“For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth
and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.”
— Hebrews 12:6
The crosses of a Christian are inextricably linked to the cross of his dear Savior —in their nature, in their purpose, and in their effect— so that only a true believer in the Lord Jesus and in His vicarious atonement for the sins of the world has crosses laid upon him, recognizes their salutary purpose at the hand of his heavenly Father, and profits from them in accordance with His good and gracious will.
The unregenerate person finds it ironic that Christians, who claim to be at peace with God through faith in Christ’s merits (Romans 5:1), have to suffer so much here in this life, and that they regard it as a privilege and actually rejoice when they are called upon to bear tribulations, trials, pain and scorn because of their faith! The blasphemer throws up his hands, as it were, in mock dismay and shouts, “Why, Christians appear to be just as sadomasochistic as the Christ, whose name they bear!” Indeed, scoffers treat the Christians’ attitude with ridicule and disdain, and, at the instance of Satan, delight therefore in compounding the sufferings with additional persecutions!
The crosses that the Christian bears are, in and of themselves, manifestations of God’s holy Law by which He “chastens” His children, that is, whips them, as does an earthly father when he spanks his own son or daughter (Hebrews 12:9-10; cf. Proverbs 13:24). Indeed, His chastenings are often so “grievous” (v. 11a) that He characterizes them in our title-text as “scourges” (v. 6). They are His “rebuke” and “correction” (v’s. 5 and 9), which are functions of the Law. But these crosses are laid upon the Christians by their heavenly Father, not because He hates them, not because He desires their hurt, but because, in Christ Jesus, He dearly loves them (v. 6) and deals with them “as with sons” (v. 7). Thus, contrary to one’s initial, carnal reaction, unaided by God’s Holy Spirit, there are no contradictions in these sacred truths, but rather a blessed and reassuring comfort “unto them which are exercised thereby” (v. 11).
But this matter of cross-bearing must be well-understood, yea, properly understood, by every Christian, lest in time of trial and temptation he lose heart, despair of the love of God, despise the chastening of the Lord, and end up a “bastard” child (Hebrews 12:8), giving up his birthright, his legitimate claim to the heavenly Father’s inheritance. For such are they “who for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away,” Jesus tells us in the Parable of the Sower, Luke 8:13. “From this preserve us, Heavenly Father!” we pray with Luther in the 1st Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
Thus in considering the nature of our crosses, namely, those things which we are called upon to bear because we are Christians, we recognize among them perils we have to brave, trials we have to endure, temptations we must overcome, the onslaughts of Satan we must resist and survive, and afflictions we have to suffer —all of which are again, properly-speaking, manifestations of God’s holy Law by which He disciplines us —rebukes, corrects, chastises and instructs us. These crosses are “grievous” to the Old Adam and difficult to bear; but they are laid upon us, not because God hates us or is angry with us, but because He dearly LOVES us in Christ Jesus and wants to deal with us as with dear children.
There is therefore a special purpose which our crosses serve, namely, to “yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11). We note, however, that the Law —to which God’s chastenings properly belong— cannot work anything in and of itself except grief, terror and death (Galatians 4:15; II Corinthians 3:6). Nevertheless, the Law serves the Gospel by driving us into God’s Word, “bringing us unto Christ” (Galatians 3:24). And it is then the Gospel that comforts, consoles and reassures suffering Christians with the knowledge that they “are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26) and the objects of His special love to the “heirs of salvation.” Thus it is the Gospel that turns our “grievous” chastisements into the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” including patience in adversity, increase of faith, humility before God and one another, strength to do battle with the enemy, Christian resignation to the all-wise and gracious will of God, and joy in being counted worthy to suffer with our Savior.
How then should we Christians regard the crosses laid upon us, and how we are to muster the strength necessary to bear them after our Lord Jesus? Knowing the purpose of our crosses, whatever they may be; knowing the blessed relationship between God’s Law and His precious Gospel in yielding “the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby;” we Christians now face the prospect of approaching and bearing the crosses that are set before us and laid upon us by our heavenly Father. What shall be our attitude toward our afflictions, trials, tribulations, chastisements, discouragements, doubts and fears? And how shall we muster the strength to shoulder them and to bear them with courage, “considering them an honor and precious adornment” (General Prayer)?
If we Christians, since our regeneration, were completely rid of the Old Adam of sin, chastisements would not be necessary at all; for we would be perfect in every respect and in need of no improvement whatsoever. But we must confess in all humility with the Apostle Paul: “I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing” (Romans 7:18). It is our flesh that NEEDS the cross to convict it, rebuke it, curb it and chastise it; yet it is our flesh that RESISTS the cross, chafing under its weight, and would have us despise it, escape it, and, if forced to bear it, murmur against it.
Therefore, Solomon writes in the Proverbs, chapter three, verse eleven: “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, neither be weary of His correction.” The Christian dare not let his flesh rule over him in its DESPISAL of the heavenly Father’s heavy hand — the flesh which rebels at the very thought of cross-bearing, whining, “What did I do to deserve this?” The answer to that tempting question of Satan through our flesh should be obvious from the proverb cited: We NEED correction, LOTS of it, because of our many sins; and we should be HAPPY to receive it at the hand of Him who loves us, our dear heavenly Father, who wants to treat us like “sons” (v. 7).
Moreover, that same flesh, when faced with chastisements, rears up within us like a horse refusing bit and bridle, and tries to ESCAPE the cross, to run away like Jonah of old, like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, like many in our own day and time who would sacrifice the truth of God’s Word rather than suffer any inconvenience, endure any trial, bear any persecution, or make any sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel! They would rather be “bastards” than “sons,” the writer to the Hebrews tells us in verse 8 of chapter 12! To them the Lord Jesus speaks an urgent warning concerning the magnitude of the consequences of their evasion: “Whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after Me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Escape the cross?? At what COST??!
Yet, even with such warnings in great abundance in the Holy Scriptures, the flesh continues to “lust against the spirit” (Galatians 5:17). If not permitted by our New Man of faith to “despise” chastenings, if not allowed to slough them off and escape them, our flesh then whines and complains “beneath the chastening rod” (TLH 396, 2), murmuring against the Lord like the Children of Israel in the wilderness, concerning whom the Apostle warns us in I Corinthians 10:10, “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the Destroyer!” Nevertheless the flesh, in the service of Satan, persists: “Why ME, Lord? Why do I always come out on the short end? Why do I have to suffer tribulation?? I always seem to get more than my share!” Our New Man of faith never speaks like that! That’s the Old Adam of sin talking out of our own mouths! “Upon thy lips then lay thy hand,” sings Paul Gerhardt in his hymn of Christian exhortation and admonition. Silence the murmuring flesh; and, walking in the spirit, “trust His guiding love” (TLH 535, 9).
Sometimes the flesh “surprises” us, seeming to make a positive step in the right direction. But don’t be fooled, brethren! Remember that in the flesh “dwelleth NO good thing.” As the willing tool of Satan, bent on “deceiving us and seducing us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice” [Luther: Sixth Petition], the flesh will sometimes actually welcome crosses —but for the wrong reasons! Self-chosen crosses are not really crosses at all, but represent the effort of a “work-saint” and a “devil’s martyr” [Luther] to gain favor with God through works of merit —an effort that leads straight to hell and damnation!! God chooses our crosses — we don’t! Again the beloved Christian poet and hymnist, Paul Gerhardt, declares: “By anxious sighs and grieving and self-tormenting care, God is not moved to giving….” (TLH 520, 2). God cannot be “bought off” by efforts to pay for His favor, not when His blessings are free for the taking, offered to all in the precious Gospel “without money and without price!” (Isaiah 55:1).
And a particularly sad self-deception is borne by a person whose flesh pretends willingly to accept crosses, chastisements and afflictions; yet, finding none of particular discomfort at his door, takes it into his mind that, because of his “superior character” as a Christian, the Lord doesn’t deem crosses a necessity for HIM. “Be not deceived! God is not mocked!!” (Galatians 6:7a). For such a person suffers already from a severe affliction, a “messenger of Satan to buffet [him]” (II Corinthians 12:7), namely, a delusion that can only increase his carnal security and make him into a proud Pharisee! The real tragedy, of course, is that he doesn’t realize the danger to his immortal soul!!
Before we leave the negative examples of how we should NOT approach our crosses, let us note yet one particularly vicious ploy of Satan which he uses to drive troubled Christians to hopelessness and despair: Sometimes a child of God is hounded by the idea that God somehow overestimated his strength as a Christian, underestimated the burden that the weight of a certain cross would be for him, and laid upon his back a chastisement much greater than he could bear. The devil perpetuates this myth by keeping the suffering Christian’s eyes away from the Holy Scriptures; for he knows full well that the believer can find no comfort apart from the Gospel. Fortunately for us, we have by God’s rich grace in His Holy Word a most wonderful assurance, of which the Apostle Paul writes, I Corinthians 10:13, “God is faithful, who will NOT suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will, with the temptation, also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” Here the Lord links this gracious assurance with His ultimate purpose in sending the Christian crosses: If the heavenly Father did not truly love us in Christ Jesus our Savior, He would simply “hang us out to dry,” as it were, and forget about us altogether! Instead He does just the opposite! He assures us ahead of time that He and He alone determines and measures the severity of our trials, tailor-makes them to fit our needs for our ultimate benefit, and provides an “end” or termination for them. What a gracious and loving Father we have by faith in Christ Jesus, our Savior!
What God ordains is always good!
Though I the cup am drinking
which savors now of bitterness,
I take it without shrinking.
For after grief God grants relief,
my heart with comfort filling
and all my sorrow stilling.
(TLH 521, 5)
Now, to conclude our discussion regarding our approach to the cross and our regard for it, we move to the positive exhortations of the Lord’s Word to see in them just how we Christians should view our crosses, shoulder them confidently at the bidding of our heavenly Father, and willingly bear them after our dear Savior.
Though the flesh is weak, “the spirit indeed is willing” (Matthew 26:41). What the Old Adam in us, in the service of Satan, abhors, despises and rejects, the New Man of faith is ready, willing, yea, eager to do, prompted by the Holy Spirit by means of the Gospel. Thus, the Christian’s NEW Man says with the Psalmist: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” (Psalm 119:71), an acknowledgment worked in him by the testimony of the Spirit of God that he is indeed a child of God, his heavenly Father, by faith in Christ Jesus, and that he earnestly desires to be dealt with as such, as a “son,” as a legitimate “heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:7).
Our New Man rejoices in the cross, knowing both its divine Source and gracious purpose, as Eliphaz declares to Job: “Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth,” but then also adds a word of admonition because of the flesh and its melancholy under the cross: “Therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty!” (Job 5:17). Thus it was the New Man in the Apostle Paul who said: “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake” (II Corinthians 12:10). And yet Paul was not without the same flesh that constantly plagues you and me; for he readily admits: “The good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not that I do… for I delight in the Law of God after the inward man, but 1 see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” That constant battle between the spirit and the flesh makes us too cry out in utter frustration: “O wretched man that I am!! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death??” (Romans 7:19-24). Fortunately for Paul (and for us as well), this cry of anguish is not without its answer, the answer of God’s grace, proclaimed to us in the Gospel to which our crosses drive us: “1 thank GOD, through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25a). God, our dear heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake, has already delivered us from eternal death and from the sting of temporal death as well; and He will surely deliver us at length also from the wretchedness of this battle with the flesh when He calls us to His heavenly home. Then we shall forever be rid of the Old Adam, the corrupt and plaguing “albatross” which we now still must carry about with us, and yet, at the same time, mortify by daily contrition and repentance.
In the meantime, however, we must “endure chastening” (Hebrews 12:7) “now for a season” (I Peter 1:6), as God sees fit in His perfect wisdom and according to His loving purpose, being “in heaviness through manifold temptations, that the trial of [our] faith, being much more precious than of gold which perlsheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (I Peter 1:6-7). The purpose is good, because it flows from God’s love for us as His children; and it is that good and salutary purpose upon which we must keep our eyes of faith focused so that, though they be clouded over at times by tears of weakness, according to our New Man we may be “always rejoicing” (ll Corinthians 6:10), singing with the hymnwriter:.
Be patient and await His leisure
in cheerful hope, with heart content
to take whate’er thy Father’s pleasure
and His discerning LOVE hath sent,
nor doubt our inmost wants are known
to Him who chose us for His own.
(TLH 518, 3)
This is a “tall order” indeed, and an impossibility for us without the comfort and assurance of the Gospel. Therefore we go to our dear heavenly Father in prayer and ask Him (as dear children here in this world ask their dear father) with all boldness and confidence: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). “Give me, according to Thy great love and mercy to me in Christ my Savior, a rich measure of Thy grace, which is sufficient for me; ‘for [Thy] strength is made perfect in [my] weakness’” (II Corinthians 12:9).
And has He not already heard our plea, before we even called upon Him and before we were done speaking (Isaiah 65:24), all for the sake of His fatherly love for us in Christ Jesus?? Has He not already assured us: “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name; thou art Mine! When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior!” (Isaiah 43:1-3a)??
Indeed, “whom the Lord LOVETH, He chasteneth.” And that great, yea, immeasurable and unfathomable love for us moves Him to pour out abundantly of His enabling grace, that we, by Him, can bear the crosses that He in love has laid upon us! “Hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19). Thus, when we in faith confidently accept the cross to mortify the Old Adam, to be disciplined, exercised and instructed by the heavenly Father for our ultimate good and blessing, our New Man boldly declares with Paul: “I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13); “for it is God which worketh in [me] both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (2:13).
What God ordains is always good;
His will abideth holy.
As He directs my life for me,
I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed in every need
doth well know how to shield me.
To Him then I will yield me.
(TLH 521, 1)
Let this then be our comfort, our joy, our hope, our confidence, and our never-failing source of strength to bear the crosses He has laid upon us, the crosses which are evidence of His fatherly LOVE to us, His dear children in Christ our Savior:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Nay, in all these things we are MORE THAN CONQUERORS through Him that LOVED us! For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from THE LOVE OF GOD which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:35-39
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in His excellent Word
What more can He say, than to you He hath said,
who unto the Savior for refuge have fled??
And then the beloved hymn-writer paraphrases our loving heavenly Father’s blessed assurance to us, as we languish beneath the cross:
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes!
That soul, tho’ all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no NEVER FORSAKE!”
(TLH 427, 1, 5, 7)
May God grant to each of us, as He lays upon us His chastening hand, true confidence in His fatherly love for us, His adopted children by faith in Christ Jesus, that in our weakness, His grace shall be our strength to bear the cross after our Savior, yea rather, HIS strength made perfect in our weakness, until at length He removes our cup of suffering from us — “the sufferings of this present time, [which] are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18). “This grant us, dear Father in heaven” [Luther, First Petition] for Jesus’ sake!
—- D. T. M.
(Excerpted and adapted from the author’s convention essay on this topic, 1990)