Dear Church Family,
‘Tis the season for graduations – and that means graduation speeches. If you’re the first lady speaking on race, your graduation speech will make the news. If you’re a pop culture icon, your graduation speech may cause people to scratch their heads. But, for the most part, the graduation speeches that I have heard typically sound very much the same, and are often filled with glib phrases intended to be profound: “be the best you, you can be,” “remember, friendship is forever,” “never give up,” “you may think of this as the end, but your life is just beginning.” I sometimes wonder if those who are invited to give the commencement address are given a study manual that says, “Just take Polonius’ farewell speech to his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (see lines 541-567 here) and put it in your own words.”
Shakespeare put these words on the lips of a doting father who truly loved his son, but who is also seen throughout the play to be a busy-body and a gossip – a buffoon that few people ought to take seriously. Polonius and the things that he says are mock-able, and rightfully so. Yet, the ‘wisdom’ of Polonius is the wisdom of the world. And the wisdom of the world is simply the appearance of wisdom.
A Theology of the Cross
In contrast, the Scriptures tell us that God made foolish the wisdom of the world. The Apostle Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). As a consequence of this cross-shaped paradigm of God’s wisdom, the Apostle Paul learned to most gladly boast about his weakness, so that the power of Christ might dwell in him (2 Corinthians 12:10).
The wisdom of the world that says that power is perfected in the pursuit of power is foolishness according to the wisdom of God. This worldly wisdom is what is sometimes called a ‘theology of glory.’ But, the ‘theology of the cross’ recognizes that the most powerful act in the history of the world (Christ’s death on the cross for the salvation of His people) was, according to the wisdom of the world, the ultimate expression of weakness and foolishness. And, just as Christ was glorified in His suffering, so are those who belong to Him. As Carl Trueman writes, “The cross is paradigmatic for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.”
A Different Commencement Address
I was reminded of how very different the wisdom of the world (a theology of glory) is from the wisdom of God (a theology of the cross) in a recent commencement address delivered by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In speaking to the 2015 graduating class of Boyce college, Mohler commented on the worldly wisdom of commencement speeches:
I was recently looking at a book of commencement speeches. They were mostly unremarkable, but the general tone was that college graduates were told to seize the day and believe in themselves. Well, go seize the day and believe in yourselves. Get a good job and a lot of stuff and smell the roses and develop be happy attitudes. Where does that get you?
Make a fortune and waste it wantonly. Make a name for yourselves and get your name listed at your favorite charity. Bloom where you are planted. What does that gain you?
Mohler spoke to the graduates about Jesus’ words from the Gospel of According to Mark, words that embody a very different ethos than that of the world:
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to 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 will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
And, here was Mohler’s application, his exhortation to the new graduates (among whom sat his son):
Follow Christ with all your heart for the length of your days. Lose your life to save it. Take up your cross in the name of the One who died on a cross for you. Use the education you have earned for the glory of God and for the sake of the church and for the furtherance of the gospel. You go with our hopes, with our prayers, in our hearts. Be not ashamed of Christ, and he will be unashamed of you. Live every day in anticipation of the coming of the Son of Man in the glory of his Father and with the holy angels.
Christians are inundated by the wisdom of the world not just in graduation speeches, but everywhere we go – the theology of glory is ever-present. And, unfortunately, we can sometimes take this wisdom of the world, dress it up in Christian-eze, and then pass it off and accept it as the way of the Gospel. So, we need to be reminded, over and over again, that the way of Christ is the way of the cross.
Toward that end, I encourage you to read the full text of Al Mohler’s commencement address. Go and read Carl Trueman’s article on “Luther’s Theology of the Cross.” And then meditate on Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38 and Paul’s explanations in 1 Corinthians 1:1-31. You’ll find that the Lord’s definition of ‘success’ is very different from that of the world.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch