How the Holy Spirit Uses Sermons

martinluthermondaysFor the past few weeks we’ve been learning about preaching from one of history’s most influential preachers. We began by presenting a definition of preaching that summarized the Reformer’s views on the subject: Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word in God’s way to bring God’s results. Next, we discussed the first component of that definition—Luther’s firm conviction that God speaks through sermons. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking. Then we considered the role of the man of God as the human messenger of God’s speech. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man. The following week we considered the necessity of the Word of God as the preacher’s message. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word. Last week we explored the Spirit’s manner in communicating to God’s people. Preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word in God’s way. Today we’ll discuss the final component of Luther’s definition of preaching: Preaching brings God’s results.

The Spirit’s Results

Luther believed that preaching is God’s Spirit speaking through God’s man by God’s Word in God’s way. Furthermore, the preacher must recognize even the results of the sermon belong to the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit’s work in preaching is visible in justification and sanctification. Luther expresses this clearly in his discussion of the Third Article in his Small Catechism:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers and will at the Last Day raise up me and all the dead, and give unto me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”[1]

The Spirit Brings Justification

Luther firmly believed that justification was a work of the Holy Spirit. Carlson explains: “Luther’s view [of the Holy Spirit] may more properly be related to Paul’s comment in I Cor. 12:3, ‘No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.’ In short, by the activity of the Holy Spirit, faith is first conceived in man, who thus becomes a believer.”[2] He continues, “Luther asserts that it is only by the Holy Spirit’s presence in us that we can turn our eyes from God’s condemning law to his saving Gospel.”[3] In other words, if you’re a Christian it’s not because you “wised up” or because you were “raised right.” If you believe it’s because the Holy Spirit opened your eyes and gave you faith to believe.

The Spirit Brings Sanctification

Luther believed the Spirit’s work is not limited to justification, but the Spirit is actively involved in sanctification as well. He explains, “‘To be led by the Spirit of God’ is to put to death our flesh, that is, the old Adam, and to do it freely, promptly, and gladly. . . . This is not characteristic of our nature, but is a work of the Spirit of God in us.”[4] Elsewhere he states, “It is the Holy Spirit who has ever to continue his work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness but only pure and holy people.”[5] In other words, if you’re growing in your Christian life it’s not because you’re one of the good ones. It’s because the Good Spirit of God has worked in you. It is He, not you, who deserves the credit.

The Spirit Brings Both through Preaching

Luther believed that both justification and sanctification are God’s intended results of the preaching of the Word. He explains, “It pleased God not to give the Spirit without the Word, but through the Word, that he might have us as his co-workers, who proclaim on the outside what he himself works by the Spirit within, wherever he will.”[6] This internal working of the Spirit is God’s intended result for the sermon. Without the Spirit bringing this result, the sermon is in vain.

Luther explains, “It is easy enough for someone to preach the word to me, but only God can put it into my heart. He must speak it in my heart, or nothing at all will come of it. If God remains silent, the final effect is as though nothing had been said.”[7] In the words of Philip Watson, “When through the outward preaching of the Word and the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, faith is created, that which is promised in the Gospel becomes effective for the believer.”[8] From the study to the altar call, the preacher is entirely dependent on the work of the Spirit.

Carlson reminds the preacher that the results of the Spirit are not automatic: “For Luther the Holy Spirit’s work is never to be construed apart from Word and sacrament. These are God-appointed means by which the Spirit works, and it is not within the prerogatives of man to dispense with them.”[9]Althaus agrees:

“[God] does not give the preacher control over his Spirit. Sometimes the preaching and the hearing must wait for him. We have to pray for the gift of the Spirit to accompany the word. The preachers can preach the law and the gospel. But they have no control over the way in which they strike and convert people. God himself controls that. So God’s Spirit must work together with the preaching. It is God who converts men. Through his activity the Spirit makes the word effective on whomever he chooses, and whenever he chooses.”[10]


Why it Matters

Understanding the role of the Spirit in bringing about God’s results is of monumental importance. Pastor, your best efforts cannot force the Spirit to work according to your will. Rather, you must work according to His.

Music leader and praise team member, fight to remember that the sermon must be central to the worship service. God chooses to use the preaching of the Word as the primary means for bringing about justification and sanctification. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit cannot or will not use a song to help someone. It just means that the main weapon in the Spirit’s arsenal is the biblical sermon.

Church member, it’s really important that you’re faithful to hear the Word of God this Sunday in your local church. Fight to miss as few sermons as possible. Every time you miss you’re missing an opportunity to hear from the most important Voice in the universe. And no, it’s not the monotonous or shrill voice of your local preacher. It’s the voice of the Holy Spirit who speaks through him. The same Spirit that that hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2) and raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11). So when He speaks, you better listen. And if you attend a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching church, He’ll be speaking to those who listen this coming Sunday.

© M. Hopson Boutot, 2016



[1] From Luther’s Small Catechism. As quoted in Mann, “Luther and the Holy Spirit,” 111.

[2] Carlson, “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” 138.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald, trans. Walter G. Tillmanns and Jacob A. O. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 356.

[5] As quoted in Carlson, “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” 143.

[6] Luther, Martin, WA 18, 695. As quoted in Mann, “Luther and the Holy Spirit,” 113.

[7] Luther, Martin, WA 10III, 260. As quoted in Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 39.

[8] Philip S. Watson, Let God Be God!: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (London: The Epworth Press, 1947), 167.

[9] Carlson, “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” 143.

[10] Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 39.

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