The Sign of the Cross?

Is making the sign of the cross (as in Catholic Church and tradition) biblical?

John 4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Thank you for your question. The short answer in "No." Why, "No"?

The worship of God is regulated by God himself. As the WCF 21.1 states, "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture."

We observe this in numerous ways in Scripture. For example, true worship (John 4:24) is observed to include many elements, such as, but not limited too:

(1) A preparation of his people (Neh. 9:1).
(2) A separation of his people from the world (Neh. 9:2).
(3) A confession of his people of their sin (Neh. 9:2).
(4) A hearing and responding to the Word (Neh. 9:3).
(5) A specific leadership (Neh. 9:4-5).
(6) The prayers of his people (Neh. 9:5).
(7) The blessing and exaltation to God (Neh. 9:5).
(8) The preaching of the Word (Neh. 9:6-38).

So, God prescribes what true worship is in his Word. As the writer of Hebrews instructs us, the church needs to offer "acceptable worship, with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28-29). We should worship in God's way; that is according to the way God has commanded and prescribed. We should not add to God's ways or subtract from them (Deut. 4:2; 12:32). This is consistent with what the Westminster Larger Catechism teaches:

Question 108. What are the duties required in the second commandment?
Answer. The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the word; the administration and receiving of the sacrament ...

Question 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?

The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself ... corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever.

So, only God has the right to command what is to be used and done in worship. We are not free to add to what he has commanded (Deut. 4:2; 12:32).

Now that we have ever so briefly described what true worship is we may more specifically address your question; "Is making the sign of the cross (as in Catholic Church and tradition) biblical?"

In the Catholic tradition, the Sign of the Cross is considered a prayer and creed. It is accomplished by using one's right hand and touching one's forehead at the mention of "the Father;" the lower middle of one's chest at the mention of "the Son;" and the left shoulder on the word "Holy" and the right shoulder on the word "Spirit." Eastern Christians, Catholic and Orthodox alike, reverse the order. The words associated with the Sign of the Cross are simply, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Catholics observe that the Sign of the Cross is a very powerful and mysterious sign that: (1) opens one to grace; (2) wards off the Devil; and (3) seals them with the Holy Spirit, etc. (21 Things We Do When We Make the Sign of the Cross, by Stephen Beale). However, grace is not by works (Eph. 2:8-10), the Sign of the Cross is not one of the weapons that God gives the Christian for spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-18), and true Christians are already sealed by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14); we don't seal ourselves. Therefore, within Catholic tradition the Sign of the Cross is mere idolatry.

So, the problem is not with the Cross itself (or with what is said during the traditional ritual), but with making the cross-sign itself an idol! While the regulatory principles of worship are instituted upon high, down below the golden calf of the Sign of the Cross is substituted for genuine worship (cf. Exod. 32:4, 7-8). Though by it, Catholics may have some good intentions, it is a clear violation of the Second Commandment and it also associates false theology with the Trinity each and every time it is done!

In neither the Old or New Testament do we read about making the Sign of the Cross. When Jesus taught his church to pray he did not mention or even allude to it (Matt. 6:9-13). Neither did any of his Apostles ever refer to it. So, it seems the Sign of the Cross would be adding to God's revealed will for worship (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32). Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 240 AD) found no support for the Sign of the Cross in Scripture (the context of Rev. 7:3; 9:4; 14:1, etc. do not support the sign), but wrote that it simply stemmed from mere "tradition":

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? ... At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign (De Corona, Chapter 3).

Though he rigorously defended it, Basil the Great (c. 329 - 379 AD) also considered the Sign of the Cross a mere "tradition" or "custom":

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles [no text cited?]; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay - no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 27 ^ 66).

John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) noted that the gesture was "efficacious," saying:

Since not merely by the fingers ought one to engrave it, but before this by the purpose of the heart with much faith. And if in this way you have marked it on your face, none of the unclean spirits will be able to stand near you ... (Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 54, NPNF Vol. 10 p. 336).

However, why does the blood of Christ need any assistance? Isn't it efficacious enough? (1 Cor. 1:30). Isn't the Christian already alive in Christ alone (John 6:63; Rom. 8:3)? Is it not the blood of Christ alone that cleanses the saint to serve the living God (Heb. 9:14)? Is not the Christian perfected by Christ alone (Heb. 10:14)? Christ died to "save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). He was "stricken for the transgression of [his] people" (Isa. 53:8) and he bore all their sin (Isa. 53:12) and in doing so he justified his elect (Isa. 53:11). By his death and resurrection, Christ effectually "ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). As the Apostle Paul wrote, "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Gal. 6:14). This speaks of what was accomplished upon the literal actual Cross of Jesus Christ, not some mere "mysterious" representation of it! (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 2:20). Reminders can be good, but they are not effectual!

While some like Martin Luther, a Catholic Priest, accepted the Sign of the Cross (see, Luther's Smaller Catechism, Morning Prayer), most within the Reformed faith do not observe it as Scriptural. John Calvin called it "a superstitious rite" (Institutes 4.17.28). The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) Chapter 27, calls it a mere "custom in the ancient church."

Giving attention to prayer, the proclamation of the Word, baptism, and the Lord's Supper, are all scripturally a part of genuine worship, but the Catholic Sign of the Cross is not. "Let God be true, but every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4, KJV).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).