Martin Luther’s commandeering of the print medium to spread his call for reform has won much attention from scholars. Printers took a gamble on the publication of his Ninety-five Theses (calling for a university disputation on indulgences) since disputations, apart from this one incident, never attained bestseller status.
Once the theses had disseminated his concerns like wildfire in late 1517, Luther recognized what the printers could do to broadcast his message. He began a literary campaign—coordinating with colleagues in Wittenberg and supporters elsewhere—that inalterably changed the church and societies across Europe.
But Luther’s instruction of students in the interpretation of Scripture and preaching directly reached even more people than did his published writings. With a master of rhetorical theory, Philip Melanchthon, at his side, Luther put the sermon to use in ways as radically different from the past as was his use of printed words.
Center of the Christian Life
Luther discarded the prevailing medieval understanding of being a Christian—winning God’s favor through the practice of religious activities under the mediation of local priests. His call to teach the Bible at the University of Wittenberg plunged him ever deeper into Scripture, as he began his career covering the Psalms and then Romans and Galatians. There he discovered that a Christian is one whom God moves, through his Word, to trust the saving work of Christ.
For Luther, hearing the sermon—not performing the Mass—became the central point of the worship service, and therefore the center of the Christian’s life. The waves of this discovery altered many things, such as burial practices. Replacing Masses for the relief of the departed souls suffering in purgatory, the funeral sermon became a standard part of burial, and like the hymns that replaced medieval dirges accompanying the grieving to the cemetery, the message proclaimed the resurrection and the hope of everlasting life.
Above all, medieval sermons had focused on the wonders performed by special saints and the behaviors expected of the pious. Luther insisted that Jesus Christ be the central point of each sermon—and specifically his death and resurrection that won forgiveness, life, and salvation for those the Spirit brings to trust him. That central point was set within Luther’s homiletical rule that took seriously Christ’s command to preach repentance and forgiveness (Luke 24:46–47).
Luther followed Christ’s observation that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick” (Matt. 9:12), and in 1522 rearranged the medieval “catechism” (the instructional program for discipleship) so that the Ten Commandments preceded the Apostles’ Creed in order to give a diagnosis of what’s gone wrong. The creed then set forth God’s actions on behalf of his creatures. This triad of medieval catechesis was completed with the Lord’s Prayer, which laid the foundation for the entire life of new obedience.
Luther’s sermons presumed his hearers needed a diagnosis of their sin so they could appreciate the greatness of God’s mercy, especially as experienced in the work of Christ, and so that appreciation could blossom into a desire to serve God and neighbor. Luther designated the proper distinction between law and gospel as this fundamental guideline for preaching.
Center of the Sermon
From this failure to trust God and his Word arise all other sins, Luther contended. In his “Small Catechism,” then, he explained the first commandment as God’s creating human beings “to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” We were created to obey God’s design for human life.
“The law always accuses,” Luther believed, but he also recognized the law crushes even when people don’t or can’t hear its accusation. That crushing force reminds victims of sin—as well as its perpetrators—that they must turn back to their Creator.
Luther preached the entire narrative of God’s interaction with his creatures—from creation in Genesis 1 and 2, through the fall in Genesis 3, and through the entire history of Israel’s repeated rebellion and of God’s never-ceasing faithfulness—even when it expressed itself in wrath over his creatures’ sin. Luther’s preaching centered, however, on the Word who became flesh, dwelled among his people, lived a life of perfect obedience, and embraced the ultimate suffering for us. And at the core of Luther’s proclamation stands Christ’s death “for our sin” and resurrection “to restore our righteousness” (Rom. 4:25). Those who have this righteousness naturally recognize that God’s righteous children act in a righteous manner.
Luther believed God had come to dwell among his people in the flesh and blood of Jesus, and he also believed that the Spirit is actually present in the Scriptures. God spoke directly to the Wittenberg professor from the Bible’s pages. It killed him, drowned him—as its expression of God’s will for human behavior passed judgment on him—and it raised him up to new life to walk in Christ’s footsteps (Rom. 6:3–11).
Luther’s command of rhetoric made him a delightful preacher to listen to, I’m sure. But his message of life and salvation in Jesus Christ made him the deliverer of the good news—good news that restores the full humanity of those who trust in the Savior.
Listen Like Luther
Though he lived in a much different place and time, Luther provides encouragement and example for preachers today. He felt trepidation while mounting the pulpit, and would sometimes think You didn’t follow your outline when descending from it—though he admitted that his judgment was often met by a hearer’s enthusiastic response. But his congregants’ behaviors sometimes drove him to despair. Still, he was confident the Holy Spirit was doing things with his words that he couldn’t imagine. We can have that confidence, too. The Holy Spirit may not run his household the way we think best, but we can count on his knowing what is best.
With that confidence, Luther prepared sermons by listening to his neighbors in the small town of Wittenberg. He tried to feel what was oppressing them, and how they were cutting corners in following God’s commands. We, too, are at the critical point of exchange between God, who wants to converse with his people.
So, like Luther, we search the Scriptures. We transmit his promise of forgiveness and support, of companionship and acceptance. Projecting not only in our words but in our entire person his concern for his people, we become tools of the Spirit as we stand before them.
God becomes present in us earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7), and his Word—which Paul tells us will seem foolish and impotent to the world (1 Cor. 1:17–2:16)—projects his strength in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).