I am an Ass, part II: The Sign of the Cross

[I know what you’re thinking: “Where’s part I? I’ve got to know!” Well, it’s HERE. Consider all your problems solved.] 


There’s an old saying that once someone becomes a Calvinist, he needs to be locked in a box for the next year or two. I certainly once fit that stereotype, and as a Presbyterian PK, it unfortunately coincided with my childhood. I remember bits and snippets of my days at an Lutheran elementary school in Lincoln, Nebraska, and far too many of them involve picking fights with teachers over theology. How dare they deny the sovereignty of God by saying that baptism saves. How could they ask me to commit idolatry by bowing toward the altar.

Yeah, I was an ass as a kid.

(And I pray to someday be less of an ass.)


In particular, I remember my sixth-grade teacher holding a couple of open forums to allow students to voice their theological differences, which in retrospect is kind of incredible. During one on baptism, I made my move:

“If baptism saves, then isn’t baptizing kids just playing God?”

Truly, I was blowing minds that day. I could tell I’d caught her off guard, because she simply said, “Interesting point. I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Of course, I had been hoping for an answer. I wanted to see her squirm, trapped in the vice of my logic, like a sinner in the hands of an angry God. Instead, she called me over to her desk the next day, thanked me for my contributions, and said “I look forward to seeing you in heaven, because I know you’ll be there.”

It was endlessly frustrating to have my opinion respected. To hear someone agree to disagree with me. And for the first time the thought entered my mind that maybe the Christian tradition was both wider and richer than I could imagine, and that maybe it wasn’t my calling to iron out all of its foibles by being a dick.

It was humbling.

Well, at least in retrospect.


What particularly stuck in my craw about Lutherans, though, was the sign of the cross. People waving their hands in the air, poking themselves in the face, shoulders, and gut, like it was some sort of magic charm. Like somehow you received extra Jesus because you moved your hand in a certain way. I rolled my eyes whenever someone did it.

When you’ve been taught Calvinistic ecclesiology and sacramentology from the cradle, it’s difficult not to see “superstition” wherever you look. The Reformed tradition can be hostile to the idea of power being ascribed to anything other than God — but then, if God has promised to give power to specific things, it’s no superstition to believe in that power. If St. Peter says baptism saves, then it would be superstition to believe otherwise.

And it might be superstition to treat the sign of the cross as a magic charm, but aside from a handful of the inadequately catechized, I have yet to meet anyone who understands it that way.


When I got to college, I had the pleasure of sitting down to a lot of meals with Catholic friends, and I was always struck by how they would habitually cross themselves before prayer. Here they were, in front of everyone in the room, marking themselves as set aside for Christ. It wasn’t anything magical. Just a way of saying Hey, I’m baptized. I’m not my own. I serve a master.


There’s an idea promoted by Calvin called the regulative principle of worshipwhich dictates that anything not specifically prescribed in scripture is forbidden in worship. Throughout the history of the Reformed faith, though, it’s never meant anything consistent. In Calvin’s day it meant no instruments and only hymns from the Psalter. Later it meant don’t celebrate Christmas. Now that Reformed congregations sing praise songs and light Advent wreaths, I’m not sure what it means.

The funny thing about the Reformed tradition is that, in our efforts to be super-biblical, we threw out all of the Western Rite, which is one of the most biblical things there is. Confession, absolution, invocation, creed, the word preached, corporate prayer, and the eucharist: it’s the whole Gospel in an hour, every Sunday morning.

And the sign of the cross, reminding us again and again of our Lord’s death and our baptism.


I regret being cut off from the traditional mass for so many years, not because I’m Catholic or ever intend to be, but because it denied me the pleasure of participating in rituals the Church had observed since ancient times. The greeting The Lord be with you — reserved exclusively for Sunday mornings, unlike a bland Good morning or How are the wife and kids? — or a simple hand gesture tracing the outstretched body of our Lord. That the gesture isn’t explicit Scripture no longer bothers me. It’s certainly Biblical to remind ourselves and others of the cross at every opportunity.

And each time I step into the nave, dip my fingers in the font, and cross myself, that’s what I’m doing.

You’re not your own. You were buried with Christ. Now you live for him.


And hey, if you liked this post, there’s a 71.3% chance you’ll like:

Season’s Shootings, or: I am an Ass

Blue Like Jazz: Too Subtle for Its Own Good

Mama, Creepy Kids, and Six Degrees of Humanae Vitae

8 thoughts on “I am an Ass, part II: The Sign of the Cross

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  3. Why do you say you never intend to be Catholic, with such finality? Have you ever considered the Catholic Church? No, seriously. I love being Catholic.

    • Actually, I don’t say that. I say that my regret of being cut off from the mass doesn’t depend on an intention to become Catholic.

      At the moment, I’m Lutheran because God has placed me in a Lutheran church. If I felt God was calling me to the Catholic Church, I would follow. At the moment, though, there are a few too many theological hurdles for me.

  4. Pingback: What Christians Can Learn from the “Atheist Megachurch” | The Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism

  5. Luke, I think it is only possible to use 1 Peter 3:21 as a full endorsement of the idea of baptismal regeneration if you pretty much ignore the context. Peter says]”Baptism[…] now saves you, […] THROUGH THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST.” Also he is comparing the water of baptism to the flood of Noah’s time. Clearly in that instance, it was not water that saved Noah’s family (actually it would have killed them.) It was believing the promise of God and obeying him.

    I’m not saying baptism does nothing. Through the work of the Spirit it might do a lot for people; possibly even working faith in some of them. I just don’t think sprinkling water on someone’s head automatically makes them saved.

    • Tamar, I’d encourage you to read Colossians 2, where St. Paul teaches that in baptism we are buried and raised with Christ. In other words, baptism saves “through the resurrection of Christ” because it is the means through which the death and resurrection of Christ are applied to us. God is not bound by baptism, but Scripture makes it clear that he chooses to work through baptism.

      It’s entirely possible to read all of the Biblical passages about how baptism saves and take them as metaphorical or allegorical, but the problem is, none of the Church Fathers did. St. Irenaeus, for instance, wrote multiple times that baptism was “regeneration to God,” and he lived within a generation of the Apostles, so I tend to think his understanding of Scripture is a bit better than mine. Really, there’s not a single example of anyone in the Church denying the regenerative power of baptism prior to Zwingli.

      • Read it. Interestingly enough, Paul effectively equates circumcision with baptism in verse 11 and 12. What else did Paul say about circumcision?
        “We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? was it after he was circumcised or before? It was not after but before!” Romans 4: 9b-10
        What did Irenaeus have to say about that?

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