At noon on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg. This simple act started a movement which altered economic structures, undermined empires, and drastically changed the religious life of Europe.
When Luther appeared before the Diet of Worms on April 18, 1521, some of the foremost theologians of that time charged this simple monk, a miner’s son, with heresy. Piled high on a table were all his published works, which he was ordered to retract. Luther replied, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” As he went outside he raised his arms and shouted, “I’ve come through.” And so he had, with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
Kierkegaard called him “the knight of faith,” and so he proved to be. He was the instrument of God in recalling the Church to the deeper meaning of the Gospel. He was one of those men whom God matches to the hour. His beliefs were hammered out on the anvil of experience.
Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483 at Eisleben in Saxony, to Hans and Margaret Luther. His father sacrificed so his son could go in 1501 to the university at Erfurt, where, four years later, he took his masters of art. As an intense seeker after God, Luther wanted a vital faith and longed to be at peace with God. One day as he walked back to Erfurt, after visiting his parents, a bolt of lightning flashed out of the sky and crashed to earth beside him, killing his friend Alexius who walked with him. Fear paralyzed Luther and he fell to earth, vowing to be a monk.
On July 17, 1505, he entered the Augustinian monastery, made his profession in 1506, and a year later was ordained. The following year he was transferred to the university at Wittenburg as a lecturer. At the age of twenty-eight he became a doctor of divinity and professor of biblical theology.
Luther began to preach very unwillingly and only in obedience to the head of his monastery. He preached first in the dining hall of the cloister at Erfurt and then in the small church of the cloister at Wittenburg. Some of his earliest sermons are scholastic compositions in Latin, but soon he was preaching in German as often as four times a day on such subjects as the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.
His sermons were published and soon attracted attention by the freshness and frankness of his speech. Their wide circulation extended Luther’s influence beyond the borders of Germany. They moved he hearts and stirred the consciences of the people. It soon became clear that this one man — by the converting power of his words — was ushering in a fresh era in the history of the Church.
There has been nothing like it since the Day of Pentecost, says John Derr. “On the way to Worms to meet the Diet, he could not escape from the crowds. At Erfurt the church was so crowded that they feared it would fall. At Zwickau, the marketplace was thronged by 2,500 eager listeners and Luther had to preach from a window. He continued to preach to the end of his life though so broken in health that he often fainted from exhaustion. To the end he retained his wonderful power. The last time he entered the pulpit was February 14, 1546, a few days before he died.”1
Luther’s one aim was to present the Gospel by expounding the Scriptures. On Easter 1519, he began continuous exposition of the Gospels and Genesis. In 1520 he began in Latin, and then continued in German, a collection of sermons on the lectionary readings for the day. Another writer says, “Doctrines drawn from the Scriptures were combined in a living fruitful unit with practical application to the needs of the believers and of the Church alike.”2
The great truths for which the Reformation stood were constantly proclaimed. The general appeal was to the heart and the will, rather than to the intellect. Luther retained the allegorical method of exposition but was not bound to it. He did not try to give the sermon an organic unity, rather the passage was expounded verse by verse. His language was simple, strong, and manly. Nature spoke rather than art.
It was Luther who put the sermon into Protestantism, in the place held by the Mass, and so made preaching the most powerful influence in the churches of the Reformation. He wrote once in a letter, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
Almost all Luther’s sermons were expository. He liked to preach on entire books of the Bible; two of his favorite books were Genesis and 1 Peter. The chief aim of his preaching was to acquaint the congregation with the great truths of the Bible and especially to proclaim Christ as Savior. He said, “We preach always Jesus Christ. This may seem a limited and monotonous subject, likely to be soon exhausted, but we are never at the end of it.”
Most of his sermons as he preached them were taken down by interested hearers. As a rule he did not write out his entire sermon.
Luther’s concept of preaching may be seen in the advice he gave to preachers: “A good preacher should have these virtues: first, to teach systematically; second, he should have a ready wit; third, he should be eloquent; fourth, he should have a good voice; fifth, a good memory; sixth, he should know when to stop preaching; seventh, he should be sure of his doctrine; eighth, he should engage body and blood, wealth and honor in serving the Word; ninth, he should suffer himself to be mocked and jeered by everyone.”Plain, simple, but beautiful language marked Luther’s preaching. He knew how to address himself to his hearers in a way that led them accept his messages. He believed that the Gospel should be “prepared plainly and carefully just as a mother prepares the food for her baby.”
Luther preached two or three times a week, and his last sermon was preached four days before he died in his sixty-second year. His preaching was never merely topical. He would never turn a text into a pretext. He said, “I take pains to treat a verse and stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they could say, ‘that is what the sermon is about’.” He would have agreed with Kierkegaard’s description of the Bible as a letter from God with our address upon it, though he would have wanted to add that it comes to us like that most forcibly when it is read to us in the living voice of the preacher. Every sermon for him was a struggle for souls. His hearers were made to feel that the offer of the Gospel was here and now, and now or never. For him to preach the Gospel was nothing less than to bring Christ to the people and the people to Christ.
Luther restored the sermon to prominence in the liturgy of the Church but he also stressed the need to relate Word and Sacrament, keeping them in fruitful tension. He did not regard them as opposites, for he said “The Lord’s Supper is commanded in Scripture and is in itself a proclamation of the Word.”
In his letters and Table Talk, Luther expressed his views on preaching. He regarded the sermon as the most important part of worship, but he insisted that it must be rooted and draw its ground from Scripture. The subject of preaching is the Glory of God in Jesus Christ, otherwise it is not only worthless, but harmful.He was often so carried away with his subject that, to himself and many of his hearers, his sermons seemed much shorter than they were. His delivery was dynamic. He cast a spell over those who heard him. Masterful in his handling of the language, Luther was fresh in expressing old truths and clear in expressing new ones.
Those who heard him, though his plain speech often offended them, came eagerly again and again to hear him. They sensed the deep conviction of his soul. Luther said, Now I and any who speak Christ’s word may freely boast that his mouth is Christ’s mouth. I am certain that my word is not mine but Christ’s word, therefore my mouth must all be His whose word it speaks. As often as the Word of God is preached it makes men’s consciences before God happy, broad and certain, because it is a word of grace and forgiveness, a good and beneficial word.
This monk who retired from the world to save his soul shaped the course of events more than most of the generals and statesmen of history. How did this happen? Karl Barth said of himself that he was like a man in the darkness climbing a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness of the place, he reached out to steady himself and his hand laid hold of a rope. He was surprised and startled to hear the clanging of a bell.
That was precisely the experience of Martin Luther. The bell he rang ushered in the modern era. It called me and women to a vital faith. It is still tolling today. It calls us to be captive to the Word. Christianity stands or falls by the Word. Luther said, “He who does away with the Word and does not accept it as spoken by God does away with everything.”
Luther’s creed was forged in the crucible of experience: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gracia, Sola Fide. Only through Scripture, only from God’s grace, only through faith in Christ does the Christian receive salvation.
1. The History of Preaching, p. 152-153.
2. The Christian Preacher, p. 129.