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Martin Luther and the Power of Preaching

Luther, the Preacher

The pastor or Christian who reads Luther’s sermons will immediately notice certain things. Luther, rather like Spurgeon, often seems to have a very loose approach to exegesis of passages, to the extent that Luther’s commentaries and sermon series tended to disappear as sources for such very shortly after his death. Perhaps the one great exception was his second commentary on Galatians (and greatest commentary), which enjoyed many reprintings and appeared in numerous translations. Arguably, however, that is because this work was such an excellent statement of his doctrine of justification rather than because it was a definitive example of verse-by-verse exposition.

The modern reader of Luther’s sermons will probably also notice that, after a while, the sermons all start to seem much the same. That is because the law-gospel pattern is reflected in them all. For Luther, the purpose of preaching was to crush the self-righteous and, having done so, to point them to the promise of God in Christ. That move from law to gospel, from wrath to grace, was the core of the Christian’s daily life and was thus to be embodied in, and facilitated by, the preaching of the Word. Powerful as such drama is, it did tend to impose a certain form upon Luther’s sermons.

These two observations might seem like criticisms, and to an extent they are. The preacher is to preach the Word in a manner as rich and as inflected as Scripture itself. That means eschewing a one-size-fits-all approach to sermon preparation. Nevertheless, I would suggest that Luther’s approach does speak to an era like ours, in which the culture of individual uniqueness has such a deep hold even on the Christian mind.

From childhood upward, we are told that we are special. Sometimes this is even done in God’s name. The televangelists and megachurch pastors who talk about having “your best life now” are essentially presenting a picture of God as one who panders to the particular needs and concerns of the individual. The danger is that preaching can start to do the same—even worse, that preaching becomes sidelined because each person has to have his or her particular needs and problems addressed in a specific fashion.

Luther’s approach to preaching is a refreshing riposte to this kind of narcissistic nonsense in at least two ways.

1. You’re Not the Center of the Universe

First, his application of the categories of law and gospel in his sermons captures one crucial truth: Human beings, for all of their uniqueness, are not unique in terms of their status before God. There are only two ways of approaching God: by law or by gospel. And there are only two things one can say about any human being before God: A person is under wrath or under grace. While individuals have their own histories and circumstances, their own problems and challenges, the basic problem of where to find a gracious God is the same for all, as is the answer.

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In addition to serving as Pastor of Cornerstone OPC in Ambler, PA, Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Historical Theology and Church History and Paul Wooley Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. Carl has degrees from St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, MA and the University of Aberdeen, Ph.D. Carl has authored many books, including, most recently The Creedal Imperative. He also blogs regularly at Reformation21 and co-hosts the Mortification of Spin podcast. He lives in Oreland, with his wife Catriona and has two sons.