The dogmaticians make a distinction between Christ’s cross and the Christian’s cross. Christ’s cross is propitiatory while the Christian’s cross is disciplinary. Christ’s cross alone takes away the guilt of sin. The Christian’s cross teaches him to commend himself to Christ’s cross even as he learns from Christ’s example.
In fact, it is in this way that the Christian’s cross is united to Christ’s cross. We may say that Christ’s cross in so far as it is the propitiation for our sins before God is properly speaking the cross of Christ. But Christ’s cross in so far as it is our example is the Christian’s cross.
St. Peter makes the distinction between the redemption of Christ and the example of Christ when he says (1 Pet 2:21), “To this you have been called, since Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that we might follow in his steps.” First, Christ is Vicar. Then he is our example. That is, first Christ suffers and dies on our behalf (for us). Then he is our example. Christ’s example must be taught in light of Christ’s atoning work on our behalf. In other words, the Christian’s disciplinary cross must be taught in light of the comfort of Christ’s saving cross.
This informs us on how we should look at Christ’s example. Certainly, his example teaches us obedience. He teaches us not to curse those who curse us, but to bless them. He teaches us not to sin. And yet, his example is not merely a moral example. It is rather a concrete application of law and gospel. It is both moral instruction as well as comfort and encouragement. This is why the writer to the Hebrews says (Heb 12:3), “For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” To rephrase that positively, consider Christ’s example because by it you find comfort and encouragement for your soul.
This is what is so wonderful about the new obedience. It is not simply another dispensation of forced optimism and dutifully constrained thankfulness. No, it is a school house in which our older brother teaches us with constant encouragement what it means to be God’s son. Our faith’s thankful response is, after all, dependent upon Christ’s constant encouragement.
As Christ, the omniscient Son of God, humbled himself and learned obedience through suffering (Heb 5:8) in order to save us, so do we learn from our heavenly Father’s discipline. But what remains central to this discipline is the comfort of Christ’s example. When you must learn to swallow your pride and apply God’s Word to your life, it hurts the old Adam.
But by this, Christ is teaching you what he endured to save you. As you learn obedience through suffering, faith constantly takes refuge in the obedience Christ perfected for you. The Christian, therefore, bears his cross by resisting the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. This cross remains the defining feature of the new obedience. And it is in this context that the joy and comfort received by faith remain central.
The cross of Christ alone can take away
What our own crosses teach our hearts to flee.
We all, like sheep, have sinned and gone astray,
But Christ obeyed the Father perfectly.
Himself He humbled, learning what He knew
Would to his brethren righteousness endue.
Thus baptized into Christ we trust and see
That we are sons of God, and so we learn
As any dad should teach his child for free.
It hurts our flesh, but by it we shall yearn
For Christ’s pure mercy from his Kingdom true,
And grasp through faith what makes our spirits new.
His cross is not our comfort in our pain
Unless by such He took away our sin.
It’s not a model for our souls to gain
Eternal favor, life, and peace within.
We follow His example so to learn
What Jesus by His death for us did earn.
But since He by His cross declares us just
We walk within His steps throughout our life.
Thus Christ’s example teaches us to trust
In God who keeps us honest through the strife.
As Christ obeyed in patience in our place,
He trains our conscience till we see His face.
The Christian thus obeys his Father’s will,
Not as a debt, by covenant constrained,
But freely, knowing Jesus did fulfill
Salvation through His pain, and thus ordained
That His own members should themselves resist
The sins for which He died, yet still exist.
While Christ has borne the sin of ev’ry man,
Not counting ‘gainst the sinner any blame,
Tis still a part of God’s election’s plan
That Christians, justified by Jesus’ name
Learn from their Lord’s example true and fresh
To shun what still continues in the flesh.
For as our Lord resisted sin to blood,
And sanctified our nature by His death,
He teaches that in anguish comforts bud
When we must fight our passion’s luring breath.
Thus His example’s not our means to earn,
But comfort as our Father makes us learn.