Luther: Meditating on the Cross

Luther loved to preach on the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ. If you read through his sermons you will quickly find that he consistently pressed the gospel into the hearts of his hearers. In a sermon on the cross he states this about the value of meditating on the work of Christ.

“Whoever meditates thus upon God’s sufferings for a day, an hour, yea, for a quarter of an hour, we wish to say freely and publicly, that it is better than if he fasts a whole year, prays the Psalter every day, yea, than if he hears a hundred masses. For such a meditation changes a man’s character and almost as in baptism he is born again, anew. Then Christ’s suffering accomplishes its true, natural and noble work, it slays the old Adam, banishes all lust, pleasure and security that one may obtain from God’s creatures; just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.”

Luther goes on to explain that the act of meditating and grasping the implications of the cross are divine gifts. It is by grace that we understand grace, according to Luther.

“It is impossible for us profoundly to meditate upon the sufferings of Christ of ourselves, unless God sink them into our hearts. Further, neither this meditation nor any other doctrine is given to you to the end that you should fall fresh upon it of yourself, to accomplish the same; but you are first to seek and long for the grace of God, that you may accomplish it through God’s grace and not through your own power.”

In Luther’s view, meditation must lead to application. We must take the truths of Christ’s cross and impress them into our souls. We must rest our faith upon the promises of God. In this sermon, Luther calls his listeners to connect their faith to the explicit promises of forgiveness and justification.

“Cast your sins from yourself upon Christ, believe with a festive spirit that your sins are his wounds and sufferings, that he carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Isaiah 53:6 says: ‘the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;’ and St. Peter in his first Epistle (1 Peter 2:24): ‘He bore our sins in his body upon the tree’ of the cross; and St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: ‘Him who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.’ Upon these and like passages you must rely with all your weight.”

The more I read Luther the more I appreciate his ability to probe the depths of the cross-work of God and bring his hearers along with him.

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6 comments

  1. This isn’t what your post is about, but I hear this idea often and question it: God abandoned Christ on the cross. Luther states it in your first passage at the end when he says ‘just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God’. I’ve also heard that the physical pain Christ endured was nothing compared to the spiritual pain of bearing the sins and being separated from the Father. I don’t know of any verses that directly support either of those ideas. I would think the first assumption is based on the cry of Jesus ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ just prior to his death. Couldn’t it be possible that Jesus no longer recognized the presence, and no longer enjoyed the fellowship of his relationship with the Father, due to the sins of all believers being placed on him? Does the fact that Jesus no longer perceived the presence of the Father necessarily mean that the Father was somehow absent? Is this just semantics, or is there a spiritual reality that I don’t grasp here? Also, I hear that God can’t look on sin or be in it’s presence. Yet He can look upon anything He wants to look upon. How can he know we sinned if he doesn’t look upon it? How can Jesus take on sin if God and sin are incompatible? How can I, as a Christian and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, sin if God and sin are repelled by each other?

    Just a few simple questions for you to answer 🙂

    1. Yeah, that’s part of it. Did God truly ‘forsake’ or abandon Jesus in his moment of greatest need? Or was that Jesus’ perception? Is there a difference? Directly after that, Luke says that Jesus stated ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. That still sounds like a relationship of faith in God. Also, people use the idea that God can’t look upon sin to support the idea that Jesus was forsaken of God. Yet that can’t be true for the reasons I mentioned above. Maybe it’s a mystery that can’t be understood, but Jesus, who is fully God, took on the sins of the world (or at least the elect – another controversy) so how can the 2 be incompatible? As a Christian (as far as I can tell) the Holy Spirit indwells me, a man who sins (another dilemma, in that we still sin, though we have been forgiven of all sin, even future sin – though I think you once told me you don’t necessarily believe that). All these are curiosities to me, and worth discussing. Take your pick.

      1. I think a critical thing to bring to the forefront in this discussion is that the cross is a Triune event. John Murray said, “It was God in our nature forsaken of God.” John Stott said, “It was God himself giving himself for us.” The mystery of the cross is planned, agreed upon, and executed by all three persons of the Trinity. If forsakenness is a part of this mystery then it is something necessary, planned, agreed upon, and executed by all three persons of the Godhead.

        Jurgen Moltmann has a couple very intriguing and thought provoking quotes on the topic of division and unity in the Godhead at the cross. Here are the two that are most helpful…

        “In the cross, Father and Son are most deeply separated in forsakenness and at the same time are most inwardly one in their surrender…This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation”

        “What happened on the cross was an event between God and God. It was a deep division in God himself, in so far as God abandoned God and contradicted himself, and at the same time a unity in God, in so far as God was at one with God and corresponded to himself.”

        On the flip side of this perspective, Thomas McCall wrote a book titled “Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross and Why it Matters.” He argues against this perspective that Moltmann is talking about here.

        In my view, the way forward is to start with a close reading of texts that touch on this area….

      2. Good points, and I agree, the texts will be the most helpful. In my opinion, there is no substitute for the HS working in the mind of the reader of scripture. My only difficulty, and one I think you can manage, is understanding any nuances of what was originally meant in the Greek (or Hebrew, if there are clues in the OT). Besides the gospels, do you know good references to this topic in the bible?

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