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Sermons from the “Sweet Singer”: Franzmann on Preaching

Reading Time: 4 mins

When God’s strong Word is wedded to beautiful human words it makes for a potent one-two punch that fells the Devil and raises the saints.

The “sweet singer of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod,” as Martin Franzmann has been called, was also an accomplished preacher.[1] Though an exegete by trade and best known today as a hymn writer, Franzmann could hold his own in the pulpit as well. No surprise there.

To learn more about Franzmann’s thoughts on preaching, I took a deep dive on his published sermons and songs, as well as looking at a pair of monographs on his life and work: Thy Strong Word, by Richard Brinkley (published in 1993), and Matthew Borrasso’s more recent work, The Art of Exegesis, which came out in 2019. Here are a few of my takeaways.

1. Preaching is primary.

Franzmann’s first article after joining the faculty of Concordia Seminary was entitled “So We Preach,” and published in the April 1947 Lutheran Witness. In it he set forth “the central purpose of the Church, that is, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”[2] Franzmann writes:

“The Gospel we preach is a universal Gospel and the grace it offers is universal grace. So, we preach. We cannot do otherwise. Our life principle is the Spirit of God, and if we live by the Spirit, we must also walk by the Spirit. In so preaching, whatever our shortcomings may have been, lies the glory of our past. In so preaching, lies the only hope of our future.”[3]

Pastors do many things like teach, visit, care, fold bulletins, and beclown themselves in VBS. But the conveyance of the Gospel is ever and always primary. So, we preach!

2. God’s strong Word is what matters most.

The most famous hymn penned by Martin Franzmann is undoubtedly “Thy Strong Word.” A paean to the powerful Word of God, the song stirringly solicits the Lord’s aid in the task of proclamation:

“Give us lips to sing Thy glory,
Tongues Thy mercy to proclaim,
Throats that shout the hope that fills us,
Mouths to speak Thy holy name.”

In his book, The Art of Exegesis, author Matthew Borrasso writes of Franzmann saying, “Preaching is about helping people to hear God’s voice.”[4] God’s strong Word is what does the work. Therefore, preachers need to tune their instruments to attune the Church to hearken to the Good Shepherd’s call.

Therefore, preachers need to tune their instruments to attune the Church to hearken to the Good Shepherd’s call.

3. The words used to convey the Word matter, too!

Franzmann’s poetic diction was not limited to his hymns. His sermons sing. “Franzmann seemed to have an almost limitless vocabulary,” writes Richard Brinkley. “He had the ability to reach a person at what one of his students referred to as a ‘visceral’ level, more than just the mind, but touching the innermost recesses of the person.”[5]

Here is an example from a Lenten hymn, clearly preached in the Seminary Chapel. Note the effectiveness of the repetition and rhythm, the incisive word choices, and satisfying climax:

“The cross marks the spot where the disciples failed, and it marks the spot where we all, we theologians, too, must fail. The cross marks the spot where the exegete ceases to be proud of his exegetical niceties, is shaken out of his scholarly serenity, and cries out for his life in terms of the first Beatitude. The cross marks the spot where the systematician sees his system as the instrument which focuses his failure; where the practical theologian realizes that there is only one practical thing to do, and that is to repent and abhor himself in dust and ashes; where the historian leaves his long and sanely balanced view of things and goes desperately mad. The cross marks the spot where we all become beggars... and God becomes King.”[6]

When God’s strong Word is wedded to beautiful human words it makes for a potent one-two punch that fells the Devil and raises the saints.

4. Words (and the Word) can create worlds for the hearers.

Shepherds seek to lead the flock, and the pulpit is the place from which that leadership principally takes place. Preachers need not be bashful about striving to conform the minds of their hearers to the mind of Christ. “Communicating mindsets is something Franzmann did adeptly in his sermonic material,” writes Matthew Borrasso.

Borrasso gives the example of Franzmann’s classic Reformation sermon: “Theology Must Sing.” In it, Franzmann the preacher reflects on the importance of sturdy hymnody:

“There has always been a terrible fascination in “Ersatz,”[7] especially for a sick church, a church grown so languid it cannot bear to live in the tension of the last days. So, we have, instead of the splendid picture of the Church universal making a full-throated, joyful noise unto the Lord, the picture of the weary church sitting in a padded pew, weeping softly and elegantly into a lace handkerchief.”[8]

Here Franzmann is not just preaching, he is shaping the sentiments of his hearers, and so molding their worldview.[9] Such molding can be taken too far and turn into manipulation. If done judiciously, however, it can be an effective tool in the preacher’s toolbox.

5. Preaching needs doxology!

Preaching is serious business, but that does not mean the pastor has to take himself too seriously. Franzmann’s student, Ronald Feuerhahn, recounted a choice bit of wisdom from his old teacher:

“There is a tendency today for preachers to feel that joyful preaching is shallow. It must be existentially grim. Do not keep such a cold stove that the cats will not come to eat. It must have doxology. When you stop having doxology, you are not preaching.[10]

Which brings to mind the closing verse from what may, in fact, be my favorite Franzmann hymn and a little bit of a deep cut, “O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth”:

“O Spirit, who didst once restore,
Thy Church that it might be again the bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days,
There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology,
To Father, Son, and unto Thee (LSB 834:4).

I am grateful the Spirit heard that prayer from the lips of his servant, Martin Franzmann, and I pray it might be renewed in our own day. Our pulpits (and more importantly, our people) could surely use a few more sweet singers of the Gospel’s same old song.


[1] Kenneth Korby, The Cresset 40; quoted in Richard Brinkley, Thy Strong Word, 32. Interestingly, as Matthew Borrasso notes (The Art of Exegesis, 88), Franzmann was never ordained while he served at Concordia Seminary. Later in life, he would be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England.

[2] Richard Brinkley, Thy Strong Word, 15.

[3] Quoted in Brinkley, 16.

[4] Matthew Borrasso, The Art of Exegesis, 93.

[5] Brinkley, 14.

[6] Martin Franzmann, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, 45.

[7] “Ersatz” can be defined as a substitute product which is typically inferior to the original.

[8] Martin Franzmann, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, 95.

[9] See C.S. Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man, for more on what Lewis calls “sentimental education.”

[10] Preface to Martin Franzmann, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets. See also Franzmann’s little book of prayer-poems, Pray for Joy.