In what sense can the “pure preaching of the gospel” be considered sacramental? After all, Lutherans have maintained that preaching belongs to the keys of the kingdom, i.e., the Office of the Keys purposed to dispense the forgiveness of sins. The Augsburg Confession includes the qualifier “pure preaching of the gospel” as a definitive mark of the Church (AC VII:1).[1] This is because “pure” preaching of the Gospel consists of Christ’s own preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God’s arrival through his person and work, albeit proclaimed by way of his duly called and ordained ambassador. So, when the Gospel is purely preached (that is, when it is truly the gospel of the New Covenant — the very message Jesus commissioned his apostles to declare), then auditors can be assured that such preaching is accompanied by the Spirit’s presence and power. Such preaching manifests the living voice of Jesus to all hearers. In other words, Christ is present in the “pure preaching of the gospel.” And if Christ is present, then we have entered into the domain of the sacraments.

If the maxim “all theology is Christology” rightly obtains, then all ecclesiology is Christology. Simply put, the manifestation of the Church is the activity of Christ. The Lord Jesus makes the Church “happen” as believers assemble for the “pure preaching of the gospel and the sacraments administered according to the gospel.” Both pure gospel preaching and true gospel sacraments are the work of Christ. It’s how he gives himself to the Church and the world. In fact, the aforementioned maxim yields a deeper understanding: all sacramentology is Christology. Jesus Christ is the sacrament. He embodies the overlap between heaven and Earth, the invisible and visible, spirit and matter, grace and nature. As he is, so the sacraments are but instantiations of his self-presenting and self-giving. Consequently, wherever the Mediator manifests himself, the sacrament of God manifests, for he is the Sacrament from which all sacraments are derived.

Lutherans affirm as much when saying Christ is present in the pure preaching of the gospel. According to the Lutheran Confessions, the pure word of the gospel (that is, the word about Christ/the word from Christ/the word that is Christ) functions as the sine qua non of all Christ-instituted sacraments. Apology XII.4 on “The Number and Use of the Sacraments” reads thus:

“If we define the sacraments as rites, which have the command of God and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to determine what the sacraments are, properly speaking.”

Jesus Christ is the sacrament. He embodies the overlap between heaven and Earth, the invisible and visible, spirit and matter, grace and nature

A sacrament consists of three things: (1) a rite that (2) was instituted by the Lord Jesus and (3) offers and delivers the promise of God’s grace to be received by faith alone. In the rite of the sermon, then, (such that Jesus commissioned in content) auditors encounter Christ himself — the One who embodies the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20); the One who is full of grace (John 1:14). Christ is re-presented in words that covey the Word made flesh, but also in the Office of the Keys itself.

In The Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther offers a remarkable statement about preaching, describing the Word of God with properties properly belonging to Christ. He writes,

“Let us then consider it certain and firmly established that the soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul. If it has the Word of god it is rich and lacks nothings since it is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory and of every incalculable blessing….”[2]

In the same treatise, he makes the connection between pure gospel preaching and Christ even more explicit.

“To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it, provided it believes the preaching.”[3]

Nothing or, better, no one feeds the soul in this manner but the Good Shepherd, and no one sets it free or saves it or makes it righteous but the Son of God. Clearly, for Luther, in the pure preaching of the gospel, Christ engages in salvific and sanctifying self-giving; for only Christ satisfies the soul. In its effect and intent, preaching is hardly distinguishable from the efficacious means of grace constituting the latter three parts of Luther’s Small Catechism to convey “the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.”[4]

Along with Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, the preaching of the Holy Gospel gives Christ with all his benefits to those who receive him by faith. The sacraments are a delivery system, as it were, a conduit by which Christ gives himself because we cannot go back to the birth, baptism, perfect life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but rather all that he is and does must be brought to us in the here and now. So, Luther explains, “Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.”[5] It is for this reason that Christ occupies the Office of the Keys in the pure preaching of the gospel.

“Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.” -Martin Luther

Just as with the incarnation of our Lord, his baptism, and every great work of Jesus, there we find the Holy Spirit rendering the Word efficacious according to the will of God. The means of grace—preaching included—are the domain of the Spirit. So the Word and the Spirit go together and we have no other knowledge of the work of the Spirit, and therefore the Word, without the means of grace derived from Christ himself. The Spirit’s work is always logocentric and tethered to the external Word. Luther summates the biblical understanding of how God specifies and objectifies the saving accomplishments of Christ by the Spirit’s application to individuals and their families:

“God has determined to give the inward to no one except through the outward. For he wants to give no one the Spirit or faith outside of the outward Word and sign instituted by him, as he says in Luke 16[:29]: ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ Accordingly, Paul can call baptism a ‘washing of regeneration’ wherein God ‘richly pours out the Holy Spirit’ [Titus 3:5]. And the oral gospel ‘is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith’ (Rom 1[:16]).”[6]

To receive the Word is to receive Christ who is the Word. And to receive Christ is to receive all things necessary for salvation because Christ Jesus (with the Holy Spirit) is the sum of God’s perfections.

Preaching, when it is the true mark of the Church, is a Christic enterprise and should never be conflated with the “doings” of man. Like the sacraments of the font, beichtstuhl, and altar, the pure preaching of the gospel should be recognized as the “Divine Majesty Himself … preaching there” for the purpose of self-presenting and self-giving. Thus, Luther writes, preaching is “an offering and presentation of Christ,”[7] not merely as an ideal, but existentially and sacramentally. Therefore all auditors, when presented with true heavenly preaching, hear the Son of God in their very midst:

“Would to God that we would gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word.… As a matter of fact, it is not an angel or a hundred thousand angels but the Divine Majesty Himself that is preaching there. To be sure, I do not hear this with my ears or see it with my eyes; all I hear is the voice of the preacher, or my brother or father, and I behold only a man before me. But I view the picture correctly if I add that the voice and words of father or pastor are not his own words and doctrine but those of our Lord and God. It is not a prince, a king, or an archangel whom I hear; it is He who declares that He is able to dispense the water of eternal life.”[8]

Notice not only who is the preacher (the Divine Majesty Himself), but also that the sacramental content takes us from one sacrament to another. It turns out, then, that the biblical definition of the Church collapses all considerations of what it is into an assertion of the sacraments of Christ: “the pure preaching of the gospel and the sacraments administered according to the gospel.” Christ is present in both. Christ self-gives in both. Indeed, when the sermon consists of the content Christ has authorized then the sermon has met the definition of a sacrament and attains to faithful preaching. When that happens, then Christ has occupied the Office of the Keys in our midst.