Saturday, August 7, 2010

MATTHEW 7:28,29 & postscript (LUTHER)

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.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Matthew 7:24. Everyone, then, who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock;
25. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
26. And everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand;
27. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.

This is the conclusion and the end, on which everything depends: “Whoever not only hears this sermon with his ears but also does it is a wise and clever man.” The doctrine is a good and a precious thing, but it is not being preached for the sake of being heard but for the sake of action and its application to life. Particularly since we are always in danger from false prophets and miracle-workers, we should think it over and accept this teaching and warning, while we still hear it and have it, both as teachers and pupils. If we want to put it off until our little hour strikes and death and the devil come storming in with their rainstorms and tempests, then we have delayed too long. Therefore we must not only hear and be able, but actually do and fight.48
Those who say, “Lord, Lord,” hear it too. The pope, bishops, kings, and the whole world have been hearing it. The priests at Mass and the monks have read, sung, and chanted it every day. But no one has done it or preached it. They have remained with their false worship and their false miracles and have confirmed other people in them too. Though they have been listening a great deal and doing miracles, they have not done the will of God. They do not remain with the doctrine of Christ and genuine good works, but fall back on their own works, which are done without faith or love. Among all the monks and priests there is not a single authentic work to be found. They do not do any works to serve or help their neighbor but only to seek their own advantage. Therefore they completely lack faith, love, and patience. They really do nothing at all, as Christ says, though they hear the right teaching; for it does not get a grip on them, since their hearts are nothing but sand.
Nevertheless, as we have said, there is plenty of activity and teaching among them, even more than among the true preachers and Christians. This, too, gives the people the wrong impression. With his ascetic and spiritual life a hermit or a Carthusian seems to be doing much more than St. Paul or any true preacher and Christian. The outward masks of special works and worship are so dazzling that an ordinary Christian life seems pale by comparison. So they have no shortage of doing, teaching, and believing. “The difference is,” Christ says, “that they hear My teaching, but all they want to do is what they themselves have invented. I cannot keep them on the track of doing what I teach them.” If we Christians were as diligent in our works as they are in theirs, we would be nothing but saints. Still neither side really gets anywhere: we are lazy and indolent; they are entirely too active, but never in doing genuine works. And so, thank God, we still have the advantage, in that we have started believing and loving a little and are on the right track, however weak our progress may be.
Now He closes this with a beautiful analogy, showing the final outcome of both: “Everyone who hears and practices My teaching is a fine, smart builder, who does not build on sand but first finds a strong rock as a foundation. Once he has this, he builds on it so that his house may last and stand firm. Then when the storms and rains strike around it and above it, and when the floods and winds strike beneath it to wash away the ground and upset the house, it stands immovable against all of them as though it were defying them. But everyone who erects his building on sand will discover that it will stand only until the rain and the floods wash it away and the wind upsets it, so that it lies in a heap or collapses by itself.” With this analogy He intends to give us a faithful warning to be careful that we hold tight to His teaching and do not let go of Christ in our hearts, as our only sure Foundation (1 Cor. 3:11) and the Cornerstone of our salvation and blessedness (1 Peter 2:6), as St. Paul and St. Peter call Him on the basis of Isaiah 28:16. If we stand grounded and built on that, we shall remain impregnable. We can let the world and the devil and all the false teachers and schismatic spirits send rain and hail and slush on us and storm and rage around us with every kind of danger and trouble.
Those miserable and foolish people cannot have this assurance and certainty. They do not stand on the rock, that is, on the doctrine about Christ, but on the shifting sand of their own suppositions and dreams. When trouble comes and they have to battle against the devil and death, then they discover that they have put their trust in loose sand and that their stations and works cannot last. I myself have had the experience of seeing many such poor people, especially in monasteries. They really felt this, and finally the fright and terror of their conscience drove them crazy, and some of them remained in eternal despair. The reason was the fact that they had built on their own way of life, devotion, and good intentions and did not know anything about Christ. That sort of room was just equipped for the devil, and he could gleefully upset it and throw it all into a heap.
St. Bernard himself also had to feel this and admit it. He had led an extremely ascetic life with prayers, fasts, and chastisements, and there was nothing he lacked. He was an example for everyone else, and I know no one among the monks who wrote or lived better than he. And yet, when the anguish of death came upon him, he himself had to pronounce this judgment on his whole holy life: “Oh, I have lived damnably and passed my life shamefully!”49 “How so, dear St. Bernard? Have you not been a pious monk all your life? Are not50 chastity, obedience, preaching, fasting, and praying something valuable?” “No,” he says, “it is all lost and belongs to the devil.” Along comes the rain and the wind, pulling down the foundation and the floor and the building into one heap. Therefore he would have had to be damned eternally by his own judgment if he had not come to his senses through his loss, turned around, walked away from monkery, taken hold of a different foundation, clinging to Christ, and being preserved in the Creed that the children pray. As he says: “I am not worthy of eternal life, and I cannot obtain it by my own merit. Yet my Lord Christ has a double right to it: first, a right as the Lord and the heir to it from eternity; secondly, a right which He has won through His suffering and death. The first He keeps for Himself, the second He grants to me.” If they were saved, that is how all the monks and priests and everyone who claimed to be holy had to crawl out of their cowls and all their works and cling to Christ, though they found it distasteful to do so. It is hard for a man who has devoted his entire life to this self-made holiness and has depended on it to tear loose from it in one hour and to cast himself only upon Christ. Hence He warns and admonishes us to take hold of His teaching and to do it while we still have time, before the agony and the death pangs come over us.
So our dear Lord has finished this beautiful sermon. Now the evangelist concludes by saying that the whole world had to testify that this teaching was much different from any that they had been accustomed to hearing before.
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 (21:280). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Matthew 7:21. Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.

That is to say: “I shall close heaven against the very ones who serve Me, who think that their cause is the best, who are seriously endeavoring to get into the kingdom of heaven, and who think they have it, in preference to everyone else.” It is a frightening judgment, that no one is deeper in hell than the great servants of God, the most saintly monks. Since the devil is a villain who cannot hide his own villainy, he has made up a proverb to poke fun at his own saints, which says: “Hell is paved with nothing but tonsures.”38 This is the same thing that Christ says here, that those who brag about being the greatest saints shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? “Because,” He says, “they say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but they do not do the will of My Father who is in heaven.” What? Do you mean that they are not doing the will of God when they serve God day and night and work miracles besides, as we shall see? If they shall not be saved, what is to be the fate of the great common crowd? Answer: You hear him saying no to this and making a distinction between saying, “Lord, Lord,” and doing the will of His Father. He says: “The ones I want are those who do My Father’s will. I do not want those who incessantly cry, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and come with their great devotion as if I had to lift them up to heaven. They hope, in fact, they count on getting to heaven themselves, and also on bringing others in by their merit, on occupying high thrones, and on getting special crowns.” They boast defiantly: “Should not a Carthusian merit more and have a higher rank in heaven than an ordinary layman or a wife? Otherwise, what is he doing in the monastery with his ascetic life?” But it does not say: “Carthusians or servants of God39 enter heaven,” but “those who do the will of God.”
To do the will of God does not mean to put on cowls or gray coats or to run away from human society into the monastery. It is not written that we should do those things, but that Christ preached and taught this: that we should believe in Christ and be found in a calling that has a word of God, and do in it what He has commanded. Take the Ten Commandments in hand, and look how St. Paul teaches all the stations on the basis of these (Rom. 13:8–10): There should be fidelity and obedience from inferiors to superiors, and among the others there should be mutual love and service, and everyone should perform his office faithfully. You find nothing here about clericalism or monasticism, about gray coats, or about any other special way of life. Now, whoever lives according to this, does the will of God, as Christ Himself has testified. These are the ones who belong in heaven, not the ones who neglected the Word of God and yet supposed that they were serving God very seriously and devoutly by saying the word twice, “Lord, Lord,” while the rest of us hardly say it once. They are always busier and more energetic in their worship than the genuine Christians; but since they have been doing their own will, they had better look for another Lord to hear them and to open up heaven for them. By this He intends to warn us again that we should be careful not to let ourselves be seduced by those who present such great and wonderful services, even if they work miracles. We should abide by what He calls good so that everything proceeds and is done on the basis of His commandment, though it may not be very ostentatious or pleasing to reason. He has given us the sure indication that no schismatic spirit will be able to abide by that or be able to teach about good fruit, much less to bear it, but only about his own ideas, spun out of his own head.
Now, the first ones whom Christ rejects are those who come and fill the world with worship, as He predicted about them in Matthew 24:5, 23, 24: “Many false Christs and false prophets will arise and say: ‘Lo, here is Christ!’ or, ‘There He is!’ and they will lead many astray.” Next come others, who not only say, “Lord, Lord,” but also do great wonders and signs. About these He says now:
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 (21:268). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Matthew 7:16. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
17. So every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.
18. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
19. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Having warned His followers to hold fast to His teaching and to be careful that they are not seduced by others who are ravenous wolves under sheep’s clothing, Christ, the Lord, now uses another warning to teach them how to recognize such people by their fruits. He cites an example in plain and simple words that even a child can understand. No one is so naive as to suppose that a thornbush bears figs or grapes. Nevertheless, though the words may be simple, no one can see their full implication unless he pays diligent attention to the Word of God. The most important thing is to understand what He calls a good or a bad tree and good or bad fruit. It is easy to say that this is a fig tree or a thistle or a good apple tree or a sour plum tree, and this is something that the eyes can easily see and the reason easily grasp. But what Christ is pointing to here cannot be located except by a spiritual understanding on the basis of the Word of God. We heard earlier that these same false teachers put on such an appearance and are so glib in their speech that reason is not capable of evaluating them or of defending itself against them. As a matter of fact, this sort of teaching springs from reason and is completely compatible with it. Naturally it pleases us, for it teaches about our own actions and works, which lie within our understanding and our capacity.
A brief definition of “a sound tree that bears good fruit” is this: one who conducts his life, existence, and behavior according to the Word of God, pure and unadulterated. Later on He will be discussing many people who have heard the Word of God, who say, “Lord, Lord!” and who have done many signs, yet are false and hypocritical. Here you have to close up your reason altogether and follow only the Word of God, basing your ideas and opinions about life and works upon it, so that you may know what the Word of God calls a “good tree” or “good fruit.” It is too hard for reason to understand that a man is not a sound tree with good fruit when it sees him wearing nothing but a gray coat, fasting every week like that Pharisee in the Gospel (Luke 18:12), and even doing miracles and signs. Its knowledge cannot go any higher, nor can its thought and understanding be any better. It is simply fascinated by all this, and it concludes that whoever leads a life different from that of other people must be a special and saintly man. Reason, the blind fool, fails to see that all such works are still very far from the Word of God. You may ask reason: “How do you know that these works are as precious as you make them?” The only answer it can give you is, “I suppose so.” Into the ashcan30 with your suppositions, if I am supposed to base my salvation and blessedness on them! The command is: You must not imagine or suppose, but you must know and have a sure basis and testimony from the Word of God, telling you that this is pleasing to Him. Then you can say: “The work is well done, the station is one that pleases God. I know this, not from my own light or star, which makes it seem good or bad to me, but from its agreement with the Word and the commandment of God. To me it does not seem right that a husband or a wife, a prince or a judge should be as holy as the one who sneaks off into corners or into the desert. But it will not do for me to decide on the basis of my supposition. Though someone were to be able to drive out demons and to do all the miracles that the apostles did, I would rather be a shoemaker’s apprentice or a dishwasher on the basis of the Word of God. I would elevate this occupation above all your suppositions, even if you were able to raise the dead.” So stick to the principle that bearing good fruit refers to the kind of life and good works that are in agreement with the Word and the commandment of God.
Thus the words “You will know them by their fruits” are set down as a distinguishing mark and a standard for judging and recognizing these prophets. If we are taken in, that is no one’s fault but our own. He has not left us in doubt but has portrayed them clearly and precisely. “If their sheep’s clothing makes it impossible for you to judge them,” He says, “then take note of their fruits and works, and see whether these are upright and good.” You may say: “All right, but how do I recognize these? They may fool me too.” Answer: You know what God’s commandments are. See whether they agree with them. I will guarantee that no schismatic spirit will come without making his own special mark and leaving a stench behind so that you can tell that the devil has been there. No false teaching or heresy has ever arisen without bringing along the distinguishing mark He points to here: that it has set forth works different from the ones which God has commanded and ordained. The world is seduced simply because it follows insane reason and leaves the Word of God lying under the bench. It does not notice what He commands, and meanwhile it stares at the masks in the hope of seeing something special.
Anyone who wants to judge correctly here should do as Christ teaches him to do. He should take their works and fruit in hand and measure them against the Word or commandment of God, to see how these harmonize. Take the saintliest Carthusian monk with his strict routine on the one side and St. Paul with the Ten Commandments on the other. You will see that St. Paul preaches this way: If you have Christ through faith, then let everyone be obedient and subject to the government (Rom. 13:1) and practice mutual love in your station (Rom. 13:8–10). You see, there you have the true mirror of a Christian life, based upon the commandment and ordinance of God. By way of contrast, the schismatic spirit comes along and says: “Oh, that is so ordinary. There are many wicked people in these stations, and it is all secular. We have to look for something better.” So he goes and makes something special and strange. He comes marching along in a cowl or a gray coat, which is now supposed to be a wonderful life and a perfect station. But if you are grounded in the Word of God, you can quickly judge and say: “Where did God command you to set up these special stations and works in opposition to the universal stations that He has ordained? I am well aware of the fact that in every station there are many rascals as well as many pious people, but what do I care if someone misuses them? I will remain with the Word, which teaches me that such stations are good in spite of the fact that there are bad people in them. I watch this, and I am guided by it. Since the station is good, the works and fruit demanded by it and done according to the Word of God must also be right and good. But since your station has no Word of God, the works that are done in it cannot be good. Thus both the tree and its fruit are rotten and useless.”
There you have a sure basis for judgment, one that cannot deceive you, when Christ teaches you to know them by their fruit. In my reading about all the heretics and schismatics I have discovered that without fail they all set out to do something different from what God had required and commanded, one in this teaching and another in that. One forbade the eating of certain food, another forbade marriage, a third condemned the civil government, and each set forth something all his own. Thus they all fall into this pattern. It all depends, therefore, on really knowing and maintaining the definition of what Christ calls good works or fruits: a good work is one that is required or commanded by the Word of God and proceeds on the basis of that commandment. So a wife who is pious and faithful in her marriage can claim and boast that her station is commanded by God, that it is supported by the true, pure, and unadulterated Word of God, and that it heartily pleases God. Hence her works are all good fruit. Good should not be judged and evaluated on the basis of our suppositions but on the basis of what God says and pronounces to be good. If you stick to this, you cannot go wrong. They must go wrong. There stands the judgment that they cannot teach about right fruit. God takes the same attitude toward them when they preach about nothing except the stunts they themselves have thought up. Since they despise the real fruit and works for their lack of any special show, He despises the rotten works that they undertake so ostentatiously in their presumption that they are improving on what He has done.
There is a proverb invented by the priests, and it seems to me that the devil himself was making fun of them with it. When our Lord God was making a priest, the devil was watching and wanted to imitate Him. But he made the tonsure too wide, and it turned out to be a monk. Therefore the monks are the devil’s creatures. Of course, that is said in fun, as a joke, but it is really true. When the devil sees God commanding obedience and mutual love and creating a fine, spiritual people of His own, he cannot let it go at that. He just has to build his chapel or tavern next to the church31 and then to start teaching his monkery, poverty, gray coats, and the like. Thus the monks are always the devil’s priests. They preach nothing but the doctrine of demons, as Paul calls it (1 Tim. 4:1), which they have taken up on the basis of their own supposition and which, in their superior wisdom, they claim to be an improvement on the work of God.
Christ wants to say now: “If you want to recognize and judge these people, cling to the pure Word of God. Then you will be certain what the right fruit is, and you will see how they measure up to it. You will surely discover that they teach and practice something different from what God has commanded. This gives you a way of testing the tree, too, to see that it is no good.” Now He gives them a crude and childlike example: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” They suppose: “Well, why not? Why should that be impossible? Why, you can gather pure sugar from them.” They regard these works as much more precious than the ones that God has commanded. Take a look at the two kinds of trees—the vine or the fig tree, and the thorn or the thistle by contrast. Thistles and thorns may bloom, too, but what sort of fruit do they yield?32 The fig tree is such an unpretentious tree and does not strut or brag about its fruit and leaves. It does not sprout any leaves until the fruit is ready, but before you realize it, it yields its fruit. Thus the grapevine has less glory in its outward appearance than any other tree and is just a dry and weak stick. Yet it yields grapes which are sweeter than anything else that grows, while other trees spread themselves and strut with their leaves and flowers so that it would seem that they will yield pure sugar; but all they produce is this sour and useless fruit.
These people likewise put on a fine outward appearance and set up a clatter with their bragging about the special works that they will be the only ones to perform. But when the blossoms have fallen, there is nothing left but a hawthorn full of stones, useless for nourishment or food, or thistleheads, which just prick and scratch if you take hold of them. If you measure them up against the commandment of God and ask whether God has commanded and required such works and whether they have served and benefited the neighbor, it is clear that they are valueless and only a hindrance to the genuine good fruit. The other stations, by contrast, put on no special outward appearance by glittering and glistening. Still they yield the finest and best fruit and are the most useful things on earth—but in the sight of God and of those who are illumined with spiritual vision so that they can see correctly and judge correctly.
This is why He says: “Are figs gathered from thorns?” As if He wanted to say: “The blossoms may be something wonderful, but wait a while and see what you will find when picking and gathering time comes. The only outcome will be disappointment for the people who have been expecting large and precious fruit but who find nothing that provides consolation or pleasure for them or for other people.” The regrettable thing is that this ghostly invention of the devil deceives and seduces even the sharpest mind that does not have the Word of God and a sound understanding. It follows its own supposition and devotion, and it imagines that if it finds these pleasing, God must find them pleasing too. But this should be reversed so that I find pleasing what I hear is pleasing to Him, even though all of God’s stations have their annoyances and many bad people in them who corrupt this fruit, just the way the bad worms do.
Now He closes this comparison with a common saying that He was fond of using otherwise too.33 “Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.” Now, what is the point of teaching this in so many words? Who does not know it already? A blind man could tell it by feeling a bush. Does He think that we are such fools, not to know this? If someone already knows it, let him. We want to learn it and to remain Christ’s pupils. As has been said, it is not such an easy art to judge in the activity which Christ is discussing. The purpose of this saying is to comfort and strengthen people who are in the stations that conflict with the feelings and attitudes of reason—stations which have many annoyances and evil incidents in them so that people are taken aback and regard them as dangerous and as unsuitable for the service of God. St. Augustine used to torment himself and agonize over this, even when he had already become a great theologian.34 He would have liked to see everything just right and to eliminate the evil elements from these stations. The Pelagian heretics caused him a great deal of trouble in this regard. Almost all the heretics have tried to make everything perfectly pure and—if you will pardon the expression—they have fouled it up instead.
But why look for it far away? Here it is stated admirably and briefly: Nothing but good fruit can come from the station that God has created and ordained, and from the man who works and lives in this station on the basis of the Word of God. With this you can now comfort your heart against thoughts like these: “Oh, it was this person or that who got me into this station. It causes me nothing but disgust and trouble.” I have often been tempted this way in connection with my own office, and still am. If it had not been for the Word of God, I would have stopped preaching a long time ago and would have said farewell to the world, the way the monks used to do. It is the devil himself doing this and making everyone’s station hard for him. Though God has assigned this office and work to us and is heartily pleased with it as the good fruit of a good heart, the devil so confuses foolish human reason that it fails to recognize this and thus destroys its own station and fruit. Because it does not see that this is a good tree and a good station, it is an obstacle to itself and therefore cannot yield good fruit.
Learn to look at your station on the basis of this statement, and draw this conclusion from it: “Thank God, I know now that I am in a good and blessed station, one that pleases God. Though it may be annoying to my flesh and contain a great deal that is troubling and disgusting, I shall cheerfully put up with all that. Here I have the comfort that Christ says: ‘A sound tree bears good fruit.’ He says this about every station that is grounded in the Word of God, though it may be despised and decried by the world and the special saints. On the other hand, I hear this judgment: ‘Every bad tree brings forth evil fruit.’ When I see the saintliest Carthusian, therefore, I am looking at an abominably bad tree, though he may make a wonderful impression and have less worry and opposition than I do. The devil does not make things as bitter and as difficult for him as he does for the genuine divine stations. That is why people find such stations and occupations to their liking. As I cannot see that the fruit in my station is good, so he cannot see either that his station and fruit is rotten and useless. They would like to reverse this saying to read this way: ‘A bad tree brings forth good fruit, and a sound tree brings forth bad fruit.’ ” In other words, reason is unable to judge here, or to see the goodness in its station and its works, or to get any joy or pleasure out of them. Instead, it praises the exact opposite. If this were visible to us, we would live in sheer joy and bear and endure with a joyful heart whatever God lays upon us, being certain that because the tree is sound, the fruit also must be good. When a pious hired man is hauling a wagonload of manure to the field, he is actually hauling a wagonload of precious figs and grapes—but in the sight of God, not in our own sight, since we do not believe, so that everyone gets tired of his station and goes staring at another one.
Now, that is what Christ means by drawing the frank and direct conclusion: “A sound tree bears good fruit, and vice versa.” To make it even stronger, He adds the extra statement: “A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” “What? Do You mean that it is impossible for a servant or a maid to be a villain, or for a man or woman to commit adultery, or for a prince to be a tyrant, or for a preacher to be a seducer, as You Yourself have said? Where but in the various stations and businesses should we look for scoundrels and villains?”
Answer: Unfortunately, that is true. But then none of these people is a sound tree any more, since he is transgressing the limits of his station and living in opposition to the commandment of God. But if he remains in his station or office and does what this demands, he cannot be a bad tree. Therefore He says: “You just be sure to remain a sound tree, and I promise you that what you do cannot be wrong. The works that God has commanded must be laudable, and they cannot be called wrong.” Now, what greater blessing could we want than to have this praise and testimony from Christ Himself, in opposition to the schismatic spirits and eccentrics? We know that we are in a station where we cannot do wrong so long as we live according to the Word of God and do what we have been commanded to do. In fact, though something wrong might creep in by our excesses, not purposely or deliberately but through our ignorance or weakness, this, too, has to be good and pardonable. In other words, you cannot ruin it, since you are living in the divine office and in the Word. If you remain in that, it cannot be Wrong. Though it might be sin otherwise, it will not be called wrong but will be covered over and forgiven.35 Such is the wonderful blessing of the Word of God. Though a fig tree or other tree may sometimes bear wormy fruit, a fig is still good fruit and has no spines or thorns. Rather than to be fruitless, the tree will bear fruit that is wormy, though that is not its fault. So all the works of a Christian are of a good kind because the tree is sound. He lives in such a way that he would gladly bear nothing but good fruit, though sometimes, through the weakness of the flesh or some other obstacle, something wrong creeps in.
By contrast, even if those thornbushes and thistles strained themselves, they could not bear any fruit that could be called a good apple or a fig. If a Carthusian or a barefoot monk tortured himself to death with praying, he could not say an Our Father that God would call good, or do a single good work. The more he would do in his anxiety for doing good works, the worse he would make it. It is decided: “A thistle does not bear figs, and a thornbush does not bear grapes.” In short, “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” He is really threatening severely and frightening us strictly away from all self-chosen orders and stations, since they cannot do a single good work.36 And He is really giving us wonderful comfort, that we who live according to the Word of God cannot do wrong.
And so He concludes now: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” There you have the sentence handed down which will finally strike all those who teach and obey their own works, without any word of God. In doing this, their intention is to make their cause last forever. They imagine that since they are the really valuable trees and plants, God has to spare them, hedge them in and fence them, and take very good care of them. They do not see the sentence that has been pronounced against them. He has already taken hold of the ax and laid it to the tree, as Christ says elsewhere.37 All they are fit for is hell-fire. For it is written (Matt. 15:13): “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up.”
He has been saying all this in comparisons and parables or obscure words. Now He goes on to explain what He meant by this, adding the correct gloss in clear and distinct words:
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 (21:259). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.