Recently a colleague came to me lamenting the preaching in her church. It was not a complaint about unskilled delivery, but the content of the homilies. The messages, such as they were, were poorly conceived and directionless — evidencing there was no real message (certainly not the message of Scripture), and so no real point to the preaching.
After months of this, she decided it was time to discuss this concern with her pastor, but she did not know what to make of his response. He conceded that the sermon was only “a snack in the week” when compared to “the daily meals of Bible study” and private devotions with which she and her fellow congregants were to be engaged. Apparently, he explained, “The flower of faith grows in the garden of Bible study. Sundays are like supplements to a regular diet of Bible study.” My response perhaps surprised her: “That’s not the teaching of the Reformation.” In fact, I explained, Luther held the opposite view. The preached word ensured the work of the Holy Spirit, so long as it was the written word of the Gospel that was being preached. Gospel preaching was the one domain in which we could be assured of the convicting, saving, and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
Luther taught pastors—indeed, all Christians—to have a mutual esteem for the authority of the Word of God inscripturated (the written word) and the authority of that same Word orated. But it was the latter (preached and proclaimed) which he asserted is divine and efficacious speech. He even built this view into the Small Catechism for children, explaining the third commandment with these words:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
Luther, interestingly, sees “preaching” as synonymous with God’s Word, speaking of them in the singular. Preaching is God’s authoritative and powerful Word.
In other words, there is a certain tension between Luther’s view of Scripture per se (the Bible itself) and the Gospel as God’s “external word”, by which the Wittenberg Reformer meant the oral proclamation of the Gospel in all its liturgical forms, but also the administrating of the Sacraments (Smalcald Articles 3, 4). The latter, too, is fully the authoritative Word of God based on and lifted from the written word. They are not in conflict but work in a complementary fashion with the latter necessarily and exclusively dependent on the former. One commentator explains that:
Luther did not see any conflict between his conviction that Scripture is the normative word of God, and that God bestows His grace and forgiveness of sins by means of the spoken word and sacraments. All preaching and administration of the sacraments have their source in the written word of God and must take place according to it. Therefore, the proclamation of the word (in sermons and in personal absolution and counseling) and the administration of the sacraments is inseparably connected with the Scriptures. Only a scriptural teaching, preaching, and consolation leads men to the knowledge of Christ and salvation to him.
In the Smalcald Articles (1537), Luther writes: “We ought and must constantly maintain that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken word and the sacraments, and that whatever without the word and sacraments is extolled as spirit is the devil himself” (SA 3, 8). It is a basic belief found throughout Luther’s written corpus and held by those true to the Reformation tradition: God forgives sin through the oral proclamation of the Gospel. In this teaching Luther was unwavering:
The oral word must—before anything else—be present and be grasped with the ears if the Holy Spirit is to come into the heart, who enlightens us through the word and works faith.
There is no other way to have sins forgiven than through the Word… The Lord, our God, has not promised to forgive our sins than through any other work that we do, but He has connected it with the unique work of Christ who has suffered and risen from the dead. This work He has, through the word, placed it in the mouth of the apostles and the ministers of the Church, and in cases of emergency of all Christians, to the end that they through it would distribute and proclaim the forgiveness of sins to those who desire it.
The conservative Reformation rightly understood this teaching to arise directly from Holy Scripture itself. St. Paul clearly taught, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV), where the “word of Christ” is the Gospel. Faith comes from hearing the Gospel. This, of course, is in keeping with Paul’s admonishment to Timothy to “Preach the Word” of Christ. Of greater significance, the authoritative Word proclaimed is in keeping with the dominical example of preaching the Gospel as the means of salvation and sanctification (Mark 1:39; 2:2; Luke 4:44; 20:1). Jesus did not just preach the Bible, He commissions the doing of it in His stead and with His authority. Interestingly, Jesus does not commission His disciples to conduct Bible studies per se (although this is implied and understood throughout the four Gospels), but since the relationship He establishes is between a king and his ambassadors, the commissioning pertains to heralding or declaring the royal decree. Hence, “[his disciples] departed and went through the villages, preaching the Gospel” (Luke 9:6). This royal mandate to herald the king’s ‘good news proclamation’ through the oral word was seen as the apostolic commission. The only commissioned word was the Word of Christ and Him crucified. They had no authority to preach any other word as the king’s word. The commissioning begins and ends with preaching “the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Luther clearly saw Jesus’ gospel-as-the-message codified in Holy Scripture and explained by Jesus Himself in Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:27-37; 44-47; and John 39-40.
What we find in the Acts of the Apostles, then, is resolute confidence in a God who dispenses faith and fortifies faith in the preaching of the Gospel according to Jesus, essentially recounting Paul’s teaching that, “Christ Jesus… became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). And so, all the Apostles engaged the world through preaching the Gospel of Christ Jesus — the king’s message about the king himself (and doing Bible study to substantiate the preaching and the primacy of its message):
* “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:42).
* “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2).
* “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
* “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:25).
* “But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also” (Acts 15:35).
* “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).
Note how the preached Word was not merely informational (secondary speech about Christ to their auditors) but proclamational (primary speech from Christ to His auditors). It was Christ’s Word because it came from Him (in terms of origins) but also because it was understood that He was the one speaking this word by proxy, through His royal agents, called, commissioned and ordained to do so. Therefore, this Word was powerful, but not in the sense of it being moving, compelling or profound, although it may be all of that as well. Rather, the power was in the fact that it was the Sword of the Spirit. It is a performative, active word from the Lord that accomplished the purposes for which God intended. In other words, the power is God’s and God powerfully applies, actuates, and effects His Word when it is the Gospel that is preached. The promise of that power, Luther said, was bound to and limited by the word of the Gospel of Christ. Thus, Paul admonishes the Corinthians: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Here, then, we have the rationale of Romans 10:12-17.
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
We cannot help but note the strong emphasis on preaching the “good news”, the “Gospel” that is “the Word of Christ” (i.e., the Christ’s own Word — the royal proclamation from the king about the king), but also on hearing (mentioned five times here) in contrast to reading (not mentioned).
With such clear teaching from Scripture, Martin Luther unalterably puts the emphasis on the spoken or performed or externalized Word for justification and sanctification. But when it comes to the norm and rule of our faith and life, Luther’s emphasis is on the written word of the Bible. “He often says,” explains one author, “that the Gospel in its actual sense, is the spoken, proclaimed word.” Working through the Reformer’s Church Postil, a Finnish theologian quotes Luther saying precisely this: “The Gospel is not a writing but a spoken word which explains Scripture.” In the first sermon of the same Postil Luther declares: “The Old Testament alone… is called Scripture. For the New Testament must, in the actual sense, be a living word and not writing. Therefore Christ did not write anything but commanded to preach and spread the Gospel, which was hidden in Scripture.” Consequently, “the Gospel must be a living voice” because the one, true, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is a “mouth-house” (Bethphage), not a “pen-house.” Luther would go so far as to equate the preacher, celebrant, confessor, even a brother who is present with “the mouth of the Holy Spirit” when they externalize the Gospel:
“When our conscience is troubled in the sense of the wrath of god, there is no other remedy that a good word, either a word which is spoken by a brother who is present or a word which we recollect through a word previously heard … from the mouth of the Holy Spirit…. You must have a spoken word. This verse [from Psalm 51] speaks against those who hate the outward word.”
This truly was the view of the Reformer and the evangelical tradition that followed in his steps, as he followed the plain teaching of Scripture. To this day, Lutherans confess this doctrine of the Bible in the Smalcald Articles mentioned earlier:
“In those things which concern the spoken, outward word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit of grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward word. Thereby we are protected against the enthusiasts, that is, spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the word…, as they boast that they have received the Spirit without the preaching of the Scriptures” (3, 8).
The Reformation’s insistence on this teaching arises directly from high confidence in God the Holy Spirit to work through the dynamic Word that is Christ and Him crucified as it encounters believers and unbelievers alike, changing states of affairs and instantiating new realities. The heralding and sacramenting of the King’s Word avails to the ends He purposes. The royal decree—Christ and Him crucified for our sins, that is, the Gospel—must be externalized from the page, must be disseminated from the writings, must be illocuted from written forms to establish the forum and vehicle through which the perlocutionary force obtains the power of the Spirit. The Augsburg Confession (1530) states it this way: “By the word and sacraments, as by instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel… They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Ghost comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works” (Article V). This teaching preserved the reliability, objectivity and undeniability of the necessity of the written Word and the Holy Spirit for justification and sanctification.
It may have been that my colleague’s pastor had a static view of Scripture or, perhaps, an intellectualist view of Scripture, where the imparting of knowledge and the accumulation of knowledge is thought to sanctify. Be that as it may, it is faith—not knowledge—that is the instrument through which salvation comes and sanctification occurs, yet without denying the importance of Biblical knowledge. Knowledge just does not hold the same place as faith when it comes to justification and sanctification. Faith believes God, believes His promises, believes He is as His Word, and believes His Word, in the hand of the Holy Spirit, creates and sanctifies. In the Reformation tradition, then, there is divine authority to the Word of Christ preached and the Word of Christ preached is authoritative and active. So far from being a Sunday “snack” or “supplement” compared to daily devotions, it is better understood as the banquet which holds the family together. This is why preaching, why the sermon, sits as the bridge between the two high points of a true Reformation divine service, namely the reading of the Gospel and the celebration of Holy Communion.
As my friend came to learn, there can be important differences in a pastor’s understanding of preaching. For those who have drifted away from the Reformation’s core understanding of Holy Scripture, the sermon may be about the preacher expounding a preserved word from God out of the past, while true evangelical preaching is God presently speaking and presently performing the Word of the Gospel from the Scriptures.