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Martin Luther’s Teaching on Preaching for Spiritual Formation

Introduction

This research paper is for the course PM5510, Spiritual Formation in Historical Perspective, conducted in the Fall of 2022 at Dallas Theological Seminary. My topic is Martin Luther’s teaching on preaching for spiritual formation. First, I will situate him within his historical context and consider the historical stream from which he emerges. Second, I will summarize and critically interact with Luther’s teaching on preaching for spiritual formation. Third, I will compare Luther’s teaching with selective earlier church figures before Luther. Finally, I will conclude with an application to those called into the preaching ministry.

Historical Context

The Birth of the Reformer

Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, on November 10, 1483. He died in the same town 66 years later, on February 18, 1546. When Luther was born, there was only one church in western Europe, the Romans Catholic Church. However, when Luther went home to be with the Lord, there were other churches in the land, namely the reformed churches. Luther was one of the leading reformers in this movement of God.

Luther wanted to reform the church because the Romans Catholic Church’s theology and practices had deviated drastically from the Scriptures. For example, the church taught Christians to pray to patron saints instead of directly to God the Father through Jesus. This practice caused Luther to pray to St. Anne, the patron saint of his family, to protect him in a storm in 1505 at 22 years old. “Help me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!”. He survived the storm and kept his vow to become a monk of the Augustinian order.[1]

The Study of Scriptures

As an Augustinian monk, Luther lived in constant fear of the righteousness of God. He was known to wear out his confessor. Luther’s Abbot, Staupitz, hoping to help Luther, sent him to study Scriptures at the University of Wittenberg. Luther was fervent in studying the Scriptures and eventually obtained a Doctor of Theology in 1512. In the same year, he joined the University of Wittenberg as a professor of the Bible and lectured on the Scriptures, including Psalms (1513-1515), Romans (1515-1516), Hebrews (1517), and Galatians (1519). During these studies and lectures, especially on Romans, Luther rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith.[2]

The Practice of Indulgence

The unscriptural practice that sparked the Reformation was the indulgence practice. The church sold indulgences as a means to redeem the sins of people. The practice became rampant when Leo X (1475-1521) was the Pope between 1513 to 1521. His extravagant lifestyle, especially the building of St. Peter Basilica in Rome, led to his greed for wealth. Therefore, he approved Albert of Mainz’s high-price bribery to become the Archbishop of Mainz. Therefore, Albert hired the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences to gather money for the bribery. The Roman Catholics Church’s penance system consists of four steps: contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. What Tetzel did was short circuit the penance to one step. The purchase of indulgence will be sufficient to come to full absolution, which means complete forgiveness of all sins.[3]

The Ninety-Five Theses

That practice of indulgences drove Luther to post the Ninety-Five Theses at the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, with the intention to ask for open debates on the practice. Unknown to Luther at that time, the posting of the Nine-five Theses started the Reformation.

The Publication of the Greek New Testament

What enabled Luther’s to question the practices of penance and indulgences was the publication of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus. With access to the original language of the New Testament, Luther discovered that the Romans Catholic Church took advantage of the inaccurate translation of the Vulgate to promote the practice of penance, which eventually led to the practice of indulgence.”[4]

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura

Luther’s went back to the source, the Scriptures, for his theology. The movement of “to the sources” (ad fontes in Latin) was the battle cry of the Renaissance. For architecture and arts, it was a return back to Greco-Roman design. For philosophy, it was a return to the Greek’s great philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle. For theology, it was the return to the Scriptures and earlier theologians, especially Augustine of Hippo.[5]

Luther’s conviction on the authority of the Scriptures is famously recorded in the Diet of Worms in 1521. When the Roman Catholic Church representatives asked Luther to recant his writings, he responded with this, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reasons-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other-my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”[6]

The Lack of Access to Scriptures

Before the Reformation, the Mass was conducted in Latin, even though most people did not understand. Ironically, many priests only knew enough Latin to conduct the Mass. Luther wrote that in many towns, one would only hear a sermon at Lent.[7] People learned from the church mostly from the biblical stories and the saints painted on the walls because most people never own a bible.[8]

The Birth of the Vernacular Bible

In 1521, Luther was “kidnapped” to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach by his prince, Elector Frederick the Wise, for his protection from the attack of the Romans Catholic Church. Luther took advantage of this time to translate the New Testament into German in eleven months. In 1532, Luther, with his friends, finished the Old Testament translation into German as well. His German translation sparked a movement of bible translation into vernacular languages across Europe. Now that we know about Luther’s historical context, we will look at Luther’s teaching on preaching as a means for spiritual formation.

Martin Luther’s Teaching on Preaching for Spiritual Formation

Luther’s Theology of Preaching

Luther has an extremely high view of preaching. “Preached messages that were well grounded in Scripture texts were seen themselves as events of grace.”[9] He believed preaching is Deus loquens, God speaking, through people to people. Luther believed that beside the preacher, God himself is also active in preaching, communicating and seeking responses from the listeners. [10] He was driven by the conviction that preaching is God’s ordained way to deliver His words to people (Rom 10:14-17).

When a student asked Luther, “Is the Word that Christ spoke when he was on earth the same in fact and in effect as the Word preached by a minister?” Luther answer, “Yes, because he said, ‘He who hears you hears me’” (Luke 10:16).[11]

This understanding of preaching is foreign to many evangelicals because a lot of evangelicals think preaching is the preacher talking to the listeners about God, instead of God is speaking through the preacher. I think the spiritual condition of believers will be more mature if the congregations believed in Deus loquens, and seriously listen to the voice of God in sermons. However, I think Luther at times was too idealistic regarding the preachers’ motive and ability to expound the true meaning of the Scripture. The view that God speaks in preaching needs to be balanced with the listener’s discernment on the truthfulness of the sermon (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:19-20; 1 John 4:1).

Preaching as means of Spiritual Formation

Because Luther believed that God primarily communicates with human beings through preaching the Word, he viewed preaching as one of the primary means of spiritual formation. Consequently, Luther elevated preaching to an indispensable means of grace. When preaching is neglected, the spiritual formation of the congregation suffers.[12] Therefore, Luther believed that preaching is one of the marks of the church.[13] I believed Luther’s restoration of preaching as a means of spiritual formation is one of Luther’s greatest contributions to the church.

Scriptures Interpretation

Luther believed that Scripture must be interpreted according to its sensus literalis, meaning interpret Scripture based on its ordinary sense of the words, according to its genre. He mainly used literal and spiritual interpretation and  was against the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, the prevalent hermeneutic of the medieval church.

Luther believed that the gospel is clearly promised in the Old Testament[14] and fulfilled in the New Testament.[15] He called the Psalms the “Little Bible” because it clearly proclaimed the death and resurrection of Christ.[16]  He used this metaphor to describe the Bible and Christ, “the Bible was the manger in which Christ lay, the swaddling clothes he wore.” He believed Christ is the central point of the circle around which everything else in the Bible revolves.[17]

Christ-Centered Preaching

Luther believed in Christ-centered preaching. He believed, to preach the Bible without seeing Christ, was not preaching.[18] To Luther, preaching the Word meant preaching Christ.[19] He believed that preachers should preach Christ as the Savior and the ultimate man as the example for Christians to follow. The sequence is important. A preacher must preach Christ as the Savior first before he preaches Christ as an example. He often preached these two mean aspects of believers’ relationship with Christ. For example, regarding Gal 2:20, Luther explained,

“Saint Augustine teaches that the suffering Christ is both a sacrament and an example… a sacrament because it signifies the death of sin in us and grants it to those who believe, an example because it also behooves us to imitate him in bodily suffering and dying.”[20]

Preaching and the Holy Spirit

Luther believed that it is the preacher’s responsibility to preach the Word of God, but it is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to convict and convince the listeners’ heart to submit to the Word of God. Luther said, “We have the jus verbit (right to speak) but not the executio (power to accomplish).[21] Luther believed that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to give faith to a person to believe in Christ. It is not only true for justification but also true for sanctification.

He believed the Holy Spirit does not necessarily need to work on the believers at the time he heard the sermon. Instead, the Spirit could choose to work on the believers’ heart years later. Therefore, all the preacher needs to do is to faithfully preach the Word and leave the result to the Holy Spirit. [22]

The Law and the Gospel

Luther believed a preacher must preach the law and the Gospel. The law of God is to convict sinners of their sins, and the Gospel of God is to lead the listeners to justification and sanctification.[23]

Theology of the Cross

Luther’s pastoral theology is the theology of the cross. Lehmann described Luther’s theology of the cross this way, “It is precisely in the dark moments of life, in suffering, sorrow, and helplessness that trust in God is created and strengthened. Thus, conformity to Christ as His disciples becomes a reality in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[24] The theology of the cross gave direction to Luther’s preaching and pastoral care.[25] I think Luther’s theology of the cross is very biblical (Matt 16:24), and are greatly needed in some of today’s church that emphasized blessings at the expense of the message of the cross.

Luther As a Preacher

Luther believed that it was the preaching of the Word of God that reformed the church. He wrote, “I simple taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing.”[26] Luther began preaching regularly at the Black Cloister when he was named subprior at the monastery in 1512.[27] He preached extemporarily with an outline without a manuscript. He preached in common German so the congregants could understand. One estimates Luther preached over 4000 sermons during his life, most of them in the town church at Wittenberg. Two thousand three hundred of the sermons’ transcriptions have survived. He preached an average of 120 sermons in a year.

The Practice of Preaching at The Castle Rock Church

The preachers at the Castle Rock Church at Whittenburg preached many sermons throughout the week. Luther preached a big portion of that. They had three services on Sunday. From five to six in the morning on the Pauline epistles. From nine to ten on the Gospel. And in the morning, continue on the theme or catechism. On Monday and Tuesday, there were sermons on the catechism. On Wednesday, preaching on the Gospel of Matthew, Thursdays, and Fridays on the apostolic letters, and Saturday evening of the Gospel of John.[28] Luther preached expository on a pericope of Scriptures on Sunday. However, he also preached catechetical and topical doctrinal sermons on other occasions.[29]

Although the Scriptures does not have clear commands on the style of preaching, I do believe Luther’s expositional preaching through books of the Bible is the best preaching style for church. I also agree with Luther that there is place for occasionally topical sermons to meet the needs of the congregation.

Luther’s Preaching’s Methodology

Luther employed many tools in his preaching to convince people of the truth and move them into action. When his student asked him what the secret of good preaching is, Luther answered, “God is firm and unbending towards the wicked; God is kind and merciful towards the righteous. This explains why we preach hellfire to the proud and haughty, paradise to the godly, reproof to the wicked, comfort to the righteous.” He advocated using different tools in his sermons. He wrote about a method for preaching effectively:

“First bring the concern into clear focus. Second, define the concern visually, and then make it walk, so men see it in action. Third, show that the concern is scriptural, which gives it authority. Fourth, give examples to explain and thus burn it onto minds. Firth, make it aesthetic with tropes and metaphors. Sixth, warn the unaware, wake up the sleepy, and shake up the disobedient.”[30]

Luther believed that sermons should be targeted at the audience. He warned against long and uninteresting sermons that bore the people. He wrote, “Don’t torment your hearers, or keep them sitting in church with long, tedious sermons. Such preaching robs the pulpit of delight.” Instead, he advocated colorful preaching to make biblical characters and stories come to life. He suggested that the service should be one hour long with a sermon half the time so as not to overload souls or wear them.[31]

Application of Preaching

Luther believed preaching should result in life change. Therefore, he did not only explain the Scriptures, but he also applied the Scriptures to the listeners. Inevitably, there were times he became frustrated because he did not see the life change in the congregation. At one point, he was so disappointed that he stopped preaching for a year or so at the Cattle Church.[32] Now that we have looked at Luther’s teaching of preaching as a means for spiritual formation, we will compare Luther’s teaching with selected figures in church history before his time.

Comparison with Earlier Church Figures on Preaching for Spiritual Formation

Preaching of the Apostles

We will start our comparison with the apostles. Christ called the apostles to dedicate their life to prayers and preaching (Acts 6:3-4). Their preaching was centered on Christ. They aimed to convert unbelievers and to present believers mature in Christ (Acts 2:14-36; Col 1:28).

When the apostles trained the next generation of preachers, they taught them the same principle (2 Tim 4:2). Luther has successfully reformed the importance of preaching as a means of spiritual formation back to the apostolic age. Next, we will examine the preaching of the early church fathers.

Preaching of the Early Church Fathers

Like the apostles, the early church fathers also focused on preaching the Scriptures for spiritual formation. One of the important figures was Origen (ca. 185-254) of Alexandria. Most early church fathers employed at least two ways to interpret the Scriptures, literal and spiritual. It was Origen who introduced allegorical hermeneutic in the patristic period. Although Origen’s interpretation was fanciful at times, he did focus on preaching the Scriptures within the contours of the entire biblical narrative with the goal of spiritual edification.[33]

Now let’s look at a representative from the eastern church, Basil of Caesarea (330-379). Unlike Origen, Basil mainly employed literal and spiritual hermeneutics, with some allegorical interpretation when appropriate. He preached the Scriptures and aimed to point the hearer to Christ.[34] For Basil, to preach the Scriptures is to preach Christ. He had little patience for theological abstraction and preferred to preach sermons that could be understood and applied to the listener’s daily lives. He had two overarching purposes for his preaching: doxology and discipleship.[35]

Another eastern church father worth mentioning is John Chrysostom (349-407), the bishop of Antioch and Constantinople. He was known as the Golden-Mouthed because of his powerful preaching. His preaching “was essentially the interpretation of a text from scripture and its application to a particular congregation.” He preached the Scriptures with an emphasis on doctrinal precision and aimed to change life of the listeners.[36]

Discussion on the patristic period will not be completed without mentioning Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine employed Christocentric hermeneutics. He believed every Scripture should be read in light of the person and work of Christ. Therefore, his sermons were Christocentric. He was trained in the ancient art of rhetoric and employed it in his preaching. He preferred clarity and simplicity to help the congregation grasp the meaning of the Scripture. He aims to move the listeners to love God and their neighbors.[37]

This brief overview of the early church fathers reveals that although some of the early church fathers adopted allegorical on top of literal and spiritual hermeneutics, most of them continued the belief of the apostles in believing preaching the Scriptures is an indispensable means of spiritual formation for believers. Other than the allegorical hermeneutic, Luther would be very pleased with the preaching of the early church fathers, especially with the Christ-centered preaching of St. Augustine of Hippo. Next, we will examine the preaching of the medieval church.

Preaching of the Medieval Church

 In the massive seven volumes on the history of preaching, Hughes Oliphant Old listed five characteristics of medieval preaching. First, there was a variety of preaching as the variety of architecture, cultures and across a thousand years. Second, illiteracy became a widespread issue; therefore, the church developed liturgy and liturgical calendar to help the people to understand the biblical stories. However, preaching eventually took a backseat to liturgical symbols. Third, instead of preaching through the books of the Bible, the sermons followed the liturgical calendar. Fourth, the raised of the spiritual catechism of the monastic orders and revival preaching for the common people by the mendicant orders like Franciscans and Dominicans. Fifth, the development of the sermon outline.[38]

The focus of the late medieval church’s preaching is to urge people to obey the law of God to merit God’s grace. Luther hated this approach to preaching. Hermann Sasse examination of medieval preaching is helpful:

For all medieval men the gospel was essentially the lex Christi, the law of Christ that man must fulfill if he wants to be like the rich young man in Matthew 19. It is not accidental that just this story together with Matthew 10 made such a deep impression on all medieval men. This was to them real gospel, the answer to the question, ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’… Medieval men knew that only grace could save him, but he was to do something to merit God’s grace. ‘No one who tries to do his best will be denied grace’.[39]

During the Middle Ages, the central of church worship is the altar, both in architecture and church practice. In the Reformation, Luther reformed preaching in the church. The pulpit took the place of the altar. The preaching became the center of the worship service. But it was not done to neglect the sacraments, which made visible what the preaching made understandable.[40] Now that we have compared Luther’s teaching of preaching as a means of spiritual formation with the apostles, the early church fathers, and medieval church, we will turn to reflect on preaching as a means of spiritual formation for those who are called to this task.

Application on Life and Ministry

Luther’s reformation of preaching as the center of Christian worship has positively shaped the protestants’ worship for the last 500 years. He has restored preaching as a means of spiritual formation in Christian’s worship back to its prominent position as in the Apostolic and patristic eras.

Today society is an ever-increasing anti-God society. The media, universities, and the business world are increasingly anti-Christians. The sexual revolution is aggressively attacking God ordained sex and marriage. Books, movies, news, and social medias are increasingly filled with messages that reject the authority of God. Therefore, God’s church needs godly preachers who are willing to put in the hard work to write and preach Scriptures-based, sins-convicting, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, and God-glorifying sermons to evangelize the lost and to sanctify God’s people.

All of us who are called to this task need to take it seriously because preaching as a means of spiritual formation is God’s plan. To be called by God as his preacher is one of the greatest honors anyone can get. If you are called for this task, you will undoubtedly face many difficult challenges as you preach and live out God’s Word in our ever increasing pagan society. But do not give up. Trust that God who called you will also equip you and sustain you.

Conclusion

My topic is Martin Luther’s teaching of preaching as a means of spiritual formation. First, I have situated him within his historical context. Second, I have summarized and critically interact with Luther’s teaching on this topic. Third, I have compared Luther’s teaching with selected earlier church figures. Finally, I have concluded with an application for those called into the preaching ministry.

Bibliography

Allen, David. “Expository Preaching and The Mission Of The Church.” Journal for Baptist Theology and Missions 6 (2012).

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1950.

Forrest, Benjamin K., Kevin L. King, William J. Curtis, Dwayne Milioni, Timothy George, and John D. Woodbridge, eds. A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018.

Lehmann, Martin E. Luther and Prayer. Milwaukee, Wis: Northwestern Pub. House, 1985.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther. Translated by Robert Schultz. 7., Überarb. Aufl. der dt. Ausg. Lese-Zeichen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1986.

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works, n.d.

Marty, Martin E. Martin Luther. A Penguin Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004.

Ngien, Dennis. “Theology of Preaching in Martin Luther.” Themelios 28, no. 2 (2003).

Nichols, Stephen J. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2002.

Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. Paperback edition. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids (Mich.): W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.

———. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids (Mich.): W. B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Pless, John T. Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross: A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2013.

Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well. IVP Books, 2013.

Sproul, R. C., ed. The Legacy of Luther. First edition. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2016.

Wengert, Timothy J., ed. The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.


[1] Erfurt was the town where Luther first became an Augustinian monk. See R. C. Sproul, ed., The Legacy of Luther, First edition (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2016), 17.

[2] Sproul, 99.

[3] Stephen J. Nichols, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2002), 34.

[4] Particularly, Luther discovered that the Greek word for “repent in Matthew 4:17 is Μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite), but the Latin translation was poenitentiam, which could be translated in English as “do penance”. Luther’s knew the Latin was a mistranslation because do penance is an outward act, where else repent is “a whole-souled heart change that results in outward acts of obedience.” See Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 24.

[5] Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, Paperback edition (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006), 161.

[6] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Cokesbury Press, 1950), 185.

[7] Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 97.

[8] Sproul, 98.

[9] Martin E. Marty, Martin Luther, A Penguin Life (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004), 113.

[10] Timothy J. Wengert, ed., The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology, Lutheran Quarterly Books (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017), 109–11.

[11] Ngien, 30.

[12] Wengert, 111.

[13] Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 269.

[14] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 35:235-333.

[15] Luther, 35:358-59.

[16] Luther, 35:254.

[17] Marty, Martin Luther, 84.

[18] Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 108.

[19] Nichols, Martin Luther, 211.

[20] As quoted by Ngien, “Theology of Preaching in Martin Luther,” 39.

[21] Wengert, The Pastoral Luther, 109.

[22] Ngien, 45-47.

[23] Ngien, 34.

[24] Martin E. Lehmann, Luther and Prayer (Milwaukee, Wis: Northwestern Pub. House, 1985), 110.

[25] John T. Pless, Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross: A Study of Luther’s Pastoral Theology (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 2013), 22–23.

[26] Luther, Luther’s Works, 51:76-77.

[27] Nichols, Martin Luther, 211.

[28] Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well (IVP Books, 2013), 210.

[29] Sproul, The Legacy of Luther, 176.

[30] Nichols, Martin Luther, 216.

[31] Nichols, 212.

[32] Nichols, 212-214.

[33] Benjamin K. Forrest et al., eds., A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 92.

[34] Forrest et al., 1:116.

[35] Forrest et al., A Legacy of Preaching, 1:119.

[36] Forrest et al., A Legacy of Preaching, 1:133–36.

[37] Forrest et al., 1:155.

[38] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids (Mich.): W. B. Eerdmans, 1999), introduction.

[39] As quoted by Ngien, “Theology of Preaching in Martin Luther,” 35.

[40] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 210.

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