The notion that Martin Luther was a reformer of preaching is one that receives little attention. Yet the changes to preaching brought about by his influence were instrumental not only in helping people grasp the fundamental truths of the faith, but also in transforming the very nature of Christian worship.
As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Luther’s contributions to church’s thinking about the content, priority, and simplification of preaching still challenge us as modern-day pastors and worshipers.
Luther was a product of the preaching tradition of the medieval period, which, according to scholar Dennis Ngien, placed a significant burden upon the listener to do good works in hopes of earning favor with God. Grace was contingent upon performance, and Christ was emphasized as a judge who demanded righteous living.
But Reformation theology presented just the opposite view, emphasizing justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Consequently, as the Reformation challenged the theology behind the sermon, it also brought about a shift in the content of the sermon. In Luther’s preaching, good works were no longer a means to acquire grace, but were the result of having received grace.
Along with transforming preaching content, the Reformation also led to a renewed emphasis on its priority. Writer Hughes Old explains that where worship was previously centered around the sacraments, with very little emphasis on the proclamation of Scripture, Luther was adamant that when the church gathered, clear exposition of the Word was to be first in order. He believed since true biblical worship was always in response to the preached Word, worship in the form of the sacraments and singing should come after hearing the Word proclaimed, and not before. In fact, Luther saw the preached Word as sacramental in and of itself. In his view, it was through the preached Word that the worshiper encountered the living Word.
In my own experience as a church planter, during the early years when our choir was young and inexperienced, the running joke was that whoever attended Love Fellowship came just for the preaching, because the choir was certainly not on the level of many of the established churches in the area. We would laugh about it, but there was a part of me that wished we had the luxury of a glorious choir that could help set the atmosphere of worship.
Since then, and having read Luther, I now see how blessed we were. Having to do without the ideal choir allowed us to establish a church where the preaching was and continues to be the central part of our worship. In a day where choirs and worship bands are employed for their ability to draw crowds and keep people on their feet, I think a re-reading of Luther would be a tremendous benefit to the body of Christ who, perhaps in this area, has lost her way.
Lastly, the Reformation led to the simplification of preaching. Though he was undoubtedly one of the greatest theological minds in Christian history, Luther was compelled to make deep spiritual truths accessible to the common layman.
In my survey of contemporary sermons by popular preachers, I am beginning to think those who preach may feel they have not done an adequate job unless they have parsed not less than two Greek words and have offered the opinion of at least ten noted scholars. I am sure their people leave on Sunday proud to have a pastor with such a high level of academic training, but whether they understood what was said is up for debate.
I can recall an instance where I used the word “eschatological” during the sermon. Afterwards, a brother asked me what “eschatological” meant. I told him, it refers to the end times. He then replied, “Why didn’t you just say that?” I think Luther would offer the same critique.
The Reformation forever altered the theological landscape of the Christian faith, but it also changed how that faith was proclaimed, for the glory of God and for the edification of the people of God. For this reason, we celebrate Luther. May we who preach continuously re-evaluate our work in light of his, so that the people to whom we preach will grow in God’s grace and become increasingly confident in the righteousness of Christ as the basis for their justification before God.
Bryan Price pastors Love Fellowship Baptist Church in Romeoville.