Learning to Preach from Martin Luther (Preachers of the Past, pt. 2)


This is part 2 of “Preachers of the Past,” a series where we discuss four distinct preachers from the past, ranging from 347 A.D. to 1945.

We’ve included detailed preaching points for study and discussion towards the bottom of this post.


Some background on Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Luther was the father of the Protestant reformation who would later be called the “German Hercules.”

While many think Luther was brilliant on his own merit, his wisdom clearly came from God, given that he graduated 30th out of 57 university students at the age of 18, thus revealing his pre-conversion intelligence. After he was saved, he prayed for much wisdom, and God answered.

Luther was educated as a loyal member of the Roman Catholic Church and became both a monk and a priest. His achievements as a pastor, scholar, theologian, and Christian were monumental and continue to profoundly influence the Church today. Melanchthon said at his funeral, “God had given a violent age a violent physician.”

Luther’s preaching and theology were shaped to a large extent by his personal experiences. The basic story is well known: Being frightened by a thunderstorm in 1505 at the age of twenty-one, the moody young man made and kept a vow to Saint Anne that he would become a monk in order to prepare for a holy death.

Though he became a very ascetic member of the Augustinian Hermits, he was never able to quiet his conscience of his sins, and so he lived with the conviction that he merited damnation. To assist him in dealing with his scrupulosity, his superior assigned him the task of earning his doctorate and becoming a professor of Scripture.

At some point between receiving his degree and beginning his teaching career in 1511, and his being made vicar over eleven monasteries in 1515, he had what is called his “tower experience,” which both resolved his doubts and gave him the theological basis for his eventual break with Rome. His own words best describe that event and its significance for him:

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that 11the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.

The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

Luther felt that the basic hermeneutical key to understanding Christian theology had been communicated to him through this experience. Christians do not have to earn their salvation through ascetic and charitable works, but rather it is freely given by God.

Years after Luther realized that Christ had died for him, he “could not keep silent despite excommunication and ban of empire, for he believed the truth of Scripture must be proclaimed for the rescue of souls like himself who were endangered by teaching that encouraged reliance on works for salvation. Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, this was Luther’s soteriological sermon to the world.”

Luther, preaching, and the Word of God

Martin Luther’s theology developed in such an integrated way that it is impossible to understand his theory of preaching without knowing the overall dynamic of his thought.

A convenient way of entering this dynamic that immediately reveals the enormous importance of preaching in Luther’s thought is to begin with his doctrine of the Word of God. God’s Word is seen in three manifestations: the second person of the Trinity (the incarnate Word), the Holy Scriptures (the written Word), and the preaching of the church (the proclaimed Word).

Thus, he was completely traditional in his understanding of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us is also the Word by which the Father created the universe. The intimate connection between God the Son and the Bible is that the whole purpose of Scripture, Hebrew and Christian alike, is to reveal Christ.

Luther preached thousands of sermons. He preached so often because the people of the town wanted to hear him, and because he and his contemporaries understood his doctorate in theology to be a call to teach the Word of God to the whole church. So, Luther would often preach twice on Sunday and once during the week. Walther von Loewenich said in his biography, “Luther was one of the greatest preachers in the history of Christendom … Between 1510 and 1546 Luther preached approximately 3,000 sermons. Frequently he preached several times a week, often two or more times a day.”

Luther taught as professor of Bible at Wittenberg University for 35 years as well. As a gifted musician, Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress” among many other hymns.

In 1522, he preached 117 sermons in Wittenberg, and 137 sermons during the following year. In 1528, he preached almost 200 times, and from 1529, we have 121 sermons. So, the average in those four years was one sermon every two-and-a-half days.

As Fred Meuser says in his book on Luther’s preaching, “Never a weekend off – he knows all about that. Never even a weekday off. Never any respite at all from preaching, teaching, private study, production, writing, counseling.”

That’s Luther’s first link with pastors: He knew the burden of preaching. He even worked preaching into his life as a family man. He had six children, and went so far as to hold one-hour devotions with them quite often.

Luther notices in Psalm 119 that the psalmist not only prayed and meditated over the Word of God in order to understand it. He also suffered in order to understand it. As Psalm 119:67 states, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep thy word.” And in v. 71 as well, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes.” An indispensable key to understanding the Scriptures is suffering in the path of righteousness.

Three rules of study and preparation

Thus, Luther said:

“I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself … Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and run thus: Oration, meditatio, tentatio.” (Prayer, intense study and meditation, and the experience of the cross through trials, respectively. Luther called trials the ‘touchstone.’)

“[They] teach you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme.

He proved the value of trials over and over again in his own experience. “For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you,” he says, “the devil will afflict you, will make a real doctor of you, and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word. For I myself … owe my papists many thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the devil’s raging that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian, driving me to a goal I should never have reached.”

Suffering was woven into life for Luther. Keep in mind that from 1521 onward, Luther lived under the ban of the empire. The Emperor Charles V said, “I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood and my soul.” He could be legally killed, except where he was protected by his prince. Luther knew what it was like to trust in God like David, or other psalmists or Paul who lived in the face of death.

He endured relentless slander of the cruelest kind. He once observed, “If the devil can do nothing against the teachings, he attacks the person, lying, slandering, cursing, and ranting at him. Just as the papists’ Beelzebub did to me when he could not subdue my Gospel, he wrote that I was possessed by the devil, was a changeling [fickle and stupid], my beloved mother a whore and bath attendant.”

Physically, he suffered from excruciating kidney stones, headaches with buzzing in his ears, ear infections, and incapacitating constipation – “I nearly gave up the ghost [died] – and now, bathed in blood, can find no peace. What took four days to heal immediately tears open again.”

It’s not surprising then that, emotionally and spiritually, he would undergo the most horrible struggles. For example, in a letter to Melanchthon dated August 2,1527, he writes,

“For more than a week I have been thrown back and forth in death and Hell; my whole body feels beaten, my limbs are still trembling. I almost lost Christ completely, driven about on the waves and storms of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of the intercession of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul from the depths of Hell.”

Here he meant not that he almost lost his salvation, but that he felt nearly destroyed by the enemy. Luther went on to say, “If I could today become king or emperor, I would not give up my office as preacher.” In spite of his many trials, Luther was a steadfast proclaimer of God’s Word. About 2,300 of the more than 4,000 sermons Luther preached are included in the twenty-two volumes devoted to them in the Weimar edition of his works.

How Luther preached

Luther usually preached from an outline.  In time, however, he developed a method of preaching that was virtually unique. It has often been compared to the patristic homily, but ordinarily he did not engage in verse-by-verse exegesis. Rather, it was the method of schriftauslegende Predigt, “expository preaching.”

Instead of looking at every word in the text sequentially in the sermon, he would discover in his own exegetical preparation what he called the center of meaning, the heart point, the big/main idea or kernel of the passage. He may preach it verse by verse, or summarize a part of a Gospel (the story of Lazarus), but he would always do so with the main point in mind.

To illustrate, he begins a Lenten sermon based on the story of the raising of Lazarus with these words:

“Dear Friends of Christ. I have told you the story of this Gospel in order that you may picture in your hearts and remember well that Christ our God, in all the Gospels, from beginning to end, and also all writings of the prophets and apostles, desires of us nothing else but that we should have a sure and confident heart and trust in him.”

The sermon consists of his efforts to extract that meaning from the story.

Luther would take an outline into the pulpit, but he was notorious for departing from it (he might have felt led by the Spirit to discuss a certain point in a different way, but never went down rabbit trails completely different from the topic at hand). Yet that is not to say he did not prepare thoroughly for his preaching. That preparation, however, consisted of immersing himself in the text until he had penetrated to its central meaning and developed an outline that would allow him to get that point across.

His favorite structural device was to set up an antithesis, a term which means setting things in opposition to one another. As noted above, the law/gospel contrast is the most characteristic form of this, but he also used sin/grace, Satan/God, and bound will/free will.

In the preaching of Luther, then, there was a perfect marriage of content and method. His grammarian’s analysis of the text allowed him to discover its meaning for the congregation, and his eye for application enabled him to direct that insight powerfully to their attention.

There is more to this than rhetoric, however. Preaching was a life-and-death matter for Luther because he believed that it was the medium through which the elect were saved, and, in every sermon, judgment and gospel were experienced anew. As John Doberstein says: “Luther’s sermons are therefore real battles in the eschatological struggle between Christ and the adversary; their aim is to make Christians of the hearers through the Word of God and thus hurl the power and victory of Christ against the power of evil.”

Preaching Points

The necessity and power of preaching/oral proclamation

  • For Luther, preaching is a dynamic, spiritual event like no other, and nothing can replace it. He said “Faith is an acoustical affair” because he so strongly believed that the Word of God preached, combined with faith in the hearers, was a divine moment. The Word must be heard, and not just read whenever
  • He believed, as Titus 1:1-3 or Matt 28:20 teach, that, in the oral proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, Christ makes Himself available to us. He said, “When you open the book containing the Gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to Him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the Gospel through which He is coming to you, or you are being brought to Him. For the preaching of the Gospel is nothing else than Christ coming to us, or we being brought to When you see how He works, however, and how he helps everyone to whom He comes or who is brought to Him, then rest assured that faith is accomplishing this in you and that He is offering your soul exactly the same sort of help and favor through the Gospel. H you pause here and let Him do you good, that is, if you believe that He benefits and He helps you, then you really have it. Then Christ is yours, presented to you as a gift. After that it is necessary that you turn this into an example and deal with your neighbor in the very same way, be given also to him as a gift and an example.”
  • For Luther, preaching is as fully the Word of God as the incarnate Lord and the written Scripture. Therefore, any preacher who has finished a sermon should not pray for the forgiveness of its deficiencies, but should rather say, ”In this sermon I have been an apostle and a prophet of Jesus Christ.” Anyone who cannot boast like that should give up preaching, “for it is God’s Word and not (the preacher’s) and God ought not and cannot forgive it, but only confirm, praise, and crown it.” The distinction between the incarnate and the proclaimed Word is that “the former Word is in substance God; the latter word is in its effect the power of God, but isn’t God in substance, whether it’s spoken by Christ or by a minister.”
  • “In the New Testament, preaching must be done orally and publicly, with the living voice, to produce in speech and hearing what prior to this lay hidden in the letter and in secret ” Such oral preaching is, for Luther, “the way the Lord, our Ruler, establishes his kingdom.” The superiority of the oral to the written Word is developed at length in Luther’s exegesis of Malachi 5:7: “For the lips of a priest guard knowledge.” With this perspective, then, he can say: “For just as in legal disputes whatever judgment is passed on the basis of the reports of witnesses is arrived at by hearing alone and believed because of faith, since it cannot be known in any other way, neither by perception nor by reason, so the Gospel is received in no other way than by hearing” (see Rom.10).
  • For Luther, sola scriptura is also solo Since the essence of both the OT and NT is Christ, the truth of Scripture is in what promotes Christ as the soteriological key to scriptural meaning. His belief that Christ as Word speaks in the words of Scripture led Luther to call the church a “mouth house” that must confess and proclaim Christ.

The grace of Christ, not moralism

  • Luther taught forcefully that offering Christ as a gift is not moralism, or preaching of Christ-as-example. He said that the saving benefit of Christ is not His example but His grace. The one who receives that grace becomes a gift and example, or a “little Christ” to the neighbor. The person and work of Christ, and the grace which flows from and through Christ, is the Gospel, and moralism is not.

Preaching is most important

  • Luther considers preaching to be the most important office in the world, more important than even that of officiating at sacraments. It is more important than prayer. It is a matter of life and death because it is the medium through which salvation is bestowed. Unlike the Muslim religion, which is spread by the sword, Christian faith is spread by preaching. People who are deprived of preaching often lose their faith; preaching, in this view, constitutes the church. For that reason, “the Word of God does not assail [attack or overcome] trifles, baubles [trinkets], or bubbles, but kingdoms, great kings, and nations on earth, as Psalm 2:2 declares.” Preaching is the means by which Christ will slay the antichrist. So, clergy who do not preach do not deserve the name of clergy.

Salvation and the Savior through the Scriptures

  • Since preaching is the very vehicle of salvation, it is the most important duty of clergy and the main purpose for which people are ordained. “Whoever does not preach the Word, though he was called by the church to do this very thing, is no priest at all, and that sacrament of ordination can be nothing else than a certain rite by which the church chooses its preachers.” That clergy are ordained to preach, however, does not mean that only the ordained preach. Luther understood the priesthood of all believers to mean that all the faithful are capable of preaching.
  • Luther also emphasized what Luke 24:27 taught, that Christ is the center of the Old and New Testament. The OT bears witness to Christ and should be read through the lens of a Christian. “But what a fine lot of tender and pious children we are! In order that we might not have to study in the Scriptures and learn Christ there, we simply regard the entire Old Testament as of no account, as done for and no longer Yet it alone bears the name of Holy Scripture [probably referring to 2 Tim. 3:16, since that was the only completed book the Church had then]. And the gospel should really not be something written, but a spoken word which brought forth the Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles have done. This is why Christ Himself did not write anything but only spoke. He called his teaching not Scripture but gospel, meaning good news or a proclamation that is spread not by pen but by word of mouth.”
  • Luther believed that the Law was to be used lawfully as 1 states, and thus it shows people their need for a Savior. “Even though we are already in the New Testament and should have only the preaching of the Spirit, since we are still living in flesh and blood, it is necessary to preach the letter as well, so that people are first killed by the law and all their arrogance is destroyed. Thus they may know themselves and become hungry for the Spirit and thirsty for grace. So [the letter] prepares the people for the preaching of the Spirit.”
  • “The Word is the channel through which the Holy Spirit is This is a passage against those who hold the spoken Word in contempt. The lips are the public reservoirs of the church. In them alone is kept the Word of God. You see, unless the Word is preached publicly, it slips away. The more it is preached, the more firmly it is retained. Reading it is not as profitable as hearing it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends, and resists the spirit of error. Satan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God, but he flees at the speaking of the Word.”
  • Furthermore, “practice must agree with preaching.” “The preacher’s first message is to teach repentance, remove offenses, proclaim the Law, humiliate and terrify the sinners. No one can do this but a godly preacher. Hypocrites cannot preach this way because they do not truly feel sins.”
  • He is also loved for his off-the-cuff remarks, which were recorded by his many students that came to dinner in a book called Table Talk.There are many great insights in this book on all aspects of Christianity including preaching.

On education and preaching

  • The call is based upon skill, and some talents are required: “The person who wishes to preach needs to have a good voice, good eloquence, a good memory, and oilier natural gifts.”
  • But education is needed as well: “A preacher must be instructed in the Word of God in order that he may be able to defend the church.” Luther thought that his doctorate conferred authority to preach, and he was greatly annoyed by “these fellows who know nothing and yet dispute our preaching.”
  • To ensure that there was always an ample supply of clergy was one of the reasons children needed to have more than the minimum education required by business.
  • One of the uses to which old monasteries could be put was as school buildings, in which young people could prepare to be “bishops, pastors, and other servants of the church” or other Christian vocations.
  • Education, however, is not the only essential qualification for preaching: “No matter how learned a man may be, if he has no sure call and does not rightly teach the scriptures, he may talk as he will but there is nothing behind.”

The objective Word and study

  • In 1539, commenting on Psalm 119, Luther wrote, ”In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly- but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word.” This phrase is extremely important. The “external Word” is the Book. And the saving, sanctifying, illuminating Spirit of God, he says, comes to us through this “external Word.”
  • Luther calls it the “external Word” to emphasize that it is objective, fixed, outside ourselves, and therefore unchanging; it is a Book, with a capital B. Neither ecclesiastical hierarchy nor fanatical ecstasy can replace it or shape it. It is “external,” like God. You can take it or leave it, but you can’t make it other than what it is. It is a book with fixed letters and words and sentences.
  • “Because heresies threatened the living apostolic message, it had to be recorded in a book to protect it from Preaching reverses this process of conservation again, allowing the Scriptures of the past to become the tidings of the present…The Gospel has been committed to lifeless paper; fresh words can transform it into glad tidings again.”
  • “This Gospel treats of the office of the ministry, how it is constituted, what it accomplishes and how it is It is indeed very necessary to know these things, for the office of preaching is second to none in Christendom. St. Paul highly esteemed this office of preaching for the reason that through it the Word of God was proclaimed which is effective to the salvation of all who believe it. He says to the Romans (1:16):1 am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes.”
  • “What is new in Luther,” Heiko Oberman says, “is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.” In other words, the saving, sanctifying, authoritative Word of God comes to us in a Human reason and tradition must be subjected to the Word.
  • Since Luther believed that the Word of God that saves and sanctifies, from generation to generation, is preserved in a Book, at the heart of every pastor’s work is “book-work.” Call it reading, meditation, reflection, cogitation, study, exegesis, or whatever you will – a large and central part of the work is to wrestle God’s meaning from a Book, and proclaim it in the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Luther was a great lover of the Holy Spirit. And his exaltation of the Book as the “external Word” did not belittle the Spirit. On the contrary, it elevated the Spirit’s great gift to Christendom. Cherishing the Book implied to Luther that the Holy Spirit is a beautiful person to be known and loved, not a buzz to be felt.
  • In an article on Luther, Piper states, “The immense implication of this for the pastoral ministry is that we pastors are essentially brokers of the Word of God transmitted in a Book. We are fundamentally readers, and teachers and proclaimers of the message of the Book. And all of this is for the glory of the incarnate Word and by the power of the indwelling Spirit. But neither the indwelling Spirit nor the incarnate Word leads us away from the Book that Luther called “the external Word.” Christ stands forth for our worship and our fellowship and our obedience from the “external Word.” This is where we see the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). So, it’s for the sake of Christ that the Spirit broods over the Book where Christ is clear, not over trances where he is obscure.”
  • Luther says that the true biblical way to study the Bible will be saturated with prayer and self-doubt and God-reliance moment by moment: “You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal … Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through His dear Son, graciously to grant you His Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you “
  • In one of his prayers, Luther said, “Dear Lord God, I want to preach so that you are glorified. I want to speak of you, praise you, praise your name. Although I probably cannot make it turn out well, won’t you make it turn out well?”
  • To feel the force of this commitment you have to realize that in the church in Wittenberg in those days there were no programs, but only worship and preaching; Sunday 5:00 a.m. worship with a sermon on the Epistle, 10:00 a.m. with a sermon on the Gospel, an afternoon message on the Old Testament or catechism. Monday and Tuesday sermons were on the Catechism; Wednesdays on Matthew; Thursdays and Fridays on the Apostolic letters; and Saturday on John. This schedule probably changed as he taught on other books, but this is one schedule we have recorded.

Church purity, growth, and preaching

  • Early in the Reformation, Luther maintained that the low state of preaching was largely responsible for what he perceived to be the decline of the church. He further insisted, however, that it was ignorance of the Scriptures that was responsible for the low state of preaching. He was enraged at what was being passed off as preaching and realized that the oral word of God had to rely upon the written word of God. For that reason, he translated the Bible into German and devoted much of his career as a theologian to the exposition of the Scriptures. In his exposition of Psalm 68 Luther wrote, ”Where God does not provide the message, a sermon is useless…For wherever God does not suggest the words, there is no sermon at all, or it is a vain and pernicious sermon.” As a minister of the word, a preacher was to be sure not only that he had a divine office but also that his doctrine was correct. “If I were not so sure of this that in my heart I could build upon it and depend upon it,” Luther commented, “it would be much better for me to keep my mouth shut.”
  • “The reason why the world is so utterly perverted and in error is that for a long time there have been no genuine preachers. There are perhaps three thousand priests, among whom one cannot find four good ones – God have mercy on us in this crying shame! And when you do get a good preacher, he runs through the gospel superficially and then follows it up with a fable about the old ass or a story about Dietrich of Berne, or he mixes in something of the pagan teachers, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and others, who are all quite contrary to the gospel and also contrary to God.” It makes one wonder what Luther would think about seeker-churches and 4 video clips per sermon (which are usually a stretch in trying to illustrate a Biblical point). Rather than seeking to be relevant (which in most churches ends up being cultural rather than biblical), Luther preached God’s Word knowing that His Word is always relevant.

Simplicity in preaching

  • In order for the Reformation to succeed at the popular level, it was necessary to preach to the people in such a manner that the gospel message could be grasped. The sermon as an instrument of reform had to be preached with hearers in mind.
  • In the well-known collection of many of Luther’s after-dinner remarks known as the Table Talk, the reformer commented occasionally on preaching. Luther once said to his companions, “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse of Scripture, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.'” When describing the model preacher, however, Luther was much more apt to point to the example of Christ than to his own For example, he states, “When Christ preached He proceeded quickly to a parable and spoke about sheep, shepherds, wolves, vineyards, fig trees, seeds, fields, plowing. The poor lay people were able to comprehend these things.”
  • The example of the preaching of Jesus was not wasted on Luther; he treated his texts with his hearers’ interests at heart. He preached on the nativity from the point of view of Mary and the Epiphany lesson of the twelve-year old Jesus in the temple from the viewpoint of the anxious parents, because in his congregation there were young women who knew what it meant to give birth in a cold house and there were parents who felt guilt over the neglect of their What Luther said about his efforts at translating, no doubt, also applied to his preaching: ”We must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly.” The following remarks of Luther summarize his insistence that preaching be understood:

“Cursed be every preacher who aims at lofty topics in the church, looking for his own glory and selfishly desiring to please one individual or another. When I preach here I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely forty are present, but at the hundred or the thousand young people and It’s to them that I preach, to them that I devote myself, for they too need to understand. If the others don’t want to listen, they can leave…we preach in public for the sake of plain people. Christ could have taught in a profound way, but He wished to deliver His message with the utmost simplicity in order that common people might understand. Good God, there are sixteen-year-old girls, women, and farmers in the church, and they don’t understand lofty matters.”

“Failures” in preaching

  • Theoretically, Luther believed that the sermon could be a vital and useful instrument of reform, but in practice its impact often seemed minimal at best. He reconciled himself to the fact that no preacher would be able to remove or change all that was wrong with the church. Nevertheless, he still held out hope and encouraged fellow preachers to believe that they were not preaching in vain even though “barely two listened to their sermons.” He compared their predicament to a fire that could not be controlled or extinguished and said that their task was to try to rescue a few. Luther would not quit and he urged others not to give up either:

“For one should not quit simply because so few are changed for the better in hearing the preaching of the gospel. But do what Christ did: He rescued the elect and left the rest behind. This is what the apostles did also. It will not be better for you.”

Luther, more than any other great authors I’ve read, is the embodiment of authenticity. Maybe he was too ‘real’ at times. But this boldness made him dear to the people. People could relate to him.

He said in Table Talk, “Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse on Erasmus.” (He and Erasmus fought over, essentially, the Calvin/ Arminian, or Augustine/Pelagian controversy. Luther responded to Erasmus’ attacks with Bondage of the Will which masterfully refuted Erasmus and is considered one of his greatest works.)

The point here is that Luther was open with his emotions. He could have been jesting when he said he prayed for a curse, or he could have been venting. Nevertheless, Luther poured out his heart in life and ministry. He was bigger than life, yet humble. People loved how he said what he felt, and one never needed to know how he truly felt on a matter.

There is a place for restraint, but Luther’s personality was very accessible and open. Preachers could learn a lot from his transparency and boldness. He possessed a confidence which is rarely seen – he didn’t care what people thought. Yes, he took this too far at times, but his zeal is impressive. (I would argue that his later comments that were somewhat anti-Semitic, or harsher comments towards the end of his life were due to his extreme sicknesses, but that’s my take on it from the data I’ve seen.)

Key Takeaway

The key to Luther: Prayer, intense study, and knowing that trials are God’s tools for sanctification, along with the utmost emphasis on Christ, Scripture, grace, faith, evangelism/salvation, and the power of the preached Word.

He also emphasized personal faith in Christ and a dynamic relationship with Him. “Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone, this was Luther’s soteriological sermon to the world.”

In addition, like Phillips Brooks, a passion for the lost fueled Luther’s ministry and preaching, be it for the saved or unsaved. One can be ignited by a passion for the lost and use that to disciple believers or preach to the lost. Luther’s life revolved around the authority of Scripture, salvation by faith alone, and Christ. Everything he did flowed from these interconnected principles.

Preachers of the Past” is a four-part series written by The Rev. Canon David Roseberry and his study assistant.

Canon Roseberry is the President of LeaderWorks and, along with Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council hosts RSVP (Rectors’ Summit for Vision and Planning), a four-day intensive retreat for Rectors of Anglican Churches. Information about RSVP’s annual retreat in December can be found at RectorsSummit.com.

Stay tuned for future posts on:

  • Phillips Brooks
  • G. Campbell Morgan


David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

View more from David Roseberry


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