Back to Basics in Preaching

After his famous “Here I stand” speech before Emperor Charles V, Luther was “captured” by Prince Frederick and whisked away to hiding in the Wartburg castle. Meanwhile, things deteriorated back in Wittenberg—and badly. A fanatic took leadership of the church and forced changes upon people that were not in accord with the Gospel or the Scriptures. Luther hated coercion. The Gospel does not coerce. There were also some charismatics, called the “Zwickau Prophets,” who came to town claiming the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They claimed education wasn’t needed to understand the Scriptures, so schools were closed, and maybe even the university!

Luther resolved to return to his pulpit. On March 9, 1522, on Invocavit Sunday (First Sunday in Lent), Luther began preaching a series of eight sermons on these burning issues. Go here to read Luther’s first sermon of the series.

My friends, the Lutheran Church was born of Luther’s direct, profound but simple preaching style. He most often preached on Bible texts—the Sunday readings on Sundays and sermon series on whole books of the Bible or parts of the Bible during the week, line by line. He explained the Bible in a way that common people could understand it. Above all, Luther preached repentance and forgiveness in Christ. He was a master of Law-andGospel preaching. That’s what the apostles preached (Acts 2–3).

Along with this Law-and-Gospel issue of The Lutheran Witness, I’d like you to read that very short sermon by Luther listed above, noting several things:

  • The sermon is topical. It’s on Christian patience, love and freedom.
  • Note how often Luther references the Scriptures and what they teach.
  • Note how he grabs the hearers’ attention in the brief sermon introduction. “Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself.”
  • Note how clearly he states the Law and the Gospel right up front in the first two paragraphs of the sermon.
  • Note that in his third point, he makes a specific point of the Law. “Through love we must do to one another as God has done to us through faith.”
  • Note very carefully Luther’s use of the pronouns “I,” “you” and “we.”
  • Notice how Luther includes himself in Law statements and Gospel statements. “We are all the children of wrath.”
  • Notice how he uses “I” as he repeatedly expresses his intimate knowledge of his hearers, his love for them and his dismay at them: “I love you even as I love my
    own soul.”
  • Notice how he uses “you” and “we” to both preach very pointed Law and deliver the sweet Gospel.

As you read the sermon, you can visualize Luther looking directly at his hearers with his finger pointing at them. He did not rely on a manuscript. Luther preached from notes or simply by following the text of the Scriptures.

Note, too, how he uses “you” in very pointed Law and Gospel statements. “A donkey can almost chant the lessons, and why shouldn’t you be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas? . . . Faith without love is not enough.”

Note how direct and blunt Luther’s language is. There’s no guessing about his point. That is a sermon calling the hearers to repentance and faith in Christ and teaching them what love and patience are. The sermon has a great deal of Law (to condemn and instruct). Later sermons in the week gave way to more Gospel. “But if you believe that God steps in for you and stakes all He has and His blood for you [in Christ] . . . then let us see what can harm you; come devil, death, sin, and hell and all creation” (AE 51:93).

Remember, that is a sermon in a dire circumstance calling for repentance. Other Luther sermons drip throughout with the sweetest delivery of the Gospel “for you.”

It’s time for us to pay attention to the greatest preacher in history, aside from Jesus, John the Baptist and St. Paul. It’s time for back-to-basics preaching.

4 thoughts on “Back to Basics in Preaching”

  1. Freeman Rohlfing

    Thank you for the guidance. As someone who has never attended a seminary or even taken a course in public speaking, this does help me to tell people about Jesus. That is all that matters.

  2. elizabeth wiley

    When I click on the link for Luther’s sermon I get this message “Sorry, the page you were looking for in this blog does not exist.” I wondered if this is a problem with my computer or the link?

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