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Martin Luther and the Power of Preaching

Thus, Luther’s sermons first of all remind us of a very important truth: We are not the center of the universe; God is. And we are not so unique that we need tailor-made personal answers to our greatest problem. The answer is always the same: God’s promise in Christ. Thus, preachers and congregants alike must understand that the most important thing one can hear on a Sunday is not some pep talk on how to have a good marriage or how to cultivate an appropriate self-image or how to raise one’s children. The most important thing is to hear what God has done in Christ and then to grasp that message by faith.

That is a great antidote to Christianity’s capitulation to particularist conceits of the contemporary culture as evidenced in the dethroning of preaching by placing it on par with, or even below, one-to-one counseling.

2. The Word of God Is Powerful

Second, Luther’s theology of preaching reminds us that the Word has power in itself because it is the Word of God. Luther understood both law and gospel as possessing moral force. They expose the heart of the theologian in everyone, of course, showing every human being to be a theologian either of glory or of the cross. In the Word, each person is confronted not simply by an idea but by God himself, either as the transcendent and holy God who demands perfection and terrifies us, or as the God who has made himself weak and died on the cross that death would not have the final word over us. When this is preached, the Spirit uses it to work mighty miracles.

Technique becomes less important. Party tricks, stand-up comedy and vaudeville antics are rendered unnecessary. In fact, Luther might well have considered them a confusion of categories, an attempt to improve upon God’s work by making it into a work of our own. That in itself he would have seen as a confusion of law and gospel. Preaching is a means of grace. It is done by preachers, but only in a proximate sense. The real Word comes from God, via his servant of course—but it is not the servant who gives it its power. That is why Luther could declare the Reformation to have been nothing of his doing and simply the product of God’s Word.

Thus, Luther’s theology of the Word and preaching stands at the center of the Christian life. There in the sermon, in the move from law to gospel, the fundamental struggle of the Christian is played out every time the preacher ascends the pulpit.

But this is no mere theatrical display: As the Word is preached, the Christian is torn down by the law and built up in the gospel. Preaching is a supernatural act, and that should give great confidence and assurance to every preacher tasked with the public exposition of God’s Word. Luther’s view of the Christian life, like his view of the success of the Reformation, was rooted first and foremost in the overwhelming power of the preached Word.   

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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.