This week our series on the Cross in the life of the Christian continues with the
distinction between the external and internal cross. Paul makes this distinction in 2 Corinthians 7:5. This is a lot like the visible and invisible church. They are not two different churches, but one is hidden under the other. So these are not two different crosses, but the internal is hidden under the external. Hidden under Paul’s fights to stay alive in Macedonia are the fears by which he learns to fear God rather than men.
The external cross is any affliction against your body, reputation, or public confession. The worst external cross is false doctrine, since it is an attack against God’s Word, our true confession. Ordinary sickness and death can be considered external calamities, but they are not properly crosses unless borne with the fear of God within, recognizing God’s punishment against sin, and taking refuge in his promise of life. Take a look at Luther’s lectures on Psalm 90 (American Edition, Volume 13).
Therefore, the true cross is the internal cross, also known as the spiritual cross. This has to do with your conscience. God proves your faith and increases your love for him and your neighbor. We can put the external cross in the category of what St. Paul calls physical training, and the internal cross is what St. Paul calls godliness (1 Tim 4:8). Now, physical training is probably broader, including also personal discipline of the body. Fasting and other bodily preparation are not themselves crosses, since they are not sent by God. We do not pick our crosses. Yet, they resemble the outward cross, since God sends the outward cross in order to train our bodies and keep us from falling into a habit of sin. But godliness, the inward cross, is God plowing our hearts so that we would truly fear him, love him, and trust him.
Therefore, the following is a poem describing this distinction.
Outside are fights, and fear within;
God’s hand on me is pressing.
My flesh is kept from outward sin;
My faith is proved, possessing
The truth of Christ, who sets us free
From death’s eternal misery.
His name I am confessing.
Such is the cross the Christian bears.
Though seen as outward trouble
Of suff’ring and external cares,
Beneath the storms and rubble
The inward man is proved to stand
With Christ his Lord at God’s right hand,
Who for his loss gives double.
While outward crosses train the flesh,
They vary in their sizes.
Some suffer death while some enmesh
In mocks as toil arises.
The outward cross includes the lies
Of preachers under godly guise,
And other kinds of vices.
But inward crosses always train
The heart to find its solace
In Christ who bore our grief and pain.
Tis joy amidst the lawless;
They never cease to taunt the Word,
But through such fire, my faith’s assured,
God’s promise proven flawless.