Matthew 7:22. On that day many will say to Me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?”
23. And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you evildoers.”
These are really high and outstanding people. Yet they are bitterly deceived and go to hell quite by surprise. The others, whom He has just been discussing, go there, too, but like good fellows. That is, unless they are converted at the very end; and I hope that on their deathbed many of them have been saved and converted from their error. But here are people who claim to be sure of heaven, who start bargaining with God and saying: “Are we not to be saved? After all, we preached in Thy name and did so many miracles.” What goes on here, that those who do miracles, and do them in the name of Christ, should still be numbered among the false Christians and among the evil and damned people? I always supposed, and correctly, that God does not give a sign or a testimony to confirm lies. As Moses says (Deut. 18:20–22): “If a prophet presumes to speak a word in My name which I have not commanded him to speak—and if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken.” Here we read the opposite: that they do signs in His name and still are false and wicked people.
First of all, the answer might be that they used to be true Christians, who produced genuine sermons and miracles but who afterwards fell away. It comes from the devil himself, as St. Paul warns his Corinthians, whenever a Christian begins to feel that he is something more than other people or that he has special intelligence, wisdom, and other gifts.40 He is pleased with himself (Rom. 15:1), and he becomes proud. He becomes the kind of man who shells out the grain and leaves only the empty husks. Yet he imagines that he is pious and in good shape. There have been many people like this, and there still are. When God adorns a man with great and outstanding gifts, he is in extreme danger of losing his humility and becoming proud. There is a story about an ancient father in the wilderness who had a special gift for expelling demons.41 He helped so many people that the whole world chased after him and thought of him almost as a god. When he felt that all this glory was beginning to tempt his vanity, he asked God to protect him and to keep him from falling into pride. So God let him be possessed and plagued by the devil for four weeks, till he lost his whole reputation and everyone said: “You see, that man helped other people, and now he is lying there unable to help himself!” So he got rid of the temptation and kept his humility. I cite this as an example to indicate how dangerous it is to have great and excellent gifts and how willing pride always is to attach itself to them. We see the same thing in ordinary outward affairs, even in the beggar’s staff of temporal possessions and dominion. In other words, the gifts of God are excellent and noble, but we are so polluted that we cannot help ourselves: either we feel them and then become proud and defiant, or we feel the lack of them and then we despair.
That, I say, would be an adequate answer, and a correct one, though we shall not pursue it here. The chief interpretation here is that He is talking about false prophecies and miracles, as He speaks in Matthew 24:24: “False Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10 St. Paul says that the Antichrist will come “with all sorts of pretended powers and signs and wonders and with all wicked deception for unrighteousness, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” So it is certain that false signs will happen in Christendom and that the false Christians will look upon them as true and genuine signs. This has really been happening in the papacy, though in Turkey, too, there are many such priests and special saints. You can read about this in the books and legends, especially in what the monks have written. They are all crawling with miracles, though they were really nothing but lies and rascalities. How they have made fools of the people nowadays with all those pilgrimages to the Grym Valley, to the Oak, or to Trier!42 I myself have seen some monks who were abominable rascals and reckless men, but who expelled the devil and played with him as if he were a child.
Who could recount all the rascality and devilish sorcery they have been practicing under the holy name of Christ, Mary, the holy cross, or St. Cyprian? The monks have been practicing all this mightily, and the whole world has fallen for it, so that no one even dares to peep against it. No pope or bishop ever preached against it, but they all helped it along. If anyone opposed it, he was violently beaten down and crushed. A short time ago Bishop Ernest of Saxony tore down one of these devil’s chapels. But the evil outcome was that it made him ill, and he was only too happy to rebuild it. This sorcery has helped to introduce and confirm things like purgatory, Masses for the dead, the worship of all the saints, pilgrimages, monasteries, churches, and chapels. Many have even prophesied about the future, like Lichtenberg and others. All this has happened through the devil: to substantiate his abominations and his lies, to cast a spell over the people, and to hold them captive in error so that none of them could run away from him.
It is a minor matter for the devil to let himself be expelled even by an evil fellow, if he chooses, and yet to remain unexpelled. By this abominable deception he possesses and traps the people even more completely. Being a clever and experienced spirit, he can also guess at future events. Usually he makes fools of the people with his prophecies, by juggling them in such a way that they can be interpreted to mean various things; whichever way it comes out, he has hit it right. He used to do this long ago through his heathen priests.43 Then the people go crazy with excitement: “Surely God is dwelling here! You can see and touch the miracles and signs!” They cannot figure out that the devil is doing it to deceive and seduce the people. The fools do not remember that Christ clearly foretold all this and faithfully warned us against it, personally and through His apostles. But this had to be the outcome, and it serves us right for despising the Word of God and for not being concerned about losing Christ and accepting the signs of the devil. For the devil it was a lot of fun, by which he had the complete control over Christendom that he sought.
Once we have seen this and experienced all too often what great damage the devil has done through these lying spirits and false signs, it should bring us to our senses. We should not imitate our predecessors in neglecting Christ’s Word and letting it be spoken in vain, so that we do not end up the way they did. This sermon or prophecy was written as a warning. Unfortunately it comes too late for our predecessors, but early enough for us if we heed it. Then we will not let ourselves be diverted by their claims of the signs and wonders that Mary and other saints have done, nor by the skillful way they throw dust into our eyes to lead us away from the Word. Since we hear this warning that these false signs have to happen, we shall be smart enough not to believe in any mere sign.
When He discussed these miracles in Matthew 24, He warned them faithfully and seriously (Matt. 24:25): “Lo, I have told you beforehand”; as if He wanted to say: “Beware, and cling to My warning, for otherwise you will certainly be seduced. You have My Word, so that you know what the will of My Father is. Contrast these two. Here you have My teaching, which tells you how to live and act. There you see the signs that contradict this teaching.” He wants you to draw this conclusion: “Since I see such wonderful signs over there, while over here I have the teaching as well as the warning, I shall first examine the implication of the signs. I shall test them where they ought to be tested, as to whether they serve to strengthen my faith in the Word: that Christ died for me; that through Him I may obtain piety and salvation in the sight of God; and that I should carry out my station and pay faithful attention to it. I may discover the contrary, that by this they want to strengthen and confirm their own stuff and teach me44 to run to this or that saint who does so many signs and miracles every day, or to crawl into a hood because this is such a holy order. This would mean being led away from Christ, from my church, pulpit, Baptism, and the Sacrament, and from my station and the works demanded of me—all things with which I should remain. Therefore I refuse to listen or to know any of this though an angel were to come from heaven (Gal. 1:8) and raise the dead before my very eyes. Christ has taught and warned me: ‘Hold on to My Word, pulpit, and Sacrament. Where these are there you will find Me. Stay there, for you do not need to go running or looking any farther. I will never come any nearer to you than where My Gospel, Baptism, and ministry are; through them I come into your heart and talk to you.’ He also says: ‘Be a father or a mother, a prince or a subject, a master or a servant. Remain in your station, where you hear Me speak, where I Myself am present. You silly men, why go running to wood and stone, where no Word of God is preached? Why stare with your eyes wide open at the devil’s signs, as if Christ were somewhere where His Word is not?’ ”
You see, this is the way to beat back the papists, who come crowding around with their “customs, fathers, councils, and so many signs and miracles,” by which they try to substantiate their cause. Just to give them a short answer: “All right, let us contrast the two. Here I have Christ’s Word; of this I am certain, and it has been powerfully substantiated throughout the world. You are showing me, by contrast, your teaching and your signs, which point me to rosaries, pilgrimages, the worship of saints, Masses, monkery, and other special and self-chosen works. There is nothing here about Christ, or about faith, Baptism, and the Sacrament, or about obedience and the good works which Christ teaches me to practice within my station, in my relations with my neighbor. Instead, there is the exact opposite. Hence these cannot be genuine signs, but both the teaching and the signs are the devil’s deception.” This way we could easily recognize and judge all false signs and say: “Let the signs come and go, I do not care, even if you raised the dead before my very eyes. All of this can deceive me, but the Word of God does not deceive me.” The devil can make fools of people and cast a spell over them, so that he makes a man seem dead for a while and then brings him back to consciousness, as if he were raised from the dead. Or he can damage your eye or some other part of your body and then restore it to health, so that you imagine that it was done by a miracle. So God decrees that even genuine miracles happen as a punishment for those who do not pay attention to the truth, as St. Paul says (2 Thess. 2:9–12), and as a warning for the others. People are going to such extremes in their ingratitude and contempt for His Word that wrath is not a sufficient punishment. If the world stands much longer, this will happen to us, too, for sinning so gravely that it has to deteriorate into all sorts of errors and signs.
Because the world simply refuses to listen and wants to despise the Word, yearning for something different, He will send it enough to seduce it into the abyss of all error. This is what happened when nothing else was being preached and taught in all the churches, monasteries, and schools, and all the books were smeared up with these lying signs. The only reason for this was the fact that these signs had taken place—as though it had not been proclaimed often enough that this was going to happen and that the people would be seduced by it, so that even the elect would scarcely be rescued from the error (Matt. 24:24). It serves those people right for so wantonly letting themselves be seduced and refusing to heed this warning. He gave the Word on how people should believe and live, and in addition He confirmed it with plenty of signs. He intends this to be enough, to let it go at that, and to do nothing else. Yet they insist on setting up a different and new teaching and better stations, contrary to the Word of God and the genuine miracles.
Therefore Christ says now: “I will not heed them though they boast: ‘Lord, did we not do many mighty works in Your name?’ I will pronounce a sentence upon them which reads: ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you evildoers.’ ” “How so, dear Lord? After all, the signs and wonders are there, and no one can deny it!” He will say: “Yes, but why have you neglected My Word, which was confirmed by My miracles, setting up something else about which I know nothing, governing the world according to your own ideas, and following these? Since you have despised My Word and have not done My Father’s will, I refuse to know you or to have any grace for you.” They do not pay attention to this on earth nowadays, and they suppose that they will be right next to God. They will find out, and all too suddenly!
So the right interpretation of this text is that He is talking about the miracles which the false teachers perform to confirm their teaching. These He refuses to recognize, on the basis either of their signs or of their prophesying. In this connection, there is a more subtle argument—I do not know whether it belongs here—that God occasionally lets genuine signs take place through wicked people and that God is acting through them. So Caiaphas, the high priest, prophesied (John 11:50).45 And Balaam delivered a most beautiful sermon about Christ; Moses himself says that the Holy Spirit entered into him (Num. 24:2) and that he had to prophesy against his will, as Caiaphas did also. Nor can it be denied that as an apostle of Christ, Judas performed many signs, just as the other apostles and disciples did. What shall we say to this?
St. John himself gives the answer when he says about Caiaphas (John 11:51): “Being high priest that year, he prophesied.” It can happen that because such a person is in a public office or in the government, he prophesies or does miracles and accomplishes a great deal of good, bringing many people to God. Still he may not be a pious person himself but may be going to the devil. A preacher occupies a public station and is an official person; correctly considered, such a person performs the greatest works, signs, and wonders that take place on earth. Through his office, through the Word and the Sacrament that he administers to you, he brings you to faith, rescues you from the power of the devil and from eternal death, and leads you to eternal life in heaven. This far surpasses all outward signs and wonders. Nevertheless he himself may be an unbelieving and wicked man.
In this issue, therefore, you must always pay attention to the Word of God and guide yourself according to it, not according to the personality. You heard earlier about the signs that take place in order to substantiate something different from the Word of God; about these there is nothing in Scripture. But there are signs which apply to something that God has spoken and substantiated. So the prophecy of the high priest Caiaphas announced that with His death Christ would redeem the world. This was a genuine and precious prophecy, though his motive was venomous and wicked. Although the prophet Balaam was a villain, he prophesied truly as a prophet about the people of God and about Christ; God was speaking through him. Now, if a preacher correctly administers his office and performs signs by its power, he should be listened to. But if he would like to get off the track and go some different way, to establish something different and apart from his office, he would no longer be a genuine prophet but a false one. If the apostle Judas preached and did miracles—though he belonged to the devil, as Christ says (John 6:70)—he did so by the power of the apostolic office, to confirm Christ so that the people would believe in Him. On this basis you judge everyone who occupies an office in Christendom. Not all those who occupy an office and who preach are Christians, or pious people. God does not ask about that. The person may be anything he pleases; but the office is right and good nevertheless, since it does not belong to man but to God Himself. So Caiaphas prophesies, not as Caiaphas, a murderer and a scoundrel, but as a high priest. So the minister or preacher baptizes you and brings you to eternal life, not as Mr. John Pommer,46 but as a minister. God lets this happen in order to honor and establish the office. Since Judas is in the right public office, the one that Christ has ordained, it is the office that is being honored in him, not the person.
So it is in secular affairs, too, as Solomon says (Prov. 16:10): “Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king”; that is, everything that the government orders is right, and God confirms it. When it performs its office of judging criminals and punishing them, therefore, this is God’s judgment, which He speaks up in heaven and which He wants to be carried out—the same action that is forbidden otherwise, apart from the office. So Scripture makes everyone in the sacred office a prophet or a foreteller, though in his own person he may well be a villain or a tyrant. As Solomon says again (Prov. 8:15): “By Me kings reign”; that is: “Their law and judgment are My law and judgment, along with everything they do according to their office, if they rule properly.” Nevertheless the majority of them in the world are great villains underneath, who have no qualms about abusing the law and their own authority. But when they keep within the limits of their office and do what the law demands, this is all God’s business. Bringing this down to another level: It is as when a prince or a lord gives a command to a servant or sends out his representatives, you listen to them and honor them, though they may be rascals, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of their lord, whose office and command they bring along with them.
Now, since God does this in the secular sphere, He will lay even more emphasis upon it in the spiritual sphere, to make His office and ministry productive and powerful. As we have said, when a minister preaches or baptizes, this is nothing but a miracle, inasmuch as he lets the Gospel and Baptism remain valid regardless of whether he is pious or wicked. And if, as a non-Christian, he does not have the treasure himself, still the one who accepts the Word and believes receives the treasure. Now, if such signs and miracles take place through the office of the ministry, redeeming souls from sin, death, and the devil, how much more can tiny, outward miracles that do not help the soul take place in the physical sphere!
It is necessary here to distinguish between the two things, the office and the person. Because one man is pious and twenty are wicked, you must not reject the office on account of the person, as usually happens. You should investigate whether the tendency and purpose of the office and the miracle is to praise and confirm the doctrine of faith in Christ and whether they harmonize with what He has spoken, commanded, and instituted. If you see that this is so, then you may say: “This sermon is right, though the person may be a good-for-nothing. I will accept the sign, but I will ask no questions about the person.” If it is not so, then you must not accept it or believe it, regardless of how great the sign may be or how saintly and precious the person may be. There are also many bishops, preachers, and others in office who imagine that this entitles them to God’s special favor personally. As I have said above, this is a mistake. It will not help on the Last Day for them to boast and say: “Lord, we did many mighty works in Your name.” God did not give them the power to do this on account of their person but on account of their office; He did not do these things for their sakes personally but for the sake of validating their office.
This applies to people in public office, through whom signs and wonders take place. Some of them are pious and some wicked, but this neither detracts from the office nor adds to it. But what do you say about those who do miracles and foretell the future though they are not in office? In Luke 9:49, 50 we read about some who did miracles though they were not Christ’s disciples. The apostles informed Christ of this and said: “Master, we saw a man casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow You.” But He answered: “Do not forbid him; for he who is not against us is for us.” He was an individual person, whom Christ had not installed into the office, and yet He says that they should not forbid him, adding the reason (Mark 9:39): “No one who does a mighty work in My name will be able soon after to preach evil about Me.”
Answer: It is true, as I have said, that God does not let any signs take place through wicked men unless they are in public office, since God does not grant signs for the sake of their person but of their office. But where genuine signs take place through an individual person, such a person must certainly be pious, as are those who have a special revelation through dreams or visions. But such signs must be aimed at praising Christ and advancing the Gospel. So you have two kinds of signs that are good and legitimate: first, those that are performed by pious persons who are Christians; secondly, those that are performed by evil persons who occupy an office and teach correctly. We should always be guided by this certain standard, which should be applied to every kind of person, whether pious or impious, in office or out of office: Do the signs aim at praising Christ and advancing your faith? If you notice that they are directing you somewhere else, to pilgrimages or to prayers to saints or to the deliverance of souls from purgatory, in other words, to a dependence on your own works and the creation of a righteousness of your own, then you must say: “If you did every possible miracle for me, so that I could see it and touch it, I still would not believe you. For Christ has given me adequate warning about that.”
God Himself set up this rule through Moses (Deut. 13:1–3): “If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, and ‘Let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams.” He also indicated the final cause47 by which you can recognize them and proceed correctly: If they try to make you institute a different worship, that is, to forsake the single pure doctrine and to start something different alongside it, then you should not believe, though it were snowing miracles. He Himself interprets it further and says (Deut. 13:3): “For the Lord, your God, is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.” It is as if He wanted to say: “He wants to try you out, to see how firmly you hold to the teaching that has already been established and is in force.”
In other words, the rule is this: Regardless of their size and number, no wonders or signs are to be accepted contrary to established teaching. We have God’s commandment; He has commanded from heaven (Matt. 17:5): “Listen to Him, Christ is the only one to whom you should listen.” In addition we have this warning, that false prophets will come and do great signs, but that they are all on the wrong track, away from Christ and toward something different. The only preventive is to have a good grasp of the doctrine and to keep it before your eyes continually. You can evaluate everything on this basis: Is this what the Gospel and the Creed teaches, which you pray every day, saying: “I believe in Christ alone, who died for me,” or is it something different? We have had adequate warning, if anyone is willing to heed it. But it does not make much of an impression on the great masses any more than it did before. I am convinced that if someone were to arise here today and perform just one sign, whole crowds would fall for it. That is how the crazy mob behaves. If someone pulls out something new in front of them and makes them stare, they forsake everything, the Word and the doctrine, and go gaping after that. And you can shout yourself to death against it. So they used to let such coarse and obvious lies and brazen fraud make fools of them and lead them around by the nose, following any rascal who arose with a lie about a new relic, new pilgrimages, and the like. The source of this is the shameful curiosity and boredom of our flesh and blood, as well as the devil himself, so that signs and wonders, especially the false ones, always get more of a following than the genuine ones. No one sees or cares that Christ and His apostles and others did miracles. But so soon as someone expels a demon, that beats all. All right, anyone who refuses to take a warning and wants to be seduced, dare not blame us.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:270). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.