When we talk about the Christian's cross, we cannot avoid focusing on the second article of the Creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ etc.” After all, it is in relation to his cross by which he bore our sins in our place that we understand the afflictions we must endure during our earthly pilgrimage. It is as Jesus says, “a servant is not above his Master. (John 15:20)” But it is useful for us to examine what our cross is in our relationship to God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, the first article of the Creed.
First, let's define the cross. Jesus says, “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me, (Matthew 10:38)” and “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)” The cross includes physical and verbal persecution, but it also includes any kind of affliction that we must endure as we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). It therefore involves the inner, spiritual struggle of the Christian. How often do Christians experience either persecution or terrible tragedies? The comfort we receive from God is more than just receiving God physical rehabilitation. In fact, our physical or emotional restoration often never comes in this life. When Christians suffer they must cope with the spiritual struggle. Jeremiah laments, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? (Lamentations 12:1)” We must cope with the fact that what we see does not seem to correspond to what God promises. This cross is necessary if we are Christians. We will get more into the cross in how it relates to Jesus in the next part when we deal with the second article. But let us first learn from the Scriptures how our life under the cross relates to our stance before our Father in Heaven.
In Luther's explanation to the closing of the Ten Commandments he says: “God threatens to punish all who transgress these commandments. Therefore we should fear his wrath and not do anything against them. But he promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in him and gladly do what he commands. (Luther’s Small Catechism I, 11)”
Let us first address the second part of Luther's explanation. This promise seems like a conditional promise. If you keep his commandments, then God will show you grace and every blessing. But look again. It simply says that God shows grace and every blessing to all those who keep his commandments. God's will is that you keep his commandments. If you are his child, this is how you know you have come to know him: you keep his commandments (1 John 2:3). The point is not if you first keep God's commandments and continue doing so, then he will call you his child and show you grace and every blessing. Grace, by definition, excludes works. For “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)” The point is rather that God is gracious to his children who keep his commandments. Sure, we will be imperfect in keeping them. But this is why St. John says in the preceding verses: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)”
When Luther teaches the Ten Commandments, he does not only teach the 2nd use of the law, namely, that the law accuses you for your sins. He also teaches the 3rd use of the law, namely, how the Christian life looks like in pursuing what is pleasing before God. This presupposes the gospel. For example, the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” assumes that God desires to be our God. This is what Jesus explicitly teaches us when he has us pray to God as “Our Father.” We are his children, and we delight in his will according to our inward being (Romans 7:22), just as the Psalmist says,
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1-2)
This is simply how Christians are. They delight in God's law. They walk in his commandments. Certainly they struggle against their sinful flesh, but they nevertheless walk in the ways of the Lord despite the afflictions they must endure. It is therefore a great comfort that God shows us grace and every blessing as our Heavenly Father.
Luther therefore demonstrates in the closing of the Ten Commandments that we are at the same time sinner and saint. We are sinners because our sinful flesh stands accused under God's law. As saints lead by the Spirit, we are not under the law (Galatians 5:18). Therefore it does not accuse us when we pursue those fruits that are pleasing to God (Galatians 5:13-14, 23). So when we do feel the accusations of the law in our sinful flesh, these afflictions are sent by God in order to train us and lead us in repentance to the comfort of our Father's mercy.
If God is your Heavenly Father, then the afflictions that you suffer in your life are only slight and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17). Despite what you experience, our Lord, Jesus, teaches us of our relationship with our Father: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)”
The suffering that anyone experiences is a result of the original sin of our parents. Therefore, suffering, which eventually ends in death, is in fact a sign of God's wrath (Psalm 90:7-11). When God gives us crosses and afflictions, he leads us to fear his wrath and understand the depth of our sins. Luther says:
Therefore, this article ought to humble and terrify us all, if we believed it. For we sin daily with eyes, ears, hands, body and soul, money and possessions, and with everything we have, especially those who even fight against the Word of God. Yet Christians have this advantage, that they acknowledge themselves in duty bound to serve God for all these things, and to be obedient to Him [which the world knows not how to do]. (Luther’s Large Catechism II, 1, 22)
This is why he disciplines us as our loving Father (Hebrews 12:3-11; Proverbs 3:11,12), to teach us that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). He therefore sends us crosses in order to turn us to his Word so that he would instruct us. When Isaiah describes the terror of God's wrath on Jerusalem, he says that the vexation will bring the elect to understanding, whose covenant with death will be annulled (Isaiah 28:18-19). The vexations that Christians must endure come from God, and they are all shadows of the final judgment of his coming wrath. But Isaiah again comforts the elect with the promise that, though they walk through this vale of tears, the water will not overwhelm them nor will the fire consume them (Isaiah 43:1-2):
But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
Your cross in this life, therefore, should not bring you to despair before your Father. Luther also writes: “We ought, therefore, daily to practice this article, impress it upon our mind, and to remember it in all that meets our eyes, and in all good that falls to our lot, and wherever we escape from calamity or danger, that it is God who gives and does all these things, that therein we sense and see His Paternal heart and his transcendent love toward us. (Luther’s Large Catechism II, 23)”
God remains your Father for Christ's sake, who has called you by name and has given you his own name. This is what Jesus declares in his resurrection: “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' (John 20:17 ESV)” Despite any loss of your senses, property, family members, body parts, or physical security, you know through faith your Father as the giver of all good things. Our inheritance has been laid up for us in a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time, and we have been reborn by the Spirit as children of the Father. This is a living hope against the hope of carnal senses. Therefore, “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3)”