Why do Lutherans Make the Sign of the Cross? Get the Facts


Making the sign of the cross, which is a hand gesture that traces the vertical and horizontal beams over one’s head, chest, and shoulders, is commonly associated with Roman Catholicism. Yet other Christian traditions have historically used the gesture in prayer and worship, too, including Lutheranism.

Some Lutherans make the sign of the cross because their tradition’s founder, Martin Luther (1483-1546), encouraged people to practice it. He taught people to make the sign of the cross as an expression of faith during daily prayers and when experiencing spiritual warfare. Today, Lutherans are free to do it or not.

What is the point of making the sign of the cross, according to those that practice the gesture? What exactly did Luther teach about it? Do any other Protestants make the sign of the cross? Keep reading to learn more.

sign of the cross at a wedding
A bride and and groom make the sign of the cross

How is the sign of the cross made?

The sign of the cross is a gesture made with the hand that traces the shape of a Christian cross. When a priest or minister traces the shape on another person, they often perform the gesture in the air but in close proximity to the individual. When a person traces the cross on them self, they often touch their head, chest, and shoulders.

How is the cross traced exactly? The traditional way of performing the gesture is to touch the forehead, which marks the top of the cross. Then a person touches their chest, which marks the bottom of the cross. Then they trace the horizontal beam of the cross from one shoulder to the other. (Also see What Do Lutherans Believe About Mary?)

In Western traditions like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism, the horizontal gesture is made from left to right. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it’s made from right to left.

How is the hand shaped when tracing the cross? The shape of the hand varies. Some traditions intend to convey theological truth with the shape of the hand, but others don’t. In Western traditions that make the sign of the cross, the hand is often open so the fingers aren’t interlaced or touching.

This is intended to convey the five wounds of Christ. In many Eastern Christian traditions, the thumb, index finger, and middle finger touch. Three fingers making one point is intended to represent the Trinity. (Also see Do Lutherans Believe in Predestination?)

What is said when making the sign of the cross? Traditions vary, but in many cases the Trinity is invoked. When a person traces the top of the cross, the Father is mentioned. When the bottom of the cross is traced, the Son is mentioned. When the horizontal beams are traced, the Holy Spirit is mentioned. The phrase “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is often spoken while tracing the cross. (Also see Why Are Lutheran Churches Named After Saints?)

Why do people make the sign of the cross?

The sign of the cross is an expression of faith. It’s an outward gesture that signifies an unseen reality. Some describe it’s meaning with the analogy of a wedding ring. A wedding ring is an outward sign of an unseen reality. A wedding ring isn’t necessary to establish a relationship, but it’s a symbol of marriage that has meaning to a husband and wife.

Similarly, the sign of the cross, at least in Lutheranism, conveys no special power on its own. It’s a physical gesture that helps people consider and remember important spiritual truths. (Also see Are Lutherans Born Again?)

What did Martin Luther teach the sign of the cross?

Martin Luther encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross routinely. He believed it was helpful to a person’s devotion to Christ. Luther even said making the sign of the cross is the first thing believers should do when waking up in the morning and the last thing they should do at night.

For morning prayers:

“In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.” [1]

For evening prayers:

“In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.” [2]

During spiritual warfare:

“To defy the devil, I say, we should always keep the holy name upon our lips so that he may not be able to harm us as he would like to do. For this purpose it also helps to form the habit of commending ourselves each day to God – our soul and body, spouse, children, servants, and all that we have – for his protection against every conceivable need.

This is why the Benedicite, the Gratias, and other evening and morning blessings were also introduced and have continued among us. From the same source comes the custom learned in childhood of making the sign of the cross when something dreadful or frightening is seen or heard, and saying, ‘Lord God, save me!’ or, ‘Help, dear Lord Christ!’ and the like.” [3]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America also points out that Luther encouraged making the sign of the cross at baptism and during ordination services (see below). (Also see Do Lutherans Drink Alcohol?)

Martin Luther statue
Luther encouraged Christians to make the sign of the cross

How did the sign of the cross start?

The biblical basis for making the sign of the cross isn’t strong, though some cite select verses as a foundation for the practice (see below). Lutherans who practice the gesture, to extend the analogy used above, view it more like a wedding ring. Lots of Christians who wear wedding rings realize there is no biblical basis for wearing them. Nevertheless, it’s an outward, visible sign of an important spiritual commitment.

There are three Bible verses commonly cited in reference to making the sign of the cross. To be clear, not all, or even most Lutherans, who make the gesture believe these verses describe the practice. Yet a minority found in different Christian traditions do.

  • Genesis 4:15, “Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him.” (ESV)
  • Ezekiel 9:4, “And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” (ESV)
  • Revelation 22:4, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (ESV)

The sign of the cross is found in the early church, including in the writings of Tertullian and Chrysostom. (Also see Do Lutherans Pray the Rosary?)

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and the sign of the cross

The WELS, a conservative Lutheran denomination, teaches that making the sign of the cross can be beneficial, but it’s not necessary. WELS stresses that the practice is an exercise of a Christian’s freedom.

“Lutherans who do not join in that practice are also exercising their Christian freedom. Making the sign of the cross can be a helpful reminder that Christians are redeemed children of God—people who enjoy salvation only because of God’s forgiving love and not because of anything they have done (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7). [1]

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the sign of the cross

The ELCA, like the WELS, teaches that Lutherans are free to decide for themselves whether or not to make the sign of the cross. Yet whatever a person decides, the gesture is still an important part of Lutheran history:

“The sign of the cross is a treasured part of our heritage as Lutherans, because the practice was encouraged and used by Martin Luther himself.”

The ELCA points out that Luther taught the sign of the cross could be made on at least three occasions [5]:

  • Baptism: “Receive the sign of the holy cross on both your forehead and your breast” (Luther’s Works 53:107)
  • Ordination: “The ordinator blesses them with the sign of the cross” (Luther’s Works, 53:126)
  • Prayer: see references above

References:
[1] “Prayers for Daily Use,” The Small Catechism, An Explanation of Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Mankato, Minnesota: Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 2001, p. 26
[2] Ibid.
[3] Large Catechism I:72-74, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], pp. 395-96
[4] Source
[5] Source
[6] Source

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