In this past weeks Sunday Morning message I mentioned the word “triumphalism” and said that it was dangerous in the life of the church. I want to take just a few moments and expand on that thought. Perhaps the easiest way to understand what was meant by “triumphalism” is to contrast two different ways of viewing the Christian life. Theologians have often differentiated between what they call the “theology of the cross” and a “theology of glory.” Now, to make this clear, “triumphalism” would be nestled under a theology of glory and would stand opposed to the theology of the cross.
The theology of the cross is a theological system that understands all of theology, scripture, and indeed all of life through the lens of the cross of Jesus Christ. Think about it this way; the Bible is a book about salvation from start to finish – it starts with creation and fall and ends in redemption and restoration. According to the theology of the cross, we cannot understand scripture correctly without seeing it through the lens of the cross of Jesus – which makes sense because the Bible itself is a story about salvation and Jesus’ purpose was to seek and save that which is lost. If one wants to know about the God of the Bible or themselves for that matter, we must not divorce these questions from the cross of Jesus. The fact is God revealed himself specifically in the pages of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, in other words, if we are to know God we must look to how He has revealed himself. If one cannot know Jesus or understand the Bible apart from the cross – how then could we be expected to understand who God is or who we are apart from the cross?
The Scriptures begin with the creation account, but we read in Revelation 13:8 that not only has God known who are His from the foundation of the earth but it speaks of the Lamb being slain before the foundation of the earth as well. The point is that even before God created the garden of Eden and placed Adam and Eve in it to care for it, he had already determined the remedy for their rebellion and therefore the creation story itself must be understood in light of the cross. The book of Revelation, a book concerning the consummation of all things, starts pointing back to the cross and how He “freed us from our sins by his blood..and is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of earth will wail on account of Him.” (Rev 1:6-7) From the beginning to end the Bible is about Jesus and must be understood in light of the Cross.
The only way to understand who God is and who we are is through Jesus Christ and the cross on which He died, but for some reason, this message has gotten lost in much of the Christian world today. The theology of cross stands opposed to the theology of glory which encompasses a wide swath of the Christian experience. Where the theology of the cross looks at our own life and indeed the human existence through the suffering of the cross the theology of glory expects to find victory and answers through effort and spiritual growth. A theology of glory expects the true Christian to win all the battles (if not now then eventually) and enjoy total success in their Christian walk (if not now then eventually). A theology of glory boasts of a victorious Christian life meaning that they are living it well — it is all about their strength and veracity in the battle that continues to rage with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The theology of the cross, on the other hand, sees victory in the Christian life through the lens of the cross. God chose to save us and send his only Son who did not come in glory but humility and suffering from the very beginning. He became weak and frail on our account and suffered throughout His life to ultimately be crucified and bear the wrath of God for the sin of every person that would place their faith and trust in Him. Victory then in the Christian life comes not in the defeat of enemies now or establishing a world that is rooted in Christian principles of preserving and respecting all life but in the presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of our failures, weakness, and suffering. The Christian recognizes that he or she will ultimately experience glory and ultimate victory and that glory is only achieved through the cross. Jesus’ life was marked by suffering and frailty – what would make us believe that our lives should be better than His? The theology of glory believes that Christ game to give us our best life now in some respect, but the theology of the cross recognizes that our lives are marked by weakness and failure above all and therefore we find refuge and rest in the cross of Jesus.
In Acts 14 there is a point in which Paul is stoned for preaching the gospel of Jesus. He is dragged out of the city and stoned until the people thought he was dead. The disciples gathered around him, and Paul gets up and goes back into the town and leaves the next day for Derbe. Paul continues to preach the gospel in Derbe and make many disciples and then returns to the place in which he was stoned, and the Bible says that he encouraged those believers in the faith. Grasp what is happening, Paul is encouraging people to continue to do the things for which they saw Paul get stoned. How did Paul encourage these followers? He told that it was through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God. In other words, Paul was encouraging them with a theology of the cross that said all of life is to be seen through the lens of the cross. Victory in the Christian life is not your best life now, but the power of God displayed in our weakness and through the message of the gospel that is foolish to so many.