6. No one comes to the Father but by Me.
Here Christ puts all three things together and with words that are plain and clear states in one sentence what He means and why He has called Himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” namely, that one may come to the Father. In brief, He wants to say: “I alone am all. If anyone is to come to the Father, it must happen solely through Me—the beginning, the middle, and the end.” But what does coming to the Father mean? Nothing else than has often been stated: to pass from death into life, from sin and damnation into innocence and piety, from misery and distress of heart into eternal joy and bliss. “And let no one,” He says, “presume to attain this except through Me. I alone am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” This language is clear and plain enough. It absolutely excludes and powerfully refutes every doctrine of meritorious works and self-righteousness, and it entirely repudiates and denies all other comfort and all confidence in other means by which one may presume to reach heaven. For here we find the terse words: “No one, no one comes to the Father but by Me.” There is no other ship or passage.
This confirms our statement that man attains this solely through the faith which clings to Christ, and that no works of ours or of other men or saints shall enjoy this honor and glory. But this does not mean that we should not perform good works. No, it means that in order to obtain mercy before God and eternal life we must first have only this Christ through faith; and then we must also do good works and demonstrate our love. But this distinction must be scrupulously observed: we dare not attribute to our works and to our life the power and the merit of bringing us to the Father; we must dedicate them to the purpose of glorifying God here on earth, of improving the lot of our neighbor, and of helping everyone.
But when it is a question of obtaining yonder life with God, I must harbor a different treasure in my heart, one that will permit me to conclude confidently: “If everything forsakes and deserts me in death, I still own this treasure, which endures forever, which will not fail me or decay. And this treasure is not my own work or merit, nor is it that of any other man; but it is in itself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only One through whom we come to the Father. To this I will cling; by it I will live and die. For this reason I turn a deaf ear to the doctrine of works taught by all the monks and schismatic spirits. This doctrine is mightily condemned here, and it is certain that any plan to obtain heaven without Christ is surely not the way to heaven, but only a pit in which murder is committed; not the truth, but sheer falsehood and a lie; not life, but the devil and death.”
And how could Christ and His Word be dishonored, blasphemed, and denied more than by attributing, in contradiction to this clear verse, such power and glory to our works as to rob Christ of His honor or detract from it? My dear friend, our works will never achieve such great things. How could you boast of your power and your deeds, though you were to torture yourself to death with works, if you were to walk through a vast and turbulent sea, with high waves and billows on both sides, with nothing but certain death before you, and without any aid or counsel to see you through? Thus the people of Israel had to despair entirely of all human wisdom, counsel, and aid. They would never have dared walk through the sea if they had not firmly believed in and implicitly relied on God’s Word. They would indeed have been obliged to tread the water with their feet a long time, to dance, and to leap before the waters would ever have separated and permitted them to pass through, if it had not been for the Word and their faith in it. Much less will our works and power effect the walk and the crossing in question, which is far more difficult and far more perilous than that physical journey through the Red Sea; for here the burden of sin, God’s wrath, eternal death, and the devil with all hell rush upon us and overwhelm us. All these we must vanquish if we want to walk safely to our goal. This dance calls for more than red slippers.31 Faith must prevail here and do it all.
Subsequently, however, when such a faith is yours, good works must follow. If they are to be good and God-pleasing, they must issue and flow from faith. They cannot be done and performed if faith does not precede them. To be sure, the Children of Israel walked through the Red Sea with their feet, but first they had to have faith in their hearts to bear their feet. Not until then did they venture into the water. Without it they would never have crossed over, though they had trod the water with their feet forever.
Thus it is out of place here to shout about good works in contrast to this doctrine of faith in Christ; nor should one cite the verses of Scripture which demand good works and conclude from them that good works save us. For it is true, and we agree, that good works must be performed; but we object to the conclusion that the confidence of the heart may rest on them and say: “This is a good work demanded by Scripture; therefore I will be saved by it.” This is an affront to Christ; for here we read the simple and clear words: “No one comes to the Father but by Me.” And the word “Me” does not refer to this or that, to any work, to any life, either yours or that of any other person on earth, not even to that of the saintliest. In brief, everything else is excluded by this word—everything you may mention, everything but Christ. Therefore no one can boast of being able to come to the Father through his own deeds or good works.
Therefore all depends on the proper understanding of good works. God demands good works; He wants to see them performed. But now I am referring to such works as are prescribed and commended in Holy Writ, not to those that men undertake and boast of without God’s Word and command, out of their own zeal and judgment and in opposition to truly good works. God does not want good works in that sense; nor should they be put on a par with Christ, thereby depriving Him of His honor, as though they could bring us to the Father, which, after all, He alone does. Otherwise this verse and the entire doctrine of the Gospel would necessarily be in error, and Christ would serve no purpose. But there is more to be said about this elsewhere, in the treatment of passages that deal with good works.
This is the doctrine of the Christian faith, how to learn to know the Lord Christ aright, and how to understand what we have through Him. He Himself will enlarge on this subject and explain that we have everything in Him, that nothing is accounted valid before God without Him or outside Him, and that God does not want to be dealt with without Christ or to have us know or understand His will and His work without Him.
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 (24:52). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.