This article first appeared in the October 15, 2001 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.78, No.2) in a special Reformation issue on Martin Luther and was written by Rev. Steven Key, then pastor of Hull PRC in NW Iowa.
Luther on Preaching
The history of Dr. Martin Luther and his influence on preaching is well worth considering. The Reformation took root, after all, by the restoration of faithful preaching, with Martin Luther and the other Reformers leading the way.
Although it would be an overstatement to say that preaching had been entirely lost prior to the Reformation, it is true that there were very few faithful preachers left in the church, and preaching itself had certainly fallen on hard times. The element of proclamation, the "thus saith the Lord" which is the heart of all true preaching, was all but lost. For that reason one of the most important contributions of Dr. Martin Luther to the church was his emphasis on preaching.
Luther himself gives us a view of what preaching commonly involved in his day, openly ridiculing and scorning that which passed for "preaching" by the unfaithful pastors in the church of his day. The sermons were superficial, often including fables or stories, and including a mixture of pagan philosophy. Moreover, these "sermons" were often told in a vulgar or comical way, in order to amuse the people. Christ was forgotten. The Scriptures were neglected.
"Oh, we have had blind preachers for a long time; they have been totally blind themselves and leaders of the blind, as the gospel says; they have left the gospel and followed their own ideas and preferred the work of men to the work of God."¹
Never one to mince words, Luther spoke sharply when speaking of unfaithful preachers. "These are the lazy and worthless preachers who do not tell the princes and lords their sins. In some cases they do not notice the sins. They lie down and snore in their office and do nothing that pertains to it except that, like swine, they take up the room where good preachers should stand."
Over against that corruption of preaching, Luther fervently called for biblical, expository preaching. "It was Luther who rediscovered both the form and the substance of this preaching.... For him preaching was the veritable Word of God Himself, and, as such, occupied the central position in the Church."² Indeed, the emphasis on preaching the gospel developed into one of the chief marks of the churches of the Reformation and, as Luther never tired of pointing out, gave purpose as well as authority to their existence.
Preaching with Substance
Martin Luther understood that faithful preaching must have substance. That substance is the truth of the gospel, the faithful exposition of Holy Scripture.
A. Skevington Wood, in his book Captive to the Word, summarizes Luther's preaching as follows:
The salient feature of Luther's preaching was its biblical content and reference. It was subject to Scripture throughout. Luther submitted to a rigorous discipline. He was bound by the Word. His preaching was never merely topical. He could never turn a text into a pretext. "I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it," he explained, "and so to instruct the people that they can say, 'That is what the sermon was about.'" His preaching was never a movement from men to the text: it was always a movement from the text to men. The matter never determined the text: the text always determined the matter. He was not in the habit of treating subjects or issues, but doctrines. But when he did so, he invariably followed a prescribed Scripture passage step by step. He considered one of the major qualifications of the preacher to be familiarity with the Word."³
Luther taught clearly the centrality of the Word. Faith is nothing else but adherence to the Word. It is the Word which breaks down the sinner by the law and which raises up the believer in the gospel.
His high esteem for the Word of God explains why Luther also attempted to preach systematically through the Scriptures, preaching series of sermons from both Old and New Testaments.
Because of that biblical emphasis on the primacy of the Word and the centrality of preaching, Luther had no place for the false mysticism that sets aside the Word of God for inner feelings. "Away with our schismatics, who spurn the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit's revelation, but apart from the voice of the Word!"
It must be noted in this connection that Luther spoke of preaching in terms of "the voice." He said, "Take note: The beginning of all spiritual knowledge is this voice of one crying, as also Paul says, Romans 10:14: 'How are they to believe...without a preacher?' "
Preaching with Authority
Luther taught clearly that preaching that is faithful and true comes with the authority of "the voice."
This thought reflected Luther's high view of the office. The minister is sent by God, and enters the office of God. "Thus St. Paul is confident (II Cor. 13:3) that he is speaking not his own word, but the Word of the Lord Christ. Thus we, too, can say that He has put it into our mouth."
That truth was important to Luther, too, in the face of all the opposition that darkened his pathway. It was a truth he consistently proclaimed.
In his treatment of Psalm 2, in speaking of the office of Christ as Teacher who declares God's decree, Luther explained that the Holy Spirit so teaches us "that God does everything through the Son. For when the Son preaches the Law, the Father Himself, who is in the Son or one with the Son, preaches. And when we preach about this same decree, Christ Himself preaches, as He says: 'He who hears you hears Me' (Luke 10:16)."
Elsewhere he writes of preachers as "the mouth of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the instrument whereby He openly preacheth the Word"; and since Christ the Word is the utterance of God's own heart, "when thou hearest the Word," Luther says, "then thou hearest God." Commenting on John 10:14, Luther writes, "It is not we who are speaking; it is Christ and God Himself. Hence when you hear this sermon, you are hearing God Himself. On the other hand, if you despise this sermon, you are despising not us but God Himself."
Preaching and the Work of the Spirit
It is because Christ speaks by the preaching of the gospel that preaching is powerful and effective in accomplishing the purpose whereunto God sends it.
So Dr. Luther calls attention in his writings to the place of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Christ works this powerful Word by His Holy Spirit. It is through the words of preachers that the Holy Spirit works, convicting the world of sin, and establishing the faith of God's elect through the effectual and irresistible call.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives the preaching its power. Christ draws men to Himself through the Word alone, rescuing His people from the power of sin and death and giving them freedom, righteousness, and life.
This great and marvelous thing is accomplished entirely through the office of preaching the Gospel. Viewed superficially, this looks like a trifling thing, without any power, like any ordinary man's speech and word. But when such preaching is heard, His invisible, divine power is at work in the hearts of men through the Holy Spirit. Therefore St. Paul calls the Gospel "a power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith."
Clearly, preachers are but instruments in God's hands. "What shall we do? We can deplore the blindness and obstinacy of people, but we cannot bring about a change for the better." Only when Christ Himself speaks by His Holy Spirit is the preaching powerful to change and bring salvation.
"Neither I nor anyone else can ever preach the Word adequately; the Holy Spirit alone must utter and preach it." For it is the Spirit who works by the Word. When through the outward preaching of the Word and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, faith is created, that which is promised in the gospel becomes effective for the believer.
"Accordingly, it is a Word of power and grace when it infuses the Spirit at the same time that it strikes the ears. But if it does not infuse the Spirit, then he who hears does not differ at all from one who is deaf."
Hearing the Preaching
Not overlooked by Luther was the calling of all who hear the preaching to examine that preaching, to see whether it be faithful to the Holy Scriptures. "Hence this is the touchstone by which all doctrine is to be judged. One must take care and see whether it is the same doctrine that was published in Zion through the apostles." It is such preaching that is used by God as the powerful, saving voice of Christ. "For this alone, as has been said, is the true doctrine, bestowing upon men a right and certain understanding, comfort of heart, and salvation."
Along these lines, Luther faces squarely the question of whether or not Christ speaks through a preacher just because the man occupies the office.
To begin with, we must know that those who are sent speak the Word of God provided that they adhere to their office and administer it as they received it. In that event, they surely speak the Word of God.... A king's ambassador or emissary discharges his duty when he abides by his master's order and instruction. If he fails in this, the king has him beheaded.
When a minister, therefore, faithfully preaches the Word of God, Christ is pleased to speak through him by His Holy Spirit; if not, then the words apply to that preacher: "Beware of false prophets!" We must neither speak nor hear anything but the Word of God.
For that reason the gospel must be heard and preached. Preaching not only has substance, but very specific content.
Luther insisted on the following: "The preacher's first message is to teach penitence, removing offenses, proclaim the Law, humiliate and terrify the sinners." Our sin must be exposed by the preaching of the gospel.
In preaching through Romans, he said, "The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh..., no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to implant, establish, and make large the reality of sin.... For God does not want to save us by our own but by an extraneous righteousness which does not originate in ourselves but comes to us from heaven."
The necessity of preaching man's depravity is found in the fact that grace is given to the humble. Christ came not to save the righteous, but to bring sinners to repentance. So Luther said, "They cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven.... Yearning for grace wells up when recognition of sin has arisen. A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness."
And because God's people have a continual struggle with their sinful flesh, preaching must be antithetical. It must be preaching that not only sounds the silver trumpet of salvation, but that sounds the horn which exposes and reproves the old man and calls to repentance.
As Luther recognized and experienced, it takes boldness in preaching to serve as Christ's ambassador. But the preacher cannot stop with merely preaching sin, for that would amount to wounding and not binding up, smiting and not healing. "Therefore we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused."
The focus of all preaching must be Christ. The only content of its message is about Him. "This is the gist of your preaching: Behold your God! 'Promote God alone, His mercy and grace. Preach Me alone.' "
Soli Deo Gloria was the motto of Luther, therefore, no less than of Calvin. The sovereignty of God occupied a prominent place in all Luther's preaching, for his was indeed gospel preaching. From him also came forth the cry of the Reformation, "Let God be God!" In his words, "the gospel proclaims nothing else but salvation by grace, given to man without any works and merits whatsoever. Natural man cannot abide, hear, or see the gospel. Nor does it enter into the hypocrites, for it casts out their works, declaring that they are nothing and not pleasing to God."
God alone works His wonderwork of grace in saving us! For in Christ alone rests all our salvation. The gospel is preached with the purpose of consoling with grace those who are contrite of heart.
Martin Luther also viewed the importance of preaching in the light of its positive fruits. In opposition to the errors of legalism, He recognized that the Christian life must be a life of thankfulness to God, and therefore a conscious laying hold of the gospel of a gracious salvation. Thankful lives follow from faithful preaching.
Luther's approach to preaching, therefore, is the approach that would later be outlined in the Heidelberg Catechism. This is the way of true comfort, wrought by the Spirit through the preaching.
"Thus it is not the stones, the construction, and the gorgeous silver and gold that make a church beautiful and holy; it is the Word of God and sound preaching." And this is preaching in which God is glorified.
Such preaching is God's greatest blessing for His church. "Therefore let those who have the pure Word learn to receive it and to give thanks to the Lord for it, and let them seek the Lord while He may be found." May we, the children of the Reformation, humble ourselves and thank God for faithful preaching!
For God will surely require that we give an account of our preaching and hearing.
1. Except as noted, this and all other quotes come from many different volumes of Luther's Works. References can be provided upon request to this author, but are not included for lack of space.
2. T.H.L. Parker, The Oracles of God, An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin, p. 20.
3. A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word, p. 89.