Matthew 7:28. And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching,
29. For He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
With this the evangelist indicates what kind of preachers and teachers the scribes were, namely, that it was all cold, vain, and idle prattle. They did not stress and emphasize the commandments of God seriously and vigorously. Thus our ragwashers used to slobber over the pulpit about nothing but purgatory, indulgences, cowls, rosaries, and lighting candles. But He took hold of things in a different and quite unheard-of way, showing the true doctrine and life and denouncing vices. Thus they all felt that the man was teaching with authority. Everything was living and vocal, as if it had hands and feet. They were compelled to say that this had to be called preaching with authority, while what the others did was vain and empty, nothing but dead verbiage. So it is clever of our papists now to be ashamed of their rotten rags and to keep quiet about them. They are starting to imitate us and our books in preaching a little about faith and good works; of course, they still distort and destroy it, because they do not take right preaching seriously or have the grace to be able to understand it.
Here at the end one more question remains to be discussed. In this sermon we have heard Christ emphasizing works very vigorously. He says (Matt. 5:3): “The poor shall have the kingdom of heaven”; (Matt. 5:7): “The merciful shall obtain mercy.” He says again (Matt. 5:11, 12) that those who suffer persecution for His sake will be rewarded in heaven. What is more, He says at the end of the fifth chapter (Matt. 5:46): “If you love those who love you, what reward have you?” In the sixth chapter He says about almsgiving, fasting, and praying (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18): “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” From these statements those silly false preachers have drawn the conclusion that we enter the kingdom of heaven and are saved by our own works and actions. On this they build their endowments, monasteries, pilgrimages, Masses, and the like.
This question is a little subtle and would be more appropriate in a school before the learned people than in a pulpit before simple, common people. But since it occurs so often in the text, we must not bypass it completely but have to say something about it. It is necessary that everyone should know at least a little about the distinction between grace and merit, for the two are mutually exclusive. When grace is being preached, certainly merit cannot be preached; and what is grace cannot be merit, for “otherwise grace would no longer be grace,” says St. Paul (Rom. 11:6). Since that is beyond every doubt, anyone who confuses these two causes the people to go astray and misleads both himself and those who listen to him.
For the present, we shall ignore the subtle answer, and discuss the question in the most obvious possible terms. First of all, it must be maintained that faith or being a Christian is quite distinct from its fruit, as I have often said. So far as being a Christian and bearing the Christian name is concerned, one is no different from the other; everyone has an identical treasure and the identical possessions. The Baptism of St. Peter is no different or better than that of St. Paul, and the Baptism of a child born yesterday is no less a Baptism than that of St. John the Baptist or St. Peter and all the apostles. Nor do they have any different or better Christ than the most insignificant Christian.
Now, from this perspective, no merit or distinction means a thing. The most insignificant Christian receives the same body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament; and when he listens to the Gospel, he is listening to the same Word of God that Peter and Paul listened to and preached. Similarly, no saint can pray a different Our Father or a better one, or confess a different Creed, or recite a different Decalog from what is my daily prayer and every child’s. This is so obvious that anyone can understand and comprehend it. In that which entitles us to the name “Christian” there is no inequality or discrimination among persons, but one is like the next—man or woman, young or old, learned or unlearned, noble or ignoble, prince or peasant, master or servant, major or minor saint. There is only one kind of Christ and one kind of faith. The sun in the heavens is the same toward everyone. It shines on a peasant as well as on a king, on a blind man as well as on a man with sharp vision, on a sow in the street as well as on the loveliest woman on earth. It shines on a thorn no less than on a rose, on a clod no less than on a purple robe. The same sun shines on the poorest beggar and on the greatest king or emperor.
But it is in the outward sphere and in our activity that the inequalities and the various distinctions among Christians appear—not as Christians nor as to what makes them Christians, but as to the fruit. I am a baptized Christian, but over and above this I am also a preacher, though I could be a Christian without that. As a preacher I am the kind of Christian that is supposed to present the Word to the people, to console the sorrowful, and to instruct the erring and ignorant. Another person is the head of a household or a manual laborer, who is supposed to govern his household, take care of his work, and support his wife and children. Such a man is quite different from you and me, and yet I have to say: “He is just as much of a Christian, and he has as much of Baptism, the grace of God, and eternal life as I and everyone else. In Christ he is no less significant than I, and here there is no distinction between women and men.” A woman’s task is different from a man’s, a servant’s from a master’s, a preacher’s from an ordinary citizen’s, a child’s from a father’s, a pupil’s or disciple’s from a teacher’s. Everyone of them has his own task or fruit. So throughout the outward sphere there are differences, while in the inward sphere they are all Christians and identical. There is only one Christian estate and only one natural condition of all men.
We see the same thing in the heavens, St. Paul says (1 Cor. 15:41). There are so many varieties of stars, and they are all dissimilar—one great and the other small, one bright and the other dim. Yet there is only one sun and only one heaven. They are all alike in that they all stand in one heaven and have one kind of sun, and still they are unlike in their size and brightness. It is the same on earth, too, Saint Paul continues (1 Cor. 15:39): “Not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds.” They are all alike in being flesh; each has its limbs, head, heart, stomach, etc., as well as the others. Still there is a distinction of natures between men, animals, birds, and fish.
Now if you want to describe or portray a Christian, you must paint him in such a way that there is no distinction among the different ones; each one must be like each other one in every way. You must not portray him on the basis of the fact that he is a man or a woman, a preacher or a layman, a prince or a pauper, a manual laborer or a Carthusian monk. None of these distinctions makes him what he is; and compared in this respect with Peter and Paul, he is as good and as holy as they. In fact, no one amounts to more or is any better than he. If St. Peter were better than I in what makes a Christian a Christian, he would have to have a better Christ, Gospel, and Baptism. But since the possession we have is identical in all respects, we must all be alike so far as this is concerned, with no one elevated above the other. It is possible that one does more and greater deeds than another, as St. Peter raised the dead (Acts 9:40). Performing miracles that I do not perform makes him a greater and a brighter star than me in heaven, but not a different kind of star; and he does not have a different heaven either. St. Paul did more and worked harder than all the apostles (1 Cor. 15:10); but this does not mean that he had a better apostolic office or preached a different and better Christ.
Regarding merit, then, we say this. If the subject is what makes a Christian a Christian, how to become pious before God and obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life, here we are all alike; here all our merit is completely excluded, and we must not hear or know anything about it. You have not merited the Gospel or Christ or Baptism, but it is purely a gift, freely given. Our sins are forgiven free, and we become God’s children and are put into heaven without any contribution on our part. Our quarrel here is with the abomination of the sophists, who exalt our works to the point that by them we get a gracious God and merit heaven. In fact, they are so brazen that they dare to say that even in mortal sin a man is capable of doing so much on his own, of performing such acts of devotion, and of achieving such good works that by this he may still and propitiate the wrath of God. That amounts to throwing the roof to the ground, upsetting the foundation, building salvation on mere water, hurling Christ from His throne completely, and putting up our works in His place. From this it must follow that we do not need Baptism or Christ or the Gospel or faith; for even in mortal sin I find enough goodness and power in myself to pull myself up by my own works and to merit forgiveness of sins and eternal life. From this you can see that all their drivel about merit is a slander and a blasphemy of God, when it comes to the subject we are now discussing, namely, how and by what means we come to the grace of God and eternal life. As if it were not bad enough that they teach this abominable blasphemy, they are actually defending it and condemning us as heretics on account of it.
It is easy to figure out and understand that one of these two must be false: Either we do merit grace by our actions, or Christ with His Baptism must be useless and worthless. Then Christ acted like a fool, to let Himself be tortured and to shed His blood so dearly and to expend so much, in gaining and granting to us something that was unnecessary and that we already have by ourselves. Though they denounce us as heretics for refusing to agree with them regarding this merit of works, we will bide our time, letting them call us heretics and turning it over to God, our Judge. And we shall withstand them all the more firmly, telling them that they are not heretics, but the worst blasphemers under the sun. They shamefully deny and curse Christ, as Peter prophesied about them (2 Peter 2:1); and as the Epistle to the Hebrews says (Heb. 10:29), they punch Christ in the teeth and trample Him underfoot, along with His Baptism, the Sacrament, and the whole Gospel, and whatever God has given us through Him.
I would really like to hear how these miserable people could reply to this. They assert that by our works we can move toward receiving grace; when this is done and we have merited so much, we merit the kingdom of heaven and eternal salvation over and above what they call “first grace.”1 What then is merited by the other works that follow? Let us assume that a papist has performed his Mass or other work in grace and that by this precious work, which is worthy of eternal life, he has merited the kingdom of heaven. They call this the merit of condignity. What then will he merit by the works and Masses that he does tomorrow and thereafter in the same grace? Since they do not know what to say, they begin to distinguish between “essential and accidental reward,” saying: “These subsequent works make it possible to merit something extra, a sort of little gift or bonus, which God gives us over and above eternal life.” If this is true, then it seems to me that the first works are the best but that the others are not so good; for otherwise they would have to merit the same. Usually, the subsequent works tend to be better, since they are practiced and cultivated more carefully. Now since the last works do not merit the kingdom of heaven, the first must not merit it either. Or, if they are all equal and if every work can merit it, then God would have to build as many heavens as there are good works performed. And where would our Lord God find all those heavens to pay for every good work? Those are really smart people, being able to measure everything so smoothly and accurately! What shall we say then? Everything they present is sheer lying and deception. None of these things is true: first, that any man can merit grace by his own works, much less that a man in mortal sin can do so; secondly, even if, as their lie says, a man were in grace through his works, that such works done in grace should be precious enough to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven. There stands Christ, stating the exact opposite in frank and plain words (Luke 17:10): “When you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants.’ ”
Here we should steadfastly maintain our teaching so that we never let any work take credit for gaining the favor and grace of God, for liberating us from sin, and for bringing us to heaven. My merit is worthless for this. And if someone should want to use it for this, I must trample it underfoot and damn it to the devil himself in hell, as a thing that denies Christ and seeks to hinder my faith. All that avails here is the fact that God has given all this free, out of pure grace, by sending Christ, His Son, and letting Him die for me, announcing and granting this to me, and commanding me simply to believe it and to be baptized in it. None of my works has anything to do with this, but it is purely a gift, bestowed from heaven and brought to me by Christ. Let all merit be simply discarded here in favor of the conclusion that it is impossible to obtain grace and the forgiveness of sins in any other way, manner, or measure than by hearing the Word of God about Christ and by receiving it through faith. And why should we brag about our merit in order to make God applaud us? They themselves and all the saints have to pray in the Lord’s Prayer every day as long as we live: “Forgive us our debts.” And yet these desperate saints have the audacity to say that a man in mortal sin can prepare himself for grace, and then can merit eternal life!
How do you deal with the fact that there are so many passages about reward and merit? For the benefit of the simple people, we give the answer now that these are simply intended to comfort Christians. Once you have become a Christian and have a gracious God and the forgiveness of sins, both of past sins and of those that cling to you every day, a certain result will be that you will have to do much and suffer much on account of your faith and your Baptism. As these three chapters have shown in detail, the devil himself, together with the world and the flesh, will attach himself to you and torment you from every side, making the world seem too narrow for you. If we were left to be stuck in this, without Word or consolation, we would despair and say: “Who wants to be a Christian or preach or do good works? You see what happens to them. The world tramples them underfoot, defames and slanders them, and tries every kind of villainy and evil trick on them, finally robbing them of their honor, their property, and their life. All Christ can call me is poor, troubled, hungry, meek, peaceable, afflicted, and persecuted! Is this supposed to last forever and never change?”
Then He has to speak out, strengthening and comforting us and saying: “Now you are in grace, and you are the children of God. Though you have to suffer for that in the world now, do not let it frighten you. Hold on tight, and do not let what you see tire you out or wear you down. Let everyone do his duty. If this causes him trouble, it will not do him any damage. He should know that the kingdom of heaven is his and that he will be richly repaid.” Repaid, but how? We already have it through Christ, apart from, and prior to, any action of ours. As St. Paul says (1 Cor. 15:41), God will make you a big, bright star and give you a special gift, even in this life. Even here on earth, a Christian can obtain so much from God through his prayer and good works: He can save a whole country, prevent war, famine, and pestilence. This is not because the work is so precious in its own right, but because He has promised this to strengthen and comfort us and to keep us from thinking that our works, troubles, and sorrows have been lost and forgotten.
Now, none of this implies any merit on our part for earning grace or Baptism or Christ and heaven, which is what they mean when they talk about merit; but it all refers to the fruit of Christianity. As we have seen, Christ is saying nothing in this sermon about how we become Christians, but only about the works and fruit that no one can do unless he already is a Christian and in a state of grace. This is evident from the words that they have to endure poverty, suffering, and persecution simply because they are Christians and have the kingdom of heaven. Now, if we are discussing the fruit that follows grace and the forgiveness of sins, we will let the terms “merit” and “reward” be used. What we oppose is the idea that works of ours like these are the highest good, which must precede them and without which they do not take place or please God. If the insistence on grace alone without any merit is preserved, then we have no objection to giving the name “merits” to the fruit that follows. Only such statements should not be distorted and applied in an antiscriptural way to our meriting grace, but interpreted correctly, the way they were intended, as a consolation to Christians—especially when they have to suffer opposition, when they get the feeling and the impression that our life, suffering, and activity are pointless and useless. This is the consolation that Scripture uses everywhere in urging perseverance in good works. So in Jeremiah 31:16 it says: “Your works shall be rewarded”; and St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.” If we did not have this consolation, we could not stand the misery, persecution, and trouble we get in exchange for doing so much good, nor let our teaching and preaching be rewarded with nothing but ingratitude and abuse. Finally we would have to stop working and suffering, though it is our obvious duty to do so.
God wants to wake us up and to strengthen us with this beautiful promise. Then we will not pay attention to the ingratitude, hate, envy, and contempt of the world, but pay attention to Him who says: “I am your God. If the world refuses to thank you and deprives you of your reputation and property, even of your body and life, just cling to Me, and find your consolation in the fact that I still have a heaven with so much in it that I can easily recompense you and give you ten times as much as they can take away from you now.” And we can defy the world this way: “If it refuses to be kind to us, then it can leave, and take its kindness and everything else along. I did not start anything for its sake, and I will not do anything or stop anything for its sake. But I will do everything and suffer everything for the sake of Him whose promises are so generous and who says: ‘Through Christ you already have all the treasure in heaven, and more than enough. Yet I will give you even more, as a bonus. You will have the kingdom of heaven revealed to you, and the Christ whom you now have in faith you will have in sight as well, in eternal glory and joy, the more you suffer and labor now.’ ”
Here we should also put wonderful statements and admonitions like Hebrews 10:35: “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” And in Matthew 19:29 Christ says: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for My name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold in this life, and in the world to come eternal life.” Here He says (Matt. 5:12): “Your reward is great in heaven.” Thus He shows that they already have the kingdom of heaven, and yet that they will have it even more gloriously when it is revealed.
You see, these passages are correctly interpreted when they are applied, not to any confidence in our own works contrary to faith, but to the consolation of Christians and believers. If the sophists had directed their discussion of merit to this, it would have been fine. But they built their own work-holiness and monkery on this, expecting God to regard them as special saints and to be a peddler selling heaven to them and giving them the highest seats, because they are people with whom ordinary Christians should not even be compared. This was not an unwise thing to do, since it brought them not poverty, misery, sorrow, and persecution, but money, property, and honor. No order was ever established to let its members exercise themselves in the Word of Christ, the Sacrament, faith, love, and patience, but only to gain a reputation before God and His extra favor with their cowls and special ascetic life, as people who needed neither Christ nor faith.
In this sense we concede that Christians have merit and a reward with God, but not in order to make them children of God and heirs of eternal life. Rather it is intended to console believers who already have this, to let them know that He will not leave unrewarded what they suffer here for Christ’s sake, but that if they suffer much and labor much, He will adorn them specially on the Last Day, more and more gloriously than the others, as special stars that are greater than others. So St. Paul will be more brilliant, more bright and clear than others. This does not refer to the forgiveness of sins nor to meriting heaven, but to a recompense of greater glory for greater suffering. We refuse to tolerate the way they treat this issue; for it is a slander and a blasphemy to Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, and to everything that God has given us through Him. We would rather be denounced as heretics and scoundrels and be burned at the stake than surrender or deny this treasure. We will also hold to this consolation, though we may have to suffer trouble, shame, and persecution on account of it, since this is inevitable. The devil will not make any concessions to us here, nor come to any agreement with us. He intends to uphold the pope’s teaching and to make us believe the way he believes. Because he sees that we refuse, he attacks us with all his might. He knows very well that once this doctrine is granted—that Christ and the forgiveness of sins are purely a gift—then anyone can count on his fingers and come to the conclusion that the papacy with its Masses, monkery, purgatory, and worship of saints must amount to nothing; and it will all collapse by itself.
Learn to give this answer regarding the passages that refer to merit and reward: “Of course I hear Christ saying (Matt. 5:3): ‘Blessed are the poor, for they shall have the kingdom of heaven’; and (Matt. 5:11, 12): ‘Blessed are you when you suffer persecution for My sake, for your reward is great in heaven.’ But by these statements He is not teaching me where to build the foundation of my salvation, but giving me a promise that is to console me in my sufferings and in my Christian life. You must not confuse this and throw the two into the same pot, nor make my merit out of what God gives me in Christ through Baptism and the Gospel. It does not say that I can merit this and that I do not need Christ and Baptism for it. Rather, those who are Christ’s pupils, those to whom He has been preaching here and who have to suffer many things for His sake, should know how to console themselves. Because people refuse to tolerate them on earth, they will have everything that much more abundantly in heaven; and he who does the most work and endures the most suffering will also get the most glorious recompense.”
In Christ, as I have said, they are all alike. Grace is granted equally to all and brings full salvation to each individual, as the highest and most common possession; thus whoever has Christ has everything. And yet there will be a distinction in the glory with which we shall be adorned, and in the brightness with which we shall shine. In this life there is a distinction among gifts, and one labors and suffers more than another. But in that life it will all be revealed, for the whole world to see what each one has done from the degree of glory he has; and the whole heavenly host will rejoice. Let this be sufficient on the matter.
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 (21:284). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.