The theologian of glory will be popular in this life. This is easy to prove. When the Israelites chose a king, they did not choose a man known for wisdom, piety, or faith. They chose the biggest guy they could find (1 Sam 9). When Israel had to choose between Saviors, she cried out for Bar-Abbas rather than Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 27:20–21). The theologian of glory offers to God’s people what, by nature, they are prone to want: what makes sense to them (rationalism), how they can earn God’s favor (moralism), and how they can be successful in this life (triumphalism).
I suppose all people groups have been given to these temptations but these three qualities describe Modern American religion very well. Look at the “successful” churches. Consider that I just used the adjective “successful” to describe a church. Jesus said, “take up your instrument of social marginalization, ritual public humiliation, and death and follow me.” That is a paraphrase, of course, but that is the effect of what he said but, for a fee, self-described experts counsel pastors how to be “successful” leaders of organizations (a course that Jesus apparently failed to take since, at his death he had none). They counsel pastors how to have “successful” (i.e., fast-growing) congregations.
The counsel they offer is never: preach the law in all its terror and the gospel in all its wondrous beauty. Their advice can just about always be reduced to some variation of the theology of glory: rationalism (their advice works for all kinds of churches, Christian churches and cults alike), moralism (three steps to…), and triumphalism (God will bless you today if…). The theologian of glory always has a plan for “taking back America” or some such.
Look at the largest congregations in America: Lakewood Church is the home of Joel Osteen, the poster-boy for everything that is wrong with American Christianity. His doctrine is so bad it inspired a book by my colleague Mike Horton: Christless Christianity. Osteen is a prosperity preacher whose theology is so impoverished he makes Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker look like Thomas Aquinas by comparison. At last count, 43,000 souls attend to that preaching on a regular basis. The second largest is North Point Community Church, pastored by the son of Charles Stanley, Andy. The son is perhaps best known for advising people to leave behind the Old Testament. Such sentiment is common in American evangelicalism but few have been as openly Marcionite (an ancient heretic denounced but the church for rejecting the Old Testament as God’s Word) as Stanley, who feeds his people on a steady diet of self-help messages. 30,000 peoples attend weekly on average. The fourth largest congregation in the USA is led by the health and wealth preacher Robert Morris and is attended by 28,000 people weekly on average.
The theology of the cross is a different animal altogether.
Now you may have seen this word fideism used to mean, “defends the faith without giving reasons for faith.” This is what this word usually means but it is not what I mean by it here. What I mean by it is here is that, where the theologian of glory begins with reason (what makes sense to us is the final authority), the theologian of the cross begins with God’s Word. The Scriptures begin with God, not with us. God spoke creation into existence. We are merely his image bearers. We are not the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.
People like rationalism, i.e., beginning with reason rather than God’s Word because it makes sense to them. I cannot count the number of times people have proposed analogies for the Holy Trinity. People like them because they seem to make sense of a great mystery. The only problem is that they are all heretical, every single one of them. I know what you are thinking: “But what about…?” Yes, even that one. The theologian of glory wants to build a ladder to God but the Christian faith is that God the Son has come down to us. Paul writes:
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the Word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:6–9; ESV modified slightly).
Notice Paul’s alternative to our ladder climbing: “The Word is near you.” God has come to us in Christ, the Word incarnate (John 1:1, 14, 18) but he also comes to us through his Word written, through the preached Gospel, and through the gospel made visible in the holy sacraments. Natural religion is a religion of getting to God and heaven through good works. This is why the false doctrine of so-called “final salvation through works” is apparently so popular in some circles. It carves out a place for us to “do our part” (and to diminish the finish work of Christ and to make him but half a Savior, as we confess in the Belgic Confession art. 22).
Faith submits to God’s Word. It does not look for analogies to the Trinity nor to the incarnation but accepts them as saving mysteries. Faith accepts and submits to the teaching of Scripture that God is sovereign and that we humans are morally responsible for our free choices. It accepts that God uses means. It does not seek to around God’s Word (by looking for secret knowledge or direct revelation). It trusts God’s Word and does not sit in judgment over it (e.g., “Well, my God would never do/say x”).
Of course “gospelism” is not a real word but you get the idea. The theologian of glory often talks about God’s grace but he adds to it whether by making baptism absolutely necessary to salvation, or by adding sacraments not instituted by our Lord, or by re-defining faith as obedience, or, as mentioned above, by distinguishing two stages of justification or two stages of salvation, the first by grace alone, through faith alone and the second through or on the basis of works.
The theologian of the cross is a gospelist. He is a gospel preacher because the theology of glory is not good news. Gospel means “good news” and the good news is that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that he came to obey in the place of sinners, that he accomplished that obedience perfectly, that he died, that he was raised, that he ascended and rules all things at the right hand of the Father. The good news is that all that Jesus did for us is credited to all those who trust him.
This is “gospelism.” The theologian of the glory might even mention Jesus or the word gospel but he does not announce it purely because the moment he does he loses control of the message and the flock. The one thing the theologian of glory wants is control. Judas turned on Jesus, in part, because Jesus disappointed him. He came to bring a different kind of a Kingdom than Judas wanted. Judas was an idolater and he hated Jesus because Jesus was God the Son in the flesh who came to save sinners but Judas did not see himself as a sinner but as a man with a plan but Jesus refused to go along with the plan and so Judas sold him out.
Judas was a triumphalist. He wanted power and glory in this life. Because he loved earthly power and glory, because he did not know the greatness of his sin and misery, because he was a reprobate he could not hear the gospel with faith. Judas is not alone is wanting power and glory in this life. The Scriptures are replete with figures who wanted the same thing. Church history is replete with figures who cut deals with the power of this age, who muted the gospel, for the sake of power and glory in this life.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:34–37; ESV).
We do not take up our crosses in order to be saved but because we have been saved. The one who knows himself to be a sinner, knows Jesus to be the only Savior. The one to whom the Spirit of God has given new life and true faith knows that this is a fallen world and that its glory, however spectacular it might seem at the moment, is temporary.
Satan constantly asks us to trade our souls for false knowledge and momentary glory. He took Jesus to the high places and to show him all the kingdoms of this world. Jesus refuse him but Adam did not. By nature we are Adam’s children. This is why Osteen, Morris, and the rest the health and wealth preachers are so attractive. They have confused Satan’s message for Jesus’ message. Jesus offered salvation and cross, i.e., suffering. They offer this world’s vision of prosperity and power but no salvation and they do it in Jesus’ name. The Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:5) shall deal with the false shepherds and other theologians of glory when he returns.
What is wrong with a theology of glory? It is moralism, not the gospel. It is rationalism, not faith. It is triumphalism, not the sober-eyed realism of the Scriptures about life in this fallen world.
The good news is that one need not remain trapped in a theology of glory or under the control of a theologian of glory. Walk away and into the light of the gospel. It is not yet too late.