Martin Luther on John 3:14-18
[note: because of the length of this, this excerpt is not for the light-hearted]
14. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up.
Let us note and remember this text well; for the Lord Christ was truly the best of preachers, excelling even the other apostles. Therefore it behooves us to listen attentively to His words. These words are familiar. They are often treated in sermons. One finds them painted on many walls, and they have also been stamped on coins.46 Would to God that these words were also stamped and inscribed on our hearts! They deserve to be sealed in our hearts. Thus the bride exclaims in the Song of Solomon: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm” (8:6).
These sublime words of our text are the greatest article of our Christian doctrine. All the world hears these words, but only a few accept them and engrave them on their hearts. The world grows hostile to this article and finds it intolerable. Of course, the Turk also thinks highly of Christ and concedes that He was a great prophet, that He was born of the Virgin Mary, and that His mother was not conceived in original sin.47 However, he does not confess that Christ is his God and Lord but places his Mohammed above Christ or at least alongside Him. And the Turk is, at the same time, reputed to be very pious. He leads an abstemious life, and he devises his own way to heaven.
You also know that the pope thinks nothing of this text. In fact, this article of faith is practically forgotten in the papacy. To be sure, the pope retains the bare words of this text in the Gospel, but he denies their power altogether. Only Baptism is preserved in its purity in the papacy.48 But basically the pope’s regard for Christ is little better than that of the Turk. The pope and the cardinals write that Christ rendered satisfaction only for original sin and that we ourselves must atone for the actual and daily sins.49 All this is an attempt to rob us of Christ, who became our Bridegroom through faith. The devil attacks this article in thousands of ways in order to destroy it. But he will still have to let bride and Groom remain together; and this happens by faith alone. Faith is the engagement ring which betroths us to Christ. By faith we take hold of Christ, saying to Him: “You alone ascended above.” As He said earlier: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven.”
This article of faith, that Christ is our Lord, is what makes us Christians. It is the jewel, the gem, and the golden chain around the neck of the bride, who believes that Christ is true God from eternity, that He descended from heaven and became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and that He, and no other, ascended again into heaven. Thus He was declared the Son of God (Rom. 1:4), and He sits at the right hand of His heavenly Father. This is most certainly true, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. For if Christ were not seated at the right hand of His Father, this article of faith would never have come down to us; nor would it have been possible for this article to maintain itself against the constant opposition of so many kings and tyrants in the world.
Christ now construes His “ascending” to mean that we shall also ascend in Him, since Jesus Christ is the only one to ascend into heaven after first descending from there. Otherwise some might ask: “Well then, what about us?” Christ answers: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so, etc.” Therefore we shall also ascend in Him. You can throw this into the teeth of all Jews, Turks, and papists, who propose to be their own way to heaven with their orders, rules, and good works—they have invented so many roads to heaven—and say to them: “No one ascends into heaven but He who descended from heaven.” He, the Lord Christ, took with Him into heaven the body and the bride He had acquired and adorned on earth. No one has ever ascended into heaven apart from Him.
By the word “no one” Christ does not mean those who follow Him. As the Bridegroom, He has ascended into heaven. When He descended from there, He did not intend to remain here alone; but He chose a bride on earth, and this bride He took along with Him into heaven. The Turks say: “Whoever observes the Koran ascends into heaven.” The Jews claim: “Whoever keeps the Law of Moses has a way of ascending into heaven.” The pope declares: “Whoever obeys me ascends into heaven.” There is no end or limit to the variety of methods. But they all prescribe heavenward journeys on which the travelers will break their necks. These are detours, and they spell disaster; for Christ says here: “No one ascends into heaven.”
The outward life of the Turks is said to be marked by a semblance of piety. They pray, fast, give alms, establish charitable institutions, and build churches. They are ready to help others. And with this appearance of holiness they deceive many people. Thus the pope also duped us. At the time we did not know better, but we believed that monastic orders and monkeries were the proper and correct way to heaven. Anyone who is not well armed with this article of faith and has not pressed it deep into his heart falls easy prey to the shining external gleam of holiness as well as to the prominent names of prophets and teachers. But because they have devised such a variety of ways to heaven, we will tell them: “We will stick to the one Way to heaven and adhere to Him who descended and simultaneously remained above.” He is our sole Resurrection, as is said in John 11: “I am the Resurrection, and the Truth, and the Life.”50 Therefore He is the only Way to heaven, since He alone ascended there. Whoever remains loyal to this article of faith also remains loyal to Christ. Even if he were led captive to Turkey and were an eyewitness of the practice of the Turkish religion, of their many fasts and prayers, he would still say: “All this fails to interest me. Even if the pope and the Turk were to raise the dead, even if they flogged themselves with rods till the blood streamed from them, even if they fasted several weeks on bread and water—I know, despite all this, that you are not the resurrection or the life or the way to heaven. You will not deceive and delude me with all these acts. For Christ alone is the Way, and no other.”
If a Christian preserves this article of faith in its truth and purity, it will be easy for him to ward off all false teachers and deceivers as well as his own whims and notions. Yes, he who holds fast to this has a mainstay for life; and he will also be saved in death through this one faith in Christ, that is, if he believes that Christ alone ascended into heaven. Therefore he will not be lost.
It is said that a Turk can go without a bite of food for three days. And St. Bernard is reputed to have abstained from eating and drinking so long that his lungs began to rot and his breath stank so much that he was excluded from the choir and from association with his brethren.51 Let me say here that fasting is not an evil; it is a good work. Nevertheless, it is not the resurrection and the life. Fasting may be a good work incumbent on me, but it is not something that is in heaven or something that descended from heaven; much less will it lead and take us to heaven. Similarly, the ascent into heaven is not found in wearing a hair shirt. These works may be good; but they did not come down from heaven, nor have they ever been in heaven. They do not measure up to the Man of whom it is said here that He is the only one who descended from heaven, remained above, and ascended again into heaven. St. Bernard surely did not come from heaven; he came from the earth; he was born of a woman, and he cried like other infants. He came from our own midst and not from above. Nor is he the one who remained above.
So I judge and conclude of all works, no matter how good, and also of the lives of the saints, that they are not the Son of God or the ascent and the way to heaven. Of course, I must lead a moral, godly, and upright life in the world; but I must not presume to ascend into heaven by virtue of this. No one ascends into heaven but He who also descended from heaven and also remained in heaven; and that is Christ Jesus alone. To Him alone must all honor be accorded; all others are but human beings born of human beings. If they believe in Christ, then they ascend into heaven because of this Man and the fullness of His ascent and descent, and because of nothing else.
We distinguish two types of man: first, a man per se; secondly, a man of God. Man by himself may be pious in the world and do no one an injustice; but he is still a human person, and he cannot ascend into heaven. No, we need the Person who is both God and man; He is widely different from other persons, because He ascended into heaven, whence He had descended. By virtue of His exalted majesty the sleep and the fasting of this Person even for a moment or an hour are superior to all the works and all the fasting of all the saints. No man is His equal. This Person is God and man, greater than other men; for He is God’s Son. We, on the other hand, are nothing but humans born of woman. When a Christian imprints and seals this article of faith in his heart, that Christ ascended into heaven and descended from there again, he is safely on the way to salvation and need fear no delusion and deception. But when he discards this article and breaks the seal, then no error is too ridiculous for him to follow; for he has fallen from the ship, has erred from the right path. He is like someone who has strayed from the right highway. Regardless of the course he may pursue now, he goes wrong, because he has departed from the correct path.
We take such pains to stress this article because it alone has toppled the pope. May God grant that it will yet overthrow the Turk too before the Last Day. It is true that the pope and the Turk have had many good and learned men; in fact, the Turks still have many monks. But on this point they all erred; for they were ignorant of this article which alone governs all good works and the life of man, which alone saves. Whatever man may do is pleasing to God for the sake of this article. And you young people who are not aware of the devil’s powerful attacks against this article—for you have not yet engaged in this battle—must hold firmly to this article. We old teachers have not yet disposed of the sects; they all rage against it. Even though they are vanquished for a while, they do not give up but rise again and again and grow. The same is true of those who once fall away from Christ; they go further and further astray until they perish completely. But take hold of the gem and remember the statement: “No one ascends up to heaven.”
But now let us meditate on the story. The Lord delivers an excellent sermon to Nicodemus, a Jew, who supposed that keeping the Law of Moses offered him a way to heaven and that his own ascension into heaven depended on his fasting, his praying, and his ascetic life. Now Christ interprets and unravels Moses to him correctly and says to him: “That will never do it. Your mode of ascension is not the way, but you must be born anew. Therefore listen to what I tell you. You are a Jew. I shall take your Moses and cite from him passages which you have not understood until now.” Who else would have interpreted Moses in this way before?
He says: “In Num. 21 you read that the Lord our God sent fiery serpents among the children of Israel when they murmured because the Lord did not do what they wanted Him to do.” In that country, where the heat is so intense, such serpents are called asps.52 When they bite a man, he swells, turns red, and his whole body becomes so feverish that he is soon past help unless the bitten member is amputated at once. For if such a serpent bites into a finger or a foot, the limb must be amputated immediately. Otherwise the fire or fever will penetrate the whole body and affect all its parts, and death will be inevitable. In his song in Deut. 32:33 Moses sings of “the incurable venom of asps.” They are called “fiery serpents” because they inflame the body with their sting so that the affected member must be cut off at once, or death will result. These serpents were not actually fiery; but when they bit a man, his flesh grew so fiery red and feverish that he died of thirst. This thirst suggested the name διψάδες to the Greeks. For heat induces thirst, and one reads that the angry breath of these serpents is so intensely hot that the very air becomes fiery as though it were aflame.53 That is why they were called “fiery serpents.” We Germans have no descriptive name for them, since these serpents are unknown in our lands, although I am told that they have been seen out there in our Speck.54
By these serpents God punished the Israelites with sudden death in the wilderness because of their murmuring and disobedience. Now when the people sought everywhere for relief from this plague, Moses interceded for them before the Lord God, asking Him to mitigate the penalty. Then God said (Num. 21:8): “Erect a seraph.” This is the word He uses here; it means a house which is aflame, for the seraphim are fiery angels. Thus He says: “Lift up a fiery serpent, so that whoever looks at it will not die.” Then Moses molded a serpent, patterning it after those fiery serpents, and set it on a pole. This serpent had God’s Word and promise that anyone bitten by the serpents would go unscathed if he looked at this bronze serpent. That was indeed a great miracle that such a severe wound should find such a simple cure. The people were to do no more than believe the word of Moses; the term which the Lord employs here for this believing is “look at.” This was a queer remedy, and I suppose it must have impressed the Jews as very strange and odd. But an emergency knows no law, as the saying goes.55 Their great emergency must have prompted them to believe, particularly when they saw that it was beginning to work a cure. Yet it is surprising that the human heart could believe the words of Moses, for the people had experienced the deadliness of the venom of these fiery serpents. They might well have thought: “Ha, what a ridiculous medicine it is that you propose for the sting and bite of the serpents! Moses, have you lost your senses? How are we to be helped by looking at this bronze serpent, which looks like those that bit us? We are so terrified that we cannot stand the sight of them! If only you would, instead, give us a drink, a cooling plaster, a cooling drink, to take away the venom and the fever! What good can mere words and looking do? How can that dead and lifeless object up there benefit us?”
Very likely it was not only the emergency that did it but also their faith. I am sure that many scorned to accept the remedy and died in their unbelief. They would not be persuaded and said: “Ha, how are we to be helped by looking at the serpent?” Probably none but the believers looked at the serpent. The others very likely turned away from it, saying: “Why do you make sport of me by asking me to look at that serpent? How could it help?” But it was not the act of looking at the serpent that cured; it was the words, the faith in the words. In all probability those who believed declared: “Behold, Moses is a servant of God. God commanded him to do this; therefore it must be healing.” Just looking at the serpent did not effect the cure; it was faith in the Word that did it. These people accepted the Word of God as a reliable promise of healing and deliverance from the poison.
In this story many were undoubtedly offended because it was all so unpretentious. None but the believers understood Moses’ words and recovered through their faith in the Word. But who would have had the boldness to refer this story to Christ? I would never have ventured to interpret this story as Christ Himself did when He plainly related it to Himself, saying: “This is the bronze serpent; I, however, am the Son of man. Those people were asked to look at the serpent physically, but you must look at Me spiritually and in faith. Those people were cured of bodily poisoning; but you, through Me, will be delivered from eternal poison. They recovered from a physical ailment, but I bestow eternal life on those who believe in Me.” These are very strange statements and sayings.
In this way the Lord shows us the proper method of interpreting Moses and all the prophets. He teaches us that Moses points and refers to Christ in all his stories and illustrations. His purpose is to show that Christ is the point at the center of a circle, with all eyes inside the circle focused on Him. Whoever turns his eyes on Him finds his proper place in the circle of which Christ is the center. All the stories of Holy Writ, if viewed aright, point to Christ.
During the forty days between Christ’s resurrection and His ascension He expounded many similar texts and related many such stories to His disciples in His conversations with them (Luke 24:27). He did the same thing when He appeared on Mt. Tabor with Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:3). Thus He also relates the figure of the serpent to Himself here. Thereby He opens the treasure chest of Moses and shows them the nugget concealed there. He shows that all the stories and illustrations of Moses point to Christ. The precious treasure of looking solely at Christ was so near and dear to Moses that he wore it, so to speak, between his skin and his flesh. Christ is also our Serpent of salvation, symbolized for us by that earlier bronze serpent. For after the disobedience of Adam and Eve we, too, were bitten by the venomous serpent in Paradise. They murmured against God when He forbade them to eat of the one tree. They wanted to know why He had forbidden it. And the devil said to Adam (Gen. 3:1): “Do you suppose that God really did forbid this?” He cursed the Lord our God and taught Adam to do likewise and to obey this venomous worm. Then the devil stung Adam and injected his poison, for which there is no cure; this resulted in Adam’s death. By nature we all are still subject to death and have to die. There is no help and no remedy for this. No one has ever been able to escape sin and death; for we have all drunk the serpents fatal venom, which was transmitted to all of us by Adam and for which there is no antidote. As experience teaches, death is now inevitable.
Many philosophers have come up with attempts to assist nature and discover some remedy for this venom of the serpent and for death. The Jews had looked for this remedy to Moses and the prophets, who did indeed apply a plaster and cooling water; but this did not help. The sorcerers in Egypt had also been expected to find a remedy against this, but all was in vain. For there was no antidote for this venom until the fulfillment of the proclamation (Gen. 3:15): “The woman’s Seed will crush the serpents head. Then the venom of the serpent will be extracted, so that it can no longer inflict any harm.”
Christ says: “No one has ascended into heaven” and: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” That is, God lifted up a bronze serpent like the other serpents that all who looked at it might recover. This symbolized the fact that God would let His Son descend from heaven and be nailed to the cross, where He, too, hangs like a serpent or a worm, the object of scorn and contempt, as Christ Himself laments in Ps. 22:6. But whoever believes in this crucified Christ will not be lost and perish but will have everlasting life, just as those who looked at the bronze serpent in the wilderness did not die but were saved.
It might have been expected that the Jews who had been bitten by the serpents would shun this cure, for it is only natural for us to shy away from anything that has harmed us. Even to see a picture of it fills us with sadness and abhorrence. But Moses said to the Jews: “Fear not!” as he showed them the cooling plaster and lifted up the serpent fashioned like the serpents which had bitten them and from which they had fled in fear. The Jews must have thought: “Moses, are you insane? Do you want to terrify us still more with your cure and scare us out of our wits? How could that serpent help us?” But Moses calmly proceeded, molded a serpent with the form and figure of the live, fiery ones, and suspended it before their eyes. For if one is bitten by a mad dog, one must bind the hair of a dog on the wound to heal it.56 Thus those who are bitten by fiery serpents—that is to say, those who are cast into sin, death, and eternal damnation by the devil—must look at this bronze serpent, that is, believe in Christ; and they will be granted righteousness, life, and salvation. Faith in Christ, the Son of God and true man, will accomplish this.
What is the significance of the fact that Moses took a serpent like the ones which had inflicted the wounds, instead of hanging a dead serpent on the pole to look at?57 He made a bronze serpent in which they had to believe. This signifies that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, born of a virgin, became like us condemned people and hung on the cross like a poisonous, evil, and harmful worm. Yes, He resembles the serpent which got us into trouble in Paradise, that is, the devil. He was so despised, condemned, and rejected by the world that He was finally sentenced to an ignominious death and hanged as an archvillain among the murderers. Thus Isaiah had prophesied: “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). As though Isaiah were to say: “It was appropriate for Him to be hanged between murderers, to be numbered among the transgressors, and to be despised and reviled.” And the legend inscribed over His head on the cross also stamped Him as a rioter who had rebelled against secular and ecclesiastical government. He was not regarded as a godly person but as a venomous worm unworthy of having the sun shine onto Him, as a menace to the entire world. Such was the low esteem in which the world held Him, and His Christians today share this with Him. If we preach Christ, we are accused of infecting the world with the most pernicious poison. The pope regards our doctrine as “the doctrine of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1); and if we preach the Gospel, we must be the most venomous dragons and vermin. Thus St. Paul declared that we are looked upon as the most obnoxious and venomous worms, which mislead and pollute the whole world, as καθάρματα and περιψήματα, the most damnable and the most infectious people, the world’s curse and purgatory. Ridding the world of such people is considered a great service to God (John 16:2).
That is how the Christians have fared since the beginning of the world, and we Christians are still being butchered daily like sheep for the slaughter. The Turk is martyring so many today because he prefers a serpent or the devil himself to a Christian or a preacher of the divine Word. The pope, too, would rather gaze on a wolf or on vermin than on us; he assumes that he can cope with the Turk once he has disposed of us. Such is our lot. We who cure the world and help mankind are regarded as damnable people who contaminate, pollute, and ruin others. In the same way Christ was looked upon as a venomous worm to be shunned.
But that is the way divine wisdom works. Christ helps the world by confounding the world’s wisdom; the wisdom of the world must become foolishness before Him. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Accordingly, Christ must be a veritable bronze serpent, that is, a most despised person, but a serpent which does us no harm with its venom; for this is a healing serpent, without venom. Christ has only the form of a serpent, and in this guise He possesses a power surpassing any salve. For He heals mankind and saves from sin, death, and damnation, as that serpent in the wilderness cured men of physical ailment.
The world judges Christ only by His outward appearance; it does not regard Him otherwise than as a devil. And He does want to be a serpent, a devil, a judge to those who despair, to the unrepentant, and to the ungodly. Yes, He will be their tyrant and their punisher, since they make a serpent of Him and run from Him. He must have the form of a serpent; but even if He were still more repugnant to the eye and resembled a devil or a vile worm, I must even then learn to ignore this figure and outward appearance of Christ and say: “The world may regard Him as it will. What is that to me? He may be a murderer to others, and the inscription on the cross may label Him as a disgraceful rioter. All this does not affect me. I will look for the power concealed behind all this and not be offended by His external appearance. I look upon Him as my Savior. And he who gazes this way at the serpent, so woefully ridiculed and blasphemed, will be saved.” Therefore you, too, must say: “His outward appearance will pose no obstacle for me; I will surmount this. No matter how hideously this serpent may be painted by the world, no matter how the world may do its worst and revile Christ with cries of heresy, of venom, and of murder—all this does not perturb me.” Let the world be offended by this figure if it will. But you must realize that the bronze serpent is not really a serpent; it merely has the aspect and the form of a serpent. It is a bronze serpent without venom.
When I study God’s Word, I find that Christ not only has the form of a serpent without venom; but I also feel a power in Him which will cure me of venom. Therefore I ignore the mockers who declare: “Oh, how can He help when He is dead and buried? How can we get help from Him whom the Jews decry as a murderer, a revolutionary, a blasphemer, a demoniac, and a Samaritan?” I reply to this: “Christ may be viewed and defamed this way in the world. I don’t care. I will still regard this vile worm as the Savior of the world and as my Redeemer and Lord—not as a worm, serpent, or dragon, as a revolutionary, devil, or judge, but as one who gives me help and strength.”
In this serpent God thus prefigured His own Son for the people of Israel. He was to assume the form of an accursed and damned man, yes, of a serpent, and become the Savior of the world. The world seeks to be saved by good works, but it pleased God to help mankind in this way. The world would regard His Son as a vile worm, but He would nevertheless save all who believed in Him.
Although many in the wilderness did not believe, still there were some believers who said to the others “If you want to reject this serpent, at least let me gaze at it and be strengthened.” We must emulate their example today and say: “I will hold to Christ. He will not mislead me but will give me life and salvation.” Even if the pope refuses to accept Him; even if he disdains salvation solely through Christ, this serpent, without the aid of good works and our merit; even if he belittles faith and says: “Oh, faith is but a paltry thing!”—you reply: “My dear sir, then you must go your own way. I for my part will still hold to Christ and regard Him as the bronze serpent. In reality, of course, He is not a serpent; He is the Lamb of God, which bears my sin and that of the whole world (John 1:29), and saves me from eternal death. Only for us He became a serpent.”
And now when the enemies and adversaries of Christ the Lord also revile us, regard us as accursed people, and say: “You have the devil, and your doctrine is heresy,” suffer with the Lord Christ, and continue to teach and to preach. St. Paul tells us (1 Cor. 4:13): “We are called καθάρματα and are regarded as the scum of the earth.” Defamation will not harm me. Did not Christ my Lord also endure ridicule and abuse when He was regarded as a vile worm! And yet He helped all believers with His proclamation. Why, then, should not a Christian preacher or a pious Christian be willing to bear this also?
In pointing to Moses and the bronze serpent which he lifted up when the Children of Israel were bitten by fiery snakes, Christ draws a comparison between the serpent and Himself. He, too, would be lifted up as a serpent; and He would bear this title of a rebel: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” that is, the king who agitated against the Roman emperor and the chief priests, who betrayed the Jewish people to the Roman emperor for the slaughter. “There He hangs. He must be a serpent. He must have committed an unpardonable crime. Therefore, away with Him!”
Even today we hear it said: “Oh, if we would only get rid of the Lutherans! Then we could soon defeat the Turk!” There has been enough preaching, writing, printing, reading, singing, speaking, and painting. By this time they ought to realize that Christ is not a serpent, a vile worm, a dragon, or a demoniac, as His slanderers claim, but the Savior of all who believe in Him. Yet they wantonly refuse to believe it. Let them perish! But we know that He grants us salvation, that He is given to us by God as our King and Lord or Savior, and that God made Him a Wisdom for Jews and Gentiles which no reason can fathom. He is also our Resurrection, as He Himself declares: “I shall rise again, and all who accept Me and believe in Me will rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.”58
It is not an easy matter to believe this. To believe that Christ was crucified for us, that He died and was damned for us, requires the power of God. Thus St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). And yet this proclamation penetrates the heart; for “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16). If I were to consult reason about this, it would say: “Let the devil believe in the sort of wretched person who was nailed to a cross!” And yet the holy martyrs let themselves be burned at the stake and slain for such a faith! Despite His horrible appearance they believed that this condemned Man was the Savior of the world.
Thus Moses had to preach to Nicodemus and glorify Christ. A serpent was to appear, not possessed of physical but of devilish venom, that is, sin and eternal death. For this there would be no cure outside Christ the Lord, who, in the form of an accursed and vile worm, would redeem man from death, sin, and the power of the devil and would save him eternally.
That is what I wanted to say very briefly on this text. For who could treat it exhaustively? The intention both of Moses and of John was to point to the deity of the Lord Christ. This Serpent, Christ, must be very God, since the mere sight of Him has the power to heal all men and to deliver them from death. But it would take too much time to discuss the subject further.59
The last time we heard Jesus Himself say here in John that the bronze serpent in the wilderness had been a type of Him. Now He adds the purpose for which the Son of man was lifted up: “That whoever believes in Him should not perish.” We have already stated that John describes Christ’s deity and His humanity with these words. His humanity is evident from the fact that the serpent was crucified and died; His deity is apparent from the fact that the serpent gives eternal life to all who believe in Him.
John pictures Christ as God and man throughout his Gospel. But here he states, with particular reference to His humanity, that the Son of man must be lifted up. That is, He must be hanged on the wood, on the cross, and suffer and die, which pertains to the human nature. On the other hand, it lies beyond humanity that a crucified man should impart eternal life and that anyone who looks at the crucified Christ should have eternal life. But no one was lifted up and nailed to the cross except Mary’s Son, who is a man with power to save all believers, since He is also the Son of God. Thus we heard before: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” And this pertains solely to the divine majesty.
The statement: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14) permeates John’s entire Gospel. All he ever preaches is that Christ, the very and eternal Son of God, is also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. And he unites wonderfully the two natures in the one Person of Christ. Although it is not the work of the Son of man to save, to deliver from death, and to confer eternal life—a work that is not appropriate to man at all but to God alone—John declares that the Son of man was lifted up that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. Thus he does not separate the two natures here. He does not say: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has eternal life”; but “Whoever believes in the Son of man.” The two natures are united in the single Person of Christ, and this Person is both God and man. The two natures, deity and humanity, are found in one Person; and the attributes of each nature are imputed to the other, so that whoever believes in the Son of man believes not only in a human being but also in God. Otherwise the man Christ could not save anyone. If salvation depended on great men, we could point to the holy patriarchs and prophets, such as Isaiah, Elijah, David; or to the angels, such as Gabriel and others. For all their greatness, they cannot deliver anyone from sin and death. Nor do the words recorded here apply to them: “Whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” It is impossible for a human being to have the honor of bestowing eternal life on one who believes in him. But of this Person it is said that He can save. For the two natures are so united in His one person and essence that he who believes in the Son of man also believes in the Son of God. Whoever comes in touch with the man Christ also comes in touch with the Son of God. In fact, the whole Trinity is found in this Man.
One might be tempted to ask at this point: “If it is true that believers find eternal life in the Son of God, then is it also true that the serpent was God? For this serpent in the wilderness gave life to the Children of Israel; anyone who looked at it was restored to health and did not die.” Thus the false prophets, the avaricious parsons and priests, and other false teachers, those knaves, interpreted it. Thereby they embellished and garnished their idolatry as they lifted up a bronze serpent in Jerusalem, burned incense and sacrificed to it, made special pilgrimages, and worshiped it as a god. Similarly we today have placed images of the saints on the altars and have worshiped them, images of St. Christopher, of St. Mary, and others. Vast sums of money have been donated for the erection of cathedrals, churches, and cloisters in their honor. This bronze serpent was endowed with greater power than the men who were bitten by the fiery serpents; they had merely to look at this serpent for perfect healing. Therefore the Jews inferred: “There must be divine power residing in this serpent,” and they sacrificed sheep and oxen to it. I have often been amazed that this bronze serpent maintained itself for so long in Israel and that Samuel, David, Solomon, Daniel, or Elijah did not do away with it.60 But I assume that during David’s time it was kept in some remote or hidden place; it was not being adored then, and no pilgrimages were undertaken in its honor; but it was preserved only as a token and memorial of the glorious deliverance from Egypt. At the time of Isaiah, however, it became the object of idolatry. The people of Israel flocked to it in great numbers, burned incense, and worshiped it. The serpent was finally destroyed by the pious king Hezekiah, who thereby put an end to the pilgrimages (2 Kings 18:4).
In our own times we Germans have imitated the example of the Jews. We invoke the help of the saints, creating one saint and deliverer after another. Thus we made saints of Anna and Joachim not more than thirty years ago.61 At a time of great distress the Jews would likewise lift up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, stream out into the wilderness, and worship it. This they did particularly at the time when Sennacherib lay before Jerusalem. Once they had become apostate to the true faith and knowledge of God, they sought help wherever they would and could.
Now the question is raised: Was God with that serpent, and did He thus lend His aid? The Jews argued: “Well, if the serpent proved helpful at the time of Moses, it must be God,” just as Christ still helps us today. This is the proper reply: The bronze serpent itself helped no one. Nor did anyone in that day believe in the serpent and worship it. Furthermore, no one sacrificed to it in the wilderness; Moses would never have tolerated this. It was the Word that healed the Israelites, the Word spoken by God (Num. 21:8): “Whoever looks at this bronze serpent shall suffer no harm from the bite or sting of any fiery serpent.” It was the Word “Whoever looks at the serpent” that was effective. There God was speaking and promising aid, not the serpent. Whoever believed in this Word and promise of God and looked at the serpent was obedient to God. But at the time of Isaiah the Word of God regarding the serpent no longer applied; the Word had departed. For the work which the serpent was to perform in the wilderness had been accomplished, namely, that all who were bitten by the fiery serpents should be healed by looking at this bronze serpent. Consequently, the bronze serpent no longer afforded help in the days of Isaiah. Similarly, the Word which God once spoke to the Children of Israel, “Cross the Red Sea” (Ex. 14:15–16), is no longer valid today; for the crossing has taken place. And Gideon’s fleece of wool was wet with dew at one time and then became perfectly dry (Judg. 6:36–40). But that is a thing of the past. For the same reason the bronze serpent no longer gave help at the time of Isaiah; nor did the people believe in it and worship it until Hezekiah had died.62 It was for the days in the wilderness that God promised the people of Israel deliverance from death if they looked at the serpent. And those who believed the Word that God spoke and obeyed the Word were saved.
Therefore looking at the serpent and looking at the Lord Christ are not one and the same thing. For we find it stated here that we are not merely to look at Christ the Son of God, but to believe in Him. When the Jews crucified Christ, they also looked at Him; but that did not save them. Looking and feeling are vastly different; but the command is to believe. The Jews were not commanded to believe in the bronze serpent, to believe in the bronze or the metal, as we are commanded here to believe in Christ.
Christ declares here that He is the true serpent, typified by that serpent in the wilderness, and that this serpent must be viewed with spiritual sight, namely, with faith. At that time the Israelites had to believe in the Word from heaven; their faith did not pertain to the serpent but to Him who spoke. But here we are not only concerned with the words; we are also told: “Whoever believes in Him shall have everlasting life.” That bronze serpent was an image of Christ. Here we are apprised of the terms and the purpose of our relationship to Christ. We are told that we must not merely hear Christ but that we must also believe in this serpent, Christ, who bestows eternal life on all those who believe in Him.
This is a great and miraculous work. It is not accepted by the world or our reason, but it is scorned and derided by them. In fact, it does seem ridiculous that merely looking at a serpent should effect a cure. Reason would have been prone to say: “You will never be able to stare those serpents away. Rather take a pair of tongs or other tools and use force to drive the serpents away. What a great idea—to look at the serpent! Even a cow could stare at the serpent—but how could that help her?” Looking or gazing at an object seems so silly. It is an easy task to perform. And yet those who obeyed the Word and believed the promise were cured. Just looking at the serpent was easy. But believing that this simple and superficial opening of the eyes and looking at the pole and the bronze serpent should have healing power against the snakes’ venom—this was difficult. In itself there is nothing easier than to raise your eyes to someone; and without a doubt there were many Jews who mocked Moses and said: “Well, if the serpents cannot be driven away with knife and awl, with water and sword, how can it ever be accomplished by this inane looking at the serpent?” This is the attitude of our schismatic spirits and sects today who despise and minimize Baptism and Holy Communion. They say: “What can the water, the wine, and the bread achieve?” But it is characteristic of our God to perform great things through insignificant, humble, and odd means. Faith, I suppose, also seems insignificant to our papists. “Faith?” they say. “After all, what does faith amount to? Faith does not suffice. You must also perform good works, don a cowl, fast, pray, and give alms.” All this has such a semblance of piety that they are led to believe: “Oh, faith is such a simple and plain thing; you must also do good works!” But just try it, and you will find out how easy it is to believe! Before long the devil will appear on the scene and whisper into your ear: “See here, do you suppose that it is possible to be saved in such an easy way?” And thus the Jews also suggested to Moses: “You must take a pair of tongs and jerk the serpent away or immerse yourself in water for cooling. What good could it do you to look at the serpent?” But our God is so mighty that He can guide and govern the whole world with a straw or save and deliver from sin, death, the devil, and hell with a drop of water. It does, we concede, sound trivial that all who believe in Him shall have eternal life; but God works in such a powerful and mysterious way. Pay heed to the Word, and ignore the clamor of the papists, who shout that we must also perform good works for our salvation.
Mark this and similar texts well. They do not merely show that Christ is both God and man, as this text does. They also tell us how to use and enjoy the Lord Christ; for they say that all who believe in Him and hear Him shall not perish, but be saved.
Who can really express the full meaning of the words “not perish”? Harsh and terrifying sermons have been preached on purgatory, on hell, and on eternal damnation;63 and ineffable is the woe of eternal damnation and hell-fire. Yet here Christ makes it very easy to be delivered from sin, death, the devil, and hell: we need only believe in the Son of God. Such faith not only keeps us from perishing, but it also gives us eternal life. It transcends all human understanding that God, through faith in Christ, not only remits the sin of a sinful and damned person but that He also promises Him eternal life.
The Gospel records that this also seemed strange to the disciples. They asked Christ: “Who, then, can be saved?” (Matt. 19:25). He replied: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). As if He were to say: “Do not say to yourselves: ‘I will stick and side with the great multitudes’; but since it pleases the Father to give you eternal life by grace, just accept it.” Of course, our nature and our reason do not make it easy to believe the promise that we are not to perish but have everlasting life.
Thus we must preach and proclaim that Christ, this serpent, is the Son of God and of Mary, and that he who looks at Him in faith is assured of eternal life. Now Christ continues; He underscores this fact and states the reason why faith can be so effective.
16. For God so loved the world.
Shortly before Christ had said: “The Son of man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Now He says: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” What Christ said above about the Son of man—that He must be lifted up—He now also says about the Son of God. He tells us that God’s great love prompted Him to give His only Son. Earlier He said that Mary had given her Son, and now He says: “God the Father gave His Son to be crucified.” God’s Son and Mary’s Son is only one Person. He appropriates both natures for the work of salvation and redemption from eternal death. John the evangelist always links the two natures, deity and humanity, together.
Someone may ask: “How is it possible for the Son of man to save and to give eternal life?” Or: “How can it be that God’s Son should be delivered to be crucified?” It sounds plausible that the Son of man might be crucified; but that He should bestow eternal life does not seem reasonable. And it seems just as incongruous that God’s Son should die and give His life for the life of the world. But we must bear in mind that when we speak of Christ, we are thinking of His two natures in one Person and that what is ascribed to the two natures is really comprehended in one Person. Thus I can very properly say that the Son of man created heaven and earth, just as I say that the Son of God is the Creator of heaven and earth. We dare not follow those heretics, the Nestorians, the ancestors of the Turks,64 who alleged that only Mary’s Son, not God’s Son, died for us. For here we find it clearly stated and written: “God gave His Son for the world.” And this Son is assuredly not only Mary’s Son, born of Mary, but also the Son of God. And when Christ was delivered to Pilate to be crucified, and when Pilate led Him from the judgment hall, he took hold of the hand not only of the man Jesus but also of the Son of God, whom he crucified. Therefore St. Paul said: “If they had understood, they would not have crucified the King of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), whom all creatures usually adore. Thus it was God’s Son who was conceived by the Virgin Mary, who suffered and died, was buried, descended into hell, and rose again from the dead.
This is the way to interpret expressions of the apostles, bishops, and ancient teachers: “Oh, Thou Son of David!” Or: “Thou Son of Mary, have mercy on me!” “Oh, dear Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, be gracious to me!” The words are a prayer to God and are the equivalent of: “Oh, Jesus, Thou Son of God, have mercy on me!” In these words you also worship the Son of Mary, because the two natures are united in the one Christ.
Thus the words of this text indicate that God gave His Son for us and that the Son of man died for us. There are not two Jesuses, the one coming from the Father and the other born of Mary. No, there is only one Jesus. Therefore the ancient fathers said that the attributes of both natures are ascribed and imputed to the whole person of Christ “in the concrete,” creating a “communication of properties,” a union in which the attributes of the one nature are imparted to the other.65 Each nature, of course, has its own peculiar character. For instance, it is peculiar to the human nature of Christ to be born of the Virgin Mary. The divine nature has different attributes. But since the Person of Christ cannot be divided, there is a communion, which enables one to say: “The infant Christ, who lies in the cradle and is suckled by the Virgin Mary, created heaven and earth.” Also: “The Son of God who is with the Father from eternity nurses at His mother’s breasts, is crucified, and dies.” “For the communion of the natures also effects a communication of properties.” The ancient fathers diligently taught this and wrote about it.
But now we have to make the practical application and learn why the Person who is God and man came into the world. The Lord Christ teaches us this too when He says that any believer in Him shall be delivered from eternal death and be assured of eternal life. It was not an angel, a principality, or any of the world’s mighty who became incarnate and died for us—no, both the angelic and the human nature would have been too weak—but it was the divine nature that assumed humanity. It was Christ who adopted our flesh and blood that we might be saved through Him.
Now we see how gloriously the evangelist John speaks of Christ and of the sublime doctrine of our Christian faith: that Christ is both God and man. This is what John stresses in his Gospel. He says nothing about the necessity of good works for salvation, as the wicked pope does.66
The last time we heard that the Lord informed Nicodemus in an excellent sermon that no one will go to heaven or enter the kingdom of God unless he is born anew and believes in the serpent hanging on the cross, that is, believes in the Son of man, who was lifted up that all who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. This is the new spiritual birth, the way to eternal life, namely, faith in the crucified Son of man. Now Christ stresses, and enlarges on, this theme in the fine sermon delivered to only one man, Nicodemus. It seems surprising that He should preach so beautifully to him. Yet His sermon is not in vain; it awakens in Nicodemus a love for Christ which does not only endure during the lifetime of Christ but lives on after His death (John 19:39). The end and aim of this sermon by Christ is the conversion of Nicodemus. These words: “For God so loved the world” do not need a lengthy commentary and exposition; for we preach on this text every year.67 Therefore our discussion will be brief.
After Christ has said: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up,” He continues with the words: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” To astound Nicodemus, He repeats what He had said before. As though He wanted to say: “Dear Nicodemus, is it not wonderful that the Son of man is hanged on the cross and lifted up, and that the Son of man, born of the Virgin Mary, true man with body and soul, is also the Son of God? Is it not a miracle that the Son of man and the Son of God are both one Son? (For Christ relates the statement that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life to the Son of man and to the Son of God; this refers to both.) Thus, Nicodemus, I am preaching to you about very important matters which may well astonish you; for instance, about the necessity of the new birth. But still more amazing than this is the process of the new birth.”68 It is, of course, out of the question for a man to re-enter his mother’s womb to be born again. No, this is the procedure: God gave His only Son into death for us; that is how we are reborn. Does it not surprise you that for the sake of this rebirth God adopts such a wonderful plan and chooses His only Son—for He has no other—and lets Him become man, instead of selecting some angel or some patriarch? God does not confine Himself to giving us His Son in His incarnation, but He also delivers Him into death for us. He has Him lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that medicine effective enough? Who would ever have had the boldness to ask for such a cure for death and sin? But such strong help and powerful medicine will work this for you.
Now you do not understand all this, and you are wondering about this demand for a new birth and about this deliverance from sin. You know full well that we are sinners and are lodged in the jaws of death. Hence it must sound odd and strange to you that we are to conquer sin and death and need not fear God’s stern judgment and His wrath. Yes indeed, it is strange. But now behold! What is God’s plan? The answer would never have occurred to you. Because of His divine wisdom, counsel, and mercy God gives His only-begotten Son, who is also the Son of man, as a remedy against sin, death, and your old nature and birth. The Son is “given” to us by dying for us and being buried for us. That, I take it, is another miracle and one far greater. If you are astonished and regard it as incredible that a man must be born anew, this greater wonder must amaze you still more. God loved a poor sinner so much that He gave him, not an angel or a prophet but His only Son. The way of His giving was that His Son became man, and the purpose of His giving was that He might be crucified. This you must learn; and after you have learned it and beheld these wonderful things, your heart will feel constrained to say: “This is truly miraculous! How is it possible?” But if you can accept and believe it, you will conclude: “After all, if God’s Son is the cure and remedy for sin and death, why should I be surprised, since I know that God’s Son is greater than sin, the devil and my death?” Just believe it, and you will experience that He is greater. It is surely true that by my own strength I cannot banish death but must die even if I don a monk’s cowl, join all the monastic orders and abide by their rules, go on pilgrimages, and perform all those good works on which they place their reliance. None of this is the correct prescription or medicine. But if I can believe in and accept this remedy, that God gives us His Son—not an ordinary son like Abraham, Isaac, and David, of whom God has many, but His only-begotten Son—it is certain that this Son can effect a new birth in us and can, therefore, be a victor and conqueror of the devil. This is because God’s Son is vastly greater than death, far stronger than sin and the devil. Through Him we have the grace of God rather than wrath, and whatever else we may need besides. If it puzzles you how a man is to be transferred from the devil’s realm to the kingdom of God, God’s gift of His Son must surprise you still more. And if you accept this in faith, you will no longer be puzzled about the other. If we have the Son of God, who faces death and opposes the devil on our behalf, on our side, let the devil rage as he will. If the Son of God died for me, let death consume and devour me; for he will surely have to return and restore me, and I will stand my ground against him. Christ died; death devoured the Son of God. But in doing so death swallowed a thorn and had to get rid of it. It was impossible for death to hold Him. For this Person is God; and since both God and man in one indivisible Person entered into the belly of death and the devil, death ate a morsel that ripped his stomach open.69
It was the counsel of God the Father from eternity to destroy death, ruin the kingdom of the devil, and give the devil a little pill which he would gleefully devour, but which would create a great rumpus in his belly and in the world. Now the Lord wants to say: “Dear Nicodemus, it is miraculous, as you see, that God should spend such a great and precious treasure for our rebirth. For is it a miracle that I, the Son of man and the Son of God in one Person, am sacrificed to death and enter the jaws of death and the devil? But I shall not remain there. Not only will I come forth again, but I will also rip open deaths belly; for the poison is too potent, and death itself must die.”
Christ wants to prevent us from thinking of Him as separate from the Father. Therefore He again directs our mind from Himself to the Father and says that the Father’s love for us is just as strong and profound as His own, which is reflected in His sacrificial death. He wants to say: “Whoever beholds the Father’s love also beholds Mine; for Our love is identical. I love you with a love that redeems you from sin and death. And the Father’s love, which gave you His only Son, is just as miraculous.”
Furthermore, Christ tells us how He destroys death and how I am rescued from death. He will be death’s venom. Death and Law, to be sure, will condemn Him. Therefore He will have to die and be buried. But He will rise again from the dead. And where I shall be then, the devil will have to retreat. But how do I approach this Savior and Redeemer? By means of cowls or monastic orders and rules? No! Just cling to the Son in faith. He conquered death and the devil, and He slit the devil’s belly open. He will reign and rule again, even though He was crucified under Annas and Caiaphas. Therefore attach yourself to Him, and you will tear through death and devil; for this text assures us: “Whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” Accept the truth of this miracle of God’s love for the world, and say: “I believe in the Son of God and of Mary, who was lifted up and nailed to the cross.” Then you will experience the new birth; for death and sin will no longer accuse, harm, and injure you. Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life. Cling to His neck or to His garment; that is, believe that He became man and suffered for you. Cross yourself and say: “I am a Christian and will conquer.” And you will find that death is vanquished. In Acts 2:24 St. Peter says that death was not able to hold Christ, since deity and humanity were united in one Person. In the same way we, too, shall not remain in death; we shall destroy death, but only if we remain steadfast in faith and cling to death’s Destroyer.
In John 17:11 Christ prays: “That they may be one in Me, as I and the Father are one.” If I cling to Christ in true faith and remain in Him, it is impossible for sin and death to accuse and condemn me; for Christ has conquered them. This, however, is accomplished, not by our strength but by faith in Him. In this way we, like pious lambs, remain resting in the arms of Christ, the faithful Shepherd.
Therefore whoever is a Christian and takes hold of Christ by faith is not terrified by the devil; nor is he cowed by sin and death. Even though he feels his sins and is frightened and saddened by them, he nevertheless overcomes this feeling and is not subdued; for he will be quick to say: “I believe in the Son of God and of Mary. He is the devil’s venom and death; but at the same time He is my salvation, my remedy, and my life.”
We read an excellent story about a certain nun. (In every station of life God preserves some, keeps them in faith, and saves them.) This nun was very much troubled and assailed by thoughts of the devil and of sin. Of course, all but those who serve their own belly feel God’s wrath and judgment; this accounts for the fact that people will take refuge in the saints. Now since this little nun was filled with terror at the thought of the wrath of God and wanted to be saved, she made it a habit to say whenever the devil troubled her: “Devil, let me alone. I am a Christian!” And the devil had to leave her.70 On the surface this seems to be simple technique and easy to learn. But it is necessary that the words be inspired by faith, as those of this little nun were. For the devil did not particularly fear the words: “I am a Christian.” No, it was her faith, the fact that she firmly relied on Christ and said: “I am baptized on Christ, and I entrust myself solely to Him; for He is my Life, Salvation, and Wisdom.” Wherever such words proceed from faith, they generate a completely fiery atmosphere, which burns and pains the devil so that he cannot tarry. But if a person speaks without warmth about matters pertaining to God and salvation, as the common man does, then the devil merely laughs. But if your words are aglow in your heart, you will put the devil to flight. For then Christ is present. As we read in Hos. 13:14, He devours death and destroys it; and here He declares: “Whoever believes in Me shall not perish but have everlasting life.” If the believer is to have eternal life, it is implied that he is also free from sin and death. When the devil hears the name of Christ, he flees, because he cannot bear it. But if he does not feel the presence of Him who has destroyed him, he casts man into hell.
I am saying this for the sake of those who think that the mere recital of the words suffices, without any faith in the heart. Thus many hear these words spoken and also resolve to use them on occasion. I want to tell you a story about this. An ungodly medical doctor in Italy was once asked to stand as godfather for an infant. During the rite of Baptism he heard the beautiful words of institution, how the infant became an heir of salvation through Christ, and how the church implored God that Christ would accept this infant. After the Baptism, when he pondered these words at home, he became very sad and depressed. As it happened, he had invited guests to dine with him that evening. When the guests noticed his melancholy mood, they asked him why he sighed so and why he seemed so troubled in his mind. Then he revealed his feelings and said: “I stood as godfather today and heard some great and wonderful words. If I had the assurance that I was baptized in the same way, I would never again be terrified by the devil.” One of the guests was an old man who had actually been godfather at this doctor’s Baptism. He spoke up: “Now my dear doctor, my dear doctor, you need not be in doubt on that score. For I was present at your Baptism. I stood as godfather for you, and I can testify that you, too, were baptized this way.” This made the doctor very happy. A little later he rose from the table and went to his room. There he noticed two large, long goats horns projecting from a wall that had previously been bare. In an attempt to torment the doctor, the devil had assumed the guise of these horns. Now when the doctor saw this, the thought flashed to him: “But I am baptized; I am a Christian. So why should I fear the devil?” Armed with that faith, he rushed to the wall and broke off one of the horns. Then he hurried back to his guests and joyfully related to them what had happened in the room. The guests all arose from the table and hurried into his room to see whether the one horn was still visible. Lo and behold, they found two horns again protruding from the wall. One of the guests wanted to show off and imitate his host. He said: “Well, I am a Christian too!” And with these words he dashed toward the wall, intending to break off one of the horns. The devil broke his neck and killed him. This guest tried to make light of the whole matter to deck himself with glory. In consequence, his head was torn off, whereas the doctor, who took recourse to faith in the hour of trial, suffered no harm.71
This story is undoubtedly credible. My purpose in narrating it is to impress the fact that one must learn not only to recite the words of Holy Scripture by rote but also to believe them with one’s heart and to remain steadfast in times of peril and in the hour of death. For there are many who speak the words: “I am a Christian,” with their mouth but do not believe this in their heart. When trouble besets you, you will find out whether you take these words seriously. In days of sorrow take hold of the Word of God and of faith; pray, and say very fervently: “I am a Christian!” Then you will discover whether you really believe. When a person is not oppressed by sorrow, he has no occasion to perceive this. Callous people, who are not assailed by trouble or temptation, know nothing of this. The rebirth of which Christ speaks here is not acquired while dozing idly and comfortably behind the stove. If you are a Christian and really believe, join the nun in her words: “I am a Christian!” What is the result? You will find relief, and your mind will be at ease; and you will be able to thank God that the devil had to take to his heels. For he cannot withstand these words of fire.
Thus it all depends on this great and grand miracle, that I believe that God gave His Son for us. If I do not doubt this, then I am able to say in the midst of my trials: “I concede, devil, that I am a sinner burdened with the old Adam and subject to the wrath of God. But what do you, devil, say about this: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life? These words I believe!” And you must speak these words in sincere faith. For Christ has passed through death and sin, and death was powerless to hold Him. And now Christ says: “If you believe in Me, death shall not devour you either. Even if death should hold you for three days or so, as he detained Me for three days in the earth and Jonah for three days in the belly of the whale, he shall nonetheless spew you out again.” You might have reason to be surprised about all this—not only that you must be born anew but also that God so loved the world that He gave us a potent plaster, remedy, and syrup against sin, death, the devil, and hell, so that whoever lays that on his heart will not perish.
On the other hand, consider the abominable error of those who directed us to other methods, telling people, for instance, that they should retire into the desert, enter cloisters, or go on pilgrimages—and all this so that we might not perish but have eternal life. I, too, entered the monastery that I might not perish but have eternal life.72 I wanted to follow my own counsel and help myself by means of the cowl. Truly, it is a vexing and troublesome business. In Turkey and in the papacy this doctrine is still rampant; the Jews teach the same thing. But it really comes from the mouth of the devil.
One might be tempted to ask: Is it possible that so many can be mistaken about this? The answer is that the Son of God is stronger than all the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), also greater than all the monks and their cowls. Nicodemus, too, was curious to hear how he was to be reborn and saved from death. He asked how this was to happen. Jesus told him: “This is the way: the Son of man must be lifted up, and God’s Son must be given into death, and man must believe in Him.” Even if the world were to teem with monk’s cowls and with monastic rules, even if the world were full of the ordinances of the pope, the Turks’ Koran, or the Jews’ laws, Christ would still be greater than all these. For He is still the Creator of heaven and earth and Lord over all creatures. His sacrifice for me was not St. Francis or any other monk or the mother of Christ or St. Peter or an angel or cowls and tonsures; it was a far more precious treasure. Salvation and deliverance from death call for a greater service than any human or any angel could render. Only God’s only-begotten Son can render it. The Son swallows up death.
Our adversaries also read this text, but they do not understand it. We also had these words in the papacy, but we failed to comprehend them. Instead, our thoughts were directed solely to our works. And yet some took hold of these words in faith and were saved, like the nun who said: “I am a Christian.” I once saw a monk who took a cross into his hands and remarked while the other monks were boasting of their good works: “I know of no merit of my own but only of the merit of Him who died for me on the cross.” And in reliance on that merit he also died73 In the papacy it was customary to admonish a dying monk to be mindful of his own merits and works and of those of others. And in that faith they died. But just as the pious monk died a blessed death, relying solely on the merit of Jesus Christ, so many a wretched criminal on the gallows has been delivered from sin and saved through faith.
That is how St. Bernard was saved. He was an exemplary monk; he observed the rules of his order scrupulously, and he fasted so assiduously that his breath stank and no one could abide his presence. But on the threshold of death he exclaimed: “Oh, I have lived damnably! But heavenly Father, Thou hast given me Thy Son, who has a twofold claim to heaven: first, from eternity, by reason of the fact that He is Thy Son; secondly, He earned heaven as the Son of man with His suffering, death, and resurrection. And thus He has also given and bestowed heaven on me.”74 Thereby St. Bernard dropped out of the monastic role, forsook cowl and tonsure and rules, and turned to Christ; for he knew that Christ conquered death, not for Himself but for us men that all who believe in the Son should not perish but have eternal life. And so St. Bernard was saved.
These are golden words which must be preserved in Christendom; they alone make a person a Christian. You see how woefully those err who try to escape eternal damnation by means of their monkeries, cowls, and tonsures. Moreover, such people even offer their supererogatory works for sale and transfer them to others. This, I regret to say, is how we lived in the papacy. You young people, be grateful to God for your better insight, and learn these words well. For death and the devil are in league with the pope and with the Turks’ Koran to delude the people into relying on their foul works for salvation. But salvation demands more than our good works; for not even the holiness of the angels sufficed. God’s own Son had to be given to conquer death. Now heaven and the victory over death are not Christ’s alone; whoever believes in Him is not to perish but shall have eternal life. On the other hand, whoever refuses to believe is eternally beyond help and rescue, as Christ points out later when He says: “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18).75
The last time we heard Christ say to Nicodemus: “God so loved the world.” Furthermore, He assured him that God did not send His Son to condemn the world. From these words we learned that God’s Son and the Son of man are one Person. We learned that the Son of man was hanged and lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness had been lifted up. This applies properly only to His human nature, since God cannot suffer and be crucified. And yet Christ says here that the Son of God was given into death and was crucified. From this we learn about the “communication of properties,” the fact that the attributes of both natures pertain to the one Person, that the attributes of both natures inhere in the one person.76 Despite the fact that Creator and creature are two disparate beings, as different from each other as nothing is from something or from everything, or as different as heaven and earth, still it is true that here they are united.
I am stressing this for a very good reason. Many heretics have arisen—and still more schismatic spirits will appear—who have assailed this article of faith and have been offended at the thought that God should suffer. The Godhead, they argued, is an eternal majesty, while humankind is only a temporal creature. They toyed with this article regarding the two natures in Christ most adroitly and alleged that Mary was not the mother of the Son of God, and that Christ, Mary’s Son, is not the Son of God. They were offended by the two natures found in Christ. In place of the two natures they contrived to find two persons. According to Holy Scripture, however, we declare that there are two natures in Christ but only one Person and not two, and that this one Person, God and man suffered, that the Son of God and of Mary was crucified. A schismatic spirit may contradict this and say: “Ah, God cannot be crucified!” But tell him that this Person, who is God and man, was crucified. Since God manages to harmonize this, we, of course, must harmonize it too and declare that Mary is Christ’s mother not only according to His humanity, but that she is also the mother of the Son of God and that her Son is both God and man. This is the language St. Paul employs in Heb. 6:6, when he speaks of the false Christians who “crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold Him up to contempt.” And in 1 Cor. 2:8 he says: “If they had understood, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” Since it is the language of St. Paul and of Holy Scripture that the Son of God and the King of glory was crucified, we can accept it without hesitation. Anyone who believes the Bible will not mutter a sound against it. We can also reverse the picture and say: “This Infant, born of Mary and suckled by her or lying in her lap, created heaven and earth.” If someone were to interpose: “Well, what, after all, could such a lithe child create?” I reply: “This is what Holy Scripture says.” For instance, in Luke 2:11 we hear the dear angels sing at Christmas time: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That angelic song, in which Christ was called the Lord, was sung at a time when the Infant still clung to His mother’s breast.
The fathers contended fervidly for this, maintaining against the heretics that there are two natures in Christ but not two persons, that there is only one Son. This is how Scripture speaks and how we, too, must speak. To be sure, Christ was crucified according to His humanity, and He created heaven and earth according to His divinity; but since this one Person is God and man, it is proper to say: God’s Son is the Creator of heaven and earth, and God’s Son was also crucified. One dare not divide the Person, leaving only the human nature; but one must bear in mind that this Person is also God. Thus St. Hilary says: “When Christ suffered, the Logos was quiescent.”77 If we fail to hold that the Person who was crucified was both God and man, we are eternally damned and lost. We must have a Savior who is more than a saint or an angel. If He were not superior to these, we would get no help from Him. But if He is God, then the treasure is so heavy that it not only outweighs and cancels sin and death but also gives eternal life. No mere human could acquire eternal life for us or overcome devil and death.
This is our Christian Creed, and in conformity with it we confess: “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and died.” Let heathen and heretics be ever so smart; hold firmly to this faith, and you will be saved. It follows, then, that whoever believes in the Son of man, who was born of Mary, who suffered and was buried, will not be lost but is a son of God in possession of eternal life. Devil, sin, and death will not be able to harm him; for he has eternal life.
The text has good reason for adding that God gave His only Son and that believers in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God has many other sons. We, for instance, glory in the fact that God is our Father, as we pray in the Our Father. And St. Paul declares that God “destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). But the evangelist identifies these sons when he says: “These are sons who believe in the Son.” It is logical that the Son in whom we believe must be distinct and different and greater than we, the sons of God who believe in Him. Others are also sons of God, but they are not such sons as He is in whom we must believe. He is not a Son of God by reason of His believing in us; we, however, become sons of God through our believing in Him. Therefore His divine sonship is vastly different from yours or mine.
The heretics garbled Holy Scripture terribly. They claimed that Christ is called a Son of God by a metaphor, as we, too, are called sons of God.78 In Job 38:4, 7 the angels are also termed sons of God. We read: “Where were you when the sons of God [that is, all the angels] worshiped Me in heaven?” They claim that Christ was a son of God in that sense too. But scrutinize this text. Here we learn that He is the Son in whom we must believe. We holy people and the angels are not sons of God such as He is; for we all become sons of God through our faith in Him. The angels, too, were made sons of God through Him; for they were all created by the Son, as we read in Col. 1:16. We human beings were also created by Him, but we lost and condemned sinners become sons of God through our faith in Him. Christ, however, is God and the Son of God; for there is a great difference between the one who believes and the one in whom one believes. If someone deserves the honor that men believe in him and through that faith become children of God and achieve the new birth, such a Person must be very God. Again, if He created the angels and if the angels take first rank among the creatures, then Christ must be Lord of all creatures. Likewise, since He created us men, He cannot be a son of God in the sense in which we or John the Baptist are sons of God.
This is the real difference between the other sons of God and this Son of God. He is God Himself, whereas we are made sons of God through Him; He gives us eternal life and through Himself overcomes death. These are essential differences. This is how you must interpret Holy Scripture, not only for your own sake but also to enable you to cope with the schismatic spirits, who twist and interpret Scripture according to their own ideas. You must realize that this Son is holy, safe from devil and death, and is not subject to damnation as we humans are. Nor does He require salvation for Himself; for He has always been, and still is, Salvation and Life personified. He is very God not only in His Person but also in His office and His works. These bear witness to His divinity, as He says in John: “Even though you do not believe Me, believe Me for the sake of the works” (John 14:11). Therefore it is a definition of His essence79 when this text says: “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life.” It is He who bestows eternal life, kills death through Himself, and saves all who believe in Him. Such a work only God can do.
Your faith finds its vindication in the fact that Christ is very God in view not only of His essence and nature but also of His work. He is God in person, but He also performs the work of God: He saves those who believe in Him. Nowhere do we find it recorded that faith in any angel, whether Gabriel or Michael, or in John the Baptist or in the Virgin Mary, will make a person a child of God. Only of the Son is it said that He rescues from death and gives eternal life. Thus Christ is established in the Godhead not only according to His person and majesty but also according to His work. Therefore it is fitting for us to write this text on every wall, and also in our hearts, with large, yes, with golden letters; for these are words of life and salvation. They teach us how to escape death and defend ourselves against all heretics, also against the pope and the Turk, all of whom read this text, but with drowsy eyes and deaf ears. For if they had heard, comprehended, and believed these words, they would not have fallen into such folly but would have said: “I am saved by Christ alone, who gave Himself into death for me.” And if this is true, I am quick to add: “Well then, what am I doing in the cloister? Why did I run to Rome or to St. James?” I did all this for the purpose of gaining salvation. And henceforth I adjudge all religions and faiths false and heretical, whether of the Turk, of Mohammed, of the pope, or of the Jew, who also read and recite these words, but in the same indolent and indifferent manner in which the nuns read the Psalter without paying heed to its content. They, too, speak these words, but they only repeat them by rote like a parrot. But you must reflect on these words and impress them on your heart. And after you have gained a good understanding of them, you are in a position to examine and judge faith and to stand your ground against the attacks of the schismatic spirits.
Christ says further: “Ponder this, dear Nicodemus: that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that we should be saved by Him.” As if He were to say: “I Myself perform the work of redemption from sin and death.” And this work performed by Him, He gives or transfers to the Father, so that the Father’s work and the Sons work are one and the same. The evangelist John consistently distinguishes between the Persons, but he identifies the work. For the Father is not the son of the Virgin Mary, nor was He crucified, but only the Son; and yet Father and Son remain true God, and the Son draws us to the Father through Himself.
We heard Christ say: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6); and: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven” (John 3:13). This is a hard and terrifying speech; it reflects nothing but the wrath of God. It condemns the whole world, deprives it of God, and leaves it lost and condemned. Yes, God is a real tyrant. You have heard of God’s anger and judgment; you have heard that we all were conceived and born in sin. But now hear of the love of God, that He looks with favor on you and loves you. If you wish to have a gracious God and Father and know of His love for you, you must realize that you come to God by believing in the Son, whom the Father gave for you and who had Himself crucified for you. If this is your faith, it will be impossible for you not to feel the ineffable love of God manifested when He saved you from eternal doom and gave His Son that you might live. Hold firmly to this if you wish to be saved. For if you believe this, you ascend to heaven through Christ.80 Then you will not confront an angry judge but a dear Father, who is so kindly disposed toward me that He gave His Son for me; otherwise I would be lost. Now I can confidently say: If God loved me so that He gave His only Son for my salvation, why should I fear His anger?
In the papacy many sermons dealt with sin, death, and hell, and also with the wrath of God. But what did they say about deliverance from all this? They insisted that we render satisfaction for our sins with our good works and atone for them with monastic life, pilgrimages, and Masses. But here we read: “Whoever does not believe in the Son has the wrath of God abiding over him.” The pope, on the other hand, demands that I wear a cowl, be tonsured, and perform other tomfoolery to appease God’s wrath. The Turk, the pope, and the Jews depict God as an angry God, but as one whose anger can be allayed and whose favor can be won if I humble myself, fast, sacrifice, perform good works, and expiate my sins with an ascetic life. It is the devil himself who directs people to their good works and not to Christ, the Son of God. God forbids us to rely on ourselves and boast of our good works, no matter how good they may be; and He insists that we approach the Son, take hold of Him, cleave to Him, believe in Him, and say: “I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, who suffered and died for me.”
The papists sang this in their churches daily, and they also taught this creed to their children. However, no one understood it; otherwise no one would have said: “I want to escape hell with my monkery and my order.” The Lord demands here that we refrain from all thoughts of finding God and attaining salvation by means of good works and seek refuge solely in Christ the Lord. For to seek God outside Christ leads to eternal damnation. Much could still be said on this subject if time permitted. At all times there have been many schismatic spirits who ignored Christ and wanted to climb up into heaven and seek God with their clever thoughts and their good works. All the heresies that were rampant among the Jews can be traced back to the hermits or Levites, who erected altars in their gardens, in beautiful fields, in bright meadows, under a pretty linden tree, or on a hill, whither they lured the people. Occasionally the devil would lend a hand with a miracle, and thus the people were miserably seduced. The prophets earnestly warned against this practice and condemned this self-devised zeal and worship of God. But when the defies declared that this or that was to be done in these places because it was pleasing to God, the devil supported the suggestion. And the people flocked there in droves and established their own worship of God, just as though God were in agreement with them. He, however, had made it known through Moses where He wanted to be worshiped—not in any attractive spot, under a beautiful tree, in a gay meadow or field, or on a mountain, but at the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. Thus God was to be found only in the temple in Jerusalem. But the schismatic spirits retorted: “Why should God not also be found on this mountain or on the spot where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshiped? God can hear us here as well as in Jerusalem.” This meant climbing to God with one’s own zeal. We did the same thing. We were not content with God’s plan: “No one ascends into heaven but He who descends from heaven,” and: “To escape damnation and to attain eternal life, one must believe in the crucified Son.” No, we replied: “You must assuredly perform good works, not only the good works prescribed in the Ten Commandments—oh, no, these do not suffice! You must also do the good works commanded by the pope, such as fasting, observing holidays, etc.” And now these people mock us when we preach about faith. They say: “Faith? Nonsense! No, whoever joins this or that order is saved.” This is the trouble. This means seeking God in our own arbitrary way and trying to climb into heaven on the self-invented ladder of our own ideas. We must be on our guard against that devil whose name is Enthusiasm.81 People who follow him disparage the oral Word and declare: “The Spirit must do it!” All they ever talk about is the Spirit. Of course, Nicodemus might have received the Spirit in this way too; but he gives ear to the Word of truth preached to him here by Christ: “No one ascends into heaven.” The Word must still be preached and read orally, and the burden of our message must be: “I believe in the only Son of God, who died for me.” We must seal our faith with the confession that we know of no other God than Him of whom we read here: “Whoever believes in the Son of man has everlasting life.” No other thoughts or works will achieve this for me; the only way and the true way to God is to believe in the Son. Therefore God has also commanded us to preach this diligently. That is why He established the ministry of oral preaching, instituted the Sacraments, and commanded absolution. He wanted this message to remain alive among Christians that faith might be preserved in wakeful hearts, a faith which confesses: “I believe in the Son, who was given into death for me.” The papists, to be sure, hear these words too; for they possess the Bible as we do. But they slumber and snore over them; they have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear. They say: “Oh, if only I had done what St. Augustine or St. Francis commanded!” The laity call upon the Virgin Mary to intercede for them with her Son. During my twenty years in the cloister I was obsessed with the one thought of observing the rules of my order. We were so drowned in the stupor of our own good works that we did not see and understand these words. But if you want to find God, then inscribe these words in your heart. Don’t sleep, but be vigilant, Learn and ponder these words diligently: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Let him who can write, write these words. Furthermore, read them, discuss them, meditate and reflect on them in the morning and in the evening, whether awake or asleep! For the devil will sorely assail your faith in an effort to make you doubt that Christ is the Son of God and that your faith is pleasing to God. He will torture you with thoughts of predestination, with the wrath and the judgment of God. Then you must say: “I don’t want to hear or know anything else about God than that He loves me. I don’t want to know anything about a wrathful God, about His judgment and anger, about hell, about death, and about damnation. But if I do see God’s wrath, I know that this drives me to the Son, where I find refuge; and if I come to the Son, I also have a merciful Father.” For St. John tells us in his epistle that the Father loved me before I ever loved Him or knew Him, that He remitted my sin and gave me salvation (1 John 4:10).
Hearing these words and believing them makes a person a true Christian. But if one loses these words, all is lost, be you a Carthusian or whatever you will.
The words “not perish” are inexpressibly glorious. They mean: to be rid of sin, to have a good conscience, and not to be under the Law. Otherwise the Law punishes sin; but now, even if someone feels sin and the wrath of God, sin will not give him a bad conscience, because his sin is forgiven. The Law will not accuse him, sin will not bite or plague him, death will not devour him; for if he believes these words, he is safe and secure.
This is what we preach and believe. And let anyone who does not share this faith pray God that it may be imparted also to him. But see to it that you do not resist this faith or violate and blaspheme it, as the pope does when he says: “Of course, I know that Christ saves; but He does not save me.” Well, the devil, too, knew that Christ saved Peter. Faith is not a paltry and petty matter as the pope’s contempt of it would make it appear; but it is a heartfelt confidence in God through Christ that Christ’s suffering and death pertain to you and should belong to you. The pope and the devil have a faith too, but it is only a “historical faith.”82 True faith does not doubt; it yields its whole heart to the conviction that the Son of God was given into death for us, that sin is remitted, that death is destroyed, and that these evils have been done away with—but, more than this, that eternal life, salvation, and glory, yes, God Himself have been restored to us, and that through the Son God has made us His children.
These are living words which Christ addresses to us, to you and to me, when He says that he who accepts the Son shall be saved and that death, devil, and hell shah be disposed of for him. These words comfort us when we are frightened and troubled or when we contend against the schismatic spirits. They extinguish the flaming darts of the devil (Eph. 6:16). They assure us that we retain the glory that God’s Son is our Gift and our Treasure. This conviction cannot be imparted to us by any monastic order or rule, whether it be named for St. Augustine or anyone else. No, you must say: “I believe in Christ, in whom St. Augustine also believed.” But if I were to say: “Oh, you dear Virgin Mary, you are holier than I. And you, St. Francis, have many merits; transfer some of them to my credit!” it would all be vain. The same answer would be given to you that, according to Matt. 25:9, was given to the five foolish virgins when they wished to borrow from the wise virgins, who had their lamps full of oil: “Go to the dealers and buy for yourselves”; that is, go to your preachers and teachers, who misinformed you so.
Thus we find rich, excellent, and salutary words in this text. They should be diligently heeded.83
This Gospel is customarily preached to the congregation every Whitmonday. It is so pregnant with meaning that it can never be exhausted. We have already expounded the first part in detail, namely, the section which informed us that God sent His Son into the world that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Let that suffiee. But now we want to discuss the other part, the part which tells us that the world refuses to accept the judgment and to give ear to God’s Word.
It seems very strange that the world is so mad and foolish as to be averse to the message of salvation, that it cannot bear the proclamation that it is to attain eternal life and to be redeemed from sin and death, through Christ, the Son of God, and that it need not fear the Last Judgment. This is truly the most pleasing proclamation of all; it is the best. Even if it is brought to our very doorsteps, it meets with rejection. How does it happen that we prize our salvation so little? See how this message fares among the papists and the schismatic spirits. They will listen to this proclamation and tolerate it, and they will agree that God’s Son was sent into the world and was given for me. But when it comes to the point that our good works are thereby rejected and counted for nothing and they are told: “You monks must believe this Christ and be saved through Him alone, not through your Masses, pilgrimages, or other ceremonies,” then the fight is on; then they call all this nothing but damned heresy. If one said this about the Turks, I would not believe it. I myself, however, hear and see that many become evangelical because we preach gently to them but are taken aback and become mad and foolish when they hear or see something displeasing and are told that their good works are rejected. Their anger, wrangling, and hatred stem from the fact that we are saved through the Son, whom God has sent, and not through our cowls, tonsures, or any of our good works.
This is the content of our beautifully expressed text: that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Is this not clear and explicit enough? Yet it avails nothing. For as soon as people hear that their own efforts count for nothing, all is forgotten. They insist that their own method must be and remain right. By God, let heaven and earth crash down upon this attitude! It is amazing that man is so malicious that he can discard his own merits only with angry reluctance, whereas he should be very ready and happy to accept salvation by another’s aid and benefaction. Man is completely unwilling to have the First Table condemn his deeds. And why do I speak about the sins against the First Table, such as idolatry, blasphemy, cursing, swearing, for which the world refuses to be reproved? The world cannot bear reproof for sins against the Second Table either. For if you tell a peasant that he must believe in Christ, since salvation is being offered to him through Christ, and that he must also guard against fornication and adultery, he will promptly become angry and reject God’s Word and teaching. Likewise, when the nobility is taken to task in a sermon, they grow angry and furious. Nor do the princes want to be censured. When they are told: “If you do this or that, you are not Christians,” they call such a chastening sermon slanderous and libelous, and they accuse the preachers of defaming them before the people. They demand that a sermon confine itself to the words: “God so loved the world that He gave His Son,” and “whoever believes in the Son shall have eternal life.” Such a sermon is just fine! But they insist that the preacher ignore the sequel: that the world hates and rejects the light. Kings, princes, lords, and noblemen do not want to have anyone rebuked for loving the darkness. But let the devil refrain from telling them this, for Christ Himself declares here that the world hates the light.
What do you suppose would be the result if we were to refrain from reproving the nobility and others? That would be tantamount to delivering them, adorned with flowers, into the hands of the devil. And still they boast of being good evangelicals! What, then, are we to do? Shall we cease preaching and allow them to hurl themselves into the jaws of the devil? It would not be so strange if I were to throw the keys of my office at the Lord’s feet and say: “Lord, do Thy own preaching! Thou mightest indeed have arranged matters differently; for we preached to them, but they will not heed us.” However, God wants us to remain firm and steadfast in the execution of our calling and office, and to reprove sin. He wants to rule His church through the preachers, through the external Word and the Sacraments, just as He governs the world through burgomasters, kings, princes, and lords and punishes the evildoers with the sword. Otherwise God could dispense with executioner and government for the service described in Rom. 13:4; He Himself would be far more adept at punishing knaves. No, God also avails Himself of our service in the church to reprove sin, just as He avails Himself of the princes in the secular realm. If this were not God’s own order and institution, I would not want to preach another sermon to the end of my days. God says: “You must do this regardless of the consequences to you, you must remain in your office.” If you are in the ministry and see that you have rascals and knaves, fornicators, adulterers, and robbers in your parish, you must say: “Since this is my duty, I will point out sins to peasants, burghers, and noblemen, and rebuke them for these without paying attention to their complaints when they say: ‘Look here, you are defaming me!’ ” For if I held back, I would make myself guilty of your sin. And why should I go to hell for you? They might retort: “Well, I am not asking you to do this; I am not forcing you.” Yes, this may be true. Still you do not want me to reprove you, and you refuse to let me upbraid you for your vices. You expect me to hold my peace, although I occupy an office which requires me to reprove sin, as the prophet Ezekiel does in chapters three and thirty-three, when he declares: “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. If I say to the wicked to turn from his way, and you give him no warning or speak to warn him, to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ezek. 3:17 ff.; 33:7 ff.). Do you suppose it is a small matter to burden a ruler with such a responsibility? This burden has been imposed on the poor preachers, as it has on all who hold other offices, such as burgomasters, princes, and government officials. They should not keep silence in the presence of sin; nor should they themselves sin. For if I see adultery or other sins in people and neglect to take the sinners to task, God will visit their sins on me. We members of the secular and of the ecclesiastical realm have been ordered to punish wrongdoing. But no one does so. What is going to become of you, great kings and teachers in the church, who hear and see so much crime and sin but hush it up and do not punish it? Thus many people go to hell for the sins of others.
This responsibility makes it difficult to occupy a position in government, whether spiritual or secular, in the secular government or in the church. And yet rulers and government are necessary. Therefore you should not be hostile to them; they bear a heavy burden. Faithless stewards will have to pay a dear price. Don’t begrudge them the golden chain they may wear around their necks; their office involves jeopardy aplenty if they do not govern aright and punish wrong. But this thought never occurs to the common man. He does not realize that if I, as a preacher, keep silence and neglect to censure sin, all the sins of this city are charged to my account. You observe how everyone in the world scrapes and scratches, covets and practices usury; and if one remonstrates with them, they grow angry and almost burst with indignation. Do you consider it a good evangelical sermon if I keep silence and let you do as you please? Why should you encumber me with your sins? I will not permit them to oppress me. Bear them yourself! You will say: “Yes, but why do you not hush up my sins?” Don’t you understand that because of my office I will not and dare not keep my peace? How can you compensate me for being damned on your account, for partaking of the guilt of your sin? Such is the esteem and the thanks the dear Gospel receives from the world: it prefers the darkness to the light. The Gospel of Christ is a precious and sweet message, but it is received with shameful ingratitude. It is a comforting message with a charming sound when one says: “Christ wants to sacrifice His life and His soul for you.” But when we take a man to task properly and reprimand him for his sins, it’s the devil, and he refuses to tolerate it. One must proceed thus: First teach man that he is saved by Christ alone. Then also hold the prospect of judgment before the ungodly. Tell them that man cannot endure the light which shows him how he is saved, but that he wants to persist in his usury and in other sins. But we shall treat all this in the proper order.
Christ says: “God so loved the world.” This is an inexpressibly beautiful message; that God, the heavenly Father, had compassion on us and in His mercy and pity gave us His Son. Add to this the fact that we did not deserve it but that it was done, not in view of any piety or merit in us but out of sheer grace. And to whom was this grace shown? To “the world,” that is, to those who were condemned and lost. We are ready to listen to the message that God loved the world, but the statement that the world was lost is repugnant to us. And what does God give the world? Ah, it is an ineffable love that gives us more than a kingdom, more than a thousand angels, which would indeed be a great and remarkable gift. But no, He gives us Himself. He gives us His Son, who is very God. He gives us the very dearest thing He has and is.
To whom does God give His Son? To the world, that is, to the wayward multitude, which has not merited this but, on the contrary, should reasonably expect to be doomed and damned. The Son is given that those who were lost may be saved through Him.
And what are we to give to God in return for this love? Nothing. You shall not go to Rome on pilgrimages, become a monk or a nun, or perform this Or that good work. Only believe in Christ, cast off your old nature, and cleave to Him. Your faith, however, must be of the sort that abounds in good works.
Thus this Gift and Present, the Father’s Son, is not acquired with hand, finger, or foot; it is not found in a cloister or a monk’s habit; nor is it contained in any vessel. It is grasped solely with the heart and by faith. And when this Gift enters your heart and you sincerely believe in Christ, you do not remain your former self, as, for instance, a thief, an adulterer, or a murderer; but now you become a new man, for the light dwells in your heart. Therefore our God insists on possessing your heart wholely; it is the heart that must believe. Our God takes the best of man, the inner man—not the mouth or the hand, but the heart. He wants you to be pious within. When you believe in Christ, your heart is purified. Thus St. Peter declares in Acts 15:9: “Faith cleanses the heart.” Such a faith will no longer permit you to be arrogant and proud; for if the heart is cleansed, then hands, eyes, feet, and all other members are also pure, and their works are also different. Faith will not allow you to be a sinner, fornicator, or adulterer; henceforth your life will reflect the quality of your heart.
Now Christ enlarges on this subject as He continues with a glorious statement. He says that the world was indeed condemned but that the Son was sent for the very purpose of saving the condemned and lost world. He tells us that since He was given to us from a motive of pure love, all who can must accept Him with their heart and believe in Him. This means being snatched from damnation and transplanted into eternal life; it means that death, hell, and the devil’s power have been abolished.
So far Christ has been speaking affirmatively. Now He adds negatively:
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world.
As if He were to say: “The whole world, when it is pious and at its best, fears God and flees from Him. For it is aware of God’s wrath and of the reality of hell, divine judgment, and eternal damnation.” We see proof of this in sickness, pestilence, fever, war, famine, and other distress and misery in the world, all of which are penalties and plagues of God by means of which He shows His anger and judgment against the ungodly. And anyone with a little piety in his heart realizes that God is angry and punishes; he fears God’s judgments as he fears the devil. Coarse and ungodly people are not frightened by war and pestilence. On the contrary, they grow ever more impatient because of wars, pestilence, and venereal disease.84
The consciousness that God is angry and that He is an irate Judge of sin is innate in the human heart. His wrath is evident in the world; we see Him punishing one here, another there. In such circumstances it is impossible for man to be happy. He is in constant fear that God is standing behind him, cudgel in hand, ready to strike him down. Now the Lord Christ says here: “We will put an end to such thoughts; God does not want us to entertain them any longer.” No matter how God may act in the future—even if He sends forth His four plagues into the world, sickness, war, famine, and wild beasts (Rev. 6:8)—this is not to be construed as God’s wrath. For the judgment has been done away with, all external signs to the contrary notwithstanding. God often feigns wrath and impatience with His saints. We think, for instance, of the times when He afflicted Job, Jeremiah, David, and others. This, however, was not to be a judgment for their ruin and destruction; rather it was to be a trial, as 1 Cor. 11:19 and Psalm 30 declare. Thus Christ also declares here: “The judgment is past. The Father and I condemn no one. God is not angry; for I am the Pledge and the certain Token, yes, the Gift and the Present to show you that God is not angry with us. For I was not sent to judge the world, to make you run from Me, or to repel you as a stern judge. The negative is always more impressive than the affirmative.” As though Christ were to say: “It is not My purpose to judge you, nor is it the Father’s purpose to judge you. For if He wished to judge and condemn you, why, then, did He send Me into the world? No, the wrath is gone, and now He is filled with sheer love. He also sent Me, not to judge the world but to save it.”
These are glorious and consoling words. Pious Christians should enshrine them in their hearts, for they assure us that God does not judge us. These words should comfort us—too bad we are such despairing rogues!—and assure us that God will not slay us or throw us into hell: “The ungodly should fear God, flee from Him, and not approach Him joyfully. But you who believe in Me shall not be judged or run from Me as from a relentless judge. For through the medium of faith the judgment has been abolished; the mission to which I was delegated has put an end to judgment. Therefore the thoughts of your heart are wrong; for whoever accepts Me in faith banishes those awful words about God’s wrath, hell, and eternal damnation.”
“Not to condemn the world”—these are Christ’s clear and plain words, words which we did not invent but spoke. Why? Because He was not sent to condemn the world but to save it and to enable it to escape the judgment. “For the world has Me; I am its God. And he who has the Son of God and believes in Him cannot be judged, for the Father has abolished judgment through the Son.”85 Otherwise Christ, the beloved Son, would also have to be condemned, which is impossible. Therefore wherever He is, we are to be also. Thus we shall not be condemned; for if I believe in Him, I cannot be judged. Now we should not run from Christ and God, the heavenly Father. It is His will that we stay close to Him, as chicks gather under the wings of the hen and as children cling to their parents. Like children, we, too, must find refuge with Christ and the heavenly Father.
The world is already judged by original sin, the hereditary fall,86 and the Law of Moses; for it was seduced by the devil. The Law of Moses, our conscience, and our heart already proclaim such judgment. In Rom. 1:32 we hear that our conscience accuses and condemns us and that consequently a judge is no longer necessary. The world has always been full of judgment and death, and it is not worthy of love. Therefore there was no need of a judge any more; but now the Son has been sent that we might know that our thoughts must be put to death.
This is surely a comforting doctrine. But the devil suppressed it under the papacy, and it is despised there to this day. In the papacy I myself fled from Christ and trembled at the mere mention of His name. For my mind conceived of Christ as a judge to whom I would one day have to render an account for all my words and deeds. I knew these words very well, and I read them daily; but I read them without understanding, because I regarded Christ as a judge. Thus we erred woefully. And St. Bernard, who was a pious man otherwise, also said: “Behold how Christ chides, censures, and condemns the Pharisees so harshly throughout the Gospel, whereas the Virgin Mary is always kind and gentle and never utters an unfriendly word.” From this he inferred: “Christ is given to scolding and punishing, but Mary has nothing but sweetness and love.”87 Therefore Christ was generally feared; we fled from Him and took refuge with the saints, calling upon Mary and others to deliver us from our distress. We regarded them all as holier than Christ. Christ was only the executioner, while the saints were our mediators. No one really perceived this beautiful text, and none of us impressed these words which Christ speaks here upon our hearts: “I did not come into the world to condemn the world.” Christ assures us that He is not a judge. He is a Mediator, a Helper, a Comforter, a Mercy Seat, a Bishop, a Shepherd, a Brother, an Intercessor, our Gift, and our Deliverer—not a judge. He was given and presented to us so that we would not have to flee from Him. But these wounds in our heart are not yet fully healed. By nature we are disinclined to trust in God; and then, when evil teachers, such as schismatic spirits and sectaries, also appear, everything is soon undone. I must still apply myself like a child to the study of these words, which assure me that Christ did not come to judge the world.
Christ’s occasional stern and rebuking demeanor in the Gospel has but one objective: to save the world, not to condemn and judge it; for it has already been judged and condemned, as He asserts in this text. He wants us to accept Him; He does not want us to hate the light; He wants us to become new persons, to cleave to Him with all our heart, to rely on Him, and to say: “Thou didst not come to condemn me but to save me.” People will believe in Him; yet at the same time they will want to retain their old nature. But this is not the way. Those who are addicted to vice cannot love or follow Christ, for Christ and Belial cannot reside side by side. Faith must change the heart. If you are imbued with true faith, you will no longer rely on money or goods; nor will you be proud or smug any longer. Faith cannot exist where there is reliance on money and goods, for faith puts its reliance only in Christ. But the world will much sooner dispense with Christ than abandon its possessions; this is what it means to do evil works and to love darkness.
Those who really stand in awe of God’s wrath must inscribe these words in their hearts and accept them as true: God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it through Him. If your faith is true, you will experience in any conflict or anxiety of conscience that Christ is not lying when He assures you that He does not intend to condemn the world but that the world will be saved through Him. Such a faith will not fail you in the hour of death, for this faith will support you in all kinds of trials. This is what faith accomplishes if it is not false or counterfeit. With such a faith one will also be able to enjoy life, eat and drink, use the necessities of life, and say: “Why should I boast? Today I live; tomorrow I die. Thus my heart’s affections belong to Christ alone.”
But if you are envious, if you are a whoremonger or an adulterer, a robber or a knave, and you say: “Oh, God did not send His Son to condemn the world!” you will soon realize that you do not belong among the true believers. You do not dwell in the love of the Father but under His wrath; you love darkness and live outside Christ and the love of the Father. For if you were in Christ and remained in the Father’s love, you would not commit such sin and vice; and then these words would also apply to you: “God did not send His Son to condemn the world.” But this you do not do, and at the same time you resent reproof.
The law of nature had placed the world under judgment even before. Moses expanded this so that our judgment and condemnation became manifest to us through the Law. However, when you are in danger and trial, hurry over and take hold of Christ; you will be saved and not condemned. Then let Christ chasten you. On the other hand, if you refuse to do this, you are lost. Christ reproves and chastens a person with His Word in such a manner that he will not be condemned. Whenever Christ says: “Woe to you!” He intends to save you; with these harsh words He wants to make you pay attention to the Father’s love. If you remain proud and persist in wickedness, you are lost.
Father and mother do not chide, whip, or chastise a child in order to throttle it, hang it, or club it to death but in order to keep it out of the hands of the executioner, who might otherwise hang or execute it someday. Thus God, too, does not want us to become wild. He judges and chastens us to ward off and prevent our doom, to keep us under His protective care, and to make us heirs of the kingdom of heaven.
That is why God visits the elect with so many trials. If a thought such as this ever occurs to you: “Oh, God is angry with me!” then you must say: “No, I believe in Thee, and I believe Thy words; they cannot deceive me. And even if Thou dost grievously afflict me, Thou wilt not cast me off. Thus Ps. 143:2 declares: ‘Enter not into judgment with Thy servant.’ For Thou hast not been sent to condemn the world.” Even if God torments you with pestilence and other evils, His heart is not bent on the destruction of everything. When many of the Corinthians had taken Holy Communion carelessly and unwisely so that God struck them with sickness and death, St. Paul declared (1 Cor. 11:31–32): “If we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged by the Lord. But When we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the ungodly world.”
God’s chastening rod is to be construed as a judgment which intends to save us and to remove us from condemnation. With such judgment God, to keep us from being condemned together with the world, wants to snatch us from the damnation and judgment to which the world is subject. For Christ did not come to condemn. We are not to regard Him as an executioner, as one who is angry and eager to condemn us, but as one who is eager to help the world. But the devil has a hand in this. He can depict Christ as one who is angry with us; he can picture Him as very death before our eyes. But if you remain under the wings of this Brood Hen, the Lord Christ, you are able to say: “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world. You must not make Christ into a devil for me; for He was not sent to be my judge, tyrant, venom, death, wrath, and pestilence. No, He is called a Helper. This is His office; this is the purpose for which He was sent, as He Himself declares: ‘Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28). The Father was induced by a sincere and profound love to send Him to us that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Thus Christ concludes, saying: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned.” Then He speaks affirmatively again and says: “The believer is freed through Christ from the judgment which is already in force.” All men are already condemned and imprisoned to be damned eternally, but the Son of God was given to us to redeem us from that judgment. No matter how the devil and your conscience may harass and worry you, this comforting doctrine remains true and certain, provided that your faith is true and sincere. And then you need not fear that Christ will address you on Judgment Day with the words (Matt. 25:41): “Depart into eternal damnation!” You know that He will say instead (Matt. 25:34): “Come, O blessed of My Father.” If our hearts could grasp the fact that we need not fear the Final Judgment, what joy they would find! As for me, the words “Depart from Me” are null and void; for over me I find inscribed the word: “Come, O blessed.” And if judgment has been abrogated, then it follows that all other evils, such as sin, death, the devil, and hell, have also been eliminated.
Therefore let anyone who can, learn these words. However, we wretched people cling more firmly to our money and goods, to honor and power, to avarice and sin; these we will not forsake, and we persevere in doing evil. We pay no attention to these words; and if a person has heard them just once, he supposes that he knows all about them: “Whoever believes in Me need not fear judgment.” Judgment has been nullified for him; it concerns him no more than it does the angels. He does not stand in need of a mediator on that Day, for judgment has been disposed of. He does not require the intercession of the saints; nor does he fear purgatory. Unless Christ is a preacher of lies, it is certain that just as Christ does not fear judgment and cannot be judged, so we believers will not be judged. But more than this: On that Day we, together with Christ, will judge the world and all the ungodly. Thus St. Paul says: “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3). This affords us great comfort and banishes fear; judgment has been abolished for us on account of our faith in Christ.
These words are true, and still it is so hard for them to enter our hearts and to be mastered fully. Even pious hearts are filled with venom and entertain old thoughts which they cannot shake off. This text offers a precious remedy for such venomous thoughts of the devil. Many, however, are smug and have learned these words too quickly. But whether we believe it or not, it remains true nevertheless that all who believe in the Son, whether children or adults, are free and safe from the judgment. For we still have the same Christ and the same Baptism St. Peter and St. Paul had. And even if you are steeped in sin like St. Paul, who slew many Christians and shed innocent blood, or like St. Peter, who denied Christ, you are nonetheless baptized; and if you believe in Christ, you are delivered from judgment as much as they were.
This doctrine cannot fail you. Therefore it is wise to learn it betimes if you can, so that in the hour of death you may know it and not be eternally lost. Let everyone see to it that he have a sincere faith, and let him pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). If you are weak in the faith, why do you not pray? Or if you live in unbelief, avarice, and other vices that militate against faith, remember that you have prayer. Call upon God that His name may be hallowed, that His kingdom may come to us, and that we may become strong in the faith and no longer be so arrogant, angry, etc. For the Lord Christ is well aware that we are feeble and that sin still clings to us. But we must say: “O Lord, help us to become kind and gentle, not fornicators, misers, robbers, etc., so that we may be saved through the Son, whom God sent into the world.”
Thus I—and anyone else throughout the wide world—am saved if I believe. For we read here: “God so loved the world that all who believe in Him shall be saved through Him,” not only St. Peter or St. Paul but “all.” All will be transported from this life into the kingdom of heaven without being judged; in fact, they will be judges over others. These are clear words, words not invented by us but words of eternal life which God had His Son proclaim to us.
Next we shall hear about those who love their evil works more than the light, who despise the Word of God. Christ says: “He who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18).88
The last time we heard the Lord proclaim to Nicodemus and to the whole world that God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world but to save it. We also heard that such salvation comes from faith, for whoever believes in Christ does not enter into judgment. Such a message should really dissolve an discord and unite us in thanks to God night and day. The whole world should jump and dance for joy. But, as it happens, the world cannot endure this message. If a man will not bear the proclamation of good news, how could he endure the announcement of misfortune, that is, of the fact that he is damned and lost?
Now the joyful message follows that the judgment is over; this means that the wrath of God, hell, and damnation are no more. For the Son of God came that we might be saved and delivered from death and hell. Then what is still lacking? Faith. People refuse to believe this. God gives His Son to save the world; but the world says: “It is not true that the world is steeped in sin and is damned.” This is a pity.
Source: Luther, Martin: “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4,” in Luther’s Works, 22:319-382
46 Our examinations of both numismatic specimens and books have failed to come up with any such coins.
47 From the reference to Mary in the Koran (III, 31) some Moslem sects developed the tradition of her immaculate conception; it also seems that they confused her with Miriam, the sister of Moses.
48 The implication appears to be that the preaching of the Word had been corrupted by the emphasis on works, and the Lord’s Supper had been mutilated by the sacrifice of the Mass and communion under only one kind.
49 Bonaventura (d. 1274) taught that the Passion of Christ rendered satisfaction for original sin, but that in the case of actual sins the satisfaction for the temporal punishment merited by them had to be rendered by the sinner himself: Commentaria in quatuor libros sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, III, Dist. XIX, Art. 1, Q. 4 in Doctoris seraphici S. Bonaventurae opera omnia, III (Quaracchi, 1887), pp. 407, 408.
50 Although the reference in the text is to “John 11, ” the quotation combines John 11:25 and John 14:6.
51 Cf. also Luther’s comments on Gen. 26:24–25 (Weimar, XLIII, 477, 478).
52 Here Luther gives the Latin name aspides.
53 Cf. also the discussion of this in a sermon on John 3 attributed to Luther in Caspar Cruciger’s Summer Postil (Weimar, XXI, 548).
54 Speck was the name of a grove near Wittenberg.
55 The original form of the proverb is : “Need breaks iron.”
56 A common notion in Luther’s day regarding rabies.
57 This sentence must either be taken to mean that Moses made a serpent to resemble the fiery serpents, as we have taken it, or one must add a “not” to it to supply the meaning, as the St. Louis edition does.
58 Here Luther is paraphrasing John 5:28–29 and John 11:25.
59 This is the end of the twenty-eighth and the beginning of the twenty-ninth sermon; it bears no date.
60 The St. Louis edition suggests that the original text, which reads Samuel, David, Salomo, Daniel, be emended to include only the first two names.
61 In Luther’s day there was considerable discussion about Mary’s parents. Some fifteenth-century theologians even maintained that Anna had conceived without the action of man—a position condemned by Rome in 1677. Pope Julius II (1443–1513) had assigned the feast of Joachim to March 20, a date that was subsequently changed; this may be what Luther had in mind with his reference to “thirty years.”
62 Though the original has the name Ezechias, the reference actually seems to be to Ahaz (cf. 2 Kings 18:4).
63 Luther is not condemning the preaching of such sermons as such, but the confusion of Law and Gospel that often underlay them (cf. Luther’s Works, 12, p. 92).
64 Nestorian Christians were indeed among those with whom Mohammed came into contact in his formative years. The Moslems also came into contact with Nestorians in Persia in the seventh century.
65 Cf. pp. 491–498.
66 This is the end of the twenty-ninth and the beginning of the thirtieth sermon, dated “the fourth day after Trinity”; if this date is correct, the sermon was delivered on June 19, 1538, which was a Wednesday.
67 It is part of the Gospel lesson for the Monday of Whitsun week; cf. p. 275, note 1.
68 We have ended the quoted paraphrase here, although it seems that Luther wanted to continue it. But the word “us” refers to sinners and not to Christ; thus he evidently did not intend this sentence as a paraphrase. Cf. p. 355, where Luther adds: “Now the Lord wants to say …. ”
69 Cf. p. 24, note 24.
70 Cf. p. 108, note 82.
71 Luther narrates this story in his Table Talk (Weimar, Tischreden, VI, No. 6815).
72 Luther entered the monastery On July 17, 1505.
73 Cf. p. 387, note 95.
74 Cf. p. 52, note 42.
75 This is the end of the thirtieth and the beginning of the thirty-first sermon, dated “Day of SS. Peter and Paul,” June 29, 1538.
76 Cf. pp. 491–498.
77 Luther seems to have in mind a passage like Hilary, On the Trinity, XI, ch. 48, Patrologia, Series Latina, X, 431, 432.
78 Cf. Hilary, On the Trinity, Bk. VI, Ch. 44, Patrologia, Series Latina, X, 193.
79 The original phrase is essentialis definitio.
80 The original has “through Me,” which we have changed to “through Christ.” Here again we have broken off the quoted paraphrase; cf. p. 353, note 68.
81 Luther uses the word enthusiasmus as a Latin translation of the German Schwermerey, his favorite name for the left wing of the Reformation; cf. also Luther’s Works, 13, p. 368, note 26.
82 Cf. p. 153, note 120.
83 This is the end of the thirty-first and the beginning of the thirty-second sermon, dated “the Saturday after St. Giles’ Day,” September 7, 1538.
84 The German word is frantzosen; cf. Luther’s Works, 13, p. 76, note 4.
85 Here Luther once more moves into quoted paraphrase.
86 The German word is Erbfall; cf. Luther’s Works, 13, p. 289, note 54.
87 Luther seems to be thinking of statements by Bernard like that in In Nativitate Beatae Mariae Virginis Sermo, Patrologia, Series Latina, CLXXXIII, 441.
88 This is the end of the thirty-second and the beginning of the thirty-third sermon, which is dated “September 14, 1538.”