In this five-hundred anniversary year of Martin Luther’s birth (Luther was born on Nov. 10, 1483), the Reformer’s life and thought are being studied with more than usual intensity.

Luther’s theology is being tested, his lectures looked over, his correspondence combed, his personality probed.

But what of Luther the preacher?

Luther was a premier preacher. Estimates are that he delivered at least 4,000 sermons.

Some 2,300 of these have been preserved. Compared with the preaching of his medieval forerunners, Bernard of Clairvaux, Anthony, and even the great Savonarola, Luther’s preaching is distinctive in both content and style. E. C. Dargan in History of Preaching considered Luther’s preaching as “the best and principal work of his variously busy life.” Luther stands in the “first rank” as “one of the greatest preachers of all time.”

What can today’s preacher learn from Luther? Sixteenth-century Europe during the turbulent days of the Reformation is long centuries removed from contemporary America. Our situations and contexts are drastically different. Yet there are vital lessons Luther can offer for preaching. He is a model who can still instruct preachers of the Word who care as passionately as Luther did about the proclamation of the gospel.

God Speaks Through The Preacher

For Luther, preaching was a means of grace. Quite clearly, he saw God speaking in the preached Word. He said,

“Yes, I hear the sermon; but who is speaking? The minister? No, indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his, but my God is speaking the Word that he preaches or speaks.” This meant for Luther that the power of the Word and the grace of God came through preaching, regardless of the human inadequacies of the preacher. “Though an ass were to do the speaking, as in the case of Balaam (Num. 22:28), it would nonetheless be God’s Word,” proclaimed Luther in one of his sermons.

Luther saw preaching as a means of grace God uses to give the Holy Spirit to those who hear the gospel. He said that the preaching of the gospel is “a means and a way and, as it were, a pipe, through which the Holy Spirit flows and comes into our hearts.” The Word proclaimed is the “vehicle of the Holy Spirit.”

Despite the fact that Luther had occasional bouts with depression about the preaching office, his theology of preaching as a means of grace impelled him to preach vigorously throughout his career. At the end of his sermons Luther believed the preacher, while aware of personal shortcomings, could nevertheless say, “Here God speaks, God himself has said it. I was an apostle of Jesus Christ in this sermon.” In the sermon, in other words, one encounters God himself.

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Contemporary preachers could well recover this confidence in God’s use of preaching. It need not lead to idolatry, pernicious pride, or the “cult of personality” that glorifies the person of the preacher at the expense of the marvels of the message. A pastor’s confidence can often be renewed if he preaches believing that God can and will use his stammering words to convey himself. That conviction can call us to see the sermon as an event, a “happening” between God and people where something of tremendous significance can occur. Lives can be changed, perspectives can be altered, new visions of God’s call and work can break in, and people can be healed by the grace of God. To see preaching in this light will push us forward as preachers. It will beckon us to do our best in our preparation and proclamation. It will renew our hope in the tasks before us. To see preaching as a means of God’s grace as Luther did, can, if we let it, revolutionize our ministries!

The Content Is True Doctrine

For Luther the content of preaching is very plain. It is the good news of the gospel as known in Jesus Christ and expressed in Christian theology. Christian doctrine as the church understands it is to be boldly proclaimed. As Luther wrote, “The true doctrine is always to be preached publicly and constantly; it is never to be surrendered or kept secret, for it is the ‘rod of rectitude.’ ” Christian preaching is rooted in theological understanding.

The subject of Christian proclamation is the focus for both the preacher and the congregation. Both are directed beyond themselves to the One who is the source of the preaching itself. For “true preachers must carefully and faithfully teach only God’s Word and seek its honor and praise alone. In the same way the hearers must say, ‘We do not believe in our pastor; but he tells us of another Master, One named Christ. To him he directs us; what his lips say we shall heed. And we shall heed our pastor insofar as he directs us to this true Master and Teacher, the Son of God.’ ” In this way the church is nourished by the source of its life, Jesus Christ, as he is known in his gospel as the church understands and proclaims it.

The seriousness with which Luther took the preaching task is reinforced when Luther’s sermons are read as if they were preached on a battlefield.

Luther viewed the sermon as part of a cosmic warfare for peoples’ lives. The sermon was a kind of “apocalyptic event” that set a person’s life in motion—either in the direction of heaven or hell. No one can listen without being involved. “No one can listen in cool detachment,” said the Reformer.

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The very form of Luther’s sermons indicate this fact. “When I make a sermon, I make an antithesis,” Luther said. Two sides confront each other. God and Satan struggle while the victory of Christ is being proclaimed. Luther stressed the antithesis between the God humans seek to know through human reason and speculation and the God who reveals himself in his Word, specifically in the Son of God, the man Jesus. Philosophy or human reason alone can never give us true knowledge of God. Luther strongly denounced the scholastic speculations of his time and referred to this reason apart from God as “the devil’s whore.”

But in preaching Luther stressed that what was to be preached was “not philosophical subtleties … but the promise that makes trust possible.” God has revealed himself in the promises of the gospel found in Jesus Christ. In him “we learn to look straight into the face of God.” All other attempts to come to a knowledge of God are antithetically opposed to the Word of God. Whoever seeks God outside Jesus finds the devil instead. This false theology leads only to condemnation.

This is why true preaching must be rooted in theology and focused on the God who has shown his real self in his Son Jesus. People are called to faith in him. This is the crucial decision of their lives. It means life or death. And it is ultimately only this theologically sound preaching that will bring results. The spoken Word of the gospel is “not inefficacious; it bears fruit.” “The Word of the Lord does not return void but bears fruit, just as the rain waters the earth and makes it fruitful [Isa. 55:10–11],” said Luther.

The fruits of the gospel appear from preaching that has its roots deep in the soil of Jesus Christ and his gospel.

The church’s need for theologically sound preaching is constant. In the midst of multiple contenders for the affections and allegiances of millions, the gospel of Christ calls for a decided commitment of the self. Against all ideologies that put confidence in human resources alone stands the Christian’s theological affirmation: God has revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ. To proclaim this and all Christian doctrine with integrity is the continual challenge for today’s preacher. The question of Ezekiel was “Can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). The question for us is, “Can these terms live?” Can we translate the theological legacies from our inherited Christian tradition into proclamation that speaks meaningfully for contemporary culture? Can our preaching powerfully address current issues—intellectual, social, and ethical—from perspectives that are grounded in the gospel of Christ? Luther’s own witness in preaching puts these issues before us. He challenges us to be theologically responsible in the preaching task.

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Preaching Must Be Graphic And Concrete

It is well known that Luther spoke and wrote colorfully. This was his style. It was carried over quite naturally into his sermons and preaching. Yet Luther was also convinced of the importance of consciously making preaching graphic and concrete. In commenting on the apostle Paul’s use of picture language in Galatians, Luther said “the common people are captivated more readily by comparisons and examples than by difficult and subtle disputations. They would rather see a well-drawn picture than a well-written book.” Luther’s sermons are full of examples of his picturesque preaching language. Since not everyone dies completely stretched out, Luther referred to death as “old stretch your leg.” He called those who sought prosperity “knights of the belly.” If salvation could be attained only by working hard, Luther observed, then surely horses and asses would be in heaven! Just going to church will not insure heaven; dogs wander into church and go out again just the same as they came in—dogs!

For Luther, plain sermons are the best. A preacher must keep his audience in mind as he thinks about communication methods and images. “A sincere preacher must consider the young people, the servants and maids in the church, those who lack education.” As might be expected, Luther adjusted his language to the capacity of his audience.

In this area Luther followed the principle of accommodation, a principle the ancient rhetoricians stressed and great Christian preachers such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Calvin practiced. A preacher speaks to the level of his audience, accommodating his language so it is commensurate with the level of the hearers’ understanding. Luther said the preacher “must accommodate himself to [his hearers] as a nursing mother does to her infant. She prattles with the child and nurses it at her breast, since it needs no wine or malvasia. So preachers should also act; they should be simple in their sermons.” He added, “When we are in the pulpit, we should nurse people and give them milk to drink.… The lofty speculations and matters should be reserved for the wiseacres. I will not consider Drs. Pomeranus, Jonas, and Philipp while I am preaching; for they know what I am presenting better than I do. Nor do I preach to them, but to my little Hans and Elizabeth; these I consider.” For Luther the sermon was to be “childlike.”

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Luther’s challenge is still with us. The preacher is constantly called to use his imagination to portray graphically the truths of the Christian faith. Jesus himself was the master of vivid communication. His sayings and parables potently presented the kingdom of God and other themes in language that captured the imagination of his hearers and invited their response. As contemporary parable studies have shown, Jesus’ parables were “language events,” open-ended and beckoning his audience to participation and involvement. To capture Jesus’ intention in his parables—to communicate vividly and imaginatively—could vitalize many a contemporary sermon! To adjust our language and images to the needs and natures of our congregations is basic. It is a goal we should always have before us. To communicate sensitively by learning how language works and then making it work for us in preaching is an important responsibility. As it was for Jesus and Luther, simplicity is still the key for us.

Yet to make things simple is often a complex task. Hard work and study is a must. Luther challenges every preacher to make the effort.

Preaching Is Christ Coming To Us

Preaching, for Luther, was the “spoken Word” of God. Through preaching, Jesus Christ presents salvation to the human race. For “the preaching of the gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or our being brought to him,” the Reformer said. Christ comes through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not work independently of the Word but Luther stressed the fact that Christ is the true object of our proclamation. “Nothing except Christ is to be preached,” he often said. His controversies with Roman Catholic theologians and such Reformed theologians as Zwingli and Calvin over the sacraments centered on the “real presence” of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. But for Luther, the “real presence” of Christ was also in the proclamation about him. In the preaching event the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is really present and active. The “entire Godhead will draw you and hold you” when you “hold to the Word with your heart,” Luther said in a sermon on John 6:47.

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Since Jesus Christ is the center of Christian proclamation, Luther concluded that both preacher and sermon should be modeled after Christ. In the Incarnation the Son of God humbled himself. So, said Luther, as a preacher one should be humble and see one’s own self along with the congregation as a sinner for whom Christ died. The form of the sermon should model Christ too, in that it should show that “the reality of God to whom we should bow in faith is really very simple.” Some have noted that Luther’s own sermons became more and more simple as he moved toward the end of his life.

The evangelical thrust of Luther’s preaching is seen in his focus on Christ and his work on the cross, as well as in his insistence that the gospel demands a personal decision. In preaching, one is confronted with the living Jesus Christ who calls for faith in him. No one but the individual can believe. There is no alternative for personal commitment. As Luther said, “No one can ever believe for someone else as though his faith were a substitute for the entirely personal faith of the other.” For “a Christian is a person in his own right; he believes for himself and not on behalf of anyone else.”

This is why preaching, both in proclaiming and hearing, is so tremendously important. God speaks in preaching. Jesus Christ is conveyed. The Holy Spirit is at work. The promises of God are heard, faith is formed, and new life takes shape. The need for a continual hearing of the Word is strong—even for preachers themselves. As Luther said, “Since the preachers have the office, the name, and the honor of being God’s coworkers, no one should think that he is so learned or so holy that he may despise or miss the most insignificant sermon. This is especially true because he does not know at what time the hour will come in which God will do his work in him through the preachers.” We preach with excitement and expectancy, and we listen with excitement and expectancy, for Christ is present in our midst.

Contemporary preaching will produce interest and anticipation among us only if it is centered on Jesus Christ. He has been the focus of all genuinely Christian proclamation from New Testament days onward. The early Christian kerygma (preaching) was an announcement of God’s acts in Jesus Christ. Christ was the content of the proclamation. By the work of the triune God, Jesus Christ can be our contemporary. His Word can move us, and his Spirit can prompt us to new understandings and actions. We simply do not know where or when we may be arrested by his power or launched by his love into new areas of insight or involvement. This means the whole world is open before us. God’s call in Jesus Christ can lead us anywhere. His presence through the preached Word can bring new life. We speak and listen expectantly as Christ is conveyed in the preached Word.

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Luther’s insights challenge us to care intensely about the proclamation of the gospel. We will take our task seriously if we believe God is speaking through us. We will see that our preaching is theologically grounded in the gospel. We will communicate as vividly as possible, using our best insights about language and style. And we will center our proclamation on Jesus Christ, who lives among us and calls us to continue to live lives of faith.

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