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

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
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
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

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
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

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
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
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
Therefore, Luther says, in baptism “we surely find and meet with [God’s]

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

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
Thanks be to God that Christ Jesus provides the answer: You must be born
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
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.


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
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,

———. 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 &
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
. 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
    16, no. 1 (2002):
  4. Martin Luther and Timothy F Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological
    (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989),
  5. Ibid., 58.↩︎
  6. Ibid., 58.↩︎
  7. Kolb, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross,”
  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):
  9. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross,
  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
  11. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings,
  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),
  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,
  19. Ibid., 53.↩︎
  20. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ,
  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),
  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
    Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008),
  26. James D. G. Dunn, “Salvation Proclaimed, 6: Romans 6:1-11: Dead and
    Alive.” Expository Times 93, no. 9 (1982):
  27. See Rom. 6:4 and I Cor. 10:16 for
  28. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan
    and Helmut T. Lehmann, American edition. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1986),
  29. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross,
  30. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings,
  31. Rom. 7:24↩︎
  32. John 3:7↩︎
  33. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross,
  34. Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35,
  35. Luther and Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings,
  36. Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35,