Christian TraditionsChristologyLutheran (LCMS)Theological AnthropologyTheology & Spirituality

The Cross as Template: Kenosis, Justification, and the Cruciform Life

When I was a graduate student at a Lutheran seminary I was enamored with the thought of Cyril of Alexandria. His concern for the unity of the person of Christ influenced me greatly, and I developed a trajectory of thinking that was different than most of my fellow students. This made me feel like a bit of an odd duck, as the conversation at the seminary tended to be hyper-focused on justification. Being Lutherans, rock-ribbed about pure doctrine as we tend to be, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this.

My fascination with Cyril hinged on his ideas about Philippians 2 and the self-denial of the second person of the Trinity so beautifully described in the Carmen Christi:

Let this mind be in you, as is also in Jesus Christ, Who, subsisting in the form of God, did not esteem equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, having taken the form of a slave, having been made in the likeness of men. And having been found as man in appearance, he humbled himself, having become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him, and granted to him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and below the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

The passage addresses everything from Jesus’ divine nature, to his humility, to his death to his exaltation. The hymn packs such a potent Christology that it became one of the most cited (and contended) passages within the early Christian church, and was seen as a creedal proclamation. Cyril had this to say:

And what is this “emptying out”? It is his life in the form of a slave, in the flesh which he assumes; it is the likeness to us of one who is not as we are in his own nature, since he is above all creation. In this way, he humbled himself, economically submitting himself to the limitations of the manhood. But even so he was God, for he did not have as a gift what pertained to him by nature…It was necessary, yes necessary, that he should be conformed to us in the limitations of the manhood while at the same time he authentically enjoyed transcendent divine status within his own essential being; just as it is with the Father.[i]

These comments by Cyril were paradigm-shifting for me. In my experience, such personal revolutions in thought tend to send one swimming across the Tiber or Bosporus to what they perceive to be greener pastures (friendlier toward this way of thinking). And yet this wasn’t the case for me.

Although ideas of Kenosis are not prominent in the greater Protestant consciousness, kenosis is certainly there. It is hard to imagine separating Luther’s “great exchange” from Jesus’ condescension, which finds its origin in the incarnation and its greatest expression in his suffering and death on the cross.

We see the glory of God in his condescension. The cross is a picture of human nature, par excellence. The kenotic nature of the Son is evident not only in Jesus’ death, but also throughout his life. At the end of his life, Jesus bestows new life upon us by emptying himself of his own. The cross becomes a template for Christians, an invitation to empty ourselves and pick up our own crosses as we imitate our Lord. We are invited to lay down our own lives out of love for one another. Far from being contrary to Lutheran thought, this principle serves as a great compliment to Luther’s ideas of exchange, ideas the made it possible for him to say things like:

God pours out Christ His dear Son over us and pours Himself into us and draws us into Himself, so that He becomes completely humanified (vemzenschet) and we become completely deified (gantz und gar vergottet, “Godded-through”) and everything is altogether one thing, God, Christ, and you.[ii]

What can the greater Protestant tradition learn from Luther’s kenotic motif? For Luther, the heart of God is revealed not in his power and glory, but in the foolishness of the cross. It is a sanctification of the mundane that is ultimately expressed by the vocational life of the Christian. That is, the Christian “dies daily” in our return to the baptismal font, so that “a new man [can] daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”[iii] Carl Trueman summarizes this point when he says of Luther:

Christ humbled himself in the incarnation and thus all Christians who understand what it is to be clothed in alien righteousness will, or at least should, start to act as servants to their neighbors. We might say that Luther regards proper righteousness as the natural outgrowth of the cognitive realization of being justified by the alien righteousness we receive in Christ. Love is both the motive for works and that which shapes them.[iv]

However, a more holistic doctrine can be articulated. This “new person” coming forth is not solely an added quality of “righteousness,” nor is it merely a cognitive realization of justification.  Rather, the new person is precisely the one in Christ. As Luther mentions, there is a true ontological union, and to be united with Christ implies a participation in his kenotic activity. Our own lives, which are hidden in Christ, are poured out in humble service to our neighbor. Our cross is not sought out or deliberately avoided, but is naturally manifested in our life in Christ. Thus, the kenotic “pouring out” of the cross is paradigmatic. To live the cruciform life, put simply, is to embrace our union with Christ as real and true with all of its implications (cross included). As Luther also says:

Through faith you are so closely united with Christ that you and he turn, as it were, into one person which cannot be separated from him but constantly clings to him, so that you can say with confidence; I am Christ, that is Christ’s righteousness, victory, life, etc., are mine. And Christ, in turn, says: I am this sinner, that is, his sins, death, etc., are mine because he clings to me and I to him; for through faith we have been joined together into one flesh and bone.[v]

In light of Luther’s comments, we can see the Christological enrichment that kenosis can cause in the life of the Protestant Christian. The love and service of our neighbor is transformed from a mere response, to a cognitive recognition of justification, to an active participation in the life of Christ through faith. I don’t know if the conversation in contemporary Protestant circles will begin to move in a direction that readily engages these ideas.  However, when it is shown that justification is ultimately predicated upon the kenosis of our Lord, it becomes much easier for Lutherans, and by extension all protestants, to embrace.


Drew Matz holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Concordia Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Fort Wayne, Indiana with his wife and daughter, where they are members of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.


[i] Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, trans. John A. McGuckin, On the Unity of Christ, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 86

[ii] Marquardt, Kurt. “Luther and Theosis.” Concordia Theological Quarterly, July 2000, 186.

[iii] “The Small Catechism.” The Small Catechism – Book of Concord. Accessed October 05, 2017.

[iv] Carl R. Trueman, Luther on the Christian life: cross and freedom (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 163.

[v] Martin Luther and Ewald M. Plass, What Luther says: a practical in-home anthology for the active Christian (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2006), 498.

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