EVERY religious reform movement in history has been accompanied by great preaching. We could say that the history of divine confrontation of sinful man in the historical process centers in the periodic appearance of mighty preachers. From the days of Noah, the preacher of righteousness, to our own times, God has seen fit to let His reform movements be born out of great preaching.
One such movement of reform came in the sixteenth century. A study of the Reformation yields the firm impression that the movement gathered its strength in three ways: it was part of prophetic fulfillment; it produced a remarkable publishing effort; and it abounded in great preachers. Prophecy, publishing, and preaching are the three R's of the Reformation.
First and foremost among the pulpit giants of that age stood Martin Luther. His more than 2,000 extant sermons bear ample evidence of his massive effort in what was chiefly expository preaching, for he preached on books of the Bible, as well as on texts.
Luther became a preacher under compulsion. In truth, everything he did from the time that he became a monk in 1505 until the end of his days, was done under compulsion. He was ordained a priest under compulsion, he studied theology under compulsion, he was made a professor of religion under compulsion, and he began to preach with fear, opposition, and actual resistance. It was his superior, Dr. Johann Staupitz, who ordered and commanded him to perform these duties and offices. Thus, in May, 1512, he, undoubtedly at the instigation of Staupitz, was made professor of Biblical theology and therewith his office of preaching began officially. His first re corded sermon comes, probably, from that year; his last one was given on February 15, 1546, three days before his death.
How Preaching Started
This man, who did not want to preach in the first place, came to consider preaching the great divine office on earth. He believed preaching had its origin in the oral, creative conversation God had with Himself from all eternity. Luther illustrated what he meant thus:
When a man has a thought, a word, or a conversation within himself, he speaks to himself incessantly and is full of words that suggest counsel as to what to do or not to do. He continually converses and deliberates on this within himself.... Thus God, too, from all eternity has a Word, a speech, or a conversation with Himself in His divine heart, unknown to angels and men. This is called His Word.1
In his lectures on Genesis, Luther dealt with this matter of the Word. He asked:
What is this Word, or what did He do? Listen to Moses. The light, he says, was not yet in existence; but out of its state of being nothing the darkness was turned into that most outstanding creature, light. Through what? Through the Word. There fore, in the beginning and before every creature there is the Word, and it is such a powerful Word that it makes all things out of nothing.2
God Never Ceased Preaching
What Luther says here is that the act of creating was God speaking or preaching all things into existence through the Word, or Christ. God has never ceased preaching. The moment God finished speaking the uncorrupted creation into existence, He established the church in Eden to be the center or hub for prayer, praise, and preaching. The tree of knowledge of good and evil, which Luther seems to picture as a grove or cluster of indescribable beauty, was "Adam's church, altar, and pulpit," with God Himself consecrating the spot for sacred uses.
Here he [Adam] was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation.3
To complete the picture of Edenic worship God gave man the Sabbath. "From the beginning of the world," says Luther, "the Sabbath was intended for the worship of God"; and
Unspoiled human nature would have proclaimed the glory and kindnesses of God in this way: on the Sabbath day men would have conversed about the immeasurable goodness of the Creator; they would have sacrificed; they would have prayed, etc. For this is the meaning of the verb "to sanctify." 4
Such is the beginning of the office of preaching, according to Luther. He made it an integral part of God's creative act and likened preaching to God's oral word in Creation. He could call preaching more important than anything else on earth, because it must ever be creative, as God is ever creative.
The entrance of sin changed but did not destroy the divine office of preaching. Adam continued to preach.
Indeed, even after the Fall he kept this seventh day sacred; that is, on this day he instructed his family, of which the sacrifices of his sons Cain and Abel give the proof. Therefore, from the beginning of the world the Sabbath was intended for the worship of God.5
With the entry of sin a new aspect of divine preaching began. God still preached through His church in the world; first in His Word as found in the Old Testament, then in His Son, who was the Word in human flesh, and finally in Christ's command to His disciples to preach the gospel.
Christ never used the pen to convey His gospel to others but communicated His message by word of mouth. He never commanded the disciples to write, but to preach the gospel.6 Mouth-House Not a Pen-House The reason for this was clear to Luther. When man sinned, God placed His plan to redeem man from sin within the church.
The church, which in Eden had been a place for prayer, praise, and instruction in the things of God, now became the bearer of God's redemptive plan in Christ.
In this process the Old Testament was the Word of God which pointed forward to the redemptive deed of Christ. The true church in the Old Testament had the Word of God and was itself the redemptive community to which God spoke. When Christ came He did not need to write— that had already been done—but to elucidate, expound, and proclaim the secrets and mysteries hidden in the Old Testament.7 Likewise, the apostles did not need to write; they were to preach and shout the gospel; finally, the New Testament church was to be, said Luther, "not a pen-house but a mouth-house." 8
Two Great Opposites
The proper subject matter of all preaching since the Fall has been the two great opposites in history—sin and righteousness. This was the heart of Luther's theology whether he lectured to students, penned theological studies, letters and disputations, held conversations at the table, or preached. In his lectures on The Psalms (1513-1515) he stated the sum of his thought thus:
The starting point is sin, from which we must constantly depart. The goal is righteousness, to ward which we must move unceasingly.9
Never did a professor or a preacher castigate sin more mercilessly or extol righteousness more passionately than did Martin Luther.
Stated in practical terms of preaching, the subject matter of Luther's spoken word was the law and the gospel. These two must ever be proclaimed together, and the same Word of God contains both, so that together they constitute in a sense the "everlasting gospel."
At this point we must issue a warning. Luther never held that sin and righteousness were on a par or stood on the same level of final importance. Likewise, the law and the gospel never enjoyed each other's company; indeed, these great opposites were constantly engaged in mortal animosity. They were two greatnesses locked in cosmic combat from the beginning of sin to the final triumph of righteousness at the end of time. The grand prize in this struggle was man, sinful man and saved man, or as Luther liked to say, the kingdom of evil and the kingdom of grace.
Preaching the Word Makes a True Church
Another basic principle in Luther's thought was that the oral or preached Word of God must never depart from the inspired, written Word of God. It was when the ministry ceased to follow the inspired Word of God, that is, the Bible, that the church apostatized and became antichrist. In other words, when the church ceased to preach the law and the gospel, it forthwith ceased to be the true church. For organization, hierarchy, and sacraments do not make a true church; only preaching the redemptive Word of God makes a true church.
There is an important incident in Luther's own experience that illustrates well his emphasis on true preaching. In 1521- 1522 when he was hidden away in Wartburg, his absence from the university and the town of Wittenberg caused unrest and disturbance to appear. So-called prophets appeared from the town of Zwickau. Their leader was a tradesman, a weaver, Storch by name. These men claimed to have visions, the gift of prophecy, and the light of the Spirit. The Bible was not really necessary, nor were spiritual offices; only the truly inspired constituted the true church.
When Luther heard that the prophets had arrived, he intervened at once. He wrote Melanchthon a long, sharp letter and urged him to challenge and test the spirits. He referred to the Old Testament. The prophets received their authority, he said, "from the law and the prophetic order," and he continued:
I definitely do not want the "prophets" to be accepted if they state that they were called by mere revelation, since God did not even wish to speak to Samuel except through the authority of Eli. This is the first thing that belongs to teaching in public.10
The inference from his statement is inescapable: the Zwickau prophets were imposters because they did not base their preaching on the Scriptures, which is the first principle in public teaching.
(To be continued)
1. Whenever possible the quotations used in this article are taken from the American edition of Luther's Works (Philadelphia and St. Louis, 1955- ). We abbreviate as L.W. with appropriate volume and page. The original edition of his works is abbreviated as W.A. with volume and page. See L.W. 22, p. 9.
2. L.W. 1. p. 17.
3. Ibid., p. 95.
4. Ibid., p. 80.
5. Ibid., pp. 79, 80.
6. W.A. 10-1-1, p. 626.
8.Ibid., 10-1-2. p. 48.
9. Ibid., 4, p. 364.
10. L.W. 48, p. 366.