The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "The Commandments":
"It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe" [Erlangen Vol. 29, Pg. 126 ].
Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show that while Christ said keep the commandments, Luther says actions don't matter, one need only "believe."
Luther, Exposing the Myth cites "Erlangen Vol. 29, Pg. 126." This reference is bogus. They cite this same reference here. "Erlangen" refers to Dr. M. Luthers Samtliche Werke, an older set of Luther's works from the nineteenth century. There is no such comment from Luther "It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe" on Page 126 of Erl. 29. This is a page from Vom Greuel Der Stillmesse, 1525 (See PE 6:87 for corresponding English text to Erl 29:126). Luther, Exposing the Myth probably lifted this quote from Peter Wiener's Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor. Quoting Luther on page 30, Wiener states,
"It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe." "God does not need our actions. All He wants is that we pray to Him and thank Him." Even the example of Christ Himself means nothing to him. "It does not matter how Christ behaved—what He taught is all that matters" (E29, 196), is Luther's subtle distinction.Wiener only documents the last quote. So, for Luther, Exposing the Myth, not only is this quote not found in Erlangen 29, but they mis-plagiarized Wiener using the wrong page number (126) rather than Wiener's page 196. The only quote actually documented here from Wiener is the last one. (Notice here the scholarship of This Rock Magazine from Catholic Answers. They cite the same bogus reference in their September 2005 "featured article": "Luther’s Works, Erlangen, vol. 29, p. 126").
Without any documentation, finding the context can only be speculative. Wiener's documentation is highly dubious. He says the reason for his sloppy documentation was the rush job demanded by his publisher:
It was, however, only with very great reluctance that I was persuaded to omit my references and footnotes. My publisher and advisers were anxious that the book should be published in such a form and at a price that the greatest possible circulation could be guaranteed. This would have been impossible, especially under wartime conditions, if I had left the hundreds of references in the text. I have given in brackets merely the references of some of the more important quotations. But any reader who is anxious to check up any of the many extracts given in my book has merely to write to me direct and I will without delay supply him with chapter and verse. I can, however, guarantee that before going to press I have carefully checked all quotations [source]An evaluation of Wiener's book was put together by Gordon Rupp. He directly challenged these assertions:
"My publisher and advisers," [Wiener] says, "were anxious that the book should be published in such a form and at a price that the greatest possible circulation could be guaranteed"(p. 7). In fact, this disinterested haste is made the excuse for withholding references to his innumerable quotations. A hundred or so have their references marked, but the principle on which they are given or withheld passes the wit of man to discriminate, since the harmless description of Luther's work in 1516 has full reference, while no citation at all is offered for the monstrous and absurd statement that "he did not refrain from saying and teaching 'I am Christ'" (p. 28). But then, he assures us, anybody who cares to write to him may have the references in full. And anybody with any sense knows that not one reader in a thousand will go to any such pains, but that the great majority will be vastly impressed by the references which are splashed about the pages, and by the apparent fairness of such disclaimers. Mr. Wiener manages the pattern well. He is, in fact, disarming in his modesty. "I am neither a scholar, nor a politician, neither a theologian, nor a professional author. I am an ordinary schoolmaster" (p. 5) [Gordon Rupp, Hitler's Cause or Curse, In Reply to Peter F. Wiener, p. 10].
Having spent a number of hours chasing down Wiener's references, I can verify the validity of Rupp's skepticism regarding Wiener's book. With those I am able to locate, Wiener (more often than not) has quoted Luther grossly out of context. With this in mind, I've come across a text that appears to be similar to that put forth by Wiener. It's possible he's actually quoting (or paraphrasing) a different section of Erlangen 29.
Wiener correctly quotes Erl. 29 for "It does not matter how Christ behaved—what He taught is all that matters." This quote comes from the treatise Against the Heavenly Prophets in the Matter of Images and Sacraments (1525). This treatise can also be found in WA 18:62-214 (this quote being on page 117). There is a possibility Wiener is quoting the same treatise for "It does not matter what people do; it only matters what they believe." This treatise was written primarily against Luther's former colleague, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Arguing against Karlstadt, Luther asserts,
[W]e have taught Christian liberty from [the writings] of St. Paul. There is to be freedom of choice in everything that God has not clearly taught in the New Testament, for example, in matters pertaining to various foods, beverages, attire, places, persons and various forms of conduct. We are obligated to do nothing at all for God, except believe and love [LW 40:127].If Wiener is citing the same treatise, Luther is simply arguing against Karlstadt's legislating divine mandates outside Biblical mandates. Luther explains:
Where doing or to refrain from doing is in question, and concerning which God has taught, commanded, and forbidden nothing, there we should permit free choice as God himself has done. Whoever though goes beyond this by way of commandments or prohibition invades God’s own sphere of action, burdens the conscience, creates sin and misery, and destroys all that God has left free and certain. In addition he expels the Holy Spirit with all his kingdom, work, and word, so that nothing but devils remain [LW 40:129].I'm not certain if this is the context of Wiener's Luther quote. If Wiener's middle quote was in this treatise ("God does not need our actions. All He wants is that we pray to Him and thank Him"), I would be more certain this is the context. The middle quote though appears to be from Luther's exposition of Psalm 118 (LW 14:32).
Regardless of what Wiener is quoting from, he's caricatured Luther position on faith and works. Luther defines good works as those “works that flow from faith and from the joy of heart that has come to us because we have forgiveness of sins through Christ” [What Luther Says 3:1499] Only what God commands is a good work: “Everybody should consider precious and glorious whatever God commands, even though it were no more than picking a wisp of straw from the ground” [What Luther Says 3:1500] Works are not done because we want salvation and fear damnation. Luther says, “…[W]e are not to do them merely because we fear death or hell, or because we love heaven, but because our spirit goes out freely in love of, and delight in, righteousness” [What Luther Says 3:1499]. Luther plainly teaches that saving faith is a living faith. Luther taught a life under the cross, which is a life of discipleship of following after Christ. Our crosses though, do not save. They serve the neighbor. We are called to be neighbor to those around us. Luther says,
We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example of love toward our neighbor, whom we are to serve as Christ serves us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you with all his possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love, and out of these grows hope and patience [The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 1:34].Addendum (2016)
This blog entry is a revision of an entry I posted back in 2010. The original can be found here. Because so many sources are now available online, I'm revising older entries by adding additional materials and commentary, and also fixing or deleting dead hyperlinks. Nothing of any significant substance has changed in this entry from that presented in the former.