In January, I was invited to speak at the 40th Annual Symposium of the Lutheran Confessions at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few excerpts from my lecture: How Did Luther Preach?: A Plea for Gospel-Dominated Preaching.
My contention is that Martin Luther’s preaching of imperatives in Scripture is vastly underrated. Contrary to popular opinion, Luther frequently used the pulpit to tell people what to do, not merely to tell them what Christ had done (although he certainly did that frequently and faithfully). In other words, Luther preached the law.
So what can we glean from how Luther preached? Over the next few weeks I’ll share eight simple principles.
Luther Preached Textually
First, Luther preached the law textually. When determining how to preach the law effectively, the preacher must consider the text. The preacher’s primary responsibility is to communicate a faithful exposition of Scripture. Luther’s most law-heavy sermons are also the sermons on Scriptural imperatives. Passages like 1 Peter 4:7, with its injunctions to sobriety, resulted in a 1539 sermon laced with blistering law. In a 1532 funeral sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4, Luther’s imperatives on grieving mirrored the text itself. The same is true in his 1540 sermon On the Cross and Suffering. His 1523 sermons on Jude revealed a surprising union between the indicative-imperative nature of the text and the sermon. The principle is simple, but profound: the preacher’s use of the law should properly reflect the emphasis of the text.
This is not to argue for law-centered preaching to replace gospel-centered preaching. Lest the pendulum swing to the other extreme, Luther’s 1545 exposition of the resurrection promises in Hosea and Isaiah create balance. Here Luther preaches a sermon that would rightly be labeled gospel-centered, even by modern standards.. That sermon teaches us that preaching likely should look gospel-centered when the text itself is radically gospel-soaked and Christ-centered. To turn a sermon on such a text into a fiery exposition of law would have been a categorical mistake. As John Frame argues, “We should not demand that a preacher emphasize something that is not emphasized in his text.” The central issue really is, as one homiletician has put it, to privilege the text.
The importance of allowing the text to dictate the law-gospel emphasis of the sermon is reiterated by Luther himself. Later in life, someone asked him whether law or gospel should receive greater prominence in the sermon. His answer reflected his robust understanding of law and gospel and his confidence in the Word of God. He replied,
This shouldn’t and can’t be comprehended in a fixed rule. Christ himself preached [the law and the gospel] according to his circumstances. As a passage or text indicates, therefore, one should take up the law and the gospel, for one must have both. It isn’t right to draw everything into the gospel alone; nor is it good always to preach the law alone. The Scriptures themselves, if properly adhered to, will give the answer.
Luther’s willingness to give the Scriptures the final say is evident in much of his preaching. In a 1545 sermon on Ephesians 5:15-20, Luther preached a sermon loaded with imperatives, not surprising given the text’s imperatival nature. In a 1546 sermon on the gospel from Titus 3:4-8, Luther almost avoided imperatives entirely while repeatedly magnifying the promises of the gospel. In short, Luther strove to preach law and gospel in a manner that properly reflected the emphasis of the text
How should the preacher respond to this observation of Luther’s preaching? The preacher must beware of the danger of superimposing law or gospel over the clear sense of the text. Although most passages contain some element of both law and gospel, the primary focus of the sermon should correlate with the primary focus of the text. As William Marsh explains, “Law and gospel transcend the Old and New Testaments, even though both parts of the Christian Bible have their own respective “chief teaching.'” Luther explained, “Nevertheless just as the chief teaching of the New Testament is really the proclamation of grace and peace through the forgiveness of sins in Christ, so the chief teaching of the Old Testament is really the teaching of laws, the showing up of sin, and the demanding of good.” The preacher should strive to emphasize the “chief teaching” of the text.
© M. Hopson Boutot, 2017
John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008), 292.
Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013).
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 54, Table Talk, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 404.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 58, Sermons V, ed. Christopher Boyd Brown (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 295-302.
Luther, LW, 58: 388-96.
William M. Marsh, “Martin Luther’s Messianic Rationale for Christ as the Sensus Literalis of Scripture in His Prefaces to the Bible” (Dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2014), 188.
Martin Luther, “Prefaces to the Old Testament,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 237.