Making Preaching Great Again

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The whole Reformation, and the reason for Lutheran theology at all, is to improve preaching.

The whole Reformation, and reason for Lutheran theology at all, is to improve preaching. Make preaching great again! Why? Preaching is hard, and the temptations are great for abandoning what Christ wants you to say. Preachers, like anyone, want to be liked. They want to impress and receive adulation for their words. More yet, preaching involves rhetoric, craft, and the art of communicating which usually makes public speakers into what Plato called mere “sophists” who use the power of speech to convince, but have no truth. Preachers, however, have the Truth and that truth is in the written words of Scripture; you cannot just make up your own ideas and offer them for public consumption. Yet, it is hard to be faithful to the written word of Scripture because of technical matters. The Scriptures are written in one language and need to be preached in another. It is harder yet when it comes to the art of preaching those words. Preachers must deal not only with the words of Scripture, but with the variables of the audience or congregation and with saying only what Scripture says rather than what you want it to say.

It is a wonder, then, that any preaching gets done at all. Yet, the Holy Spirit wants nothing other than preachers, as Paul summarizes it in Romans 10. Faith comes by hearing, and how will they hear without a preacher? And how will you get a preacher without one being sent? And how will preachers be sent without the Holy Spirit sending them? Yet, it happens! How beautiful are the feet of those who come over the mountain! So, our preaching slogan is: to creatures, through creatures! Despite limitations of the instrument (yourself), the Gospel gets delivered and accomplishes what it says.

With this assurance, we dare to ask about the details. How does the Holy Spirit get this work done? He uses two words, in their proper order. Indeed, the whole of Scripture is made up of these two things: commands and promises, as Melanchthon noted in his Apology to the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession. Bad preaching confuses the two words of Law and Gospel. It tries to say that the good news is the Law, and then explains how you can do the Law with the help of “grace.” This makes preaching into inspiration, motivation, or scolding, as if the preacher were speaking to a bunch of free wills who just need direction, guidance or motivation. The worst thing you can do as a preacher is to turn your work into that of a motivational speaker or life coach. The flip side of this mistake is to make yourself into a cheerleader for Christ, an apologist who convinces the suffering people that God is not to blame, and that Christ will help if only you accept His commands.

So, practice this distinction of Law and Gospel. Then, once the command and promises are distinguished, bestow or give these two words to the hearers in the plain, direct, unvarnished way—categorically, absolutely, and without qualifying things. The clearest example is Nathan preaching to David. Once David had broken the commandments against adultery (and then killing, and then all the rest), the Spirit called Nathan to give the unvarnished Law. Nathan figured the proper approach to his King was not to first accuse David’s lack, but attack David’s positive, moral, self-righteousness. So, Nathan told the story of a rich man who took the sheep of a poor man, to which David cried out in righteous indignation, “Foul!” Then Nathan could say what the Law must, “You are the man.” The Command always accuses. The preacher cannot shrink or hide this. Neither can the preacher start enjoying this accusation so much (like Jonah did) that he will not deliver the second word of the Promise. So that night, God came to Nathan and told him to go back to David and give the Promise that is even greater than the Command: “You will not die!” It is strange, however, that the preachers of Scripture are always reluctant to give the Law at first, but even more so they hate to think about giving the Gospel. Oh, the Gospel! It seems so excessive and feels like you are holding Pandora’s box, ready at an instant to unleash the furies on an unsuspecting world of what it means to ignore the Law, banish fear, and run free from death, sin, devil, wrath and even the Law itself. The Gospel seems too dangerous to deliver without some limit or condition.

Admittedly, discovering and then delivering the Law and the Gospel each week, or each day for that matter, takes more effort and art than most of us have. But keep in mind the telltale sign of a command is not just what provides a good guide and direction for life, but is whatever accuses you and your hearers. You will preach the Law in its first use about how to make their lives better and how to limit evil in the world, but the real issue is preaching the Law in its proper use that troubles us, and so is the thing that we try to ignore or minimize. We call this “the rub” in a text. For Jonah it was to preach to Ninevites. For Nathan it was how to trap a self-righteous king in his own glory.

However, it is always the Gospel that is the biggest problem in any text and so for any preacher. The telltale sign of the Promise that you are to give from a text in Scripture is whatever seems to be too easy; a cheap grace. That is, the thing that operates outside the order of the Law itself. This word of Gospel is God’s shocking forgiveness of actual sinners in the full throes of their sin; justification by faith alone of the unjust, while they are unjust. The Gospel is the thing that seems insane if you are trying to run a business or an institution… even one as lowly as a church. The Gospel always seems surprising, but more than that, opposes the word that God had just insisted saying in the Law. One-night Nathan is to say, “You are the man!” The next day, “You will not die!” What kind of God does this? Is He not serious about His Law? Or is He not serious about His Gospel? Why this constant, direct and total contrast. Does God not realize that a preacher seems fickle—as if one or the other of these (Law or Gospel) is not serious?

Well, the answer is God is deadly serious about His Command and wants it laid out plainly. He does not pull it back, but uses it to kill you, not just to guide and direct. Then He is even more serious about His Promise—as if killing was not serious enough. The Gospel contradicts the Law, and wins. It raises the dead. God is even more serious about this Gospel word since it is always the last. There is no word spoken after you speak the word of the Gospel. This is where you must learn the true art of the preacher: to not only know when to open your mouth to speak, but when to close it and sit down. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit insists that both of these words be spoken, in their proper order. Plain Law, and then plain Gospel. The Gospel word gets the last, final and irrevocable say: I forgive you. Once this is delivered, the sermon is done, and the preacher sits down, saying no more.