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The Law of the Cross

by Eugene E. Grollmes, S.J.


The purpose of this article is to present an understanding of Fr. B. Lonergan, S.J.’s view on the lesson to be learned from Christ’s death on the Cross by studying the three steps, which constitute the "law of the cross": suffering and death, transformation, and the reward of glory.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, September 1964

Nietzsche thought that humility and Christian mildness belonged to a religion of slaves who, though secretly envious of the power of their masters, wanted their ignoble servile fear to pass for virtue. Patience and long-suffering were considered by Marx not to be derived from the wisdom of God but from an ideology thought up by the rich. Christianity, according to the originator of Communism, was but a tool employed by the rich in order that they might have the riches of this life more easily and the poor might be deceived by the empty hope of a future life. Despite the opinions of these philosophers, every Christian knows that the Son of God died nailed to a cross. Yet, though their faith is strong, the lesson to be derived from this event is often in need of clarification. In his book, De Verbo Incarnate, Fr. B. Lonergan, S.J., does much to clarify this lesson, and it is the purpose of this article to present an understanding of his view.1

Contrary to what may have been expected, Christ in His passion did not strike down His enemies and thus destroy the evil that was being brought against Him. Rather He obediently accepted the hardship, and thus transformed evil to good. Death was in itself a punishment for sin. But Christ transformed death by making it the expression of His love of the Father. The apparent victory of His enemies became but a manifestation of Christ's detestation and sorrow for sin. Christ transformed death itself through His obedient acceptance of it to the means of salvation, and only because of this death could the Father raise His Son again in glory.

These three steps—suffering and death, transformation, and the reward of glory—constitute the "law of the cross."

We, with Christ, must suffer evils as punishment for sin. Daily each of us must take up our cross (Matt. 16:24) and fill up what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). Nor should we forget that for those who love God all things work together unto good (Rom. 8:28). According to this doctrine of the New Testament, the transformation of evil must become the rule of our life. We must accept the cross and have the wisdom to see that in losing our life we gain it and in dying the seed bears fruit. Christ's whole work of redemption was geared so we might see the difference between, those of this world who seek power and his followers among whom the greater is the one who serves) and the first is the servant of all (Mk. 10:42-45; Matt. 20:25-28). St. Peter has words of praise not for those who are justly punished but for those who are wrongly treated, because in this way they follow in the footsteps of the Lord (I Peter 2:18-25). St. Paul, when he wanted an example of humility and love, proposed that of Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:2-8). He also warns us to suffer with Christ in order to be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17). He himself wanted to fill up what was wanting in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24), Those who share in the sufferings of Christ are to rejoice, so that they may exalt in the revelation of His glory (I Pet. 4:13).

Thus do the disciples of Christ give us an example. They had expected the restoration of Israel (Lk. 24:31), yet when they had received the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:8,2:1 ff.), they went forth from the council rejoicing that they were considered worthy to suffer shame for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).

All who want to live piously in Christ Jesus will suffer persecutions (II Tim. 3:12). For if the world hates them, His disciples are to remember His words, "If you had been of the world, the world would love its own; but you are not of the world because I have chosen you from it. Therefore the world hates you" (Jo. 15:18-19).

Having received the Holy Spirit, which the world cannot receive (Jo. 14:17), the disciples preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those Jews and Greeks who are called, it is the wisdom and the power of God (I Cor. 1:23-24). This God-given wisdom (I Cor. 1:30), which is mysterious (I Cor. 2:7), is revealed by the Spirit of God so that we have the mind of Christ; but this same wisdom is not perceived by the non-spiritual man (I Cor. 2:10-16).

Mindful of the necessity of imitating Christ in His sufferings, His resurrection should also be before us. For if we are planted with Him unto the likeness of His death, we are also one with Him in a resurrection like His (Rom. 6:5). "God, the source of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself, after you have suffered a little while perfect, steady, strengthen, and firmly establish you" (I Peter 5:10). The sufferings of this life are not to be compared with the future glory, which is to be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). "For if our present light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure" (II Cor. 4:17). Although eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what things God has prepared for those who love him (I Cor. 2:9), even in this life we can learn that all things work to the good for those who love God (Rom. 8:28).

To see that the "Law of the Cross" sums up the design of God, we must attend to the facts of the redemption as they are contained in Sacred Scripture and in the teaching of the Church and strive to grasp their significance.

Sacred Scripture teaches that death is the punishment for sin, also that the devil and Adam were the origin of sin and of punishment (cf. Gen. 2:15, 3:19). Because of the envy of the devil death pervaded the world (Wisdom 2:24); through sin death entered the world (Rom. 5:12); the wages of sin are death (Rom. 6:22, 23).

Hence in this first step we attend to the existence of sin and to death as its punishment.

In the second step of the law of the cross, there is a transformation of the punishment into a good. But what is the evidence in Sacred Scripture that such a transformation took place in or through the death of Christ? Did Christ voluntarily submit to this punishment and thereby transform the punishment into a good?

St. Paul points out the antithesis of the first and the second Adam (I Cor. 15:20-22; Rom. 5:12-21). Resurrection and grace in Christ follow sin and death in Adam. But this succession of events is not simply a leap into a different realm. It is precisely through the death that the resurrection takes place. Christ lays down His life to take it up again (John 10:17). It is because of His obedience unto death that God exalted Him and gave Him a name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9 ff.). It is because of the passion and death that He is crowned with honor and glory (Heb. 2:7).

Next we must recall that this transformation of death into life did not take place just for the sake of Christ, but for our sakes. He was handed over for our sins and He rose for our justification (Rom. 4:25). He shared our flesh and blood in order that through death He might destroy him who held the power over death, namely, the devil, and thus liberate those who were in the fear of death and subject to it (Heb. 2:14). We are reconciled to God through the death of His Son (Rom. 5:10). In Him we have redemption through His blood and forgiveness of sin (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). He gave Himself up for us in order to redeem us from all iniquity and so cleanse for Himself an acceptable people, the follower of good works (Titus 2:14; Eph. 5:25-27).

Finally, though this transformation of death through Christ was to gain spiritual goods for us, it does not exclude bodily ones. For now it is a gain to die (Phil. 1:21). This mortal body has put on immortality and so we can say that death is swallowed up in victory (I Cor. 15:55). And so we profess in the Creed the resurrection of the body and of the dead. 2

Thus the evidence from Sacred Scripture for the law of the cross is clear. Though He indeed suffered, Christ did not have any actual or original guilt and neither did He in anyway take our guilt upon Himself. Therefore, we may conclude certainly, He did not contract the punishment for the guilt, but took it upon Himself voluntarily.

By His voluntary and free acceptance of the punishment for man's sins, Christ transformed it into a good, and in so doing brought His human nature to its actual degree of virtue and perfection. This was His own. It must be recognized that this virtue and perfection of Christ could have been had in His human nature without His having suffered to attain it. However, He wanted for Himself a kind of perfection that is attained through voluntary suffering that He knew was required of man. And so we understand what is said in the Epistle to the Hebrews that it was fitting for Him to be perfected through sufferings (Heb. 2:10), and that He learn obedience through those things which He suffered (Heb. 5:8).

The law of the cross, it should be noted, is verified differently in us than in Christ because we are truly sinners. Guilty of both original and actual sin, we contract punishment. Moreover, the perfection, which is proper to us, is precisely that which we attain through the onerous effort to turn ourselves away from evil and turn to good. All the gifts of grace and glory, which we receive, are absolutely supernatural; they exceed our human nature completely and are in no way something that belongs to us.

The transformation of death, so central to the law of the cross, can be witnessed by us in many ways. For instance, the sacrament of Baptism is to signify the transforming death of Christ; it is also to signify our own conformation to this death whereby we enjoy that newness of life wrought by the transformation of death through Christ. "For if we are buried with Him through Baptism unto death, it is so that just as Christ has arisen from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in the newness of life" (Rom. 6:4; cf. Col. 2:12, I Cor. 11:26).

This transformation can also be seen as fundamental to morality and ascetics. "Therefore think of yourselves as dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:11; cf. Col. 3:1-4). "If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds prompted by the flesh, you will live" (Rom. 8:13; cf. I Cor. 9:27).

Even to the purely physical realm, this transformation has significance. "As for us, our commonwealth is in heaven, and it is from there that we eagerly await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who by an exercise of the power which enables Him even to subject the universe to Himself will refashion our lowly bodies, conforming them to His glorious body" (Phil. 3:20-21).

But is this law of the cross, which we see operating all around us, appropriate for man? The Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost (Lk. 19:10). To God's wisdom it was fitting that fallen nature be restored to participation in divine glory through the Law of the Cross. Certainly God possessed the power to transform fallen nature in a moment back to an integral state. This was perhaps the messianic hope of the Jews. But, historically, our redemption was accomplished differently. And in this actual accomplishment, sinners were called to conversion by God, but they with effort must turn themselves to God. They bear the social as well as the individual wages of sin and bearing them they transform them into the occasion of greater virtue in Christ. As St. Paul said we are not to be overcome by evil, but we are to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

In this struggle we see that the law of the cross is not a precept, determined and promulgated by some lawgiver, which affects the ears but nothing more. The law of the cross is indeed prescribed by our Lord and his apostles in Sacred Scripture. It is inculcated not by words only, but most especially by examples, and these great examples. The law of the cross has been carried out in Christ to such perfection that satisfaction has been made for all punishments; moreover, through the transformation of evil, a sacrifice has been offered for all sins, infinite merit has been acquired for all gifts of grace, and for every alienation from God a mediator intervenes, an eternal priest, our Lord, the Son of the Father, so that we may be taken back as adopted sons.

The law of the cross has that universality which belongs to laws, which lead men possessing free will to their eternal end. Just as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (I Cor. 15:22; cf. Rom. 5:12-21). Just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so we bear that of the heavenly (I Cor. 15:49). Our Lord did not enjoin the command of the cross upon a few select disciples. He said to them, "If anyone wishes to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mk. 8:34).

Since everything is reducible to the wisdom of the divine intellect and the goodness of the divine will, we must attend especially to wisdom and love in discussing the propriety of the law of the cross, which we observed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.

First we attend to the love that is manifested in the law of the cross. This love must unite God and man, it must demonstrate God's love, and it must also demonstrate it in such a way that the very cross itself allows for man's response of love to be given. This is admirably accomplished in the law of the cross. The degree and kind of love Christ has for us is shown first of all in His assimilating Himself to our condition; secondly, in the love with which He offered Himself for us; and finally, in making it possible through this assimilation and love, that we, in bearing our cross, are associated with Him, conformed to Him, and one with Him.

Assimilated to us, Christ sacrificed Himself for us out of love. Christ Himself testified to His love: "No one can give a greater proof of his love than by laying down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). St. Paul compared this love of Christ for His Church with the love of a man for his wife and for his own flesh (Eph. 5:25-30).

Christ demonstrated this interior love through outward action. He knew that we were slow of heart to believe (Lk. 24:25). He also knew that if He be lifted up, He would draw all things to himself (John 12:32).

We are predestined to be conformable to the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29). We do not suffer in order to be glorified, but rather suffer with Him in order to be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17). Hence comes that paradox proper to Christians, that is, to rejoice in sufferings. The disciples rejoiced to be counted worthy to suffer insult for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). St. Paul rejoiced in his sufferings on behalf of the Colossians, and thus filled up what was wanting in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). All Christians now sharing in the sufferings of Christ rejoice in order that they may rejoice in the revelation of His glory (I Pet. 4:13). Companions in His sufferings are configured to Him, so that sharing in His sufferings, they may somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:11). They carry the mortification of Jesus in their bodies (II Cor. 4:10). They put aside the old man with his actions and put on the new, the one renewed after the image of its creator. Here there is no Gentile, no Jew, no circumcised, no uncircumcised, no barbarian, no Scythian, no slave, no free man, but Christ is everything in each and all (Col. 3:10-11; cf. Eph. 4:22-24).

Besides demonstrating His own love, Christ revealed the love of the Father. The Father has first loved us (I John 4:10); when we were dead in sill, because of the great love with which He has loved us, rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4-5). He was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (II Cor. 5:19). The Father has exhibited Christ as a propitiation to show forth His justice, so that He is at once just and justifying (Rom. 3:25-26). Thus God proves His love for us, because, when we were still sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

Besides manifesting God's love, the law of the cross portrays the wisdom of God. This mystery has been hidden through eternal ages, but now by the command of the eternal God it is being revealed to all the nations to bring about their submission to the faith (Rom. 16:25-26). This great mystery of godliness was made manifest in the human nature of Christ, was vindicated by the Spirit, and appeared to the angels, was preached to the Gentiles, and taken up into glory (I Tim. 3:16). This mystery is Christ in you, your hope of glory, whom we preach (Col. 1:27). The divine mystery is Christ, in whom are to be found hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:2-3). God's good pleasure, the mystery of His will, He decreed to put into effect in Christ, namely, to gather all creation both in heaven and on earth under Him as head (Eph. 1:10). The divine mystery is that a temporary blindness fell upon Israel (Rom. 11:25 ff.) and the Gentiles were made joint heirs and fellow members of the same body, joint partakers in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:6). The mystery is, that the mystery of the kingdom is not recognized by the blind (Mk. 4:11 ff.), the mystery of the cross is opposed to human wisdom (I Cor. 1:23 ff.) and is revealed through the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:10-16).

Sincerely could St. Paul exclaim: "O, the depth of the riches and of the wisdom of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways! For 'Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and in turn had a recompense due?' For from Him and through Him and unto Him are all things. To Him be glory forever, Amen" (Rom. 11: 33-36). And again, "Who has known the mind of the Lord so well as to instruct Him. But we have the mind of Christ" (I Cor. 2:16).

Yet how can God's wisdom permit evil? "The Almighty God, who . . . has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil."3 "For he judged it better to bring good out of evil, than not to permit evil."4 What can one say that is more profound than these words of Augustine? God could have created a world in which evils would not have existed, but He judged it better to transform evil to good than never permit the existence of evil. And what is this "to bring good out of evil" except the law of the cross? Thus God preferred the law of the cross. He preferred it to the point that He did not spare even His only Son, but gave Him up for us (Rom 8:32). So we come to the point where we see in some wise at least that the mystery of divine wisdom and of divine love are one. We also come to see somewhat that God's severity, which decreed satisfaction or punishment and the divine mercy, which sent His only Son for our salvation, are also one.

However, the law of the cross seems to present us with an impossibility. According to Christ's own words a good tree cannot bring forth bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit (Matt. 7:18). How then can fallen, sinful nature by means of a will that is good conquer over evil and so arrive at a sharing in God's glory?

Without God as first cause, certainly the restoration of the human race would not have taken place. One does not gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles (Matt. 7:16). But nothing is impossible with God. It was not God's good pleasure that He should through his omnipotent power gather good fruit from bad trees, but rather that a wild olive be inserted in the cultivated olive (Rom. 11:17) and He wanted a vine in which the branches abided (John 15:1 ff.). He wanted Christ as a head in whom the members lived and which thus filled out the fullness of God. We have already pointed out the differences in the way in which the law of the cross is verified in Christ and in us. To these we must add still another that in Christ the law of the cross is the cause of redemption and in us it is the effect.

Divine wisdom wanted not only to give us salvation but also the cause of salvation (Heb. 5:9). God wanted to adopt sons for Himself through his beloved Son (John 16:27; 17:23, 26). He wanted to pour out the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 16:13) and love (Rom. 5:5) by means of His Son (Acts 2:33), who is able to send the Spirit (John 16:15). He wanted to give grace and glory through the mediation of a divine person in an assumed nature. He wanted to give this grace and glory to those who were sinners and unworthy, but He did not want to give it to them precisely as unworthy sinners. Therefore, through His own Son, He brought about for them the merit of obedience, the redemption from the bond of guilt, satisfaction for the debt of punishment and a sacrifice of reconciliation.

In conclusion, the law of the cross is not known except through the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 1:18-31; 2:10-16) and there are, as St. Paul points out, many enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18). Yet every Christian knows he must bear the Redeemer's cross willingly lest the same charge be made against him that was made against Peter when he objected to Christ's suffering, "You do not take God's view of things, but men's" (Matt. 16:23).


* Father Grollmes is concluding his theological studies at St. Mary's College, St. Marys, Kansas, M.A. (St. Louis University).

1 B. Lonergan, S.J., De Verbo Incarnato (Romae: Pontifica Universitas Gregoriana, 1961). Pp. 502-536.

2 The Apostles Creed, DB 6.

3 St. Augustine, Enchiridion, c. XI.

4 Ibid. c. XXVII.

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