This essay was written for a class I took in seminary called “Interseminary Seminar” in which students from the local Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist seminary each presented an essay exploring the theme of baptism from their own faith tradition.

Baptism and the Cross

One perplexing focus of Lutheran theology is ‘Theology of the Cross.’ This concept has been variously used and confused since Martin Luther first alluded to it, but if anything, it’s been under-utilized. Though difficult to describe, it gets at the heart of the paradoxes that Lutherans are notorious for confessing. It provides a framework for talking about God’s work, specifically on the cross, but also throughout Scripture and throughout the life of the believer. By the cross I mean not just the Roman system for punishment or Christ’s death and suffering, but the totality of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The connection I will make here is between theology of the cross and a Lutheran understanding of baptism. Through a series of opposites – wisdom and foolishness, death and life, law and gospel, glory and the cross, etc. – baptism and theology of the cross are deeply related. But more, I hope the connection is useful. In the daily and continuous nature of baptism as dying and rising, the seemingly foolish work of God is done in the believer. For Lutherans, after all, there is no theology for the sake of theology, but always for the sake of God’s work: to produce faith in the hearts of believers.

Calling a Thing What It Is

Where can we find God? What do we know about God’s actions in the world with certainty? These questions, which are both ancient and modern, are taken up decidedly in the Heidelberg Disputation, public theses written by Martin Luther in A.D. 1518. Through a series of theses and their proofs, Luther defended his challenged teachings by setting forth a framework for theological discussion. While his Ninety-five Theses are more widely remembered historically, the Heidelberg Disputation is more important theologically.1 It is primarily from this document and Luther’s subsequent writings that modern theologians (from Lutheran and other traditions) begin their work describing ‘theology of the cross.’

Broadly, theology of the cross in the Heidelberg Disputation deals with the issue of revelation. How is God known? Luther’s ‘new theology’ is partly born out of his response to those church teachings which he saw as seeking the ‘invisible things of God’ through philosophy. But as Luther objects, God is never revealed through the works of man, and because of sin, God cannot be known fully known through creation. The Mona Lisa is beautiful, and the Grand Canyon is awe-inspiring, but they cannot reveal the true nature of God to humans. Rather, God is revealed as God chooses: indirectly, though suffering and weakness and by faith. A theology of the cross assumes Jesus on the cross is the definitive revelation of God to humanity. Luther’s contribution in the Heidelberg Disputation is insisting on limiting God’s revelation to God’s terms. Theology of the cross, then, seeks God where God is to be found – in Christ, for whoever has seen Christ has seen God.2

It is impossible to systematically define this theology of the cross. Indeed, Luther spoke initially of what a theologian of the cross does rather than what a theology of the cross is. Even more challenging is that Luther describes this ‘new theology’ in the form of opposites. The most basic definition of this theology of the cross is that it is the opposite of a theology of glory.3 The dichotomy is set between a theologian of the cross, and a theologian of glory. What, then, does a theologian of glory do?

Thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation states, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”4 A theologian of glory is attracted to those things which appear good: good works, glory, elegant ideas, strong positions. But this is contrary to Christ’s revelation on the cross which comes through victimization, suffering, foolishness, and weakness. Apart from Christ, one naturally prefers “works to suffering, glow to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.”5 The forces of the world run on power, after all; might makes right. Right? But to not know Christ, who comes in weakness and suffering, is to not know God. A theologian of the cross affirms that God “can be found only in suffering and the cross.”6 God can only be found in the last place anyone would look: in weakness, in a victim. In a crib, on a cross.7 Indeed, theology of the cross operates in opposites. For Luther, ‘calling a thing what it is’ meant facing the question of a terrible, punishing God and trusting in faith while professing hope. For the modern theologian, it might mean facing the question of a non-existent God and professing that same hope.8 It should be made clear that while these two types of theologians are mutually exclusive, any individual is always both. A roster of pastors or a faculty of professors cannot be simply labeled either a theologian of the cross or a theologian of glory. Just as Lutherans affirm “Simultaneously Saint and Sinner” they would affirm “Simultaneously Theologian of the Cross and Theologian of Glory.”

A theology of glory arises, says Luther, any time humanity presumes to know God on human terms. The effect of sin (defined not simply as moral indiscretions but humanity’s enmity with God) is such that humanity is unable to grasp that which is God’s. Any attempt, then, to grasp God through human effort is a theology of glory. Theologies of glory are so dangerous, and thus so strongly rejected, because they lead to faith in the theology, rather than faith in God:

What is revealed is precisely that we don’t know God. Our problem is not that we lay claim to such little knowledge of God but that we think we know so much. […] God refuses to be known according to the schemes of a theology of glory.9

It may seem that theology of the cross rules out good works. In fact, Lutherans would say that good works are done by God through the Spirit more and more in the life of the baptized. But the work done is always God’s alone, and not to be confused with its source. The greatest temptation for the theologian of glory is to do good works or think good thoughts and put trust in them. Thus the Heidelberg Disputation: “Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal10 sins,” and “[a]lthough the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.”11 It is a difficult pill to swallow for theologians (ancient and modern) to confess that the very best human achievements are ‘filthy rags,’ and without merit. But those things or works which appear most good are most likely to produce trust in the thing done, rather than God who accomplished it. On the contrary, the works of God appear as weakness and folly. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. Because the world did not know God though wisdom, God saves through the foolishness of those who believe.12

Co-buried with Christ

Baptism, rightly, holds multiple meanings for Christians. The range of themes and meanings in Christian tradition comes from the biblical witness itself. New Testament baptism can mean repentance, forgiveness of sins, washing of sins, and ‘putting on Christ.’ This discussion will focus on one particular set of meanings – being claimed ‘in Christ’ by participating in his death and resurrection. It is this theme which is most deeply connected to theology of the cross.

The Lutheran perspective is careful to say first that baptism belongs to God. Although the rite is performed by a human, baptism ‘is nevertheless truly God’s own act.’13 Baptism is done by God and to achieve God’s purpose: to save. Through the lens of ‘assignment,’ baptism has been described as God claiming heirs: the baptized person does not become Christ’s by “placing himself under Christ, but rather he becomes Christ’s […]” through baptism.14 The believer is assigned to Christ.

Becoming Christ’s means not just bearing the name of Christ, but bearing the cross. Baptism seals us with the cross for our life in Christ. Through baptism we participate in the cross, that is, in death and resurrection. The theme of baptism as participation in Christ’s death and resurrection most directly comes from the sixth chapter of Romans.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.15

Paul is describing a very real death to be experienced. This particular death is not an imitation of Christ made possible by baptism, or a symbolic copy of Christ’s death, but an insertion into the “once-for-all death of Jesus Christ.”16 It should also not be completely individualized: Paul is talking about the death of the old “dominion of sin, of which all believers were a part.”17 While baptism is indeed a washing and forgiveness of sins as the Scriptures promise, it is also a real connection to the cross. Baptism brings death to sin, but this event is not different from the saving work of Jesus accomplished on the cross.18 Baptism looks back to the death of Jesus on the cross, but also forward to the resurrection of the body:

Even though in this world the baptized is still moving toward his death, he may be certain on the basis of his Baptism that he has already experienced his death, for he has been given into Christ’s death.19

Baptism’s meaning is eschatological in the sense that while the believer remains bound to death in earthly life, God has won the last word over death. This becomes a source of constant hope for the believer, even in the midst of suffering and death.

This connection between baptism, dying, and rising also appears in Colossians 2:11-12: You are co-buried with Christ! In the synoptic Gospels, as well, Jesus equates baptism with his journey to the cross in Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50. It is also important to read Paul’s use of baptism in Rom. 6 within a larger context of dying and rising found, most notably, in Galatians and II Corinthians; this context has been lacking in much interpretation of Rom. 6.20 Accordingly, Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans cannot be considered a summation of his doctrine of baptism, but it does make clear the intimate connection to Christ’s death and resurrection. It bridges the gap between between the cross and the life of the believer:

[…] not because baptism repeats Christ’s death or enables it to be present in some unique way, but because in baptism the destruction of the old world and founding of the new which the cross brings about reaches its goal in the life of the believer.21

Therefore baptism is the present reality of God’s past work in Christ and future redemption of the world. The past and future work of God come together in the believer’s present life. Death and resurrection are a present reality for the baptized.

A Rhythm of Dying and Rising

From this insight flows the Lutheran concern for understanding baptism as a continuous and daily treasure. Luther, for example, always works to expand the notion of baptism from a one-time rite to a life-long gift. While the initial rite baptism inaugurates the drowning of sin, it is “not fulfilled completely in this life.”22 In baptism, God begins to bring about death to sin and life to faith, but not until the end of earthly life is the work of baptism completed in the believer. The work of baptism is therefore ongoing and eschatological. In baptism, God continues throughout life to overrule sin. “[I]t is daily being more and more destroyed in us until our death.”23 The ever present reality of sin does not nullify baptism, but rather shows its purpose. Paradoxically, Luther can say that baptism “makes all sufferings, and especially death, profitable and helpful.”24 How can baptism use evil for good? Baptism does not glorify suffering, evil, or violence, but speaks against them with work of the cross. Baptism does not prove that human suffering is redemptive, but in suffering, it provides the assurance of Christian hope: that out of death, God brings life.

According to Robert Kolb, baptism signifies a ‘rhythm of dying and rising.’ Through baptism the Lutheran lenses of Law (which kills) and Gospel (which makes alive to God) enter daily life:

According to Luther, God introduced the rhythm of dying under the accusation of the law and rising under the power of Christ’s resurrection in baptism. That rhythm of life gives believers a new start each day, a start from the creative beginning that God gave life in the very beginning, with the creation of the universe, and in the beginning of our new life in Christ, whenever his Word in one form or another brought us into his family.25

The rhythm of dying to sin and rising to God takes place each day in the life of the believer. God’s word does more than edify, it kills that which is false and raises that which is true. The connection between dying and rising with Christ and daily life is apparent in Rom. 6. Paul moves immediately from theological concept to its implications for ethical living.26 Long after the initial rite of baptism is over, this rhythm of dying and rising with Christ continues to bring daily life of service to God and neighbor out of the daily putting to death of sin.

Baptism as Theology of the Cross

For Lutherans, the sacraments of baptism and communion promise to be visible signs in which one could assuredly find the mercy of God. Unlike seeking the ‘invisible things of God in works’ of human origin, which Luther condemns in the Heidelberg Disputation, trust in baptism and communion ‘comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.’ And indeed, both baptism and communion are intimately connected with the cross – participation in the cross.27 Therefore, Luther says, in baptism “we surely find and meet with [God’s] grace.”28

Baptism cannot be grasped by the wisdom of the world. It is not simply a promise of life; It is also a promise of death. What kind of wisdom is that? Baptism proclaims this foolishness, that in participating in Christ’s death, one will participate in his resurrection. To take this promise seriously means to be at odds with reason and the human instinct which avoids death at all costs. Put another way, because of captivity to sin, human nature cannot accept complete dependence on God and looks for a way around the cross. It looks for a way around death and therefore rejects Christ.

Paradoxically, death to sin becomes the way in which the power of death is defeated. Baptism effects continual death to sin in the life of a Christian, and leading him or her to walk in newness of life. Through opposites, through weakness, God’s work is done in the baptized. Baptism marks the radical reversal from trusting in good works to regarding them as evil. It brings death to all theologies of glory – it brings death to the theologian of glory. By affirming this death as the key to new life, it forces the theologian to ‘call the thing what it actually is.’

Practically speaking, it can be difficult to hold to this type of teaching which proclaims the cross instead of glory. Not only are baptism and the theology of the cross paradoxes, but they point to suffering – not a well-received topic in pubic discourse. A modern day theologian of the cross may well be nicknamed Reverend Killjoy. Luther anticipates this complaint in the Heidelberg disputation.29 The cross, he says, does not give cause for despair but for “arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.”30 The cross brings death where there is false hope in life – life apart from God. The cross corrects bad vision by attacking this false hope until the believer cries out with the Apostle Paul, “who will rescue me from this body of death?”31 Thanks be to God that Christ Jesus provides the answer: You must be born anew.32 In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus of the new birth received by faith. But because the inner theologian of glory is never far away, as Forde points out, Nicodemus even tries to take baptism (so to speak) under his own control: “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”33 No. Baptism is of the Spirit, of God, and is not within human power.

Most baptized Christians will quickly recognize that sin is indeed present after baptism. Sin and baptism are understood together through the theology of the cross. As Luther argued in the Heidelberg Disputation, the works of humanity, though seemingly good and attractive, are likely to be mortal sins. The sin which remains after baptism ‘makes it impossible for any good works to be pure before God.’34 Because sin is ever present, no human work can ever be acceptable to God. Thesis 24 of the Heidelberg Disputation acknowledges this fact – that wisdom and the law are not evil in themselves but in humanity’s misuse of them. Without the theology of the cross, humanity “misuses the best in the worst manner.”35 Finally, the problem is sin. The brokenness of humanity twists every good toward evil. Thus Christians misuse scripture, damage creation, and use God-given gifts to violate others’ human rights. The wisdom of the world is not the problem; it’s the wise.

The pervasive presence of sin doesn’t invalidate baptism, but rather draws the sinner closer to it. For Luther, this means one should boldly ‘hold fast’ to our baptism and ‘set it high’ against all sins.36 In baptism, that sinner finds assurance of a loving God in the midst of sin and suffering. Against all questions and doubt, baptism speaks hope. Though sinful eyes distort vision until good appears bad and bad appears good, baptism is a true revelation of who God is for the believer. Baptism saves. Luther would not say the sacrament in and of itself saves, but rather God’s work through it. It is strictly the work of God revealed through the cross that saves, and not – especially not – any human work, well-intentioned or otherwise. In this, the sinner finds comfort.

Life from Death

Baptism is a daily sacrament of dying and rising. Baptism provides the antidote to every theology of glory: death. It is a revelation of the cross of Christ; life in the cross. In baptism Christians find continual participation in Christ’s death and resurrection – daily experience of Law and Gospel – God’s word which drowns sinful nature, and brings to life trust in a merciful God. God speaks the last word over sin and death, and gives faith in new life. Through baptism, this new life continuously springs up each day from death, that is, from the drowning of the ‘old creature,’ the theologian of glory. And God allows the theologian of the cross to walk in newness of life. God’s word continues to work on the baptized, connecting them with the event of the cross, and preparing them for the future of God’s promise.

Theology of the cross is for every baptized person to do, not simply professional theologians. My purpose in connecting baptism with theology of the cross is not to glorify the theology itself. This would be the greatest of sins; a devious attempt to replace faith in God with faith in something else. I hope to have shown that through baptism, God raises up theologians of the cross: those who trust in God who brings life from death.


References

Cousar, Charles B. A Theology of the Cross: The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Dunn, James D. G. “Salvation Proclaimed, 6: Romans 6:1-11: Dead and Alive.” Expository Times 93, no. 9 (1982): 259–264.

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Kolb, Robert. “Luther on the Theology of the Cross.” Lutheran Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2002): 443–466.

Kolb, Robert, and Charles P. Arand. The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Loewenich, Walther von. Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1976.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, Vol. 35. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. American edition. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1986.

———. Luther’s Works, Vol. 51. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann. American edition. Saint Louis: Concordia, 1986.

———. Three Treatises. 2nd edition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

Luther, Martin, and Timothy F Lull. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “A Theology of the Cross.” Word & World 8 (1988): 162–72.

Root, Andrew. “A Theology of the Cross and Ministry in Our Time: How Do You Call a Thing What It Is When You Don’t Know What the Thing Is?.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48, no. 2 (2009): 187–193.

Tannehill, Robert C. Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology. Vol. 32. Beiheft zur zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche wissenschaft und die kunde der Älteren kirche. Berlin: Töpelmann, 1967.

Wengert, Timothy J. “Peace, Peace … Cross, Cross: Reflections on how Martin Luther Relates the Theology of the Cross to Suffering.” Theology Today 59, no. 2 (2002): 190–205.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.


  1. Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997), 19.

  2. See John 14:9.

  3. Robert Kolb, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross,” Lutheran Quarterly 16, no. 1 (2002): 446.

  4. Martin Luther and Timothy F Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 49.

  5. Ibid., 58.

  6. Ibid., 58.

  7. Kolb, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross,” 449.

  8. Andrew Root, “A Theology of the Cross and Ministry in Our Time: How Do You Call a Thing What It Is When You Don’t Know What the Thing Is?.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 48, no. 2 (2009): 190.

  9. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 80.

  10. Luther is not strictly following the traditional teaching on mortal versus venial sins. Following Forde (1997, p. 33), a ‘mortal sin’ may be taken as a ‘deadly sin’ in that its ‘apparent goodness is such that it seduces us into trusting in it and our own doing of it,’ thus denying God.

  11. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 48.

  12. See I Cor 1:18-21

  13. Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 457.

  14. Edmund Schlink, The Doctrine of Baptism (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1972), 44.

  15. Romans 6:3–4 (NRSV)

  16. Ibid., 50.

  17. Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology, vol. 32, Beiheft zur zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche wissenschaft und die kunde der Älteren kirche (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1967), 30.

  18. Schlink, The Doctrine of Baptism, 51.

  19. Ibid., 53.

  20. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ, 32:7.

  21. Ibid., 32:42.

  22. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, American edition. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1986), 30.

  23. Ibid., 35.

  24. Ibid., 39.

  25. Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008), 195–196.

  26. James D. G. Dunn, “Salvation Proclaimed, 6: Romans 6:1-11: Dead and Alive.” Expository Times 93, no. 9 (1982): 262–263.

  27. See Rom. 6:4 and I Cor. 10:16 for example.

  28. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, American edition. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1986), 328.

  29. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 63.

  30. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 49.

  31. Rom. 7:24

  32. John 3:7

  33. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 99.

  34. Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, 36.

  35. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 49.

  36. Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, 36.