusses the theology of a God whose will it is to bring us to absolutely nothing to prepare us for His grace. He says that “He never comes to sinners to inquire if anyone is interested in becoming a Christian.” (1) This is a God who hides himself in death on the cross instead of taking an alternate route (which He perfectly has the power to do). We will feel the reality of this terror as we lose the grip on ourselves that separates us from him. Our sin is our pleasure and the illusion of owning ourselves is a false pride that will fall hard as Christ takes on the work of the New Creation that we have been baptized into.
Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation takes us through the meaning of his Theology of the Cross. Here we find the truth about our perceived good works. As good as we believe they are, we must be separated from them. For they are the source of a pride that fools us into believing they offer some merit for our own cause. It is a juxtaposition in that it is in our piety we say precisely that we do not believe!! We believe in the law more than we believe in Jesus Christ. Gerhard Forde says that good works are the “seat of sin.”(2) The cross reveals it is really our spiritual aspirations (disguised as good works) that we must hold as responsible for the seriousness of our sinful nature. How strange! But yet, how strange it is that God incarnate died at our hands to save us.
Capon’s quote above is an echo of Luther’s Heidelberg thesis 18: It is certain that man must despair of his own ability before he is prepare to receive the grace of Christ.(3)
Briefly, there are two types of despair to discuss: despair and ultimate despair.
Ultimate despair lies where we have not yet despaired of the self; it is to be caught up in a false regard for our works believing there is no hope beyond our own abilities.(4)
“Doing what is in one“ is the hallmark of a theology of glory, but with a theology of the cross, we come face to face with the utter depravity of our sinful nature that we will then judge ourselves by admitting we can claim absolutely nothing in the way of good works. Then comes the cry for mercy. This alien work of God’s law and wrath catches us in the false pride of our works and turns us to Christ for salvation.(5)
So we must have grace. This humbling work is death to the old Adam but it is also where true hope lies. Where we see doubt and despair is exactly where God is saving us and making us into something totally new. The love of God does not find, but creates, what is pleasing to it.(6) The one humbles is pleasing to Him. Humility is the faith that saves and it is in this faith that we are lifted up by grace and made anew.
Grace is the beginning. This realization at first causes despair because we have to have it, but it prepares us to receive. There is no way we can save ourself. But the old Adam by nature will fight to his death to hold onto a least something he can offer. And he will die and be saved from the ultimate despair and he will be set free. And this is the beginning of the new.
(1) Steven A. Hein, The Christian Life: Cross or Glory, (Irvine: New Reformation Publications, 2015), 2.
(2) Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 1.
(3) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 65.
(4) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 66-7.
(5) Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 61.
(6) Thesis 28 from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.