From the beginning of his work on the postils, Martin Luther intended them for common pastors and people, and thus they were to be the great devotional book of the Reformation. Luther’s collected sermons for the church year were originally published in two series: the Church Postil and the House Postil. These were among his most popular works. Aside from his catechisms, they did more to teach people the Reformation than any other book. Volume 75 provides the sermons on the Epistle and Gospel readings from Advent through Christmastide in fresh, clear English.
The following excerpt is taken from the Epistle Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, on Galatians 4:1–7 (paragraphs 2–19).
We must know that it is one thing to teach about good works and another to teach about justification, just as the essence or person is a different thing than the activity or working. Justification belongs to the person and not to the works. The person and not the work is pronounced righteous, saved, convicted, or condemned.
Thus it is established that no work justifies the person, but [the person] must first without any works be justified in some other way. Thus Moses says, “God had regard for Abel and his offering” (Genesis 4 [:4]). First, He had regard for Abel, the person, and then for his offering, so that the person was first godly, just, and acceptable, and then also the offering for the sake of the person, not the person for the sake of the offering. On the other hand, “for Cain and his offering He had no regard” [Gen. 4:5]. Also here He first did not have regard for Cain, the person, and then also not for his offering. From this it is established that it is impossible for a work to be good before God unless the person is first good and acceptable. On the other hand, it is impossible for a work to be evil before God unless the person is first evil and unacceptable.
That is enough for now to conclude that there are two kinds of good works: some before and some after justification. Those that precede only appear [to be good], but are good for nothing. Those that follow are thoroughly good.
This is the strife between God and the arrogant saints. [Human] nature fights and rages against the Holy Spirit; all of Scripture deals with that. In Scripture, God [first] concludes that all works done before justification are evil and good for nothing; He first wants the person to be justified and good. Second, He concludes that all persons who are still in their nature and first birth are unjustified and evil, as the psalmist says, “All men are liars” (Psalm 116 [:11]), and Moses: “Every intention of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6 [:5]). Therefore, he can perform no good works, and all that he does are only Cain’s kind of works [Gen. 4:3–5].
Lady Hulda steps forth here with her snout‚ [human] nature‚ and dares to bark against her God and accuse Him of lying. She puts on her old secondhand clothes—her straw armor: the natural light, reason, free will, natural powers, and then heathen books and human doctrines—and begins to scratch on her fiddle and says: “There are also good works before justification, and they are not Cain’s kind of works, as God says. In fact, they are so good that people are justified through them. Aristotle taught: ‘Whoever does much good will become good in that way.’ ” She firmly clings to this and thus turns Scripture upside down, thinking that God first looks at the works and then at the person. This devilish doctrine now rules in all universities, chapters, and monasteries. They are all together only Cain-saints, for whom God has no regard.
Second, because she bases her position only on works and does not regard the person and justification highly, she goes ahead and attributes all merit and the chief righteousness to the works following justification. She says, “Faith apart from works is nothing,” as St. James [2:26] says. Meanwhile, she does not correctly understand that passage; she scorns faith and remains stuck in works; she wants to flatter God so that He will be pleased with the person for the sake of [the works].
So the two continually strive against each other. God looks at the person; Cain [looks at] the works. God has regard for the person, but Cain has regard for the works. God wants to regard the works because of the person, but Cain wants to have the person crowned because of the works. God does not change His mind, as is due and right, and Squire Cain refuses to be convinced that he is in error, from the beginning of the world to the end. We are not supposed to reject his works or regard his reason to be nothing or think his free will incompetent, or he will become angry with God and beat his brother Abel to death. All histories abundantly teach that.
If you then say: “What am I to do? How does my person first become good and acceptable? How do I get that justification?” the Gospel answers: “You must hear Christ and believe in Him, simply despair of yourself, and think that you become Abel out of Cain, and then present your offering.” Faith is preached without any of your works and without any of your merit, and is given without your merit out of pure grace. Faith justifies the person and is itself righteousness. God gives faith and forgives all sins to the whole Adam and Cain, for the sake of Christ, His dear Son, whose name is in that same faith. Moreover, He gives His Holy Spirit and makes the person different and changes him into a new person, who then has a different reason and a different will inclined toward good. Wherever such a person is, he does only good works, and whatever he does is good, as said in the previous Epistle.
Therefore, nothing belongs to justification except hearing and believing Jesus Christ, our Savior. However, both of those are not the work of nature, but of grace. Whoever imagines that he can come here with works hinders the Gospel, faith, grace, Christ, God, and everything. On the other hand, nothing belongs to good works except justification (for whoever is justified—and no one else—does good, and everything the justified person does is good, without any distinction of works). Therefore, the beginning, sequence, and order of man’s salvation is first, above all things, to hear the Word of God, and then to work, and thus be saved. Whoever turns around or changes this order is certainly not from God.
St. Paul describes this order in this way: “ ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10 [:13–15]). Therefore, Christ teaches us to ask the Father to send out into His harvest laborers who are true preachers [cf. Luke 10:2; Matt. 9:38]. When these come, they preach the true Word of God; when people hear it, they can believe. But faith makes the person righteous and godly, and he then calls on God and does only good, for thus the person is saved. That means that whoever believes is saved; but on the other hand, whoever works without faith is damned. Christ says, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned” [Mark 16:16]. No working will help there.
Now look at the common way of speaking among people who are accustomed to say, “Well, I still want to become godly; well, we must be godly,” etc. But when they are asked: “How must we act so that we become and are godly?” they begin to say, “Well, we must pray, fast, attend church, abstain from sin,” etc. One runs to the Carthusians, another into this order; one becomes a priest, another puts on a hair shirt; one scourges himself, another tortures himself; another in another way. That is nothing but Cain and Cain’s works. The persons remain as they were before, and there is no justification, but only an external change and alteration of works, of clothes, of places, of appearance. They are true apes, who take for themselves the appearance of saints; yet they are not holy, they do not think about faith, but only storm with their good works and (as they think) torture themselves into heaven.
Christ says about them in the Gospel: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able to do it” [Luke 13:24]. Well, why not? Because they do not know what the narrow door is. It is faith, which makes a person small, even nothing, so that he must despair of all his works and only cling to God’s grace, abandoning everything for that. But the Cain-saints think that good works are the narrow door. For that reason they do not become small, they do not despair of their [works], but rather gather them together in big bags, hang them around [their necks], and want to go through [that door]. And they will go through, just like a camel with its large hump can go through the eye of a needle [cf. Matt. 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25].
If we now talk to them about faith, they scoff and laugh, asking if we regard them as Turks or heathen who first must learn what faith is. Should there be so many monks, nuns, and priests who do not know what faith is? Who does not know what it means to believe? Even public sinners know that! Therefore, as if they have had enough of everything connected with faith, they think that henceforth they must deal with works and despise faith (as I have said). They are not acquainted with faith; they do not know that it alone justifies.
They call what they have heard about Christ “faith,” and regard it all to be true, just as the devils also believe [James 2:19] but are not made godly through it. But that is not Christian faith. It is more a delusion than faith.
In the previous postils we have heard sufficiently that, to be a Christian, it is not enough to believe that what is said about Christ is all true; that is the faith of the Cain-saints. Rather, he must not doubt or waver, [but believe] that he is one of those for whom this grace and mercy were given, and that he has certainly obtained them through Baptism or the Sacrament. When he believes that, then he has to say freely of himself that he is holy, godly, righteous, and God’s child, certain of salvation. He must not doubt that he has that, not from himself or because of his merits and works, but from the pure mercy of God in Christ poured out over him. He considers that [mercy] to be so great—as it really is—that he does not doubt that it makes him holy and God’s child. If he doubts that, then he highly dishonors his Baptism and the Sacrament, and charges God’s Word and grace in the sacraments with lying.
Here there is not to be any fear or wavering that he is godly and God’s child out of grace, but only fear and concern that he remain steadfast in this until the end; only in this is there danger and concern. All of salvation is certainly present, but whether he will continue and persevere in it is uncertain and a cause for concern. Here we must walk in fear, for faith does not brag about works or about itself, but only about God and His grace. That [grace] cannot forsake him as long as that bragging [about God and His grace] continues. But he does not know how long it will continue. A temptation could drive it away from him, so that his bragging [about God and His grace] ceases, and then grace also will cease.
When the Cain-[saints] hear about this faith, they bless themselves with hands and feet, and say: “Ah, God forbid! Should I say that I am holy and godly? How could I be so arrogant and impudent? No, no, I am a poor sinner.” They regard faith as nothing, and all this doctrine as heresy, and in that way the whole Gospel is destroyed. These are the people who deny the Christian faith and banish it from the world, about whom St. Paul prophesied when he said, “In later times many will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4 [:1]). This faith is now silenced all over the world, even condemned and banished, with all who teach and hold to it, as the worst heresy. The pope, bishops, chapters, monasteries, and universities have unanimously stood against it for nearly four hundred years, and they did nothing more than forcefully drive all the world into hell. That is the true, final, anti-Christian persecution.
If you say to them: “Nevertheless, the prophet says, ‘Preserve my soul, for I am holy’ (Psalm 86 [:2]), and St. Paul says, ‘God’s Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8 [:16]),” they answer: “Yes, but the prophet and the apostle did not say that as a doctrine or an example [for us]; rather, he was enlightened, and it was revealed to him that he was holy.” They cite all of Scripture in that way and say that it is not doctrine, but some special miracle and advantage, which does not belong to all believers. They invent this explanation out of their own heads. Because they do not believe nor taste the Spirit [cf. Ps. 34:9; 1 Pet. 2:3; Heb. 6:4–5], they think no one else should believe or taste. Thus from their own fruits they are publicly recognized as thorns and thistles; [they are] not Christians, but enemies and destroyers of all Christians and persecutors of the Christian faith.
On the other hand, they do have this faith: that they think they will become godly and holy through their works and that God will save them for the sake of their works. Look at this: to become godly through works is supposed to be Christian, but to be and become godly through God’s grace must be heretical. Their works are supposed to be, do, and be capable of more than God’s grace. Their faith can brag about works, but it will not brag about God’s grace. What happens to them is fitting: since they build on the sand and reject the rock, they fall into [reliance on] their works and torture themselves to death, to the glory of the devil, because they do not want to remain in God’s grace and render pleasant service to God.
All who have this Christian faith must be happy and peaceful in God and His grace, and thus become eager for good works. Being occupied with [special] prayers and clothes, as the Cain-[saints] do, are not good works, but being useful and good to your neighbor, as was said above in the last Gospel, [are good works]. Yes, they are happy and ready to suffer anything, for they do not doubt that God is with them and that they are in God’s grace. Those are the people who are useful and honorable to God and the world.
On the other hand, the Cain-[saints] are against God and useful neither to the world nor to themselves; in fact, they are only a useless burden on earth, harmful to themselves and everyone. Because they do not have this faith, they are good for nothing to God. They do no works from which their neighbor may receive a profit for his body, property, honor, or soul. All they do are only their own works, done in appearance, clothes, places, times, and food.
Tell me, how am I helped when you have a large tonsure or wear a gray cowl? Who is helped when you fast away the day, when you are idle all day, when you do not eat certain food, when you are locked up in a certain place, when you read and mutter so many words all day long? With that you do nothing more than torture yourself to the devil and give everyone an evil, pernicious example of a life to follow, as if it were good; but it is not a Christian life at all. You do not believe in a Christian way; you do not pray in a Christian way. Your fasting is not a mortification of the body, as it should be, but only done as a good work. In short, such a life is nothing other than the idolatry of the Baals and of Molech formerly among the Jews, who tortured, killed, and burned their children to the glory of the devil.
The complete text of this postil, including the detailed annotations not included here, are available in LW 75: Church Postil I. This volume is part of the expansion of the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Learn more at cph.org/luthersworks.