Five-hundred years ago—on the 21st October, 1522 to be precise—Martin Luther preached a sermon on Matthew 25:1-13. It’s a fascinating test case for Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, and in particular his view of how a person is ultimately justified. For on the surface, it appears that Jesus is teaching that a person is saved because of good works. But for Luther, any such thinking was anathema. How then did the reformer understand the parable?
In short, Luther believed that the oil which the wise virgins possessed—but the foolish ones didn’t—was the presence of genuine, saving faith. A true faith in Jesus as the Christ results in a totally transformed life. Luther’s explanation is worth quoting in full:
The Lord is speaking now about Christendom and compares it to ten virgins. Five are wise, five foolish. Here He calls all Christians “virgins”. The foolish virgins are those Christians who give the appearance and impression of being godly. They want to be good evangelicals and are able to say much about these things. They praise the Word and say: “Yes, it is a splendid thing. This is what it means. It cannot possibly be otherwise according to the Scripture, etc.” Paul speaks of these people in 1 Cor. 4:20: “The kingdom of God is not in speech, but in power.” It consists not in speech, but in life; not in words, but in works. Although they are able to say much about many things, they are in reality unwise virgins who only have the lamps or the vessel, that is, the external equipment, and they behave according to their nature, as Matthew writes (7:22), saying, “Lord, Lord!” The mouth is there, but the heart is far away (Matt. 15:8). The oil is not in the lamp, that is, faith is not in the heart. They give it no thought. Indeed, they know it not and imagine that their lamps are ready. Their nature is that they gladly hear the preaching about faith, and if they have heard the Word, they invent and fabricate for themselves a thought, a delusion in the heart which they consider to be oil, and yet they remain the same as before in their behaviour. Following their old ways, they are just as wrathful as before, just as covetous, just as unmerciful toward the poor, just as discourteous, etc. This faith is a manmade thing. Therefore, it is just like foam on the water, or like the head on a bad beer.
Not that for Luther faith and works could never be divorced from one another (i.e. James 2:14-26). Indeed, works are the very evidence that there is true, saving faith. But that said, the ground of a believer’s right standing before God is solely the righteousness of Christ which is received by faith apart from works (i.e. Rom. 4:4-5). Hence, on the day of Jesus’ return, a believer will be acquitted not because of his personal performance, but on the basis of the person and work of Christ. And this faith will have led to a morally transformed life resulting in good works which are both a gift and work of God Himself (Eph. 2:8-10; Rev. 19:8). As Luther explains:
But then comes about a wondrous change, that Christ gives Himself and His benefits to the heart, and takes the heart to Himself with all that it has in it, and makes it His own. But what is in Christ? Innocence, godliness, righteousness, blessedness and every good thing. Furthermore, Christ has conquered sin, death, hell, and the devil. So all of that comes to pass in him who grasps it, who firmly believes and trusts that he becomes, in Christ Jesus, a conqueror of sin, death, hell, and the devil. Likewise the innocence of Christ becomes his innocence. So also the godliness, holiness and blessedness of Christ and whatever there is in Christ—all of it resides in a believing heart together with Christ. As a result, then, our lamps are not extinguished. For if we wish to approach God with our own works, no matter how brilliantly they may glisten, no matter how fine they may appear, all is in vain and condemnation.
This is why neither the foolish or wise virgins are rebuked for falling asleep as they wait for the bridegroom to arrive. It is temptation to read back into the narrative at this point the later incident involving the disciples who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39-46). Significantly, the same Greek word ‘watch’ is used in both passages (compare Matt 25:13 and 26:38, 40 and 41). However, being ‘watchful’ isn’t necessarily the same thing as remaining awake, but instead, of always being prepared.
This particular line of interpretation is further strengthened by the bridegroom’s statement to the foolish virgins at the end of the parable, at which point He declares, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” (Matt. 25:12) It’s not that Jesus knew them but they fell away. Or that their dedication to Christian discipleship was incomplete. It’s that He never knew them. That is, they had failed to receive the oil of saving faith and all its benefits. As R.C Sproul explains regarding the significance of the oil:
The meaning for us is clear—if we do not have the Spirit, who is given to those who trust Jesus with saving faith, we will not be admitted to the marriage supper of the Lamb. I constantly plead with my congregation to distinguish clearly between the possession of saving faith and the mere profession of it. No one has ever been saved by the mere profession of faith. Unless the faith we profess is authentic, unless it has taken root in our hearts, unless it is there by the power of God the Holy Spirit, it will not save us. Clearly Jesus was talking here about the difference between nominal Christians, people who are Christians only in name, and genuine Christians, those who are Christians indeed.
Many commentators though, are nervous of making what they consider to be a too allegorical interpretation. However, there are many indications in the text which suggest that Jesus’ parable should be understood allegorically in this instance. For instance, all interpreters agree that the bridegroom is the returning Messianic king, the wedding banquet is His eschatological feast, the wise and foolish virgins are true and false believes, and the lighted lamps symbolic of a believer’s final salvation.
Why then should one be reluctant in identifying the referent of the oil? Especially when its presence—or absence—is so determinative as to the final outcome of a believer’s life? Surely this makes its identification crucial in discerning the true meaning of Jesus’ words?
If Luther’s interpretation is correct, then the abiding challenge of Jesus’ parable is to discern whether one possesses true faith and is really saved (see 2 Cor. 13:5). It’s a timely reminder not to be self-deceived. For as Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, it is not great acts of Christian service which determine one’s salvation, but coming to personally know Him as the Christ (Matt. 7:21-23).
– Mark Powell