In the context of theologia crucis, faith means believing with certainty that God’s Word is true even when the whole world, the heart of the believer, and even God himself contradict the truth that is revealed in the Word, particularly the Word of promise. Thus, when God begins to show mercy, God does so by first revealing wrath (in law); when God makes alive, God does so by slaying. The same contradictions apply especially to those who have already come to faith. God promises the forgiveness of sins, yet our conscience feels nothing but sin and wrath; God promises life, yet we see nothing but death. Faith, therefore, is the art of believing the Word while experiencing, seeing, and feeling the opposite. We believe that Christ is the Son of God, even though we see and abandoned man on the cross; we believe that God cares for the church, even though we see nothing but a church persecuted by the world and apparently abandoned by God; we believe in eternal life, even though we see and feel nothing but death.
However, the primary locus of the theology of the cross is the experience of trial or tribulation (Anfechtung), when the very heart and conscience of the believer sense that God’s promise of grace and forgiveness is a lie. The believer must regard the promise of forgiveness as true and certain even though the conscience testifies to the contrary.
But under the cross which we experience, eternal life lies hidden. . . . We, too, experience the cross, and death appears to us, if not in fact, yet in our conscience through Satan. Death and sin appear, but I announce life and faith, but in hope. Therefore, if you want to be saved, you must battle against your feelings. Hope means to expect life in the midst of death, and righteousness in the midst of sins.
This is the very meaning of being simultaneously righteous and a sinner (simul iustus et peccator): to believe that we are righteous coram Deo even though we feel like condemned sinners.
Within the context of the theology of the cross, the grace of sanctification and its attestation in the testimony of a good conscience would necessarily be subordinated to the grace of justification and the promise of the forgiveness of sins. This is because the testimony of the good conscience confirms one’s faith in the promise, whereas the theology of the cross emphasizes that testimony of the conscience that contradicts faith in the promise; that is, Anfechtung. Therefore, although Luther continually insisted upon the necessity of sanctification and of the testimony of the good conscience, within the framework of theologia crucis he could not help but consistently subordinate the grace of sanctification to that of justification.
Luther’s concentration on the theology of the cross also accounts for his refusal to involve the Reformation directly in the external reform of the church. The Word of God does not deal with external, temporal things, but rather with invisible, eternal things; and such invisible things are revealed under an external appearance that contradicts what is being revealed. The theology of glory, in contrast—such as Luther found in the papacy—emphasizes externals to the point of neglecting the invisible truths revealed by the Word: indeed, to the point of calling God’s Word a lie. Thus, those in the Reformation who would introduce concern for externals—such as Karlstadt with his rejection of idols and the papal mass—misunderstanding the whole nature of the Word of the cross, and divert the attention of believers from the invisible, eternal things of God’s promises to the visible, temporal things of human reason and senses. Yet it is precisely reason and the senses that must be mortified if we are to believe that the Word of the cross is true.
Luther’s theologia crucis also explains his suspicion of those, such as the Anabaptists, who emphasized the external holiness and moral behavior of the church. If the Word of the cross reveals the truth of God under a contrary appearance, then one would expect the true church not to look like the church at all, but rather to look like God-forsaken sinners. The “synagogue of Satan,” on the other hand, with its theology glory, would look like the true church of God and would demonstrate a superior holiness externally—as in the monks and friars—but inwardly it would be rejected by God. The theology of the cross would therefore lead one not to stress the conformity of the appearance of the church with its faith, but rather stress the ways in which the appearance of the church denies its claim to be the people of God. The church looks like a gathering of sinners rejected by God and the world, whereas it is in truth the beloved people of God. The church cannot be judged by its appearance, but only by whether it has the Word of Christ crucified. Hence the primary task of the church is to preach the Word of God, while letting externals take their course. [Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith, 9-10]
There is a lot in what Zachman highlights in regards to Luther's theology of the cross (try to absorb it all at some point). But what I want to stay focused on is knowing God; seeing God in Christ, even when everything looks just the opposite! Isn't this how most of life looks? Just the opposite of what religion and even forms of Christianity tell us it should look like. We shouldn't be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon us; for to us it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but to suffer for his sake. Unfortunately, it's when we are in the depths, that usually we are right where the LORD wants us; if only so that we will look at him, and ultimately look more like him as he transforms us from glory to glory. amen.