A Lutheran pastor recently shared with me a quote from Martin Luther's Sermons on the Gospel of John of St. John Chapters 14-16 (LW 24). Luther wrote the sermons in 1537 and then they were edited into a kind of continuous sermonic commentary. Luther was very pleased with the work, in fact on one occasion he even called it "the best book I have written," while also acknowledging the editorial work of Cruciger who assembled it (LW 24:ix-x).
Luther is commenting on John 15:10-12
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (ESV)He writes:
Wherever faith is not preached and is not given primary importance, wherever we do not begin by learning how we are united with Christ and become branches in Him, all the world concentrates only on its works. On the other hand, wherever faith alone is taught, this leads to false Christians, who boast of their faith, are baptized, and are counted among the Christians but give no evidence of fruit and strength. This makes it difficult to preach to people. No matter how one preaches, things go wrong; the people always hedge. If one does not preach on faith, nothing but hypocritical works result. But if one confines one’s preaching to faith, no works ensue. In brief, the outcome is either works without faith or faith without works. Therefore the sermon must address itself to those who accept and apprehend both faith and works; the others, who do not want to follow, remain behind. Just as the devil, who is the god and lord of the world, will never become pious, so it will never be possible to make the whole world pious. And no matter how much one says to the world, it grows defiant and does all the more in opposition. It takes this as a provocation to be even worse. Because these people refuse to hear and to believe, we let them go their way until they find and experience the truth, not only in eternity but also here in this temporal life.Note how Luther begins with faith and says that it must be given primary importance. The Gospel runs the show for Lutherans. Yet while we usually think of "faith alone" as being one of the great sola's of the Lutheran Reformation, here "faith alone" is actually a very negative thing. It is a preaching that speaks only about faith in Christ and never about what this faith prompts Christians to do.
But we preach to the little flock, who know, and reflect on, their eternal destiny, whose chief concern is to remain in this Vine, who find all their consolation in Him, and who then also give practical proof of this in their conduct. For faith will surely manifest itself in such fruit, as Christ said earlier: “He who abides in Me bears much fruit.” Such a person will necessarily reason thus: “I believe in Christ, who loved me and gave His life for me; therefore I will reflect this love in my attitude over against my neighbor. I will be friendly and helpful to him and bear his faults and excesses with patience and gentleness.” You are not asked to sacrifice life and limb for him, as Christ did for you. “But,” says Christ, “I am only commanding you to prove your faith by serving and helping your neighbor, by promoting his welfare, by showing him fidelity and love. If you do this, you have done all I ask of you; and now you are like Me. But if you neglect this or do the opposite, you dare not boast of Me. Then your own deeds bear witness against you and prove that you are not true and fruitful branches in Me, but decayed wood that has been severed from Me.”
Now that Christ has shed His blood and sacrificed His life for you, and now that He bears with all the sins and frailties that still inhere in you, it is a crime if, in return, you refuse for His sake to remit a neighbor’s claim of a heller or to overlook an evil word. I shall not even mention that you might contemplate stealing from him, robbing him, defrauding him by usury, deceiving him in business, or cheating him with false ware – in brief, demonstrating every underhanded trickery, such as almost everybody does today without any qualms of conscience. Therefore it behooves everyone t search his heart and examine himself. Let no one bank on thoughts like these: “I am baptized and am called a Christian. I hear God’s Word and go to the Sacrament.” For here Christ Himself separates the false Christians from those who are genuine, as if He were saying, “If you are true believers in Me and are in possession of My treasure, it will surely be evident that you are My disciples. If not, do not imagine that I will acknowledge and accept you as My disciples. You will never cheat and deceive any but yourselves – to your eternal shame and harm. Christ and the Gospel will surely not be cheated and defrauded.” (LW 24:249-250)
We have here an edited sermon. It is Luther's preaching and it also Luther describing what Lutheran preaching should do. It is the mature Luther speaking. He has made the Gospel breakthrough of the Reformation and also has spent some twenty years working with the Church in order to help Christians understand what this does and does not mean.
Because of the existentialist driven Luther interpretation (usually emphasizing early Luther) that dominated much of the twentieth century, this is typically not the Luther we know. In fact, to speak this way in the present setting of confessional Lutheranism is to invite the label "neo-Methodism." I know this from personal experience.
There is no doubt that moralism dominates the American evangelicalism that surrounds us. There is also no doubt that a sizeable portion of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod seeks to ape this American evangelicalism. But we do not dare to be Lutheran in the way of Martin Luther by merely doing the opposite of American evangelicalism - the teaching of "faith alone" that Luther rejects here. Instead, we are Lutheran when we are biblical as we preach and teach that we are saved by faith alone, but yet that faith is never alone. It always seeks to love the neighbor and to resist the temptations we face in this world.