The dogmaticians often distinguished between the comforts of the world sought through the law, or philosophy, and the comforts given by the Christian cross. Melanchthon started this trend, and other dogmaticians, such as Hutter and Selnecker continued to compare the two. Even Calvin made this comparison of the bearing of the cross between philosophy and God’s Word. However, the key difference was that Calvin was not as concerned about distinguishing between law and gospel.
Instead, Calvin compared philosophy and God’s Word as an inferior versus a superior ethic (See his Institutes on the Bearing of the Cross). The Lutherans were much more interested in distinguishing between law and gospel within the concrete existence of the cross in the Christian life. The following are some common comforts given by philosophy, or the law, and why they can’t hold up to the comfort of the Christian’s cross.
The Lutherans were much more interested in distinguishing between law and gospel within the concrete existence of the cross in the Christian life. The following are some common comforts given by philosophy, or the law, and why they can’t hold up to the comfort of the Christian’s cross.
First, there is the teaching of fate. Here, natural man led by the light of reason can know that there is a god, and yet, he often reduces that god to fate. Fate was higher than the gods in classical mythology. For example, when Virgil describes the goddess Juno in his Aeneid, he calls her the queen of the gods. And yet, he says that she wanted to be queen of the nations si qua Fata sinant, “If the Fates should permit it.” Natural man can know that things are fixed by some type of god.
Yet, such natural knowledge of the law cannot grasp the truth God who, by his will freely sends the cross. As Jesus says (Matt 10:29), “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” This is not a far-removed god of fate who fixes things at random. Natural man might take refuge in the fact that bad things happen by accident. Then it is really no one’s fault, and he can just bear the common misery of man. It happens to everyone, so they say. Death is a part of life. Stuff happens.
But the Christian takes great comfort in knowing that God sends the cross. It does not happen by chance. And therefore, he does not comfort by chance. Death is not an accident, merely man’s existential problem. No, death is God’s punishment against sin. But just as death and suffering is no accident, neither is Christ’s death. Christ bore the wrath of God against sin (2 Cor 5:21; Is 53; Gal 3:13).
Another way the world tries to comfort itself with philosophy and the law is by giving moral advice. This might be good advice on the outside, but it cannot give the comfort the Christian cross gives. For example, such comforts tell you to keep your conscience clean from crime. Make sure you are not guilty of misbehavior when you are suffering. This is good advice, given even by St. Peter (1 Pet 4:15). So goes the old proverb Est aliquid magnis crimen abesse malis, “In great misfortune crime is something to be avoided.” And yet, this by itself cannot give comfort.
The Christian knows that even when he is suffering for doing good, he still needs to be comforted in his conscience. This is why St. Peter does not simply quote the old philosopher’s proverb, but he says, “Suffer as a Christian.” That is, suffer as one who is in Christ and whose sins are forgiven. The Christian cross gives comfort because it is united to the cross of Christ which alone cleanses our consciences from dead works to serve the living God (Heb 9:14).
There are a number of other examples of comforts given by the world through philosophy and natural law, but let’s look at one more. This is the affection one has for friends. In his letter on Friendship, Cicero speaks of the immortality of his friend Scipio who suddenly was taken by a stroke. He lives on by virtue of Cicero’s love for him, which will not be extinguished.
Certainly, remembering loved ones has its share of comfort. Yet, Christ teaches the Jews that greatness is not in whether mortals remember you, but whether God does. “Are you greater than our father Abraham who died,” they asked him. But what does Jesus say? “Abraham rejoiced to see My day. He saw it and was glad.” Celebrating a deceased loved one’s virtue has its limits. But true comfort is found in Christ, the God and Seed of Abraham through whom the nations are blessed.
So the world will give peace and comfort by following the law according to its reason. It will often promote good morals and virtues, such as loyalty and comradeship. But Christ gives peace by going to the Father through his obedient suffering and death. And we see him no more, so that his righteousness which avails before God cannot be grasped by the eyes, senses, or other virtues, but only by faith. His peace is invisible, passing our understanding and sight (John 14:27ff; Phil 4:7), and received by faith (Rom 5:1).
So the following is a poem summarizing this key distinction between the comforts of the world through the law and philosophy and the comforts of Christ through the cross.
The world declares and gives its peace
By granting order for the common good.
Such virtue makes their joy increase
When friends are bonded in a brotherhood.
Yet while they have such comfort’s cheer
The heart is hard; they cannot hear
The peace, which Jesus Christ declares,
Which frees the heart from sin and cares.
The mortals see their death advance.
“Tis part of life, a necessary share.
If it is fixed by fate and chance,
Then why should we in anguish now despair?”
So asks the world, which takes delight
In what they understand by sight.
Their god is nice, yet not involved
In suff’ring, loss, and things unsolved.
Yet God our Father does not flee
From sinners and the death they must endure.
With death He cursed eternally,
But sent His Son in flesh, so just and pure.
He took our sin and bore the woe,
As to His Father He would go.
He rendered to His perfect throne
His death for sinners to atone.
To God the Father Christ has gone.
So hidden from our nature’s carnal sight,
Through faith we find the morning dawn
Of Jesus’ Word of pardon shining bright.
So though the world denies its Lord
And scorns His church with lie and sword,
Though our own sins against us lure,
Beneath such toil is comfort sure.
The precious cross by God is sent
That through afflictions He might make us wise.
So by His Word and Sacrament
He strengthens faith while still the body dies.
As light in darkness bright has shown
So is the Spirit’s sigh and groan.
In anguish is our comfort found,
Since to His death, Christ’s peace is bound.