Martin Luther on the Practice of
Making the Sign of the Cross


In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. (“Prayers for Daily Use,” The Small Catechism, An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism [Mankato, Minnesota: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2001], p. 26)

In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. (“Prayers for Daily Use,” The Small Catechism, An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism [Mankato, Minnesota: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2001], p. 26)

To defy the devil, I say, we should always keep the holy name upon our lips so that he may not be able to harm us as he would like to do. For this purpose it also helps to form the habit of commending ourselves each day to God – our soul and body, spouse, children, servants, and all that we have – for his protection against every conceivable need. This is why the Benedicite, the Gratias, and other evening and morning blessings were also introduced and have continued among us. From the same source comes the custom learned in childhood of making the sign of the cross when something dreadful or frightening is seen or heard, and saying, “Lord God, save me!” or, “Help, dear Lord Christ!” and the like. (Large Catechism I:72-74, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], pp. 395-96)

[Psalm 118:]5. Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free. ... You must never doubt that God is aware of your distress and hears your prayer. You must not pray haphazardly or simply shout into the wind. Then you would mock and tempt God. It would be better not to pray at all, than to pray like the priests and monks. It is important that you learn to praise also this point in this verse: “The Lord answered me and set me free.” The psalmist declares that he prayed and cried out, and that he was certainly heard. If the devil puts it into your head that you lack the holiness, piety, and worthiness of David and for this reason cannot be sure that God will hear you, make the sign of the cross, and say to yourself: “Let those be pious and worthy who will! I know for a certainty that I am a creature of the same God who made David. And David, regardless of his holiness, has no better or greater God than I have.” There is only one God, of saint and sinner, worthy and unworthy, great and small. Regardless of the inequalities among us, He is the one and equal God of us all, who wants to be honored, called on, and prayed to by all. (“Psalm 118,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 14 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958], pp. 58,61)

This is how it works. You denounce a man for his unbelief and greed, and you hold the First Commandment up to him (Ex. 20:3): “You shall have no other gods before Me.” That is, “You shall not attach your heart, your desire, and your love to anyone else but Me.” And he refuses to hear that denunciation or to stand for it. He starts ranting and raving against it, until in his heart there is bitterness and venomous hatred against the Word and its preachers. That is why the text of the Ten Commandments contains the threat (Ex. 20:5): “I am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children of those who hate Me.” He is talking about these very same greedy bellies and Mammon-servers, for Scripture calls greed “idolatry,” or the worship of idols (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). And yet, as we have said, they lay claim to titles like “the greatest of saints” and “enemies of idolatry and heresy”; and they absolutely disclaim the title “haters of God.” But they are convicted by their inability to hear or see the Word of God when it attacks their greed, and by their insistence that they get off without any denunciation. The more they are denounced and threatened, the more they deride and mock, doing whatever they please to spite God and everyone else. Now, is that not a horrible disease and an abominable sin, one that should terrify us so that we hate Mammon from the heart, make the sign of the cross against him and run away as from the devil? Who would not be terrified to fall into this and to hear this judgment spoken over him? (“The Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 21 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956], pp. 190-91)

...God does not desire that you should learn from the dead and seek the truth from them. He wants to be your living, abundant, and satisfying teacher himself. You must cling to his word. He knows well what he ought to tell you about the living and the dead, for he knows all things. What he does not tell you or refuses to say, you should not seek to know, but do him so much honor as to believe that he realizes it is neither necessary nor useful nor good for you to know. So you should happily and gladly cast to the winds all this swindle of the spirits and not be afraid of them; doubtless they will then also depart from you in peace. If you should have a poltergeist and tapping spirit in your house, do not go and discuss it here and there, but know that it is not a good spirit which has not come from God. Cross yourself quietly and trust in your faith. (“Sermon for the Festival of the Epiphany,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 52 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974], pp. 178-79)

...how do I approach this Savior and Redeemer? By means of cowls or monastic orders and rules? No! Just cling to the Son in faith. He conquered death and the devil, and He slit the devil’s belly open. He will reign and rule again, even though He was crucified under Annas and Caiaphas. Therefore attach yourself to Him, and you will tear through death and devil; for this text [John 3:15] assures us: “Whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” Accept the truth of this miracle of God’s love for the world, and say: “I believe in the Son of God and of Mary, who was lifted up and nailed to the cross.” Then you will experience the new birth; for death and sin will no longer accuse, harm, and injure you. Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life. Cling to His neck or to His garment; that is, believe that He became man and suffered for you. Cross yourself and say: “I am a Christian and will conquer.” And you will find that death is vanquished. In Acts 2:24 St. Peter says that death was not able to hold Christ, since deity and humanity were united in one Person. In the same way we, too, shall not remain in death; we shall destroy death, but only if we remain steadfast in faith and cling to death’s Destroyer. (“Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957], p. 356)

I have also read of a number of people who, when persistently assailed by the devil, crossed themselves and spoke these words: “The Word became flesh” [John 1:14], or the equivalent: “I am a Christian!” with the result that the devil was beaten and put to flight and their peace of mind was restored. And I believe this to be true, so long as the words are spoken from a believing heart. Little is gained against the devil with a lengthy disputation; but a brief word and reply such as this is effective: “I am a Christian, of the same flesh and blood as my Lord Christ, the Son of God. You settle with Him, devil!” Such a retort would soon make him depart. It is certain that if anyone could speak these words “And the Word became flesh” in true faith and with strong confidence in hours of the greatest temptation, he would be delivered from his trouble and distress; for the devil fears these words when they are uttered by a believer. I have often read and also witnessed it myself that many, when alarmed and distraught, spoke these words “And the Word became flesh” and at the same time made the sign of the cross, and thereby routed the devil. Belief in these words was so powerful that it overcame the world and the devil. (“Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957], p. 106)

...we dare not trifle with the sacraments. Faith must be present for a firm reliance and cheerful venturing on such signs and promises of God. What sort of a God or Savior would he be who could not or would not save us from sin, death, and hell? Whatever the true God promises and effects must be something big. But then the devil comes along and whispers into your ear, “But suppose you received the sacraments unworthily and through your unworthiness robbed yourself of such grace?” In that event cross yourself and do not let the question of your worthiness or unworthiness assail you. Just see to it that you believe that these are sure signs, true words of God, and then you will indeed be and remain worthy. Belief makes you worthy; unbelief makes you unworthy. (“A Sermon on Preparing to Die,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 42 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969], pp. 109-10)

...we know and have no other sacrifice than that which he [Christ] made on the cross, on which he died once for all as the Epistle to the Hebrews [9:12,26] says, and thereby put away the sins of all men and also made us holy for eternity. That, I say, is our gospel, that Christ has made us righteous and holy through that sacrifice and has redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil and has brought us into his heavenly kingdom. We have to grasp this and hold it fast through faith alone. ... Now if this gospel is true, then everything that offers another way or another sacrifice must be false. But in the mass the papists do nothing but continually ride the words “we offer up, we offer up” and “these sacrifices, these gifts.” They keep completely quiet about the sacrifice that Christ has made. They do not thank him. Indeed, they despise and deny his sacrifice and try to come before God with their own sacrifice. ... The good Christ is not pleasing to the Father unless the holy canon comes and makes him pleasing, in that the offering reconciles him with God. And so again Christ is dead and of no avail, since only the work is supposed to forgive sins and obtain favor with God so that he is gracious to Christ and to us. You see, there you have heard the holy secret mass, so that you may know what it is and may be shocked by it and may cross yourself as you would before the devil himself. ... Therefore, dear Christians, let us flee from such an abomination... (“The Abomination of the Secret Mass,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 36 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], pp. 313,327-28)

... I am not contending against the sacrament but against the mass, and would like to separate the sacrament from the mass so that the mass might perish and the sacrament alone, without the mass, might be preserved in its honor and according to the ordinance of our dear Lord Jesus Christ. May God grant to all devout Christians such hearts that when they hear the word “mass,” they might be frightened and make the sign of the cross as though it were the devil’s abomination; on the other hand, when they hear the word “sacrament” or “Lord’s Supper,” they might dance for pure joy, indeed, in accordance with genuine spiritual joy, cry sweetly. For I am very fond of the precious, blessed Supper of my Lord Jesus Christ in which he gives me his body and blood to eat and to drink even bodily with my own mouth along with these exceedingly sweet and kind words: “Given for you, shed for you,” etc. I am the more hostile and angry about the mass, because the papists have thereby arrogated the holy sacrament to themselves alone, have taken it from [Christians] and robbed Christians of it, and have made a business of it and yet have woven both into one another so inseparably when they provide it for Christians at Easter time, that the common man is unable to distinguish between the mass and the sacrament. ... Yet they are not one and the same thing. It is the mass when I sacrifice the sacrament to God for my sins and the sins of others as a work performed by human beings (whether they be evil or godly). This they have to acknowledge. It is the sacrament when I receive from the priest the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine. (“A Letter of Dr. Martin Luther Concerning his Book on the Private Mass,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 38 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971], pp. 226-27)

I only desire to have the conscience free and to have all Christians make the sign of the cross against a faith which believes that the pope is right in his rule. For such a faith destroys faith in Christ and drowns the whole world in nothing but sin and destruction. The pope and you papists are the pious heirs of this sort of thing. You, who do no more than propagate such superstition, seduce the world, destroy Christian faith, and lead all souls to the devil when you should believe only in Christ and preach freedom from human laws so as to remain “ministers of the Spirit” and not “of the letter” [cf. II Cor. 3:6]. (“Answer to the Hyperchristian, Hyperspiritual, and Hyperlearned Book by Goat Emser in Leipzig,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 39 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970], p. 202)

...Peter says, “You are Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matt. 16:16]. Now blessed is he who has this confession of Christ. Reason cannot come this far. This is made known by Christ Himself when He answers Peter and says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” And He says further, “You are Peter (that is, a rock) and upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matt. 16:17-18]. ...that rock is Christ and his Word. For Christ is known only through His Word. ... Upon that Word I then build. ... Therefore “rock” here means nothing else but the Christian evangelical truth, which Christ makes known to me here. By this I ground my conscience upon Christ and against this all other might is ineffectual, even the gates of hell. Without this rock and foundation no other can be laid. As Saint Paul says to the Corinthians, “No one can lay any other foundation apart from that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus” [1 Cor. 3:11]. ... Therefore Christ alone is the rock. Where any other foundation is laid, then make the sign of the cross over yourself, for surely the devil is there to lay it. For this passage cannot be interpreted in any way but only that it speaks of Christ. (Sermon for “The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the Holy Apostles,” Luther’s Festival Sermons [Dearborn, Michigan: Mark V Publications, 2005], Church Postils, Summer Section, pp. 89-91)

...clandestine betrothals...deprive God and parents of the obedience due them... Therefore, I am determined that no clandestine betrothal shall be approved, even if the father gives his consent, because that only confirms the work of the devil. From the beginning of the world, the only true way of doing this – among the Gentiles, the papacy, and among us – has been for the parents on both sides to come together and give their children in marriage... Whatever is contrary to this is against God, who has forbidden it, and this method prevailed until the present day among both the Gentiles and the Jews. Afterward came the devil’s head at Rome with his other way of doing it, the devil’s way, which is this: because the son intends to do something honorable, namely, get married, he can do this without the knowledge and consent of his parents, whether father or mother. That is such an evil thing that one can scarcely say it aloud. God says, “Honor your father.” The pope says, “That is not necessary if your intention is to do something honorable.” Consider whether it is God or the pope who speaks properly. God says, “Honor.” The pope says, “No, but I say that you may well [do otherwise],” etc. There make the sign of the cross. (“Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany” [1544], Luther’s Works, Vol. 58 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010], pp. 83-84)

In Haggai 2[:6-9] we read: “For thus says the Lord of hosts: once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, so that the consolation of the Gentiles (chemdath) shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The splendor of this latter house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.” This is another of those passages which pains the Jews intensely. They...take up and crucify the expression “consolation of the Gentiles,” in Hebrew chemdath... They insist that this term does not refer to the Messiah, but that it designates the gold and silver of all the Gentiles. Grammatically, the word chemdath really means desire or pleasure; thus it would mean that the Gentiles have a desire for or take pleasure and delight in something. ... What do the Gentiles desire? Gold, silver, gems! ... Further, how does it happen that such very intelligent teachers and wise, holy prophets do not also apply the word “desire” (chemdath) to all the other desires of the Gentiles? For the Gentiles desire not only gold and silver but also pretty girls, and the women desire handsome young men. ... Why, then, do the Jews not interpret this verse of the prophet to mean that such desires of all the Gentiles also will shortly come to Jerusalem, so that the Jews alone might fill their bellies and feast on the world’s joys? For such a mode of life Muhammad promises his Saracens. In that respect he is a genuine Jew, and the Jews are genuine Saracens according to this interpretation. ... Therefore, dear Christian, be on your guard against the Jews, who...are consigned by the wrath of God to the devil, who has not only robbed them of a proper understanding of Scripture, but also of ordinary human reason, shame, and sense, and only works mischief with Holy Scripture through them. ... For anyone who dares to juggle the awesome word of God so frivolously and shamefully as you see it done here...cannot have a good spirit dwelling in him. Therefore, wherever you see a genuine Jew, you may with a good conscience cross yourself and bluntly say: “There goes a devil incarnate.” (“On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 47 [Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1971], pp. 209-14) Note: When Luther speaks of “a genuine Jew” and “a devil incarnate,” he is not saying that Jewish people as a racial group are devils, but he is referring to the demonic “spirit” that he perceives to be dwelling within false teachers and false prophets (whether Jews or Gentiles) who “juggle the awesome word of God so frivolously and shamefully.” The fact that Luther also calls Muhammad “a genuine Jew” demonstrates that he is using this phrase as a description of someone who adheres to a certain kind of belief system, and not as a description of someone who belongs to a particular ethnic group. At the conclusion of the treatise from which this quotation is taken, Luther says (in regard to the Jews) that he wants his readers “to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils.” He then immediately goes on to express this prayerful wish: “May Christ, our dear Lord, convert them mercifully...” (p. 306).


ADDENDA:

Among all the ancient writers there is indeed frequent mention of the sign of the cross. ...at the time of Tertullian and afterward the Christians with their fingers formed a transverse figure like a cross in the air, and in this way identified themselves. It was...a profession and reminder that they believed in Christ crucified, and that they were placing all their hope and confidence in Him. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part IV [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986], p. 94)

If you are tempted, hasten to sign yourself on the forehead against the devil, provided you make it with faith, not for men to see but knowing how to use it like a breastplate. Then the adversary, seeing the power that comes from the heart, will flee. This is what Moses imaged forth through the passover lamb that was sacrificed, when he sprinkled the thresholds and smeared the doorposts with its blood. He was pointing to the faith that we now have in the perfect Lamb. By signing our forehead and eyes with our hand, we repulse him who seeks to destroy us. (Hippolytus of Rome, “The Apostolic Tradition” [ca. 215 A.D.], in Lucien Deiss, Springtime of the Liturgy [Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979], p. 153)


There is a lot of information on the Internet about the practice of making the sign of the cross. Those who write about this practice from a distinctly Lutheran perspective include Adolph Spaeth, Paul H. D. Lang, Harold L. Senkbeil, John M. Dreyer, and Richard A. Krause (on the web site of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod). The Ukrainian Orthodoxy web site, the Signum Crucis web site, Byzantines.net, Virtualology.com, the Christianity Today web site, and Conservapedia offer some interesting historical background on the sign of the cross. The Defenders of the Catholic Faith web site provides many patristic citations on the subject.




Martin Luther




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