Friday, November 11, 2011

A Little Touch of Marty In the Night! (#2)

At a recent conference of WELS Pastors, a committee of Pastors, teachers, and laymen, who were asked to give their recommendations on the application of a church group for membership in the WELS, presented their preliminary report. It contained the following paragraph:

"Of particular concern to this committee, however, is that in many of the sermons we reviewed, the message of the Gospel, while present, did not predominate. Many of these sermons were designed to be practical in nature, but the practice (i.e. sanctification) of the believer was not always clearly connected with the motivation (i.e. justification) of the believer. We find this observation to be a serious concern, because if the Gospel does not predominate during the course of the sermon, there are not enough places in the rest of [the] worship format to make up for that deficit. For a congregation that has defined their target group as the unchurched, this concern is also that much more magnified."

It should be noted that this was not a "charge," or "accusation;" not something that was possibly or even probably true, but an actual "finding," that is, a "conclusion;" in other words, an observable and demonstrable fact, found to be true by fellow Pastors, teachers, and laymen.

What was even more fascinating to this observer was that this particular item, out of four areas of concern, generated the least amount of comment from the other Pastors present. Indeed, while I may have missed a comment or two during the discussion, I can't remember a single other Pastor bringing up this issue.

When I "wondered" this to a fellow Pastor, he suggested that the other Pastors didn't want to comment because they perhaps saw themselves and their own sermons in that finding of that committee! Thus, they were loathe to point a finger at a brother Pastor when they themselves perhaps felt a modicum of guilt on the subject.

This led to me back to Father Martin once again, to see what he had to say on the matter. Of course, he had a lot to say. I have chosen just a couple of sections from only one of his writings that speaks about exactly what Lutheran preachers should be preaching. Please, read on.

Of The Office of Preaching
by Martin Luther (1483-1546)


4. So much for the call into the office. But Christ is not speaking of that here; for something more is required, namely, that no rival or supplementary doctrine be introduced, nor another word be taught than Christ has taught. Christ says in Mt. 23:2-4: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens too grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger." Although these of whom Christ here speaks were regularly appointed, yet they were thieves and murderers; for they taught variations from Christ's teaching. Christ reproves them in another place, in Matthew 15:3, where he holds up before them their traditions and tells them how, through their own inventions, they have transgressed the commandments of God, yea, totally abolished them. We have also many prophets who were regularly appointed and still were misled, like Balaam, of whom we read in Num. 22; also Nathan, described in 2 Sam 7:3. Similarly many bishops have erred.

5. Here Christ says: He who would enter by the door must be ready to speak the Word concerning Christ and his word must center in Christ. Let it be called "coming" when one preaches aright; the approaching is spiritual, and through the Word--upon the ears of his hearers, the preacher comes at last into the sheepfold--the heart of believers. Christ says that the shepherd must enter by the door; that is, preach nothing but Christ, for Christ is the door into the sheepfold.

6. But where there are intruders, who make their own door, their own hole to crawl through, their own addition different from that which Christ taught, they are thieves. Of these Paul says to the Romans (16:17-18): "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them that are causing the divisions and occasions of stumbling, contrary to the doctrine which ye learned: and turn away from them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Christ, but their own belly; and by their smooth and fair speech they beguile the hearts of the innocent." Paul does not speak of opposing or antagonistic doctrines, but of those placed beside the true doctrine; they are additions, making divisions. Paul calls it a rival doctrine, an addition, an occasion of stumbling, an offense and a byway, when one establishes the conscience upon his own goodness or deeds.

7. Now, the Gospel is sensitive, complete and pre-eminent: it must be intolerant of additions and rival teachings. The doctrine of earning entrance into heaven by virtue of fastings, prayers and penance is a branch road, which the Gospel will not tolerate. But our Church authorities endorse these things,hence they are thieves and murderers; for they do violence to our consciences, which is slaying and destroying the sheep. How is this accomplished? If only I am directed into a branch or parallel road, then my soul is turned from God upon that road, where I must perish. Thus this road is the cause of my death. The conscience and heart of man must be founded upon one single Word or they will come to grief. "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field" (Is 40:6).

8. The doctrines of men, however admirable, fall to the ground, and with them the conscience that has built upon them. There is no help nor remedy. But the Word of God is eternal and must endure forever; no devil can overthrow it. The foundation is laid upon which the conscience may be established forever. The words of men must perish and everything that cleaves to them. Those who enter not by the door--that is, those who do not speak the true and pure Word of God, without any addition--do not lay the right foundation; they destroy and torture and slaughter the sheep. Therefore, Christ says further in this Gospel: "But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his Voice."


9. The porter here is the preacher who rightly teaches the Law--shows that the Law exists and must reveal to us our helplessness; that the works of the Law do not help us, and yet they are insistent. He then opens to the shepherd, that is, to Christ the Lord, and lets him alone feed the sheep. For the office of the Law is at an end; it has accomplished its mission of revealing to the heart its sins until it is completely humbled. Then Christ comes and makes a lamb out of the sheep--feeds it with his Gospel and directs it how to regain cheer for the heart so hopelessly troubled and crushed by the Law.

10. The lamb then hears Christ's voice and follows it. It has the choicest of pastures, and knows the voice of the shepherd. But the voice of a stranger it never hears and never follows. Just as soon as one preaches to it about works, it is worried and its heart cannot receive the teaching with joy. It knows very well that nothing is accomplished by means of works; for one may do as much as he will, still he carries a heavy spirit and he thinks he has not done enough, nor done rightly. But when the Gospel comes--the voice of the shepherd--it says: God gave to the world his only Son, that all who believe on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Then is the heart happy; it feeds upon these words and finds them good. The lamb has found its satisfying pasture; it wants none other. Yea, when it is given other pasture, it flees from it and will not feed therein. This pasture always attracts the sheep, and the sheep also find it. God says in the prophecy of Isaiah: "So shall my Word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish all in the things whereto, I sent it" (Is 55:11).

The portions of the sermon above are taken from volume III of, The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI). It was originally published in 1907 in English by Lutherans In All Lands (Minneapolis, MN), in a series titled The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, vol. 12. The original title of this sermon appears below (preached by Luther in 1522 and 1523). This e-text was scanned and edited by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink ; it is in the public domain and it may be copied and distributed without restriction. Original pagination from the Baker edition has been kept intact for purposes of reference.

So, my friends - how is the preaching at your church; or, brother Pastors - how are your sermons? Do they focus on the Word of Christ, and especially the Gospel? Is the law used properly; that is, to drive people to repentance and to Christ's work and mercy? Is the Gospel there, clearly and predominately, to comfort despairing souls, and lead believers into lives of thanks and praise? Or are they mostly "how to" sermons - how to live a better, easier, more prosperous, more tranquil, more pleasant life? Or do they perhaps focus a great deal on what's wrong with all the "other" churches, including some in our own fellowship; or what's wrong with the world; or how pure, noble, and untainted "we" are, etc....? Indeed, what IS going on out there with preaching these days?

Members - ask yourselves the simple question: Does the Gospel predominate in the sermons I hear? Also, ask your Pastors if they begin their sermon work in the original languages of the Bible, and how much time and effort and planning they put in to their sermons. Pastors - ask yourselves the same questions.

Again, and as always, comments and questions are invited and encouraged.

Pastor Spencer


Joe Krohn said...

I don't know about the rest of you...but I need to hear that law a lot to drive me back to Christ. It is so easy to think that there is any good in us. I have heard too many sermons that say we are no longer under the law. But in a sense we still are. A warped view of justification tips the scales towards complacency and a view that we are all good people...


Pastor Spencer said...

Thank you for the comment, Joe. Good observation.

Of course, the Law is not popular - it's not supposed to be! I've noticed, however, that in many of the "contempo" services I've listened to, the "messages" are very often actually loaded down with law. But it is more often than not, the 3rd use of the law rather than the first or second. This is a major problem. It's as if the preacher skips over the actual exposition of Scripture, and just gives 30 or 40 minutes of "application" and "appropriation." In other words, there is often very little of what we have done to necessitate a Savior, and what God has done to provide that Savior, but a whole lot of what we should do to show that we are saved. In this way, the preaching is much more sectarian/Reformed/Arminian than it is confessional Lutheran. As a brother Pastor recently commented to me, ". . . we have perhaps downplayed the role of faith. More seriously, I think, we have downplayed the role of repentance as a key and essential component of faith--effectively reducing faith to mere head knowledge." Thus, a sermon without at least one of the first two uses of the law is missing a key element that was quite prominent in the preaching of Jesus, His Apostles, and the Reformers.

Pastor Spencer

Daniel Baker said...

The sermon at my home parish last week was focused on the fact that faith isn't simply head-knowledge. Pastor even made sure to point out that, during the hymn "The Ten Commandments are the Law," we would be singing all 12 verses because it is in the last verses that the purpose of the Law is shown ("God these commandments gave therein to show, O child of man, your sin" and "Our works cannot salvation gain; They merit but endless pain.") and the truth of the Gospel is given ("Help us, Lord Jesus Christ, for we a Mediator have in Thee.").

Suffice it to say I have had a lot to be thankful for in the sermons I have heard over the past month (not just at my home parish either!). Must be something in the water over here. :)

Anonymous said...

In C.F.W. Walther's "Law and Gospel" I'm pretty sure he says that some of the best preachers are recent converts or men who have experienced the agony of the Law and the sweetness of the Gospel in a real time situation. I find that observation very true. I see pastors who have been born into the faith and have been "good" all their life and they don't preach very good sermons. But very recently I went to a church where a Vicar, who was confirmed in his 20's, preached. Prior to that he was a pretty big partier. His sermon, in my opinion, really applied to the congregation -- people who are out in the real world that commit and/or are around real time sins -- sins that even pagan society would deem unacceptable. He really preached the Law in its full severity. There wasn't any dancing around the Law. It was a very good "you" sermon with applicable sins -- not just a Law of original sin. But after condemning us with the Law he swiftly showered us with the Gospel. Far too often I hear sermons that are presented as, I like to call, story time. Their illustrations predominate and it's very hard to pick out Law and Gospel. I can't imagine how hard it would be for a visitor to hear the Law and Gospel if a member can barely do it.

Mitch Forte

Pastor Spencer said...

Thank you for your comment, Mitch. And you too, Daniel.

Next to the "mostly application (sanctification) most of the time" sermons, another very frequent commodity in our midst is what you call the "story-time" sermon. At a conference some years back another Pastor and I recounted at least 30 "illustrations" or stories from the sermon preached at the worship service. The text itself was barely mentioned, and the so-called sermon was little more than a long series of these anecdotes strung together with some spiritual "lessons" thrown in. And this was done by a Pastor who at the time was considered one of the best preachers in our synod. A re-emphasis and resurgence of good, old-fashioned confessional Lutheran preaching is needed today.

Pastor Spencer

Anonymous said...

Pastor Spencer,

Always find your blog very interesting and thought provoking. If I might be so bold, is this post referring to CrossWalk Church in Phoenix, Arizona and the adhoc committee report that was given at the conference in Las Vegas recently?

I have hesitated to inquire like this on past posts, where it also seems like you and your friends are referring to CrossWalk, as I am not a theologian, nor do I have time to spend on these blogs. I am, however, a member of CrossWalk, who in my spare time, tries to understand some of the underlying concerns that are out there.

Thank you,
Diana Berger

Daniel Baker said...

Pr. Spencer,

My father and I had a discussion in the not-too-distant past wherein I parroted the line that "sermons should not be Law-Gospel-Law," at which he offered a response that caused me to pause and reconsider my position. He pointed out that while nearly all of the Epistles are loaded with examples of man's depravity followed by the richness of the Holy Gospel, the Gospel is also followed by instructions regarding how we can imitate Christ's righteousness - indeed, make use of that righteousness that actually has become ours in Holy Baptism - by serving one another in love. I am curious what your response to this would be, and if you disapprove of this sort of preachment of love-to-neighbor following the proclamation of the Gospel in homiletic practice.

Pastor Spencer said...


Thank you for your comment.

I will respectfully decline to identify the reference in this forum since that was not the point of the post. My point was that all Pastors - myself included - need to work very diligently to be sure to present the pure Gospel in our sermons, and that this is the message that predominates; not law and not sanctification, as important as those both are also. Wherever that is not done, there needs to be a change and improvement in the preaching.

Glad to have you as a regular reader.

Pastor Spencer

Anonymous said...

I will respectfully accept your response to not identify the subject. CrossWalk is a Lutheran Church, not a "church group," so maybe it's a different entity that falls under similar circumstances.

Regardless, it is obviously quite concerning to have a group of theologians draw such a strong conclusion involving doctrine, no matter where it is occurring. Could you explain what the "pure Gospel" is, in accordance with Confessional Lutheranism?

I don't know if such a question requires an in-depth response or a brief one, I'll let the theologians decide that, if you are so inclined!

Thank you,
Diana Berger

Pastor Spencer said...


I am not opposed per se to what you call the "Law-Gospel-Law" paradigm in preaching. To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The text is the thing!" If the text calls for it, the confessional Lutheran preacher can and should certainly follow up the proclamation of the Law and Gospel with directives to follow God's will in the treatment of our fellow man. And even if the text does not contain some specific guidance for our sanctified Christian lives, I believe it is permissible for the preacher to extrapolate such from the context, especially if he knows that a certain part of sanctification may be lacking in his congregation.

But the point remains that what all sinners need most - from the preacher himself to all his hearers - is the stern condemnation of the Law, and the sweet comfort of the Gospel, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, until Jesus returns. If the sermon sometimes fails to address specific sanctification, either because it was not explicitly in the text, or because the preacher for whatever reason left it out, we will trust God the Holy Spirit to use the Gospel that was preached to motivate believers to do works of love.

Pastor Spencer

Pastor Spencer said...


Entire long books have been written about the pure Gospel, i.e. the Gospel proclaimed in the Holy Scriptures and defined in our Lutheran confessions. One of the best is called simply, "Law and Gospel," by C.F.W. Walther. If you don't have it yet, I highly recommend you find it in Crosswalk's library and read through it, and then buy one for yourself. I think you will enjoy it.

One of the best brief explanations of the Gospel is that given in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession:

Article IV: Of Justification.

1] Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. (Rom. 3 and 4)

Pastor Spencer

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