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.