If you were to create your own religion, how would you go about it? How would you create it? You’d probably start by modeling it on the way the world around us works. Take our jobs, for instance. In the corporate world, we progress from one stage to another and we get greater and greater glory and recognition as we advance up the corporate ladder. Our goal is to continue to keep going upwards.
If we were going to make up a religion, we’d probably use a similar model. So, it’d be based on steps we’d need to progress through in order to become more advanced or “holy.” These steps could be based on doing something or learning something. And our progression through these steps would gain us greater and greater glory and recognition, because we can take credit for the things we’re doing to climb from step to step. And then, we’d probably build monuments to our accomplishments.
I’d posit to you, then, that if we were to make up our own religion, it’d really be about ourselves and what we’re doing, although covered over with a veneer of spirituality and piety. I once saw a new-age type self-help book that talked about “spiritual meditation” where the author concluded after following the steps, “I learned what I’ve known all along. I enjoy my own company.”
And in fact, this “me-centered” religion is the religion that mankind has created for itself in various forms throughout history. They are really variations on the same theme. They’re all based on doing something to be “saved.” The things you have to do and the definition of what being “saved” means varies, but in all these “me-centered” religions, humanity gets the glory and recognition for achieving this status.
For example, in Judaism, you have the 613 laws that you need to follow to be holy. And if you are really good, then you are honored and get the best seats in the synagogue. In Islam, you follow the five pillars and complete your pilgrimage to Mecca and you get “saved” and can command respect from others as a Haji. In Buddhism, you do good things, become a monk maybe, and in the next life you get re-incarnated into a better state as you progress up a spiritual ladder. In Hinduism, you learn the right things and become holier and holier in the process, and maybe become a guru able to command respect and admiration from others due to your status. In Scientology, you progress along various stages of spiritual enlightenment after completing the required tasks, being looked up to by those who are still at the lower stages. And, even in Christianity in the middle ages before the Reformation, if you did the right things and went on the right pilgrimages, devoted yourself to “spiritual” works like becoming a monk or a nun, you earned God’s favor.
So, in all these types of “me-centered” religion, if you do the right things, you are rewarded, and if you do the wrong things, you are punished. This is the same way that the world normally works, and people tend to apply this reasoning to religion as well, and thus our relationship with God.
And humanity is naturally drawn to this type of religion. It’s what we would call the theology of glory, where mankind gets the credit for his spiritual achievements and progression. It’s the religion of the Fall, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and sought to be their own gods, gaining knowledge and wisdom apart from His revelation to them. For, that was the temptation that Satan brought before Adam and Eve – the possibility of being as gods, knowing both good and evil directly, apart from the Lord God, the false possibility of being in charge of their own destiny.
And Adam and Eve fell to this temptation, and so we are burdened with this sin even today. We are constantly tempted to try to take credit for our salvation; we want to place our works and knowledge before God in the expectation of a reward; we want to get the glory for our spirituality; we want to be in charge of our own destiny; we want our word to be superior to God’s Word. In all the various forms of this theology of glory, God is turned into nothing more than an idol who is expected to give us our due – He’s expected to be bound by our expectations of what He should do or how He should act – He’s expected to follow the charter we have given Him – He’s expected to work according to our wisdom and way of thinking – He’s expected to be reasonable. Isn’t that what we want? A God who we can understand, a God who acts the way we want Him to act, a God who works according to our sense of reason.
And this temptation manifests itself in many subtle ways even in the Church. We are tempted to turn our faith into a work whereby we think that our faith is the reason that God forgives us. We are tempted to view ourselves as having done something or are doing something for our salvation. We are tempted to treat God as Santa Claus, rewarding us for our good behavior. Or, as a vending machine, dispensing us our due reward. As sinful humans, we want some part of the glory for our salvation; we want the theology of glory.
So, if we were to create our own religion, this is what we’d create. It’d be a religion of works and glory for mankind. It’d be a religion where God’s Word is subsumed by our sense of reasonableness and fairness. We might couch it in different terms and claim otherwise, but at its core, it would all be all about us.
But, what we wouldn’t do is create a religion where we get no glory or credit for our salvation. We wouldn’t create a religion in which our faith is something which is created in us by God Himself. And we certainty wouldn’t create a religion where the holy, Almighty, eternal Lord God is born to a poor, lowly virgin and laid in a feeding trough for animals. And we wouldn’t create a religion where this God in the flesh is executed by Roman soldiers on a shameful cross between two criminals. We wouldn’t create a religion where the Son of Man, this incarnate God, would “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
No, we wouldn’t create this. This isn’t how we would expect God to act. Instead, we’d say like Peter, “Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). We’d want to protect the sanctity of the Lord and keep him from getting his hands dirty. We’d want to place the Lord up on our shelf, next to our unread Bibles, and “protect” him from harm. We’d want the Lord to sit still, while we do everything for our salvation – “Lord, you stay there, we’ve got this.”
But, the Lord would say to us, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
For the Lord acts according to His wisdom as God and not according to our fallen “wisdom.” The Lord knows what to do to save us, and he does it.
As the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:8-11).
Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God is the Word incarnate. He is the one through whom God created all things in the beginning in Genesis 1 when God spoke forth His Word and created. And he is the one through whom God is recreating all things. And so God sent forth His Word in the flesh to become man to accomplish that which he purposes and to succeed in the thing for which he was sent. And this incarnate Word was sent to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
This would not be the way we would do it. We would create a set of rules or regulations that mankind must follow to be saved; we would want mankind to earn it, because that’s only fair and reasonable, isn’t it? And we would set up God in the midst of our nicely decorated temple, and keep Him there so that we could come before Him to give Him our works and receive His reward in return. And we would go out from that temple, smug and satisfied that we have given God our best and received our due in return.
But, this is not how God did it; God isn’t fair and reasonable. God did give us a set of rules and regulations that we must follow to be saved – He gave us His Law. However, He did so to show us that He is not a mere pagan idol, but is the one holy, living God. For through His Law, He shows us that our works can not save us. He shows us that we can never be perfect as He demands. And so, His Law disabuses us of our notions that we can give God our best and receive our due in return, for God demands perfection, and we can never be perfect. His Law condemns us as the sinners that we are.
So, instead of us earning our salvation, God sent His Son to die on a cross for us; thank God that He isn’t fair and reasonable. For only through the sinless perfection of Christ and his death on our behalf do we sinful humans have reconciliation with God. God freely forgives us due to His grace and reconciles us to Himself through Christ on the cross. That isn’t fair, and it isn’t reasonable; instead, it’s gracious.
And so we encounter the holy Lord and His salvation at the foot of that cross. This is where we go when we want to encounter God – the crucified Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Word has accomplished God’s purpose and that for which he was sent. This is the theology of the cross that is so opposed to mankind’s theology of glory – that God saves us through the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb. This is the true Gospel – that God has done it all for you through Christ; you didn’t do a thing to earn it or deserve it. You are forgiven freely by God of all your sins, because Christ bore your sins on the cross and died the death you deserve for them. And Christ rose from the grave on the third day to conquer death.
And just as Christ died and rose, so too must we die and rise (Matthew 16:24ff). We must also take up our crosses and lose our lives. And this doesn’t mean that we have to work for our salvation, because God does this to us as well. He kills us and raises us, for His Word accomplishes that which he purposes and succeeds in the thing for which it is sent; and this Word was done to you in your Baptism. God killed you and then gave you new life in Christ. In your Baptism, Christ’s work on the cross was given to you as your cross; and so God has made you disciples of Christ. He has done it all – God buried you and raised you up in Baptism.
Baptism is where you meet God in the shadow of the cross and like Christ, you lose your life. You are no longer the person you were before your Baptism, for that old person has died. But, then you find life, because God gives it back to you, washed in the redemptive mercy of Christ; you are a new person, you are a part of God’s people, His children.
Jesus told his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). He is not referring to the Last Day when he comes in glory to “repay each person according to what he has done.” No, he’s referring to his death and resurrection when he ushers in his kingdom. His disciples will be witnesses to what is to happen in Jerusalem. And following Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day, they will be sent out into all the earth to proclaim the coming of this kingdom; the reign of the free forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Christ. This is God’s kingdom gathered around the cross where mercy, not fairness and reasonableness, reigns.
And when Christ, the Son of Man, does return on the Last Day, he will “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27). Those who have tried to hold onto their life and refused to lose it to God, and trusted instead in their own works according to the wisdom of sinful humanity, will be repaid in accordance with what sinful works deserve, which is eternal death. But, God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. And so, you have lost your life and found new life in Baptism, and you place your trust in what God has done for you through Christ – you will inherit eternal life.
This is the theology of the cross, that we lose our lives, our works, our strivings, our merits, and everything else that belongs to us and instead rely on nothing except Christ crucified to be saved. And God brings us to faith in this promise through His Word – spoken, written, and sacramental – for God “… desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) – and His Word accomplishes that which He purposes, and succeeds in the thing for which He sent it. And so there is nothing for us to do, God has done it all; even bringing us to faith through His Word.
This theology of the cross is a great comfort, because you have been freely forgiven by God because of Christ’s work on your behalf. You may think your sins are great and that you’re not good enough for God to love you – and you’re right. You can’t do anything to make God love you; just as children cannot do anything to make their parents love them. But, our parents love us because they are our parents and gave birth to us; they too are unfair and unreasonable, precisely because they are gracious. And, God loves you through Christ, for He has made you His children when He baptized you and birthed you into new life. He is your Heavenly Father, and you are His beloved children whom He has drawn to Himself through the death and resurrection of Christ and with whom He will dwell for eternity. You are God’s child precisely because Christ went to Jerusalem and suffered many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and was killed, and on the third day was raised. It’s what he came to do. And it is all for you. Amen.
(Image: By Jorge Láscar from Australia – Stations of the cross, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31951128 ).