Early in his ministry, Martin Luther sarcastically described his “lazy” life of ministry in Wittenberg:
All day long I do nothing but write letters… I preach at the monastery, I am a lector during mealtimes, I am asked daily to preach in the city church, I have to supervise the program of study… I lecture on Paul and I am still collecting material on the Psalms… See what a lazy man I am!1
On top of his many other responsibilities, Luther was a preaching machine. He preached an estimated 4,000 sermons in his lifetime, of which we have approximately 2,300 of those sermons preserved today.
On average, Luther preached 120 sermons per year. That equates to roughly one sermon every three days.2 And most pastors today preach only one sermon a week and think the weight of their preaching load is heavy!
Ironically, Luther never desired to preach. Luther was ordained as a priest in 1507, but being a priest did not always mean being a preacher. In 1530, Luther wrote a letter to encourage another preacher in which he described his reluctance to accept the call to preach:
I feared the pulpit perhaps as greatly as you do; yet I had to do it; I was forced to preach. Ah, how I feared the pulpit! Under this pear tree I advanced fifteen arguments to Dr. Staupitz; with them I declined my call. But they did me no good.3
Despite his fear of preaching and a thorough attempt to decline, Luther reluctantly succumbed to the calling. This defining moment would begin a ministry that changed the course of preaching in the church, greatly impacting the way many pastors preach today.
For the sake of this article, we will examine only three hallmarks of Luther’s preaching that have heavily influenced the church today:
Preaching should be:
- central to the church worship service,
- founded on God’s Word,
- and spoken in the simple language of ordinary people.
1. PREACHING IS CENTRAL IN THE CHURCH
Luther moved preaching from the fringe to the center of the worship gathering.
In the Middle Ages, preaching was a part of the Roman Catholic Mass, but it was optional.4 When it was included, it was far from the focal point of the worship gathering and routinely focused on works and judgment.
As a young man, Luther would have grown up hearing sermons that emphasized the horror of eternal suffering in hell because of sin.
John P. Dolan describes the preaching in this time: