The following sermon by Martin Luther was translated in 2013 by the Rev. Paul A. Rydecki from Luthers werke für das christliche haus: Predigten und erbauliche schriften. Martin Luther, Georg Buchwald – January 1, 1891.
A Sermon on the Gospel for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Text: Matthew 25:1-15 (KJV)
On Faith and Good Works
Preached in Erfurt at St. Michaeliskirche on the Day of the 11,000 Virgins (October 21st), 1522
Dear friends, I did not come here to preach. I also hope there is no need of my preaching, since you already have enough good preachers here, by God’s grace. Nor did I choose to preach on this Gospel in order to validate the story of the 11,000 virgins, which—although I do not reject it—seems awfully similar to a lie, as if it were fabricated by an artist. Now, be that as it may, I will leave it up to each one to think what he will. We wish to take up the best part of this feast: the holy Gospel, which cannot lie to us.
You heard how the ten virgins with their vessels or lamps went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were wise, but the others were foolish. Two types of Christians are depicted for us in this parable, namely, true Christians and phony Christians who only give the appearance of being Christians.
But here we do not wish to speak about those who reject and persecute the Gospel, or even to have them included in these two categories. For, to be sure, such people are not even worthy to be called the foolish virgins, as I hear that a good number of them are so regarded here. Indeed, if it were not the Gospel, then of course, it would not be persecuted. For Christ says: “If the strong, armed man guards his house, then all the things he owns are at peace. But if someone comes along who is stronger than he and overpowers him, then he takes all the weapons in which the other hopes and divides the spoils” (Luke 11:21ff.). When Christ, the Strong Man, came along at His First Coming—for before that the devil held sway over the whole world—then he, as a false prince, was weakened. So it is also now before the Second Coming. The devil long ruled in the academies, and everything was at peace. But now that, by God’s grace, the holy Gospel has come along and grabbed our doctors by the wool and knocked them over, they fume and rant and rave, and there is no more peace. “Yes,” they say, “we have doctorates and masters’ degrees!” Fine, if it were just a matter of their exercises, copulatives, summaries and similar labyrinths! Fine, if they could extinguish the fires of hell with their questions and open up heaven with their distinctions! Then their degrees might mean something. But if we’re just talking about titles, then I, too, earned a bachelor’s degree here, and a master’s degree, and another bachelor’s. I also went to school with them, and I know very well and am quite certain that even they do not understand their own books. Aristotle, Plato and Averroes are worth nothing here, and these knights of straw are right behind them!
Dear people, pay no attention to such things! We have something else to discuss, namely, the holy Gospel, which does not teach how you may obtain honor, favor, gold, silver, joy and happiness in this world. No, it is such a great, valuable, powerful thing that it instructs you and shows you how you may overcome sin, death, the devil, and hell. No amount of ranting will avail when doing battle against these enemies. It takes a very brilliant, sharp, mighty sword to fight against such power. Therefore, we do not contend with these weak, poor Sophists, nor do we contend against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12), but rather against the principalities, against the powers, against the lords of the world and the rulers of the darkness of this world. This is why there is still no end to the offense it must suffer. But whoever grasps this Gospel rightly does not allow himself to be disturbed by such stormy winds and watery geysers, but remains steadfast. Even if today one person stands here and preaches in this way, and tomorrow another comes along and preaches something different, nevertheless an evangelical man does not stumble about, but remains firm till the end, and therefore is truly saved (Matt. 10:22). It’s like a battle in which two armies move out against one another. Each side ventures everything. Each stands the test as bravely as possible and strives to win, without shrinking back from the enemy horde that it considers to be unjust and hostile. So also a godly Christian must indeed stand the test with the Gospel against the Roman—how shall I say?—Babylonian whore. You must preach this clearly and purely, and faithfully pray God that He let us proceed according to His nature and manner, in truth. Then it will not return without fruit and profit to Him who sent it.
For this reason, we must take care, for if we would attempt to preserve the Gospel, not by means of its own power, but with our own strength, then it will be entirely lost. Therefore, if one tries with all his might to defend it, he will fail. Let us stop worrying about preserving the Gospel. The Gospel has no need of our help; it is sufficiently powerful on its own. God alone is in charge of it. It belongs to Him. This is also what I do. Although there are many and great obstacles standing in the way, none of this bothers me in the least; I do not worry about how I will defend it. I and all of us are too weak for it, too weak to champion such a Word. I have entrusted it to our dear God. Yes, it is His Word. He is man enough to be its Champion and Guardian. Thus it is a small, trivial matter that this poor horde of Sophists should set themselves up against it. What do these bats hope to accomplish with their flapping wings? Let them go, these people who are ignorant of God’s grace! Things must grow still worse, until the whole world opposes, rejects and condemns this Word. But the gates and all the power of hell will not prevail. In all of this, there is no better counsel going forward than to preach the Gospel simply and purely, and to pray God that He lead and guide us. I know of no other way to proceed. This is what I do, and I do so joyfully in the name of God.
This is why I say that these adversaries of the Gospel are not worthy to be numbered among the foolish virgins. The Lord is speaking now about Christendom and compares it to ten virgins. Five are wise, five foolish. Here He calls all Christians “virgins.” The foolish virgins are those Christians who give the appearance and impression of being godly. They want to be good evangelicals and are able to say much about these things. They praise the Word and say: “Yes, it is a splendid thing. This is what it means. It cannot possibly be otherwise according to the Scripture, etc.” Paul speaks of these people in 1 Cor. 4:20: “The kingdom of God is not in speech, but in power.” It consists not in speech, but in life; not in words, but in works. Although they are able to say much about many things, they are in reality unwise virgins who only have the lamps or the vessel, that is, the external equipment, and they behave according to their nature, as Matthew writes (7:22), saying: “Lord, Lord!” The mouth is there, but the heart is far away (Matt. 15:8). The oil is not in the lamp, that is, faith is not in the heart. They give it no thought. Indeed, they know it not and imagine that their lamps are ready. Their nature is that they gladly hear the preaching about faith, and if they have heard the Word, they invent and fabricate for themselves a thought, a delusion in the heart which they consider to be oil, and yet they remain the same as before in their behavior. Following their old ways, they are just as wrathful as before, just as covetous, just as unmerciful toward the poor, just as discourteous, etc. This faith is a manmade thing. Therefore, it is just like foam on the water, or like the head on a bad beer.
The other virgins (the wise ones) carry in their hands not only the lamps, but oil with the lamp, that is, the true faith that God has created and made in their hearts. These virgins have something with which to defend themselves, for they have God’s work with them and not an imaginary, invented delusion that is unable to protect them when death looms before their eyes. They are fixed on the divine promise, and the Spirit of God works great things through them, even to the point that they would rather die than live.
Now pay attention: this parable speaks of the time right before the Last Judgment of God, and thus it applies to all Christians. For many of them—the majority—will turn, some to the imaginary faith, and the others to the true faith. This leads us to conclude that the Last Day is not far off, now that the Word of God has thus made a beginning and is bringing about disparate results. But be that as it may, I will not speculate about how far or how near it may be.
To expand further on the Gospel, notice that the lamps are intended to depict for us an outward thing and a bodily practice. But the lamps together with the oil are the inner treasures with the true faith. For this is the nature of faith: God creates and awakens it in the heart so that a person trusts in Christ. Indeed, it is so powerfully founded upon Christ that it defies sin, death, hell, the devil, and all the adversaries of God.
This is the nature of true faith, which is very different from the faith of the Sophists, Jews, and Turks. That kind of faith merely stumbles upon something with the heart, considers it, believes that it is true in this way or that, but God has nothing to do with such a delusion. It is a manmade work; such a delusion comes from nature, from the free will of man. Accordingly they say: “I believe that there is a God, that Christ died for me, etc.” Yet even though one has such a faith about God, it is still nothing, because there is no oil in it since God does not pour in the true oil by giving His Son Jesus Christ and all that He has to the heart as its very own.
But then there comes about a wondrous change, that Christ gives Himself and His benefits to the heart, and takes the heart to Himself with all that it has in it, and makes it His own. But what is in Christ? Innocence, godliness, righteousness, blessedness and every good thing. Furthermore, Christ has conquered sin, death, hell, and the devil. So all of that comes to pass in him who grasps it, who firmly believes and trusts that he becomes, in Christ Jesus, a conqueror of sin, death, hell, and the devil. Likewise the innocence of Christ becomes his innocence. So also the godliness, holiness, and blessedness of Christ and whatever there is in Christ—all of it resides in a believing heart together with Christ. As a result, then, our lamps are not extinguished. For if we wish to approach God with our own works, no matter how brilliantly they may glisten, no matter how fine they may appear, all is in vain and condemnation. For if the wise virgins had only had their lamps, it would have been no use to them at all, just as it was with their counterparts. For eternal life cannot be gained through our works, no matter how good they may be, but only through faith, so that you say: “O Lord, although I am unworthy to see heaven even for a moment, nor am I able to redeem myself from hell with my works, nevertheless You have given me Your Son Christ, who is more valuable and precious than heaven. He is also much stronger than sin, death, and hell.”
But it is God who awakens such faith in us. From it, the works also follow with which we serve our neighbor and come to his aid. But if a person were to place his hope and confidence in such works, he would be damned, for he would not be giving the honor to God and to the faith that He awakens and creates. This is why I am concerned, for there are very many of these work-saints in our time, who lead both themselves and other people astray with their good works (as they call them). Indeed, they claim on the one hand: “Our works are nothing.” And yet, on the other hand, they ascribe everything to free will. But when it comes to grace and faith, they are more ignorant than a goose before the Psalter. Therefore, beware of this invented and imaginary faith. For true faith is not a work of man, which is why an invented faith cannot afford any protection in the face of death; it will be overcome and utterly destroyed by sin, by the devil and the pangs of hell. True faith is the complete trust in Christ that resides in the heart. Only Christ awakens such faith. Whoever has it is saved. Whoever has it not is condemned.
Nor does such faith come from one’s own preparations, but if the Word of God is preached openly and clearly, then such faith and hope arise; such a strong confidence in Christ is raised up.
But in the cloisters and universities, we have been forced to hear and learn until now how Christ is a harsh, strict Judge, who is merely one of the mediators between God and man, and thus they have set up Mary and many other saints as mediators. For this reason, there have come along any number of endowments, pilgrimages, and journeys back and forth. See, here in the Gospel Christ calls all Christians at once a spouse or a bride, and He is the Bridegroom. Here there should be no mediator. What kind of marriage would it be if a middleman had to be placed between the spouses to woo and win the bride at her Bridegroom’s side! A pitiful love, a dilapidated marriage it would be if the Bridegroom didn’t give to His bride the keys and the power over wine, bread, and whatever is in the house. Thus we should know here that Christ is our dear, friendly Spouse, and we are the bride. No mediator is needed here, but we ourselves should approach Him with the same complete confidence with which any beloved bride has ever approached her sweet, friendly, wedded husband. For the Christian faith brings it about that Christ is the Bridegroom, and I am the spouse. Everything is His—the wealth, the godliness, the righteousness, the purity, the wisdom, the humility, the patience, and all such virtues and gracious gifts of God. Now, if these things belong to my Bridegroom, then surely they also belong to me, as Paul also says in Rom. 8:32: “If God gave us His Son, how then has He not also given us all these things together with Him?” Therefore faith must indeed be a great and powerful thing, that such goods should belong to me and that His righteousness should be my own. For though my sins rise up to overwhelm me on my deathbed, I have something to use against them: the godliness and righteousness of my Bridegroom, who stands by my side against the devil, who surely will not fail me in that hour. Against hell, I have heaven, and in Christ and through Christ I become a conqueror of sin, hell, and the devil, and my natural death is conquered, for now I depart from this mortal life into eternal rest.
Therefore, beware that you do not invent any other way to heaven nor attempt to break in by any other path. There is surely no other way but this way of faith, which is shown by the pure Word of God, as Paul says in Rom. 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing.” For this reason, free will and all human wisdom evaporate and disappear, just as the foam on the water and the head on a bad beer. But the faith that is poured in by God—that is the true oil.
Furthermore, it follows from this that we are able to know here what the Christian Church is. It’s true, the sword has been taken out of our hand. And whatever the pope and the bishops have concluded and determined in their councils, all of that has got to be the Gospel. Theirs are all the books full of decrees, decretals, Extravaganten, etc. Oh, it cost the devil a good amount of trouble to set up this spiritual estate and to dedicate these two swords to them alone. We must not only point out such error, but we must also trample it with our feet and utterly condemn it. Yes indeed, it was an impoverished Church that stood upon these pointy little hats and shiny chanterelles, on these oil-idols that can do nothing but smear the people, wash the walls and baptize clocks. Here Christ says in the Gospel that He is the Bridegroom, and that the Christ-believing man is the bride. This must be the true meaning and no other. If, then, this man is truly a husband of Christ, then he is also a ruler over the pope, the devil and all these powers—indeed, a judge of this spirit, as Paul says (1 Cor. 2:15).
You are baptized and endowed with true faith. Therefore, you are also spiritual and should judge all things by means of this Word of the Gospel, and you should be judged by no one. So, then, the pope comes with his sword and says: “I want you to put your faith in me. I and my brothers, yes, the council, too, have established it.” But now my faith is founded only on Christ and His Word, not on the pope nor on the council. Therefore, I should also firmly hold onto the Gospel, without regard for the command of any man. For my faith is here a judge, so that I should say: “This doctrine is good and true, but that one is wicked and false.” Indeed, even the pope and all his followers are subject to this judgment—yes, all men on earth. Therefore, they are all liars who say that the interpretation of Scripture lies with the Holy Father, the pope. Bless you, Sir Pope! This is what I say to that: He who has faith is a spiritual man and judges all things, and is judged by no one. Even if it were only a simple mill-maid or a nine-year-old child who had faith and judged according to the Gospel, the pope owes them obedience and must lie under their feet, or else he is something other than a true Christian. All the academies and scholars and Sophists are likewise subject to such a one.
“Yes,” they say, “even if you are holy, you still do not understand the Scriptures.” How is that different than saying, “Yes, you have no faith”? This is what the desperate Sophists say, for which they will sit in the deepest hell with the devil. They are trying to be knights here, as if they alone knew the interpretation that goes with the text. Indeed, they have amassed great beer bellies over it!
But someone might say: “What if the pope were also a Christian?” Someone stands up against him and says: “I am a Christian. Therefore, dear brother, you should hear me.” Then the pope says words similar to these: “Hear me! I am a Christian!” Who will judge this dispute for us? The holy Scriptures.
The holy Scriptures! That’s precisely where you must turn. That’s how you stop up the mouth of the Sophists who rant: “Pope, Pope! Council, Council! Fathers, Fathers! The academies, the academies, the academies!” What do they matter to us? One Word of God is worth more than that bunch with all their power. But at this point there arises a great quarrel and discord within Christianity, just as it was within the womb of Rebecca (Gen. 25). Esau rises up against Jacob. They say, “You must listen to your teachers and to the conclusions of the pope and the councils.” But they lie like knaves and scoundrels. It is the devil who says such things.
God says in Matt. 3:17: “This is My beloved Son. Him! Him you shall hear!” And He says also in John 10: “My sheep—they hear My voice.” Therefore we must daily exercise ourselves in the Holy Scriptures, so that we may overcome such human laws and crush the devil’s head with the Gospel, with this Seed. Thus the pope’s crown falls to the ground. Now, even if the pope and the bishops come and hold before me the Word of God, I am a little lamb of Christ, so I will say immediately: “Welcome! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” But if they bring with them their bulls, their drivel and their human twaddle, then I will say: “Get behind me, Satan! It is written: ‘You shall worship only God your Lord. Only, only Him you shall serve.’” He has given me His Son. I need nothing else. I am most certainly His spouse, and He is my Bridegroom. The Christian Church is founded on the Gospel, and not even the gates of hell will prevail against it. I have my Christ just as truly present with me as they do who are in Eisenach, Rome and Jerusalem. I may have a little faith; someone else may have a great faith. Nevertheless, there is one faith through which I hold onto Christ. Just as one man pours wine from a costly vessel into a glass, and another pours it into a large silver goblet, the wine is the same, even if one man has more than the other. See, then, how we all are the same through this one faith, which gives us Christ completely, as a Bridegroom, and we all are one bride in this faith, one Christian Church of this Spouse, Jesus Christ.
Where, then, do our holy fathers and worthy lords come from, who have the spiritual sword in their power and the secular one as well, who want to be our princes and lords? It is clear that they do not possess the spiritual sword, and God has never given them the secular one, either. So, then, it serves them right that, even as they have highly exalted their regime, so it is being humbled, and they are left sitting right between two thrones below.
So they come forth with their rusty spears. “Come now,” they say, “we are the old grey heads. Our university in Cologne, etc., has been around for such a long time. Are we really supposed to have erred for so long?” Well then, if they wish to dispute on the basis of age, then our Christ and His Gospel are older than the university in Paris. Let them go on about such things. Christ has all angels and believers in His grace. He is also the Wisdom against which all their counsel and attacks must break. Do not let such things cause you to go astray, my dear people. If God is for us (as I am certain that He is), who will do us harm? Faith is stronger than every foe. No one can extinguish our lamps.
Therefore, let each one see to it that he has these two together: the oil, which is true faith and trust in Christ; and the lamps, the vessel, which is the outward service toward your neighbor. The whole Christian life consists in these two things: Believe God. Help your neighbor. The whole Gospel teaches this. Parents should tell it to their children at home and everywhere. Children, too, should constantly foster this Word among themselves.
I should really say something about the sleep of the virgins and about the setting out of the Bridegroom for the wedding. But the hour is late. Another time. May God be gracious to us! Amen.