The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
This means that the words were spoken by the Holy Spirit.
Christ does not want to give you the right to run to and fro in search of the Spirit, to lose yourself in reverie and say: “I have this by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Actually, it may be the devil who inspired you! Thus they alleged in the edict issued at the Diet of Augsburg: “The church is holy; therefore it follows that its proclamations are holy and given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” Christ does not recognize such inspiration. He binds us solely to His Word. He does not want to see the Holy Spirit divorced from His Word. Whenever you hear anyone boast that he has something by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and it has no basis in God’s Word, no matter what it may be, tell him that this is the work of the devil. Christ does not bind you to anything but His mouth and His Word. He does not want to leave you wandering aimlessly about; He wants you to hear His Word. He declares: “The words which I speak are spiritual. Therefore if you want to obtain the Holy Spirit, you must adhere to My words; for they are spirit and life.”
These words enjoining us to hear and heed God’s Word are worth much gold. Failure to do this has always given rise in the world to great and terrible errors, idolatries, and schisms—for instance, the Franciscan and Dominican orders, the ordinances of the fathers, Masses, pilgrimages, etc. Whatever ideas occurred to some fool, whatever he dreamed up, or whatever appealed to his fancy, was called an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Everyone held his own thoughts to be the Holy Spirit and revelation. Thus the Holy Spirit, of course, also had to have His hand in motivating pilgrimages to Grym Valley! And the pope confirmed such inspirations and errors. All this, however, is devoid of God’s Word; therefore it is of the devil.
God has so ordered it that the Holy Spirit ordinarily comes through the Word. Christ Himself states this here. Therefore whenever you are faced by anything, even though it appears so attractive and holy that you imagine it to be an angelic being, take it, and hold it in the light of God’s Word. Examine it to see whether it is founded on Holy Writ, whether or not God has commanded and ordered it. If it is a mere fancy, a token of particular zeal, or a pious thought, but lacks God’s Word, spit on it. Unless it happens that God chooses to enlighten you particularly, as He did Moses, beware! Since God has confirmed the ministry of preaching, be on your guard against any such devotion or fancies as the devil may well suggest to you, even though they are sweet enough to induce you to weep large troughs full of tears.
You must be informed with regard to the type of zeal which is evil and that which is good, natural, or spiritual; for on the surface all are almost alike. The books of the monks abounded with spiritual devotion, and many a person was deceived thereby. People could not distinguish between true and false devotion, since they did not have the Word of God. They were told that it was not permissible to resist the Holy Spirit. But I declare that I will resist Him if they do not have the Word of God. For John commands us (I John 4:1) to test all the spirits to ascertain who is preaching and what is being preached.
But if I am to test a spirit, I must have the Word of God. The latter is to be the rule or touchstone or Lydian stone by which I can tell black from white and evil from good. It illumines everything, just as the sun does. Wherever this light does not shine, you must say: “I gladly concede that it may appear beautiful before the world, that it may glisten and seem like something precious. But I will never agree that it helps me to God or delivers me from death, no matter how much it may glitter, if it is not in agreement with the Word of God. If such zeal affects my soul’s welfare and salvation, I will spit on it and tread it underfoot. I will refuse to tolerate, hear, or see it; for it is not God’s Word.”
The core of Christ’s sermon is this, that He proclaims that His words and speeches are life and spirit. That is, they are really spiritual and transcend reason by far; they are far more sublime; yes, they are heavenly. Now if we want to find spirit and life, we, too, must become spiritual and hear the Word of God. This excels reason and rises higher than reason can rise. Any understanding of these words that I hear must be wrought in me by the Holy Spirit. He makes me spiritual too. The Word is spiritual, and I also become spiritual; for He inscribes it in my heart, and then, in brief, all is spirit.
Mark Christ’s words well: “It is the Spirit that gives life,” for these words leave us neither in doubt nor in error. Shortly after uttering these words He explains the meaning of the word “spirit.” He says: “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit.” This He does that we might beware of being misled by the treacherous preachers who come and boast about the Spirit, claiming to feel the compulsion of love and the spirit to preach. Indeed, they still say today: “I mean well with you; I am sincere when I say this; God in heaven knows that I would be willing to give my soul to save you.” But tell them: “Go preach to the geese. You are a devil. Don’t molest and confuse me with your spirit. Christ does not want me to listen to you.” He declares: “It is the Spirit that gives life.” Where do you and I come in? “The words that I have spoken to you,” Christ says, “are spirit. If you take hold of My words, you have it.”
Perhaps you are tempted to ask: “Where does the Spirit give life? Or by what means? Where will I find the Spirit?” The reply is: “Hold to My words and speech. If you do that, you have the Spirit.” Thus the words are spirit in him who preaches and teaches, and also in him who hears and believes. A man is spirit in proportion to how much he adheres to the Word. On the other hand, he is flesh in proportion to his flesh and unbelief.
Flesh and spirit contend against each other. I would fain believe with all my heart and be filled with spirit, but I do not succeed. The flesh and that old Sir Adam, who dwells in my skin, come along and frighten the spirit, play me a nasty trick, and intone the old refrain into my ear night and day: “Well, surely good works are worth something too.” Such thoughts are obnoxious; they are accursed; they stand condemned and are pernicious. But still they haunt me, and I must constantly war against them and say: “I will not yield and put my trust in works. I am well aware that the Ten Commandments have been enjoined. But what of it? First of all, I want to learn and believe this doctrine, that my salvation and life depend on the flesh and blood of Christ. Then hand me the Ten Commandments, and I shall not refuse them obedience. If the heart is rooted in this doctrine, then good works will also follow, but for a different reason.”
So that is the Christian doctrine. These words are spirit; they are not profound, wise, reasonable words; they are spirit. And you must enroll your heart in the school of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise you can accomplish nothing. Life and spirit will pass you by, and you will remain in death.
Luther’s works: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (23: 173–176). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959 (www.cph.org).