Martin Luther describes two very different ways to justify ourselves before God
Islam and the Fall of Man
|The Quran includes a version of the story of the fall of Adam (Surah 7). Adam and Eve sinned but they asked Allah for forgiveness. He punished them with a mortal life on earth until the resurrection. Since they were forgiven, we can be forgiven. Islam teaches that man is born in a state of submission to God and through submission to God, he can be righteous. His failings can be forgiven. Martin Luther describes this type of idea as a theology of glory.
Theologians of Glory
Martin Luther is well known for his 95 theses that he nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. He is less known for the theologically much richer Heidelberg Disputation that he wrote in 1518. In it, he describes two type of theologians. By theologian, he means two different ways we think about God and our relationship to him. The first is the theologian of glory. This type focuses on the soul of man. The soul is lost, misguided, and confused but it can be nudged, prodded, and taught to exercise it’s will to do the right thing. Islam would fall into this category. Sin is primarily an external problem that can be managed by self-denial, pious living, and acts of religious devotion. Grace, in this view, is a supplement to our own righteousness. Some men do evil and some do good. In the meantime, God is searching for those who are doing what is right and he then, if adequately impressed, provides whatever grace or forgiveness is necessary to meet us halfway. The theologian of glory sees the Patriarchs (like Abraham) as righteous men whom God has rewarded.
Christians too, can adopt this view. They see their free will as intact and exercise it to take steps toward God. The cross, in this view, is a supplement that makes up the difference, fills the gaps, or pays our remaining balance after our own works get us as far as we can on our soul's journey back to God.
Theologians of the Cross
In contrast, Luther’s second type of theologian is the theologian of the cross. This is a more radical view. This theologian sees sin as a much deeper problem that cannot be glossed over with pious fasts, almsgiving, or public prayers. He sees even the good that man does as analogous to a hopeless drug addict trying to manage his life while on drugs. He cleans up, tries to hold down a job, hides his drug-use from others, but remains an addict. The addict does not require optimistic exhortations; he requires a bottoming out and an intervention.
Even pious acts done in an attempt to justify ourselves before God are evil acts because they attempt to gloss over the real problem. The will is not free, it is in bondage. The soul is not misguided, it is corrupted. The theologian of the cross “bottoms out” by confessing he is addicted to sin and self. He gives up labeling his evil attempts at moral independence from God as good things. and now, as Luther puts it “says what a thing is”. The cross is not an adjustment or supplement to our own moral acts. It cannot be an addition to the way of glory. The cross is the antithesis to it. The cross not only kills the sin but it is also the death of the sinner.
Abraham was probably a polytheist living among polytheists when God called him (Gen 12). He repeatedly made mistakes. He lied to the Pharaoh to save his own skin and put his wife at risk (Gen 12). He did not trust God for a son of promise, so he took matters into his own hands and made a son out of his own machinations (Gen 16). God did not seek for the righteous and find Abraham. He found Abraham and created righteousness in him (Gen 15:6). He does not find righteousness in us, but through the cross, he creates it.
The theologian of the cross gives up on his own righteousness. He puts himself and all his works on the cross with Christ. In the biblical account of Adam's fall, the forbidden fruit was from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge of good and evil is a merism for moral knowledge. Adam and Eve, when they ate the fruit were claiming to be morally autonomous from God. The theologian of the cross knows that not only impious acts but even our pious attempts to justify ourselves before God result in eating of the same fruit. Instead of trusting in his own righteousness, he allows himself to be crucified with Christ.
Then he is justified before God by what Luther calls the alien righteousness of Christ. The righteousness of the perfect life of Christ is our only justification. Now, the theologian of the cross is free to serve God without any works of his own. God is the operator of righteousness and we become the operations but we have no moral autonomy from God. We have no righteousness apart from Christ and we need none. The theologian of the cross is free to serve God but has no need to impress him.
If you would like to read more about Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, I recommend this cliff notes version.