The gospel of human potential and prosperity is all around us. The idea is that God loves us, has amazing blessing and prosperity for us, and all that we need to do is to tap into that love and blessing by faith. As we live faithful lives before God, He will grant us His favor and we will experience blessing after blessing. The number of things that this blessing applies to are legion. Good health, finances, a good marriage, wonderful children, freedom from pain and the past, righteousness in society, and a godly nation are just some of the areas that the gospel of potential/prosperity can be applied to. Perhaps you have seen the more egregious forms that tell you that if you send in some money to a TV preacher, you will get more money back from the celestial slot machine known as "God" and you have rightly rejected that view. But, there are many other less auspicious versions of this ancient heresy.
Whenever I enter into some type of agreement with God based on an "if/then" covenant, then I am buying into a potential/prosperity theology. I am saying that there is some form of blessig out there that God will give me if I just do my part. If I pray enough or obey enough or exercise enough faith for follow the right principles, then my best life is ready to be grasped. If I have problems in my life it is because I have not applied some principle well enough or I was not faithful enough or I somehow missed God. To be truly walking with God means that the blessings will flow and my life will be pretty awesome. The presence of heartache, pain, and suffering is a life marked by the absence of God and Jesus didn't go to a cross so I could be miserable or experience lack.
These views are different versions of what Luther called a "Theology of Glory." Under this view, the goal of the Christian life (and all religions for that matter) is our return to glory. We came from glory and to glory we will return. Sure, things are not now as they will be - we have problems. But, our biggest problem is that we have not realized our true potential and destiny. Through the work of Christ, we are restored to our true destiny and we can really begin to live. We now begin to experience the purpose for our creation, which is to live out our destiny as loved children of God who have a glorious destiny. The destiny can begin to be realized now if we just have enough faith or obedience or skill or effort or strength to apply all that God has given us. So, we bring in experts to help us be successful at managing and applying the Christian life. The Cross of Christ is the method by which we attain our best life now. It is a means to an end. There might not seem like there is much wrong with this. Surely, God loves us and has good plans for us. But, the problem is the emphasis on US - on our comfort and our destiny and our blessings. We want, want, want, and God is the way that we get our wants satisfied. Again, God becomes the means to some other end and that end always involves our glory and prosperity and freedom from pain. It is a bootstrap religion because we think we are capable of securing success by following the prescription. When we fail, we either try harder or give up in desperation and try something else that will work because our hearts were never changed - the object of our affection was always us and our way of life.
The "Theology of the Cross" is the perspective that God fully revealed Himself on the Cross as Christ was executed for our sins. "It was my sin that held Him there." My problem is not that I have failed to realize my potential or destiny. It is not that I have struggled with self esteem or that my life is not what I want it to be. My problem is not my marriage or my children or my job or the fact that people don't love me enough or overlook me. My problem is me and how I relate to a holy God. I have sinned and I continue to sin and I am eaten up with sin - rebellion against God and His ways. I want my way and I will kill to get it. I see myself as autonomous and I think I can do what I want. I think that I have power to secure the life that I want and I don't want to be accountable to anyone. It was my sin that held him there. At the Cross, I meet Jesus, whose blood was shed for me. The Cross is what God has done and is doing in the world, where He who knew no sin becamse sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. At the Cross, I die. I am crucified with Christ. I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I now live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Look at it. Stare at the Cross. See Jesus suffering, bearing the penalty and death that was due you. That is what God thinks of your effort and grasping and attempt to secure blessing and prosperity and unending desire for pleasure and comfort. That is what God thinks of your potential and obedience. It all fails at the Cross. All striving for glory and success and comfort and prosperity and blessing come crashing down. We can't make it. The Cross, at this point, is not some means to another end, but it is the end of human effort and sin and striving to grab hold of the life that we want or think we deserve. We are all laid low. It is also the end of God's wrath against us and our sin as as God's wrath was literally exhausted on Christ as He bore the full penalty for us trying to live our best life in our own way.
All of our aspirations and expectations must die at the Cross. All of our strategies for successful living and for securing prominence and the way of life that we think we deserve must meet their end at Calvary. All other identities and dependencies and desires for approval must die at the Cross. God has forever declared them all pointless. Only in looking upon our Suffering Savior do we see what God really had in mind. He was going to take our sin and separation and our best effort and He was going to die and take all of that with Him to the grave. Only then could we be reconciled to God through Christ.
"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:6-8.
Jesus died for the ungodly. It is when I lay down my pretense and self righteousness and best attempts at grasping and pulling myself up by my bootstraps and claiming of blessing and favor because of how awesome I am or how worthy I think I am or how much faith I think I have or how obedient I've been - it is only when I am undone and laid low and gaze upon the Cross and see my Savior hanging there with all my sin upon Him as He bears the penalty due me - it is only at that point that I begin to get what God is doing in the world. It is when I am consumed by the Cross and entrust myself to what God has done through Jesus and not what I can do that I see that God's way is the way of suffering and that real life comes out of death. I must die to my dreams and aspirations and all the claims I have on the life I think I am supposed to have or even want to have. It is only when I stand there before the Cross and realize that Christ is all in all and all things are being reconciled back to God through Him that I begin to live.
This is why Paul said that He only preached Christ crucified and that the Cross was foolishness and a stumbling block. It messes us up. It frustrates us. We can't control it, so we try to alter its meaning. Still it looms over us. Our object of veneration is actually an execution device.
The Resurrection came and Jesus did not stay dead. The Cross was not the end of the story. But, it is still how God revealed Himself to us. We see God most clearly when we see that Jesus freely went to the Cross in obedience to the Father to deal with our sin and separation and restore us to God. The Cross is not a means to the end of gaining some kind of blessing from God. It is the place of meeting with God and that is blessing enough. The Cross is where we die to our desire for glory and it is where we meet Jesus, who is our truly great reward and blessing. The Cross is not the means to some other end - it is the End of sin and death and shame and God's wrath towards us and it is where we find God and He is enough.
For further reading on the Theology of the Cross, check out Gerhard O. Forde's On Becoming a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.