This series of articles is adapted from a recent lecture presented at Concordia Theological Seminary entitled 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.
After investigating Luther’s practice of preaching the law in his pulpit, what can we surmise in conclusion from the Reformer’s practices?
In a noble effort to avoid works-righteousness and maximize the gospel, too many contemporary sermons feature castrated imperatives, heavily bandaged in a host of gospel caveats. Such impotent imperatives are largely absent from Luther’s preaching. While Luther did articulate gospel indicatives, he apparently saw no need to follow every proclamation of law with a gospel caveat.
Although Luther’s preaching was not consistently gospel-centered the way the term is often employed in popular literature today, it was gospel-dominated even when it featured a preponderance of law. In other words, even when Luther’s exposition did not center on the gospel, it remained dominated by it. Edward Engelbrecht explains the concept of gospel-dominance as characteristic of Luther’s preaching:
By dominance of the Gospel, I do not mean simply that a message contains more Gospel than Law. Some preachers might adopt that as a goal but it is not always what we see in the Scriptures, Luther’s sermons, or the messages of other faithful teachers. The proclamation of the Law often takes more space, depending on the state of the hearers. . . . By dominance, I mean that the proclamation of the Law serves the purpose of the Gospel: our forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ alone. This requires sensitivity to the hearers, addressing their sins appropriately with the Law so that the Gospel may do its life-giving work. It also means proclaiming the Gospel vigorously as our only hope and comfort.
An isolated glance at individual sermons may paint Luther as sometimes Antinomian and other times legalistic. But Luther is no homiletical schizophrenic. His strategy was to ground his people in the beauty of Christ’s gospel, but that foundation was not built in a single sermon. Even when Luther preached the law unabashedly, he still allowed his imperatives to be dominated by the gospel.
In his fourth Invocavit sermon, Luther brilliantly rejected the radical reformers’ tendencies to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. His sarcastic rebuke is still relevant today:
We must, therefore, be on our guard, for the devil, through his apostles, is after us with all his craft and cunning. Now, although it is true and no one can deny that the images are evil because they are abused, nevertheless we must not on that account reject them, nor condemn anything because it is abused. This would result in utter confusion. God has commanded us in Deut. 4 not to lift up our eyes to the sun, etc., that we may not worship them, for they are created to serve all nations. But there are many people who worship the sun and the stars. Therefore we propose to rush in and pull the sun and stars from the skies. No, we had better let it be. Again, wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool out of him; so we kill all the women and pour out all the wine. Again, gold and silver cause much evil, so we condemn them. Indeed, if we want to drive away our worst enemy, the one who does us the most harm, we shall have to kill ourselves, for we have no greater enemy than our own heart.
Christian history is replete with preachers who have damaged the pulpit with the Christ-denying evils of moralism and legalism. It is true that preachers can abuse the imperatives of Scripture, turning Christianity into a legalistic system of salvation by works. However, Martin Luther was not such a preacher, nor are the countless others who follow in his tradition. The recurring tendency to cure moralism in the pulpit by minimizing the law is not a legitimate remedy. Instead, let us embrace Luther’s example of gospel-dominated preaching.
Edward A. Engelbrecht, Friends of the Law: Luther’s Use of the Law for Christian Life (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), 244-45.
Luther, LW, 51: 85.