6. I am the Truth and the Life.
These words, too, we shall discuss very simply, and we shall dispense with any sharp-witted speculation. To say much the same thing in German and in a blunt manner, these terms are synonymous. It is only that different names are used for the practical application, namely, for the passage or crossing. For all these terms refer to the one Christ. Yet they are various names, to reflect the various ways one feels when clinging to Him and finally making one’s way across. As has already been said, to our perception and understanding this seems, first of all, anything but the way that leads to the Father in heaven; for we must walk through nothing but cross and death, seeing neither path nor bridge, neither counsel nor help for our souls. Yes, everybody shuns the crossing and is frightened by it, not knowing how to bring it off. It is like a person who faces a wide ditch or a body of deep water which he must cross, and yet he sees no path and no bridge. Thus the Children of Israel were terrified by the vast and turbulent waters of the Red Sea when they heard that they could not cross anywhere but must either go through or remain in the hands of the enemy. They may have been tempted to say: “Is this what you call escape from death and dungeon, hedged in on all sides as we are by high mountains and with nothing but waves and water before us? Yes, it would be different if we were birds or fish and could fly over or swim across the sea!” Still a way had to be found, for the sake of the Word of God. The sea had to part and let them walk through without getting wet.
Here, too, there is nothing visible or evident to indicate that this is the way that leads to eternal life, since man feels only terror and the fear of death. But over against this Christ stands with His words, as He says: “I am the Way.” He changes that which is no way but is actually perdition into a way and a bridge on which man can set foot and walk across undauntedly and unhesitatingly, just as the Children of Israel passed through the sea physically, dry-footed and unhindered, in answer to God’s Word. They had no other way. This is the first point.
Secondly, after we have set foot on the way, have ventured forth and begun to believe, then it is necessary that we become sure, keep our feet on the ground, and not be drawn back or be frightened away. For here again the devil tries to conjure up his phantoms, to cause heartache, and to cast all sorts of stumbling blocks into our way, in order to lead us beside and off the right way, to keep us from pursuing the right course. First he employs all his craft and cunning to beguile the people. This he does with the very words of Holy Writ and under the guise of the name of Christ. Thus all schismatic spirits and heretics come clad in sheep’s clothing; they use the same words, manner, and mien, as though they were the true teachers of this way. They exalt nothing but Christ’s honor and faith in Christ. In this way they deceive the people who want to follow Christ and would like to find the right way.
The situation is similar to that of a person who takes the right road when he leaves the city gate and then comes to a place where two or three roads branch off. Now some knave comes up to him and directs him to take the wrong way. Then the principle applies: “Proof and perseverance in the faith.”30 Investigate; make sure that you are on the right road, and then stay on it. That, in my opinion, is the simplest way to express the second part: veritas, the truth. Christ is not only the Way on which we must begin our journey, but He is also the right and the safe Way we must walk to the end. We dare not be deflected from this to the wrong ways which misdirect us to seek something, besides Christ to help us gain salvation. Take, for instance, those who first learn to know Christ through faith and then relapse into the doctrine of works, as has happened up to this time in the papacy. Furthermore, we must not be retarded or repelled in our progress by such obstacles as stumps and stones we encounter on the way, when the devil obtrudes so many false doctrines, factious, schisms, offensive and evil examples—also persecution, peril, and temptation—that we either begin to despair on the way or at least grow fatigued and weary.
When one begins to preach the Gospel, the multitude comes rushing, and everyone wants to hear the sweet and comforting message of the forgiveness of sin through Christ. But they do not continue to do so. For, as Christ says, most of the seed falls on stony and thorny soft (Matt. 13:5–7). The grain—that is, the proclamation of the Gospel—is properly sown, but it lacks the soil in which to take root and gain strength. Thus many people have a fine and good faith in the beginning; but when they find themselves well on the way and should now continue on their course, they let themselves be confused and diverted from the way, because they are not sure of their ground or are frightened and then relapse into their former ideas.
When the sea had parted and formed a way for the Jews, who now stood there and saw that the water was high above their heads to the right and to the left, they probably thought: “Alas, what have we done? Are we not the greatest fools, to venture into this wild flood? We surely see that the water is very close to us. What if it were to close over us and drown us all in a moment?” (This actually happened to Pharaoh and his entire host a little later.) This would have happened to them too if they had given way to such thoughts and permitted doubt and unbelief to gain the upper hand. Either they would have become distraught and have run back into the midst of the enemy, or they would have become so frightened as to fall all over themselves and perish in the water after all. This was the fate of many of them later on in the wilderness, when they murmured and despaired of crossing it, when they yearned to return to Egypt. But since at the time the Jews accepted the way through the sea in obedience to God’s command, continued on it, and did not doubt, the water had to stand still. Not a drop could fall, and the sea had to let them pass through dry-footed, although there was no cause for this, although this was, in the judgment of reason, a perilous, horrible, and impassable way.
Here Christ wants to say: “When you have apprehended Me in faith, you are on the right way, which is reliable and does not mislead you. But only see that you remain and continue on it; for you will encounter many an obstacle and obstruction, both to the right and to the left. Therefore you must be prepared to hold firmly to Me and not to be troubled, no matter what shocking and terrible things may confront you, either to frighten you away from Me or to lure and entice you aside with beautiful deception. You must know that all this is the devil’s lie and deceit, whereby he leads you to perdition. But you can rely on Me. I will guide you through this wide sea, from death into eternal life, from the world and the devil’s realm to the Father. Therefore I Myself want to be, and to be called, not only the Way but also the Truth and the Life.”
This, then, is my simple understanding of this verse, that all of it applies uniformly to the one Christ. With a view to the beginning He is called the Way; He is the Truth with regard to the means and the continuation; He is the Life by reason of the end, For He must be all—the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. He must be the first stone, the stone on which the other stones are placed and on which the entire vault or roof is constructed. He is the first, the middle, and the last rung of the ladder to heaven (Gen. 28:12). For through Him we must make the beginning, continue, and conclude our journey into yonder life. Thus it is all one and the same thing, and one and the same Christ, save that He assumes different aspects in our experience. At first it is difficult to find the way; then it is still harder to continue and remain on the way; but it is most trying when we have walked on the way for a long time and now must come to our lodging house.
For then we are exposed to the devil and death, who will murder, behead, burn us at the stake, or, if he can do no more, will kill us in our beds by pestilence or another plague and then bury us in the ground. Is it the right way to life or up to the Father when a Christian dies a most shameful death, is devoured by death, and all the world sees and knows no more than that he is decomposing and changing to dust under the soil? By what right can this be called coming to life and to the Father? I will not even mention the inner plagues and torments that the devil continually inflicts especially on the noblest Christians in the hour of death and at other times as well, with his darts and the terror of hell, which make them feel as though they were in the jaws of death or in the abyss of hell. Thus St. Paul also laments and affirms with an oath in 1 Cor. 15:31: “I protest, brethren, by my pride in you … I die every day”; that is: “I constantly find myself in the jaws of death as in a deep ocean.”
The story of the Children of Israel in the Red Sea helps us understand this verse all the better. It was not enough that, in compliance with God’s command, they ventured into the sea and now proceeded on their way, confident that they would reach the opposite shore. When they were over halfway across and saw the shore or the land before them, then king Pharaoh with all his host appeared behind them. Now their peril was just as great as it was before they had stepped into the sea. It was no help to them that they had found a way where there had been no way, and that they were now nearly across. No, God had to come to their aid miraculously and rescue them from the death that was breathing down their necks. The angel who led them with a wall of fire and clouds had to come between them and the enemy with thunder and lightning, to frighten the latter and turn them back. But before the enemy could look back, the ocean fell upon them and swallowed them up. In this way the Children of Israel were saved from imminent danger of death; and for them this Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
We must experience the same thing when we approach the shore of yonder life and are to disembark. We find death blocking our path. We cannot escape it. We must first take a most perilous leap. My reason would judge that it is indeed a wretched life, to be carried out through the city gate, to be buried under the earth, and to be reduced to dust. And yet Christ declares that this is the very way to gain life and to come to the Father. Therefore in that hour you must ignore physical death, the grave, pestilence, the sword, and the fire which you feel, also all the darts and spears the devil hurls into your heart. Instead, Christ says, “you must look upon Me. I have been for you the Way and the Truth, and I have led you hitherto, to keep you from straying. I have protected you in all kinds of danger, lies, and deception; and I will also be the Life in and through death, that you may have life as surely as you now feel death.” Otherwise faith would have nothing to do, and it would not be necessary for Christ to give this comfort. For if God spans the way to heaven with a bridge that I could see and feel from beginning to end, with its entrance and exit, why would I need faith or this sermon?
Therefore we can summarize the content of this verse most simply and say: “Hold to Christ in faith; thus you make the right beginning. Remain with Him; then you proceed aright. Persevere thus until the end; then you are saved.” With these words Christ wants to tear and turn our hearts from all trust in anything else and pin them to Himself alone, so that we know and consider nothing else when it comes to making the great leap into yonder life. While we still sojourn here on earth, we have other teachings and ways to follow, such as the Ten Commandments, which inform us how to keep our bodies under discipline and in obedience, how to deal and live honorably and honestly with our neighbor while we are together. These things are pleasing to God. But this is not how to walk on the way being discussed here. When one asks about these important matters—how to come from this life, through sin and death, to eternal righteousness and life, from the devil to God, from hell to heaven—then this text is pertinent. It teaches us that there is no other way, no other safe, right, and sure highway, no other firm bridge or path, no other haven or crossing than this Christ alone.
Therefore it is necessary, as I have said, to learn diligently here to distinguish exactly and properly the ways which other passages in Scripture also call walking the way of obedience, patience, and kindness, or filling one’s entrusted office or position with honesty, integrity, and a good conscience before God and the world. But of this way, which one.walks from death to life, from this worldly and sinful existence into yonder heavenly and spiritual living, one must speak in a much different manner. For here there is no other teacher or adviser than faith alone, which says: “I believe in Jesus Christ. I live, remain, and die in Him alone.”
But no one should understand such a sermon to mean that this gives him a time of grace, that he may postpone walking this way until he lies on his deathbed and consider this soon enough, that meanwhile he can carouse, do as he pleases, sow his wild oats, and later, when his hour approaches, heed this verse. Do not do this, dear brother; for then it may be too late. A Christian is a person who begins to tread the way from this life to heaven the moment he is baptized, in the faith that Christ is henceforth, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And he holds to this way until his end. He is always found on this way and is led in the truth to obtain life, as one who already sees the shore where he is to land. He is prepared at all times, whether death comes today, tomorrow, or in one, two, or ten years; for in Christ he has already been transported to the other side. We cannot be safe from death for a minute; in Baptism all Christians begin to die, and they continue to die until they reach the grave.
As long, therefore, as I am surrounded by danger and the uncertainty of death, so long must I believe in Christ, my Life; and this means my whole time on earth. Hence time, hours, and years have no bearing on this sermon. It does not refer to an annual resolution, so that you may say: “Christ will be my life when I am about to give up the ghost. Meanwhile I will live as I please.” No, you must know that you are already engaged in crossing over; you have already set foot into the sea with the Children of Israel, and you must now continue until you have come ashore, lest the enemy attack you en route.
This I want to say about this text to those of simple faith, that although Christ is named, preached, and pictured in various ways, He is always one and the same Christ. First, when the disciples question Him regarding His going to the Father, He replies: “If you know Me, you know the Way. And if then you should feel prompted to ask how you may be sure of this and not doubt or fall away, inasmuch as it may appear otherwise and I may not seem to be the Way, and you cannot foresee the final outcome, do not be troubled. I am also the Truth and the Life, if only you remain with Me. For these things cannot and must not be seen; they must be believed and thus experienced.” Although all three of these terms apply to Christ, they must be distinguished. They indicate that we must know Him thus and have all three things to reach heaven, namely, to begin aright, to continue in that way, and through such faith ever to make progress in experience until we conclude our course in that faith. Christ affirms this now as He says:
Luther, M. (1999, c1961). Vol. 24: Luther's works, vol. 24 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 14-16 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (24:45). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.