THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SERMON FOR LUTHER —
[Concordia Theological Monthly, Vol. 7, Nr. 8, August 1936]
“It is better to omit everything but the Word. Nothing deserves to be fostered more than the Word; for the entire Scripture shows that this is to be in common use among Christians, and Christ Himself says (Luke 10.42) that one thing is needful: that Mary sit at the feet of Christ and hear His Word daily. This is the best part that is to be chosen, and it will never be taken away. It is an eternal Word. All the rest must pass away, no matter how much work it gives Martha to do” [#884 What Luther Says]. That fostering of the word that Luther calls for here is something he himself tried to accomplish in a way that was always better and more thorough, bolder and simpler. He did not only do this as a preacher in the pulpit or at home, but also as a professor in the lecture hall, as a “prophet to the Germans” in his writings in German, for friend and foe in his letters, for those at his table at home. For Luther sermons, in the strict sense, really only differed as to the place, that is, the particular reason for worship and the particular audience that was gathered together as congregation.
Luther’s desire to foster the word and only the word, fundamentally distinguished his sermons from much of what is typically a sermon today. In his sermons Luther did not talk about what religious experience he had and what he had undergone. To be sure his sermons serve as witnesses to his religious genius and to the depth and the greatness of his humanity, but that is only incidental, a consequent result, not their essence. Luther did not preach himself; instead he delivered a message, a word, that he had himself received without merit and now by virtue of his call to the preaching office had to deliver it to others upon loss of his eternal salvation. Luther was just as opposed to telling the listening world in his sermons of his “new thoughts” about the Bible, about the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. His sermons did not serve some human goal and plan, not even the “Reformation movement.” Instead, for Luther it was a matter of the word itself coming to the light of day untainted, pure, clear and pure through his service.
This word of God testified to the individual that God is Lord. Luther presupposed the First Commandment in every sermon. It is the highest promise [?] and at the same time highest demand. Natural man, with his confidence in his own strength, takes it as a demand which he has to fulfill by his own “good works.” He hears the message of God as law. The demanding will of God testifies to itself in a person’s own conscience and the preaching of the law of Moses from Sinai, the Ten Commandments, intensifies this innate knowledge of God’s will. He hopes to be able to earn the favor of God; he thinks his own achievement makes God his God. But he fails miserably on this path and, if he is honest, must discover his powerlessness and poverty. He comes to the knowledge of his guilt, and to the experience of God’s wrath lying upon the trespasser, and finally to despair. A person starting from the bottom going to the top never arrives at the goal. And the sooner the person recognizes it, the better it is for him; he becomes all the more open [?] for the completely different preaching of the Gospel. Therefore, with the preaching of the Law, Luther saw the necessary preparation to shatter our wanton security; and that’s why he continually diligently preached Law. He compared the condition with God’s commandments and emphatically brought every notorious wrong out into the open; he bravely called things what they were and by doing this he reached deeply into the temporal. But as he did so, he was always aware that he was doing a “foreign work” because he was a preacher of the Gospel.
The preaching of the Gospel, likewise, has as its starting point the conviction of the First Commandment that God is the Lord. But here the movement is now turned around. Here God acts and the person receives in faith. Here it is not the person who does a work and waits for God’s appreciative answer, but rather the Lord gives Himself to the person and the person responds in faith and obedience. This movement begins from on high: in the heart of the eternal God who desires that all people be helped and come under His dominion into His kingdom. That’s why He reveals Himself: He sent His Son, the Man Jesus Christ, Whom He announced through the prophets from the beginning of the world, and He came when the time was fulfilled. This Son wants to draw us into the Father’s kingdom; He is moved with compassion for people; He stretches out His hand to His human brothers and makes them witnesses of His grace. In the Church, the crowd of those who were taken hold by Him in the Old and New Covenant, this movement of grace goes further: the prophets and apostles whom He Himself called to be witnesses and the preachers, who are called by the Church and who take up and carry forward the authoritative testimony of the apostles and prophets, are the extended arms of God with which He grasps us. When they preach Christ as the Lord given by God, Christ Himself preaches; when they testify to the word of God’s dominion, God testifies to His Word through them. “Our Lord God will alone be the Preacher.” That is what Jesus says, Luke 10.16: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
Of course, God’s speaking in the Gospel causes great offense to people. It contradicts human pride, which wants to be the hero and create its own destiny. Before God’s grace all human greatness, might, wisdom, and godliness is brought to nothing, and neither “good will” or even reason bring us even one step closer to God. “To preach Christ means to offend the flesh; to preach the flesh means to offend Christ.” And just as obnoxious as the message of grace is, so are those who proclaim it. God’s speaking happens under deep disguise. The Savior of the world is a member of the Jewish people, the King lies in a manger, the sinless One is judged as a sinner, the Prince of Life dies on the cross. And even the original testimony about Him, the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testament, was written by people of foreign times, regions and race; and on top of that they were a people who knew themselves to be like a firebrand plucked from the fire. And even unto the present day the preaching about Him is delivered by people whose faults and unfitness are seen by all. How are they to be God’s instruments? They in their pride or in their feelings of inferiority, they in their sins and virtues, they with the sympathies which they as people have, and with the rejection that they as people experience, are still the greatest barriers for the working of God?
Luther knew all about that. But he also knew about the miracle of God, that the Child in the manger was the Son of the Father, that the One laid in the tomb rose again; that the Bible in all its humanity is the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid; that the preacher in the pulpit can and must work by virtue of God’s forgiveness. And Luther, in faith, reckoned that this miracle happens: “God will not regard it any less if a person preaches than if He Himself had done it.” This is the certainty a preacher is to have. Precisely for this reason “a preacher must not pray the Our Father nor seek forgiveness of sins when he has preached (so far as he is a true preacher), but must say and boast with Jeremiah: ‘Lord, You know that what has gone out of my mouth is right and pleasing;’ yes, he must defiantly say with Paul and all Apostles and Prophets: ‘God Himself has said this,’ and again, ‘I was an Apostle and Prophet of Jesus Christ in this sermon.’ Here it is not necessary; in fact, it is not good to ask for forgiveness of sins as if it was taught incorrectly because it is God’s word, not mine. God neither should nor can forgive me for this. Instead, He will confirm, praise, and crown it and will say: ‘You taught correctly because I spoke through you and the word is Mine.’ Whoever cannot boast this of his sermon should not preach it because he certainly lies and blasphemes God.”
The Christian preacher is a thus a servant of the Most High and not a servant of people. He is completely bound to God and therefore independent of praise and blame of people. “Let us preach to God’s glory and not regard the judgments of people! If someone can do it better, let him do it better.” “When I ascend the pulpit I do not regard any person; instead, I imagine that there are just logs standing in front of me and I speak my word of God there.” The preacher cannot in any way shirk the duty of speaking the word of God; even the ingratitude of the world, the contempt it places upon him, the persecution it brings upon him, the peril to his life with which it threatens him, must not make him wander from his charge. Neither must inner turmoil or his lack of understanding of Scripture or his unbelief dissuade him from it by.
It is, of course, a heavy burden that is laid upon the preacher when he is to proclaim God’s word. So also Luther testified of himself: “I was never horrified of not being able to preach well. But I was often horrified and afraid that I should and must speak about the great majesty and the divine Essence before the face of God. Therefore just be strong and pray.” “Believe me, the sermon is not a human work and so as preachers do not be presumptuous but instead fear God. For I, who am and old and experienced preacher, still to this day, am afraid when I am to preach.”
In spite of its difficulty, for Luther the task of the preacher is still possible because the preacher does not draw what he says from himself but he has the testimony of the apostles and prophets before him as a standard and they are clear and bright. Thus he needs to be nothing else but a faithful steward of the message of the advent of God’s rule that has been entrusted to him. Preaching means, then, explaining the biblical text in order to lead the congregation to Christ. Luther does not treat the text as a mere historical document, as nothing more than a source of a theological system of thought. Instead he “brings out the Scripture” as the witness of Christ for us. There is only the one thing for him to do—to “paint” the text, that is, to give it color and tint, so that it becomes a living, bright, uniform, understandable message to the congregation. And so he strictly devotes himself to grasp the distinctiveness of each text and despises every oratorical trick. Luther does not begin someplace else, perhaps with the fact of a festival or with a mood of his hearers; rather he right away uses the text. He does not build any bridges from the hearer to the text in order to prove God’s wondrous deeds to faltering reason nor does he take advantage of the gentle receptivity of pious devotion by using an especially spiritual way of speaking nor does he first tame the ears and to make them willing by getting into the interests and troubles of the present. No, God intends the joyful message of Christ for the whole world; therefore it is already tuned to real people as they at all times stand before God as the godless captives of Satan under the sway of death, sin and flesh. By renouncing every artificial point of contact with the congregation, Luther gains the true point of contact with a person, who in the pain of his pride and his despair in every condition and calling, in every generation and age of life, in whatever garment and uniform, is one and the same person: the person whose misery forever cries out to God beyond measure.
Luther’s preaching effectively seeks to reach this true person. Scorning every false point of contact does not mean that the sermon is not with the times. Just the opposite! Luther’s sermon was very contemporary and tied in with reality so that one cannot simply copy Luther’s sermon. He speaks the word of God into the hearts of the hearers of that time. He interpreted the text for his congregation that sat before him. He testified of Christ to these Wittenbergers of the 16th Century. He rebukes the sins of the time; he fought against the contemporary false teachings and perversions of the Gospel. There he rips from the face of his age the pious masks behind which they hide their godlessness; there he comforts the despairing; he threatens and promises; he attracts and defends—always as the situation demands. The goal of the sermon is that the true hearer understands the text. That is the one served by every quality of Luther’s sermon that has been well noted. Whether he had internationally recognized intellectuals, whether he had princes and prominent people sitting before him, he always preaches without flash and speaks in a completely natural way so that the simplest people can understand him. His speech is so simple, vivid, picturesque, and often coarse so that outwardly a sermon is completely indistinguishable from the way he used to speak, for example at the table. He does not make the distinction between speaking in a “spiritual” way, which would distinguish itself by the anointing of the delivery and the language of Canaan, and speaking in a “worldly” way which is naturally done. Instead, the word of God is the word to a person, how he is, and therefore, for Luther, it permeates everyday life just as much as it sanctifies the Divine Service. Thus he does not speak to Melanchton any differently than he does to children and maids; he condescends to his hearers and therefore sees to it that they take something home from what they have heard; to that end, he is also not afraid of repetitions. If he does not vividly bring an entire account forward as happening to us, his hearers, he singles out only one verse in order to make it absolutely clear. Out of consideration for his congregation’s ability to grasp what he is preaching, he also speaks slowly and takes great pains—in contrast to the hours long sermons of the Late Middle Ages—for a principled brevity (an hour).
God’s word wants to be heard and believed and confessed and lived, therefore it seeks true hearers and doers. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it,” is what Luther says about it in the explanation to the Third Commandment. A “sermon audience” of today, which is accustomed to expect religious discourses or discourses on religion from the pulpit, has nothing to do with a congregation of the word because the word, as Luther fostered it, specifically calls us away from our own pious experience and away from gazing at our own pious thinking so that we may let go of ourselves so that Christ may grasp us. Luther also did not give a right hearing congregation any cause to cling somehow to the person of “pulpit speaker” because the preacher completely retreated behind what he delivered as a messenger. As far as he, however, stepped forward, he—the “poor, stinking, sack of maggots”—in no ways stands over the congregation, but remains with her in the same depth into which only God’s mercy reaches. The hearer is obligated to determine whether the sermon is in conformity with Scripture. If the sermon is in conformity with Scripture, the hearer has to hear it as if he is hearing the High Majesty of God Himself. “Therefore do not look at the person, but rather hear what is said, not who says it; see if God speaks or works through the person. If it is the case that God is speaking, cower; and when a city person or a peasant hears a preacher, he should say: ‘I indeed hear and recognize the voice of the pastor, but the words that he is speaking do not come from his person—his person is too weak for that—but the high Majesty of God speaks through him.’”
That the hearer can hear a sermon like this is, of course, not thanks to him but here the miracle of faith happens, which is no less a miracle than the miracle of preaching. Here, by His Spirit, God Himself opens the ear of the hearer, teaches the word in the words and to understand the words, paints before the soul the picture of Christ as the Christ for us and teaches to recognize the Father in Him; and by this He makes the hearer a member of congregation which is ready to fulfill God’s will in deed and suffering; or, as Luther also expresses it, then Christ Himself takes residence in the believer (as He also dwells in the congregation) and works the works of faith and obedience through the believer.
Of course all this is hidden under a thousand coverings. No person knows whether the other truly believes. And yet none can, even just with himself, determine the existence of faith as a possession [?]. Faith is not a state, but it is an action that is always being carried out anew, in which the attacks of unbelief are overcome and a person is giving himself over to the mercy of Christ in order to be filled with that same mercy toward his neighbor. Faith confronts the justified accusations of the conscience with the forgiveness that Christ promised and takes up anew the battle of the spirit with the flesh—the battle in which the Christian life takes place. Therefore the preaching and the hearing of the sermon cannot cease because the word alone teaches us the distinction between Law and Gospel, Moses and Christ, unbelief and faith, flesh and spirit; it calls us to this battle and strengthens us for it. Luther warns most of all, then, against becoming bored with the word of God; that a person thinks he already knows everything. “Nothing is more harmful than when a person deprives himself and yet imagines he believes and understands the Gospel well.” “Dear God, although we have clear and certain verses of Scripture there is still effort and toil to keep ourselves from the devil.” Thus trial teaches us to look to the word and all the more fervently to ask for the Holy Spirit.
The right hearing of the word shows itself by producing fruit. Whoever has been seized by the moving of God’s mercy, which reaches for us by the message of Christ, must “become a Christ” to his neighbor. Since he is no longer on the path of the law needing the good works to amass merits for himself, he is now absolutely free to serve his neighbor with his works. Because mercy has come upon him, he must himself become merciful; because forgiveness was bestowed him, he will also forgive; because he was loved first, he himself is called to love…. In the least of His brothers Christ gets back the love which He had for us in the service of His life. By this the movement of God’s love returns to its source. And in this the beliefs, which had an effect on Luther’s understanding of the sermon and characterized his own preaching, come full circle.
The original article included this footnote:
Printed (with permission) from the introduction in volume 3 of the Calwer Edition Of Luther's Works on selected sermons from Luther. P.E.K.