Of God or Men?

(Making the Sign of the Cross)

Is making the sign of the cross popery? That is, is it merely an invention of the Pope? Is making the sign of the cross a thing of God or men? You realize this is a most important question, don't you? If it's a thing of men then it will get in the way of our relationship to God and must be put behind us.

Making the sign of the cross is not of God in one sense. There is no command from God to do it. There is no command from God to put the sign of the cross on those we baptize as a sign that they've been redeemed by Christ the crucified.

There's no command for pastors to put the sign of the cross on people after communion or in the benediction. And there's no command from God for an individual to put the sign of the cross on himself at the invocation, after communing, meal prayers, or getting up or going to sleep.

There's no command from God to use the sign of the cross, so it doesn't matter to God one way or the other. It's not more God like to use the sign of the cross or less like God if you don't. God is no more pleased with people who make the sign of the cross than He is with those who don't. The matter is entirely free with God.

So making the sign of the cross on yourself or the pastor doing it on others was invented by men. But just because men invented it doesn't mean it is anti God. We teach our kids to fold their hands, bow their heads, and close their eyes when they pray. Nowhere does God command these outward things, but for centuries parents have been teaching their kids to pray this way.

There are many gestures that men have made up over the years that we've freely adopted without interfering with our relationship with God. We sing the National Anthem with our hands over our hearts. We remove our hats when a funeral procession passes. Fathers walk brides down the aisles. Dads hand out cigars when babies are born. There is not one word about the customs in the Bible. But that doesn't make them wrong.

Yes, but you say wouldn't it be better if we ONLY did those things actually commanded in the Scriptures. That is the Protestant view. They split with Luther over this point. They believed that if it was not in the Bible it ought not be done. Luther, by contrast, said if it wasn't prohibited in the Bible, it was allowed. How the Christian life is lived in the New Testament era is not determined by the Biblical rules as if the New Testament still had ceremonial laws like the Old. In fact St. Paul is adamant in Colossians 2 that we are NOT to let people judge us as if there still were laws regulating our every move. We're free to use the sign of the cross if we want. Luther said in regard to religious practices, 'What God has made' free shall remain free." And, "We cannot and ought not to condemn a thing [a religious practice] which may be in any way useful to a person." The only way a religious practice should be forbidden in Luther's view is if a person thinks they're doing God a service by doing it.

As I said, God could care less if you do or don't make the sign of the cross. That's not why Christians started doing it. Tertullian, a church father who lived around 190 AD said that making the sign of the cross was a custom of Christians everywhere, and that it was done as a reminder of the crucified Savior in day to day life.

Making the sign of the cross over yourself is something Christians freely adopted long before there was a pope, long before crosses or crucifixes were used in churches. Although the practice originated with men it was done to remind them they belong to God. Chrysostom around 370 A.D. said making the sign of the cross was "a reminder of the saving passion and death of Christ and as an emblem of the mercy of God," towards the individual.

The cross was God's method of bringing sinners to Himself. II Corinthians tells us that God was in Christ on the cross reconciling the world unto Himself. Colossians tells us that God made peace with the fallen world through the blood Jesus shed on the cross. The cross, not the manger, not the empty tomb, not the whip, not the nails, not the crown of thorns is the symbol for the sacrificial death of Christ for the sins of the world. The cross marks the very point in time where all of our sins were paid for once and for all. The cross is the very instrument by which all the punishments of hell were inflicted on the innocent Jesus instead of us. What more fitting mark could Christians use to remind themselves that Christ had redeemed them and of how He did it.

Using a mark to indicate to someone or something belongs has a long history. God put a mark on Cain to prevent anyone from killing him. God told Israel to mark the doorpost of their homes with the blood of a lamb so the angel of death would pass over them. God gave Abraham the mark of circumcision as a sign that the Promised Seed, Jesus, would come from his ancestors.

In Ezekiel 9 the prophet sees a vision in which the Lord commands that the people of the city who mourn over sin be marked with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order to preserve them from the coming judgment. Several times in the Book of Revelation we hear the same thing. God marks His own in order that His angels may know who belong to Him in the midst of fallen humanity. What mark does God use? Well, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Taw. It looks like a small 't'; that is, it looks like a cross.

The church from ancient times has marked those she baptizes with the sign of the cross both upon the forehead and upon the breast as an indication that the person had been redeemed by Christ the Crucified. Throughout their Christian life people are marked with the cross after communing, after worshiping, after marrying. And finally at death, the sign of the cross is once more put upon the body in token of the fact this body, which soon will be dust, still belongs to God.

The sign of the cross is a fitting reminder that we belong to God and of the means He used to reclaim us. But it's still a foolish sign. The cross was an instrument of death and destruction. The cross was for criminals, slaves, and traitors. Early mockers of the church realized this, and made fun of Christians for worshipping a God who died on a cross. Nevertheless, Christians embraced it as their sign. The cross was a sign of shame and death to unbelievers but it was a sign of glory and life to believers. As St. Paul says in Galatians 6, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Making the sign of the cross; it's not commanded by God so you're free to use or not use it. But, it's a fitting way to confess your faith silently yet publicly.

People always seek to confess their faith with physical things. In the 70's the ancient symbol for Christianity, the fish, was put on door plaques. You still see them on homes today identifying the person who lives there as a Christian. Many people wear lapel pins marking themselves as believers in the cross. And among Protestants carrying a wooden cross in a pocket is popular. Every time the person brings out a handful of change the cross is there, marking them as Christians.

These are all fine ways to confess your faith silently yet publicly, but they are all of recent origin. Making the sign of the cross has been the universal symbol marking Christians for over 1800 years. A Catholic priest told me that in 1980 he was visiting the Berlin wall. He wanted to get a souvenir piece of the wall. His Berlin fiend told him that they should walk slowly to the wall and when he indicated the priest was to do something to distract the Communist soldiers watching from the guard tower. As they walked out, the priest could see one guard with his rifle aimed at them and behind him stood a second. When they reached the wall, the Berliner told the priest to make the distraction. The priest couldn't think of what else to do, so he faced the guard tower and threw open his thick winter coat exposing his clerical collar. The soldier with the rifle kept his weapon trained on him. But as the priest watched in amazement, the soldier behind the one aiming the weapon made the sign of the cross. Right then the priest said he knew that Christianity was still alive in East Germany.

The movie "Sugar Hill" has a similar scene in it. A wealthy son rich from drug trafficking is leading a table prayer that is downright blasphemous. At the other end of the table, his father is sifting. He is a junkie at the end of his rope. But while the son spouts the blasphemy, the father makes the sign of the cross and says his own prayer. The two are definitely not praying to the same God.

Have you ever stopped to think about that? What indicate to whom a person is praying? As an Army Reserve chaplain, I had occasion to go out to eat with Mormons, Unitarians, Jews, and Christian Science clergymen. When we bowed our heads to say our individual prayers, how could I testify to them that I am not praying to the same God? If a Catholic priest was at the table, they definitely know he wasn't because he made the sign of the cross.

Well that sign doesn't just belong to the Catholic Church; it belongs to the church of all ages. Luther and the early Lutherans didn't want to lose it. They rejected the abuses of making the sign of the cross, which had come in over the years. They rejected using it superstitiously. They refused to require it be used since God nowhere did. And they disclaimed any notion that making the sign of the cross protected a person in any way. But they retained its use at the invocation, after communing, and before prayer.

The Small Catechism written by Luther in 152g, the one we use today, teaches the sign of the cross. It says the head of the house should teach his family to make the sign of the cross when they get up and when they go to bed right before their morning and evening prayers. How many of us were taught this way? I wasn't. Why not?

I think I know why. Walther, the first president of the Missouri Synod, said in 1885 that Lutherans were persecuted by the Protestants for such things as clerical vestments, crucifixes, liturgical chanting by ministers, signing with the cross, and bowing the head at the mention of Jesus. Friends, look around you, look at most Lutheran churches today. You wont find crucifixes, liturgical chanting by ministers, signing with the cross, and bowing the head at the mention of Jesus. In less than 100 years we gave all of these up in the face of pressure to be like the rest of American Protestants. We gave up in less than 100 years the things the Christian Church had been using for 1800 years.

But the church is free to do that. What is not commanded or prohibited by God's Word a person is free to do or not to do. But the question should be asked what has changed since 1885 to cause the Lutheran church to abandon historic practices she once treasured? I also think we should ask ourselves what we have adopted in place of the things we let go? Christians will always have things, practices, signs around them that remind them they belong to God and that confess their faith in God publicly.

What should you do about making the sign of the cross? That's entirely up to you. I will not feel any different about you either way; more importantly neither will God. Although God didn't command it and doesn't care whether you do it or not, making the sign of the cross does have to do with the things of God rather than men. It's a reminder of how God has redeemed you, and it's a public confession of faith in that God. You're free to use or not use it. What we're not free to do is persecute those who use it or look down on those who don't. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris, Holy Cross Day, 1994