On the Cross

by Jacob Heerbrand
translated by Andrew Hussman

This excerpt on the cross from Jacob Heerbrand's Compendium Theologiae, originally published at Tuebingen in 1573, comes from the 1575 Tuebingen edition. This dogmatics textbook lays out the doctrines of Scripture in a simple yet clear question and answer format. In this section on the cross we not only learn the definition of the cross, but also what great comfort we believers receive in our crosses because they come from our heavenly Father who loves us. For more information on Jacob Heerbrand, please see his biography in this issue.

All translations of Scripture are the translator's own unless otherwise noted.

The word “cross” in its proper sense pertains to the righteous, for the evil and unfavorable things which the ungodly suffer are punishments for sins.

What is the cross?

The cross is any suffering which God places upon the righteous in this world, not so that they may perish, but so that their faith may be tested, their patience exercised, God glorified, and they themselves made known.

How many kinds of crosses are there?

There are many kinds of crosses, and people are oppressed with evils and calamities of every kind. Nevertheless, they can be divided into two chief kinds, so to speak: internal or spiritual, and external or physical.

Proof

In 2 Corinthians 7:5, the Apostle writes, “We were afflicted in all things–conflicts on the outside, terrors within.” He writes the same elsewhere, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers and authorities, against the spiritual cunning in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Does the cross happen by chance or at random?

Not at all. This is the opinion of the Epicureans, who reject God and deny that all things are directed by his providence. But Holy Scripture testifies that all these things happen by the sure plan of God.

Proof

Jeremiah says in Lamentations 3:37-38, “Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord does not command it? Do not both evil and good things come from the mouth of the Most High?” And in Amos 3:6 it says, “There is not a disaster in the city which the Lord did not cause.” But here he is not speaking about the evil of blame, that is, about sin, but of punishment. For God is not the originator or cause of sin, but only of punishments.

What is the efficient cause1 of the cross?

God himself. Hebrews 12:5-6 quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12, “My son, do not neglect the discipline of the Lord, and do not grow faint when you are rebuked by him. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines, and he punishes every son he receives. If you endure correction, God presents himself to you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?”

How is God called the cause of the cross, when the devil and the world trouble the righteous?

God is the principal efficient cause, without whose will not even a hair falls from our head. For one and the same effect there can be many causes which occur in different ways.

However, the devil and the world are the organs and instruments of God, which God allows to attack the righteous. But he prescribes and puts around them boundaries which they cannot cross, as is seen in the story of Job. For this reason one must always look to God the author and not to his instruments. That is something dogs do when they have been attacked with stones–they disregard and ignore the man by whom they were injured and chase after the stone.

Job was afflicted by Satan and said to his enemies (Job 1:21), “The Lord has given,” but does not add, “The devil has taken away, the Chaldeans have plundered,” which nevertheless was true, but in an indirect sense. Instead he says, “the Lord has taken away.”

What are the near, chief, and initial causes of all evils among the whole human race?

First, the sin of our first parents, from which spring subsequently corrupt desires of every kind, as from a fountain (Matthew 15:19). In addition there is also Satan, who, on account of hatred for God and men, whose happiness he envies and from which he himself fell, provokes this weak nature to sins, by which men invoke and heap evils upon themselves (1 Peter 5:8; Titus 2).

“Through sin death entered into the world, and death came upon all men, because all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).

Why are the church of Christ and the righteous especially subject to the cross?

There are many reasons, which Doctor Philip, as learnedly as always, has collected in his Loci Communes, where the answers should be sought. We will expound on only the chief reasons.

First, God wants, especially in the church, the blemish and magnitude of sin to be acknowledged and perceived by the righteous, and not only the obvious, external, individual sins, but also the rest of sins. He also wants them to recognize how great his anger is against them, that is, against perverse desires. This is not seen better or more clearly than in punishments and misfortunes.

Just as Isaiah said, “We have shriveled like a leaf, and our iniquities have scattered us like the wind” (Isaiah 64:6).

Micah 7:9 “I will bear the Lord’s wrath, because I have sinned against him.” So David said in his misfortunes, “My sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:3). Similarly Emperor Mauritius2 said, “You are just, Lord, and all your judgments are upright.”

For we, presently in the cross, reflect seriously on our sins, by which we have earned God’s wrath, while outside of the cross most men are carefree, and sin is crouching at the door (Genesis 4:7). 3

Second, because the righteous should be made similar to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8), as these passages testify, “Whoever wants to be my disciple, let him take up his own cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). "Christ suffered for us, leaving behind an example for you, so that you would follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

In addition, afflictions are testimonies of doctrine, because the righteous do not bear the teaching of God’s word for the their own advantage, when the perils of life attack them because of that doctrine. But they truly believe that it has been handed down from above, and for this reason they would rather undergo dangers and the perils of life, and finally endure death itself, than cast off this kind of doctrine, like Paul and the other apostles and countless thousands of martyrs.

Therefore, they obey because of God, awaiting the rewards of glory in the next life. And the Apostle takes comfort in this hope, “I have fought the good fight, I have completed the race. Now an imperishable crown of glory has been set aside for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day–yet not only to me, but to all who long for his coming” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Likewise, so that the flesh and the old man might be mortified, so that those too secure in their tranquility may not cast off the fear of God. Just as it says, “Whoever suffers in the flesh ceases to sin” (1 Peter 4:1).

Jeremiah said, “You have chastised me, Lord, and I have been disciplined just like a wild calf” (Jeremiah 31:18).

Who most of all persecutes the righteous?

Not only the lowest, but also the highest appointed in the state, and those who give themselves the title "church" (Acts 4). In one word: the devil and the world rise against Christ and his Church. Psalm 2:1-2, “Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot vain things? Why do the kings of the earth gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One?”

In this way Herod, Pilate, the leaders of the people, the high priests, the priests, the scribes and the Pharisees came together against Christ and conspired for his death, and the entire people, with very few exceptions, shouted, “Crucify.”

What causes sufferings?

Some allege other causes: the crime of heresy, of blasphemy, of apostasy, that is, desertion and rebellion, just as these accusations were brought against the prophets of the Lord and against Christ himself. Elijah was told that he was a troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18:17); Christ was told that that he was stirring up the people (Luke 23:5); Stephen was told that he would not stop speaking against the people of God, the law, and the holy place (Acts 6:12-13); Paul was told that it was not right for him to live (Acts 22:22).

But Christ expresses the true cause when he says, “All men will hate you because of me and my name” (Luke 21:17).

And the Apostle says, “All who want to live righteously in Christ will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12).

What is the distinction between Christ’s cross and the saints’ cross?

Christ’s cross alone appeases God’s wrath and is satisfaction and atonement for the sins of the whole world. “I have trampled the wine press alone, and no one from the nations was with me” (Isaiah 63:3).

But the cross and sufferings of the saints have other causes and purposes. They are not atonement for sins, either for their own sins or for the sins of others, as the papists irreverently thought and therefore invented indulgences out of the overabundant suffering and merits of the saints.

On the contrary Paul says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking of Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:24).

I reply with Augustine, “The whole Christ is head and body, which is the church."4 Accordingly, as long as the members endure, Christ is said to endure, that is, in his own members. Just as he said to Paul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”(Acts 9:4) Just as he also says, “Whatever you have done for one of the least of my own, you have done for me” (Matthew 25:40). Whatever happens to the members is brought to the head. But because he adds that he suffers for the church, the Apostle does not propose that the sins of men are atoned for by his own sufferings, or that they are satisfaction for them, for this is the work of Christ alone, in which he has no partner. But by this he wishes, as he himself interprets in 2 Corinthians 1, that they would retreat into comfort and salvation, that is, into the blessing of the church.

What is the final cause5 of the cross?

With the cross God trains his own in this life, not to destroy them, but to call them to repentance and awaken it in them, so that they might recognize their sins and God’s anger against them, and so that the fear of God, prayer, patience, obedience, hope, and other virtues might increase in them. Just as David says, “It is good for me, oh Lord, that you have humbled me, so that I might learn your laws” (Psalm 119:71). Likewise, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).

Isaiah says, “Lord, in distress they visit you; the anguish in which they shout is discipline for them” (Is 26:16). And chapter 28 says, “Tribulation gives understanding."6

Similarly the Apostle also says: “When we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we may not be condemned with this world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).

Are the misfortunes of the righteous punishments for sins?

In general, every affliction is a penalty for sins. But properly speaking the godless are punished by God, so that they, warned by punishments, might repent, or, if they are not converted, so that they might perish.

But for the righteous who believe in Christ, guilt and eternal punishment are together removed because of Christ’s suffering and merit.

These benefits of Christ are joined to us freely. Nevertheless, even though sins have been removed in this life also with respect to both guilt and eternal punishment, the righteous are subjected to the cross and misfortunes, which some call punishments for sins. But in no way are these compensation or satisfaction or merits for eternal punishment, as the scholastic papists idly say. They have other causes, which were mentioned above. These, at any rate, can generally be called punishments, but in a less proper sense. Even though among the righteous God often punishes their sure offenses with sure punishments, this must not be taken as the universal case. And for this reason they are properly called the cross, afflictions, and misfortunes, and not punishments of the righteous, because they no longer have a reason for punishments, that is, the feeling of divine anger.

Just as only in the cross of the righteous is God’s anger lacking so that they feel (unless there is perhaps some tribulation) they may rejoice even more in their sufferings (Romans 5).

And Job argues rightly in a most bitter debate with his friends that he was not being punished specifically for some wicked act or crime (as they themselves were proposing), but that he was innocent, which they were attacking severely. But at last the Lord spoke in favor of Job and against his friends, who fell into sin.

But why, if they are not punishments, does God impose them on the righteous?

First, they are fatherly warnings for those who bear them, by which sufferings they are warned about the rest of the sins which cling to their flesh, so that hereafter they might walk more cautiously and repent for sins they have already committed. And so the righteous are inflicted in this way more in regard to their future sins than to their past sins, so that they might be protected.

Second, they are sanctified for the righteous, so that they might be a holy cross, as Genesis 3 speaks about the labor of hands and sweat which seek nourishment. The Holy Spirit proclaims, “You are blessed, and it will go well with you” (Psalm 128:2). And the Apostle says about the labor and pain of child birth, “A woman will be saved through the bearing of sons…” (1 Timothy 2:15).

Furthermore, they are examples which might stir up others to repentance, so that they are deterred from their sins when they see that God does not spare his own, so that they are afraid, and so that they take heed of their sins. “Behold, I am beginning to bring punishment on a city in which my name is invoked, and will you be immune?” (Jeremiah 25:29). Likewise, “Judgment begins with the house of God. Therefore, what is the end for the wicked?” (1 Peter 4:17).

Is it permitted to flee the cross?

It is permitted in the cross as in matters and means which are divinely appointed and established, as medicine should be sought for a disease, and bread should be sought for hunger, etc. However, trust should not be placed in those means, but in God alone, as pious Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, did (2 Chronicles 20). On the contrary, Asa put his trust in the allied king of Syria, and not in the Lord. Similarly, when he was sick, he did not seek the Lord, but trusted more in the skill of physicians (2 Chronicles 16). "Cursed is he who trusts in man and makes his flesh his own strength" (Jeremiah 17:5).

Therefore, fleeing the cross is permitted, but properly, and not in such a way that we neglect or desert our responsibility. And in order that the mind may always be ready to obey, let us also say with the Savior, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but yours be done” (Matthew 26:39). As David fled Absalom and said, “If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will lead me back. But if he says to me, ‘You are not pleasing,' I am ready; may he do what is good in his sight” (2 Samuel 15:25-26).

How should we bear the cross well, and what remedies should be applied?

When Moses was going with the people to Marah, where they could not drink the water because of its bitterness, from which this place received its name, wood or a tree was shown to him, and when he threw it into the water, the waters were rendered sweeter (Exodus 15:22-25). A remedy for the cross should be sought in this way, so that it may be rendered somewhat more bearable. This is the wood on which Christ hung when he became a sacrificial victim for us on the cross, as is shown to us in the word of God. We have this chest and medicine box equipped very well, since it offers remedies, that is, comforts against tribulations and sufferings of every kind–namely, that we have God the merciful Father through and because of Christ the Mediator. And God is not unaware, but he knows well that these things happen to us by his good and fatherly will (Matthew 10; Romans 8; Psalm 91, 144). And all things work together for our good. He is very near to us, a helper in need, and he will preserve us and set us free, or certainly alleviate our troubles. Therefore, we should flee to him in faith, having received freedom and the surest hope of an answer to our prayers. Let us not grumble against him with the impatience of one who has been broken, but let us humbly subject ourselves to him, keeping our minds in patience and knowing that he will not tempt us beyond what we can bear, but will provide a way out of temptation and will give us more than we ask for or know (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). Furthermore, we know that patience is a sacrifice and burnt offering most pleasing to God, a reasonable act of worship (Romans 12:1). Likewise, we know that trials will not be lasting or permanent, but brief. And God will compensate for them with everlasting rewards in heaven. In like manner, the momentary levity of sufferings works an eternal glory that outweighs them all, 2 Cor. 4:17. Likewise, they are useful for us.


  1. The efficient cause is the agent who brings something about. 

  2. Mauritius was known as the first "Greek" emperor of the Roman Empire. He ruled from 582-602. He fought strenuously to uphold the creed of Chalcedon against the Monophysites. 

  3. "sin is crouching at the door" is the NIV translation of Genesis 4:7 which accuratley reflects the original Hebrew. The Latin has peccatum dormiat, "sin is sleeping." 

  4. Homilies on the Epistle of John, 1.2. 

  5. The final cause is the purpose for something. 

  6. The Latin is vexatio dat intellectum, but the NIV translates the original Hebrew, "The understanding of this message will bring sheer terror."