What is Lutheran Preaching?

Pastor Rolf David Preus

August 9, 2019

Camp Trinity

New Haven, Missouri


The most important thing a Lutheran pastor does is to preach.  The question put before us this morning is “What is Lutheran Preaching?”  This is not just academic or theoretical.  It is vital.  We Lutherans – preachers and people – need to know what Lutheran preaching is.  How do we recognize it?  What is its source and foundation?  What is its substance?  Does it have inherent value?  Is Lutheran preaching unique?  How does it differ from other kinds of preaching?


Let us consider this morning seven features of Lutheran preaching.  First, Lutheran preaching is biblical.  Second, Lutheran preaching is evangelical.  Third, Lutheran preaching is didactic.  Fourth, Lutheran preaching is clear.  Fifth, Lutheran preaching is dogmatic.  Sixth, Lutheran preaching is polemical.  Seventh, Lutheran preaching rightly distinguishes between the law and the gospel.


First, let us consider the source and foundation of Lutheran preaching.  We Lutherans confess that the Holy Scriptures are the only norm by which all teachers and teachings in the church are to be judged.   This is because the Bible is God’s word.  If the preacher is to preach God’s word he must preach the Bible.  The Bible is both source and standard. 


The Bible is the source of his teaching.  While the Lutheran preacher may refer to truth claims of the social, political, or natural sciences in his preaching, he may not base his preaching on such authorities.  The Bible is the sole source.  Other authorities have only a derivative authority.  Even as the Scriptures alone establish an article of faith, just so the Scriptures alone must be the authoritative source of all preaching.


Since the Bible is the source of Lutheran teaching, it is also the standard of the preacher’s preaching.  He may not preach anything contrary to the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures.  False teachings abound.  They are in the religious air we breathe.  They are not always easily detected.  This is why the preacher must not only be thoroughly indoctrinated in the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, he must also be well acquainted with popular errors that may infect and poison his parishioners.


Since the Bible is the source and standard of the preacher’s preaching, he must be able to read it.  He should be familiar with the original languages of the Bible.  He should be acquainted with sound rules of biblical interpretation.  He needs to know what the inspired text means.  God’s word is not to be discovered by means of ascending above or descending below the written text of the Holy Scriptures.  Rather, God’s word is the very words the Holy Spirit has set down in writing for us to read and understand.


Lutheran preaching requires Lutheran theologians.  A Lutheran theologian has studied the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and binds himself to the teaching of the Scriptures and the Confessions.  He binds himself to the Scriptures because they are the very word of God.  He binds himself to the Lutheran Confessions because they are taken from the Holy Scriptures and their teaching is in perfect harmony with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. 


Sectarian preachers claim that their preaching is based entirely on the Bible.  When examined, one can see that it is laced with unbiblical errors that permeate popular American religious culture.  These errors move this way and that, following theological fads that capture the religious imagination.  Lutheran preaching does not entail searching for the ever evolving truth.  Even as God “has spoken by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2) and has nothing more to say than he has already said, we can confess the Christian faith in words that remain true centuries after they were written.  Lutheran preaching requires Lutheran preachers who have voluntarily subscribed unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions because the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions is in complete agreement with the Holy Scriptures, which are the written, inerrant, clear, word of God.  Since the Confessions are in conformity with the Holy Scriptures, Biblical preaching is in conformity with the Lutheran Confessions. 


Preaching and the Bible go together.  The substance and value of Lutheran preaching corresponds to the substance and value of the Holy Scriptures.  Jesus is the substance and value of the Bible.  Jesus is the substance of Lutheran preaching.  Preaching that does not preach Jesus is not Lutheran preaching.  It has no spiritual value.  Jesus is the reason God wrote the Bible.  Jesus is the reason that we preach.


This brings us to the second feature of Lutheran preaching.  Lutheran preaching is evangelical.  This is by far the longest part of my presentation this morning.  Lutheran preaching preaches Christ.  Preaching Christ is preaching who he is: true God, eternally begotten of his Father, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary.  Preaching Christ is preaching what Christ has done: he was crucified for us and rose from the dead on the third day.  He has redeemed us by his blood.  He has fulfilled the law for us.  He has borne the wrath of God against all sinners and quenched it.  He has reconciled us to God.  He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.  Preaching Christ is preaching the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake, not as a possibility if and when the hearer meets certain conditions, but as an unassailable and irrefutable truth.  A man who doesn’t believe in objective justification does not know how to preach.  Preaching Christ is absolving penitents in the name of and by the authority of him who has taken away their sins.  Preaching Christ is preaching for faith.  It is preaching the gospel that engenders faith and that is apprehended by faith.  The purpose of Lutheran preaching is justification through faith alone.


The teaching of justification through faith alone is the central teaching of the Christian religion.  Here is how we Lutherans confess it in the Augsburg Confession, Article IV:


Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins.  This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight (Rom. 3-4).


Whence comes the faith through which we are justified?  We Lutherans continue our confession in Article V of the Augsburg Confession:


In order that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted.  For through the Word and the sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, and the Holy Spirit produces faith, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel.  That is to say, it is not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ that God justifies those who believe that they are received into favor for Christ’s sake. Gal. 3:14, “That we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”


Our churches condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to men without the external Word, through their own preparations and works.


The purpose of preaching is that we may obtain the faith through which sinners are justified.  Lutheran preaching is for the justification of those who hear the sermon.  The “external Word” of which the Augsburg Confession is speaking here, through which the Holy Spirit comes to men, is not just the Bible as a book.  It is the preaching of the biblical gospel.  Preaching Christ is preaching justification.


The purpose of preaching is justification through faith alone.  The power of preaching is the doctrine of justification through faith alone.  The substance of gospel preaching is the doctrine of justification through faith alone.  St. Paul the apostle teaches this in Romans 1:15-17,

So, as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”


It was not Martin Luther who came up with the idea that justification through faith alone is the central topic of the Christian faith.  St. Paul clearly teaches it.  The righteousness that is from faith to faith is the power of the gospel.  This righteousness isn’t a metaphor for something else.  It is Christ’s obedience and suffering.  This is why the same Apostle wrote to the Corinthians,


And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)


In light of the persistent echoes of a long ago discredited gospel reductionism sounding forth in certain Lutheran quarters today, we must make a clear distinction between the authority of the Holy Scriptures as the only standard of divine teaching on the one hand, and the power of the gospel as God’s appointed means of engendering faith on the other.  The normative authority of the Bible does not derive from its power to save us.  The Bible is the only norm of doctrine, not because of what the doctrine does, but because of who is teaching it.  God wrote the Bible.  This is why it has the authority to judge all doctrine the preacher preaches.  But we may never forget that the reason God gave us an authoritative Bible is so that we would know the truth about our Savior.  St. Paul joins together the power of the gospel, the purpose of the Bible, and the task of the preacher in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 where we read:


From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.


We don’t need to make rules prescribing just how the preacher is to preach the gospel every time he preaches it.  The Bible uses various words to describe the same gospel: redeem, forgive, justify, reconcile, and save do not mean exactly the same thing but they are all talking about the same thing.  The Lutheran preacher must preach the text.  But Lutheran preaching preaches the gospel even when preaching on a text that contains no gospel. 


The late James D. Kennedy, longtime pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, authored the very popular, manual on evangelism called Evangelism Explosion back in 1970.  He is famous for the so called “Kennedy questions” that many Lutherans learned to ask.  The first question was: “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven?”  The second question was: “What would you answer God if he asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’”  Making due note of the decision theology inherent in the Reformed doctrine of conversion, Kennedy did teach that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, not the good deeds of the Christian, were the grounds for his salvation.  As a Reformed preacher, he was capable of preaching justification through faith alone.  I heard him do so on more than one occasion.


I also heard him preach entire sermons in which he made no mention of the gospel at all.  Here was a man devoted to teaching others how to witness to Christ for the purpose of leading souls to faith and eternal salvation, who could stand up in the pulpit and preach for thirty or forty minutes, talking about Abraham Lincoln and American exceptionalism and say not one word about how a sinner is justified by God, forgiven of his sins, and rescued from death and hell.


It’s not so surprising when you consider the Reformed doctrine of conversion, how they view the working of the Holy Spirit, and their doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  The preacher doesn’t have to preach the gospel every time he preaches.


The Lutheran preacher must preach the gospel.  He knows that the sermon he preaches is a means of grace.  This is why he takes to heart St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!”  Lutheran preaching is gospel preaching.


Gospel preaching is preaching about Christ.  In recent years, we have heard much more preaching about the sacraments than we did in the past.  Perhaps this is good.  Perhaps it is not.  It depends.  Is Christ being preached?  When we preach about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are we talking about Christ’s death and resurrection?  Are we preaching that the efficacy of baptism depends on the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Jesus?  Are we teaching that the body and blood of Jesus that we are eating and drinking in the Lord’s Supper give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation because this is what Christ has won for us by his vicarious suffering and death?  Are we preaching Christ when we preach the sacraments?


If the sermon is a means of grace, God gives his people grace through the preaching of the preacher.  God gives grace through the washing with water by the word.  God gives grace when he gives us to eat and to drink of Christ’s body given for us and Christ’s blood shed for us.  God gives us his grace in the gospel that is taught by God’s people at the dinner table, to the children at bedtime, to the neighbor who wants to know why we believe what we believe, and to anybody anywhere willing to listen to a Christian talk about Christ.  There is no difference between the grace God gives when the church is gathered together as church, where the preacher preaches and the Lord’s Supper is administered, and the grace God gives when the church is scattered around the world represented in homes and families wherever God’s people meet.


Recently the word grace has been replaced with the word gifts.  We used to go to church to receive God’s grace.  Now we go to receive God’s gifts.  Why the change in language?  Is this a Lutheran reaction to the spiritual gifts enthusiasm that took the church by storm about a generation ago?  Instead of rejoicing in the gift of speaking in tongues (that is most likely bogus and even if authentic cannot give us any lasting benefit), let us rejoice in the gift of Christ’s body and blood given to us to eat and to drink in the sacrament of the altar?  That would be a good use of the term gifts.  But the use of the word gifts instead of the word grace raises questions that bear on our topic.  Why has the word grace been replaced by the word gifts?


Is it to locate where God’s grace is given?  There is no doubt that God attaches his grace to the pastor’s preaching, to the gospel that is read from the lectern, prayed at the altar, sung in the pew, confessed, and received in the Lord’s Supper from the words of Jesus, “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.”  We do go to church to receive gifts from God, gifts through which he attaches his grace.


But there is a reason why we Lutherans have traditionally spoken of the means of grace.  Grace is located in God, specifically in his Son, specifically in his holy vicarious obedience and suffering and death.  Grace is grounded in the objective doing and dying of Jesus Christ.  Grace is God’s favor toward us underserving sinners.  Grace is redemption.  Grace is propitiation.  Grace is objective justification. 


To speak of going to church to receive God’s gifts focuses our attention on what is happening in the Divine Service.  The gifts include the preacher preaching in persona Christi.  Call it presence theology.  Christ is present.  Everything is incarnational.  We talk of touching and tasting.  The Lord’s Supper becomes the center of worship.  What is tangible, visible, and bodily expressed, appealing to sight and sense as happening in front of our eyes is where the gifts God gives are located.  Its present location in the Divine Service, preferably as high a liturgy as the Lutheran laity will tolerate, becomes the focus of faith.  The focus on the giving of gifts directs our faith to gifts that we can see.  The gifts are God’s presence among us.  This theology of presence is about the giving of gifts.  Is it the giving that was given on Calvary? 


The preacher preaches.  He waxes eloquent on baptism and the Lord’s Supper without ever articulating the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus and justification through faith alone.  It is good to preach about the means of grace.  But there are no means of grace without grace and there is no grace without Jesus vicariously obeying, suffering, and offering himself up as the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but for the whole world.  Justification is by grace.  How this justification is given to faith matters.  It matters very much.  But preaching about the giving is not necessarily preaching the gospel.  Grace flows from the wounds of Jesus shed on Calvary.  Grace is atonement.  This is what the Lutheran preacher preaches.  Lutheran preaching is the center of the Sunday service.  In recent years we have seen the increase of every Sunday Communion.  This is good.  We have also seen a decrease in the length of sermons.  Sermons get shorter and shorter with preachers actually arguing that a sermon should not be more than ten minutes long.  This is bad.


In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, article fifteen, paragraph 43 we Lutherans list the things that we preach about:


In our churches, on the other hand, all sermons deal with topics like these: penitence, the fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, comfort for the conscience through faith, the exercise of faith, prayer and our assurance that it is efficacious and is heard, the cross, respect for rulers and for all civil ordinances, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ (or the spiritual kingdom) and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love.


This list entails various topics related to justification, such as: penitence, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, comfort for the conscience through faith, the exercise of faith, the kingdom of Christ, and so forth.  The sacraments are not listed.


Please don’t misunderstand.  We should preach the sacraments.  We need to teach in our preaching and we need to teach baptismal regeneration and infant baptism.  We need to teach that the Lord’s Supper really is the body and blood of Jesus and that it really does give us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  I’m not criticizing preaching on the sacraments.


But when we preach about our salvation in the here and now we may not neglect what Jesus has done there and then.  Sermons are preached.  Sacraments are administered.  According to Luther’s Small Catechism, the benefit of eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper is shown by the words, “Given and shed for you, for the remission of sins.”  To teach about the Supper we teach about the cross.  The sacraments are subordinate to and supportive of the preaching of the cross.  When preaching about the sacraments obscures or ignores atonement and justification, it is no longer Lutheran preaching.  With all of the talk about presence, touching, tasting, and feeling, and incarnational this and that you might forget that the chief benefit of the sacrament is the forgiveness of sins.


Preaching is the most important thing happening in the Divine Service.  The Supper serves the sermon.  Why does Jesus want us to eat his body and drink his blood?  What does the Bible say?  We eat and we drink to proclaim his death, to remember him in this way, that is, according to what he did to obtain eternal life for us all.  He gave us no sacrament to commemorate his power over nature, his power to heal, or to create bread to feed thousands.  He wants us to remember his death.  The Lord’s Supper is subordinated to the pure preaching of the central article: justification through faith alone.  The Lord’s Supper serves this proclamation.  The Lord’s Supper cannot be worthily received except through the faith that trusts in divine mercy that remits sins freely for Christ’s sake. 


This brings us to the third feature of Lutheran preaching.  Lutheran preaching is didactic.  Preaching is for faith.  Faith requires doctrine.  Faith is neither Søren Kierkegaard’s leap nor Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern.  Faith in the Christian sense of the term entails knowledge, assent, and trust.  The knowledge to which we give assent is divine doctrine.  We assent to it.  We trust it.  To trust in God is to trust in what he says.  God teaches us.  We give assent to his teaching, that is, we agree with it.  We confess it to be true.  We trust in what he teaches.  Not only is it true, but it is for me. 


“Oh, we believe in a person, not a list of doctrines.”  So they say.  They pit faith in Jesus against teaching and trusting in the doctrine Jesus teaches us.  This false antithesis is established for the purpose of teaching a false Jesus that will scratch itching ears.  Every sermon must teach.  The Bible was written to teach us.  The purpose of preaching is the purpose of the Bible.  The purpose of a sermon is to teach.  This is why hymns are composed and sung.  It’s not to give expression to our religious feelings.  It is to be instructed in divine truth.  This is why the church gathers together.  She continues steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine.  Doctrine is preached.  A sermon that is not didactic is not worth preaching.  The notion that God’s people need to be distracted by stories so that they won’t be bored with doctrinal preaching contradicts Jesus who said that his sheep hear his voice.  Christians love Christian doctrine.  Not to teach them is to despise them.  To despise doctrine is to despise Jesus, the Bible, and the preaching office.  John Gerhard, in his Method of Theological Study, writes:


The same goes for secular stories.  If the preacher tries to spend too much time on them, he will cause his hearers to hear the Word of the living God with sleepy, lazy ears until some silly story allures their ears and entertains their mind.  Only God’s Word is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12).  It is “the Word of Spirit and life” (John 6:63).  It is the inexhaustible source of divine wisdom, so that it hardly needs heathen sayings or secular stories as some kind of supplement.


This brings us to the fourth feature of Lutheran preaching: It is clear.  Anything can be obfuscated by the use of technical jargon.  At a men’s fellowship supper at my congregation in Sidney, Montana, as I listened to the men talk about fishing and hunting I found that I could only vaguely understand what they were talking about.  They used and understood terms and expressions with which I was not familiar.  It was like they were speaking a different language, a language I could not speak.


It is one thing for the laymen of the church I serve to talk to each other in a language that their pastor, raised in Clayton, Missouri, cannot understand.  It’s quite another for their pastor to preach in a language his parishioners cannot understand.  Christian doctrine is clear.  The truth is always clear.  It’s false doctrine that complicates things.  Doctrinal preaching must be clear preaching or it is just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  The sine qua non of doctrinal preaching is that the doctrine be presented clearly, in language the people who hear it can understand.  If the preacher must use a biblical term that the hearers may not understand, he should explain in clear and simple language what the term means.  (Sine qua non means “without which nothing,” that is, if the teaching isn’t clearly taught it’s of no benefit.)


Listen to what we confess about this in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:


Practical and clear sermons hold an audience, but neither the people nor the clergy have ever understood our opponents’ teaching.  The real adornment of the churches is godly, practical, and clear teaching, the godly use of the sacraments, ardent prayer, and the like.  Candles, golden vessels, and ornaments like that are fitting, but they are not the peculiar adornment of the church.


The fifth feature of Lutheran preaching is that it is dogmatic.  Dogmatic is pastoral.  The sin-sick suffering soul receives no care from “I think so” preaching.  It must be dogmatic.  Here we need to make a sharp distinction between sound preaching and exegetical studies, including most (but not all) commentaries.  You know how exegetes are.  “It could mean this, it could mean that, let’s consult a dozen or so experts and then we’ll give you our provisional interpretation of the text.”  I’m not saying we shouldn’t read commentaries or exegetical studies.  I’m saying we mustn’t confuse them with sermons.  When Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old . . ., but I say to you,” this is the Word made flesh giving voice to the authority of his word.  In so doing he is also teaching us preachers how to preach.  This is what Jesus says!  This is not my opinion.  It is not my experience.  The preacher is the minister of Christ.  He speaks for Jesus.  Jesus speaks with divine authority.  If his ministers do not do so then they aren’t fit to be called his ministers.  If the preacher is not sure that what he is saying is God’s word, why should anyone listening to him believe that it is?


The pastor is not recognized as the minister of Christ because of his devotion to current fashion in liturgical vestments.  Rather, it is when his voice is the voice of Jesus.  Jesus’ preaching and teaching is always dogmatic.  “Amen, amen, I say to you.”  The certainty of the Christian’s salvation requires it.  The Christian is sitting in the pew.  What’s going on in his life, Mr. Preacher?  What does he need to hear from you?  Perhaps a joke or two?  Some good homespun wisdom?  Maybe sound advice on how to do religious stuff he hasn’t yet found the time to do.  I’ll tell you what’s going on in his life.  Sin is!  His sin rises up to lay claim to his conscience.  What his conscience feels is twisted by the accuser and father of lies to belie the gospel and silence Christ’s declaration of the forgiveness of sins.  What kind of preaching should the preacher preach if not dogmatic, assertive, evangelical preaching!  Many of you may be familiar with Luther’s powerful words from the introduction to his great work, The Bondage of the Will.  His opponent, Erasmus of Rotterdam, taught in obedience to Rome the doctrine of the free will.  He criticized Luther for making so many assertions, to which Luther replied:


For it is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions; on the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.  And by assertion – in order that we may not be misled by words – I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering; nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.


I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings.  Elsewhere we have no need either of Erasmus or any other instructor to teach us that in matters which are doubtful or useless and unnecessary, assertions, disputings, and wranglings are not only foolish but impious, and Paul condemns them in more than one place. . . .


Let Skeptics and Academics keep well away from us Christians, but let there be among us “assertors” twice as unyielding as the Stoics themselves.  How often, I ask you, does the apostle Paul demand that [full assurance] (as he terms it) – that most sure and unyielding assertion of conscience?  In Romans 10[:10] he calls it “confession,” saying, “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”  And Christ says: “Everyone who confesses me before men, I also will confess before my Father” [Matt. 10:32].  Peter bids us give a reason for the hope that is in us [I Peter 3:15].  What need is there to dwell on this?


Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion.  Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.


Dogmatic is pastoral.  It is extremely important that the dogmatic preacher, who is a fallible man, to avoid error in his preaching.  That his preaching must be orthodox is a given, from the fact that it must be biblical.  When the preacher touches on such matters as the teaching of others, historical, political, scientific, and various other extra-biblical topics, he must be extremely careful to be accurate in what he says.  When the preacher errs, someone will notice.  He will lose credibility.  Since he is preaching God’s word, the word of God will distrusted as well.  The dogmatic spirit of preaching must always be grounded in the truth.  Carelessly to toss out extra-biblical assertions that end up being false is not only foolish.  It is harmful.


The sixth feature of Lutheran preaching is that it is polemical.  Rarely do I preach on a text without reading a sermon on that text written by Martin Luther.  Luther understood that preaching must be polemical because we are engaged in spiritual warfare.  The sermon is part of that warfare.  Naturally, the polemics of Luther’s preaching focus on the spiritual enemies of the church in his day.  Circumstances change.  Old challenges mutate into new ones.  Still, there is nothing new under the sun and the critical battles of Luther’s day are the critical battles of our own day.  Two issues are always at stake.  The gospel of God’s justification of the sinner for the sake of Christ’s redemption, by grace alone, through faith alone is always going to be attacked.  The preacher must fight the fight against worksrighteousness of every description.  The second issue is the Bible.  The preacher must not only preach according to the Bible, but must frequently reaffirm in his preaching that the Bible alone is our standard for teaching and preaching in the church.  This helps the hearers when they are not in church but must do battle against the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh every day.  They need to rest their faith in the gospel.  They need to be confident in the truth of the Bible. 


Polemical preaching not only imitates Jesus’ preaching style, as he blasted away at the false teachings and hypocrisy of the religious elite of the Jews, it is also a feature of Christological preaching.  Don’t confuse polemics with obscurantism or with a pugnacious spirit.  We don’t fight over obscure and uncertain matters not settled for us by the clear teaching of the Bible.  We don’t fight for the thrill of the fight.  We fight as Jesus fought, with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Consider how the Bible teaches our redemption by Christ.  It is both vicarious obedience and suffering and Christ’s victorious fight against sin, death, and the devil.  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by paying to the penal justice of God his own holy obedience to God’s law and his bitter, suffering, and death.  He obeyed in our stead.  He suffered in our stead.  He received divine punishment for the sins of the world.  Our redemption was vicarious.  He did it for us. 


In doing it for us, in taking our place, in suffering in our stead, in paying our debt, he fought.  He fought against the devil.  His heel crushed the serpent’s head.  It isn’t either the vicarious satisfaction or Christ fighting and defeating Satan.  It is both.  Jesus fought in the wilderness.  He fought when casting out devils.  He fought in the garden.  He fought on the cross.  He fought for us and he fulfilled God’s law in our stead and bore God’s punishment for our sins.


And Christ also fights for us today.  The battle then and there is our battle here and now.  The Lord Jesus makes us partakers of his victory.


With might of ours can naught be done,

Soon were our loss effected;

But for us fights the Valiant One,

Whom God Himself elected.

Ask ye, Who is this?

Jesus Christ it is,

Of Sabaoth Lord,

And there’s none other God;

He holds the field forever.


Christ our Lord fights.  We fight.  The minister of Christ must preach fighting words.  He must blast false doctrine.  He must identify and condemn false teachers.  He must do so because the duty of Christ’s flock committed to his care is that every single one of the sheep is to beware of false prophets.  The preacher must assist them in this.  The preacher must join the people in their battle against the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh.  A sermon is fighting words!


Sermons must be grounded in the Bible, evangelical, didactic, clear, dogmatic, and polemical.  All of these features of Lutheran preaching come under the last feature we will mention today: Lutheran preaching rightly distinguishes between the law and the gospel.  Sermons are not therapy.  Sermons are not the preacher sharing his pious feelings or authentic experiences.  They are authoritative.  God speaks his law with authority.  He speaks his gospel with authority.  So must the preacher.  Neglecting this distinction and confusing the one with the other does untold damage to Christians.  Understanding the difference between law and gospel and rightly preaching the biblical distinction between them is what sets Lutheran preaching apart from all other preaching.


An excellent guide for the Lutheran preacher as he learns rightly to distinguish between law and gospel in his preaching is The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, by C. F. W. Walther.   My father gave me this book for Christmas in 1973 when I did not know what I wanted to do with my life.  It was reading these lectures that directed me to the seminary to study theology.  I have talked with other pastors over the years who decided to enter the ministry after reading this book.


We don’t have the time to give even a brief summary of the contents of this book.  Suffice it to say that when the law is not preached clearly, the hearer is not prepared to hear the gospel and when the gospel is not preached clearly, sinners are left without their Savior.  The sick need a doctor and the thirsty need water to drink.  Bad law preaching is preaching the law only as an abstract condition without clearly identifying what is and is not sin.  Yes, the radical ferment of sin within is the source of all actual sins.  Preach it, preacher.  But preach about actual sins or your hearers won’t understand what that radical ferment is.  Bad law preaching is preaching an abstract condition.  Bad law preaching is relying on the law to get people to obey the law.  Bad law preaching is trying to make the law more doable so that the people will feel just a bit more victorious in their spiritual struggles.  Bad law preaching is refusing to teach the law as a guide for the behavior of Christians as if this somehow militates against the gospel.  Bad law preaching is to run away from addressing popular sins for fear of making influential people angry.  Bad law preaching is sharing your own personal sins as a badge of authenticity because, after all, you know from your own experience how bad sin can be.


Bad gospel preaching is talking about God’s grace without talking about the person of Christ and his vicarious obedience and suffering.  Bad gospel preaching is talking about Jesus as the one who restores or recreates or indwells or transforms or joins you in a mystical union of love without preaching that he bears all of our sins and forgives us all of our sins.  There is no gospel without Christ’s obedience and suffering.  There is no gospel that does not give us forgiveness of sins.  Bad gospel preaching is to preach about the word, the word, the word, while ignoring the propitiatory sacrifice on the cross.  What a sad irony it is among us Bible-believing, confessional Lutherans that we should seek out atonement-denying theologians like Gerhart Førde to teach us about the theology of the cross.  It is a scandal that CPH publishes a book on law and gospel, The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law and Gospel , featuring the writings of men that clearly and emphatically deny the vicarious atonement.  Bad gospel preaching is to preach the gospel while ignoring repentance and faith.  Without repentance, the gospel is easily distorted into license to sin.  Bad gospel preaching is to condition the truth of the gospel on repentance and faith, as if what Christ has done for us isn’t quite enough and must be activated by something within us.


The last of Walther’s twenty five theses is a good place to conclude this topic.  He writes, “In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”   Preachers prepare sermons at least once a week, sometimes twice or more.  We may think that because we have said it a million times and we think we know it so well that we do not have to articulate the biblical gospel.  We don’t need to keep on talking about Christ’s obedience, his suffering, his substitution, God’s grace, favor, and goodwill, the forgiveness of sins, faith, and assurance.  We can take for granted that those who hear us preach know it well.  We can refer to the gospel instead of actually setting it forth explicitly in clear words. 


No!  We cannot.  We cannot, because the gospel isn’t something you know, file away, and use if needed.  The gospel defines what we are as Christians, and everything in our lives, in the world around us, in the culture, in our reasoning faculties, in our fallen affections, and in the very air we breathe – everything attacks the truth of the gospel.  Lutheran preaching does not only give lip service to the pure doctrine of the gospel, but preaches it, preaches it, and never tires of preaching it.  A homiletics professor at the seminary forty some years ago said that we must never preach a sermon without considering that a man who does not know Christ and is on his way to hell might be sitting in church listening to us.  We must never neglect to preach the gospel that reveals the righteousness of God from faith to faith.  This is the gospel that is the power of God to salvation.  Woe to us if we do not preach it.


Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Rule and Norm, paragraph 3, Tappert, pages 503-504.

The Augsburg Confession, Article IV, Tappert, page 30

The Augsburg Confession, Article V, Tappert, page 31

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XV, paragraph 43, Tappert, page 221

Johann Gerhard, Method of Theological Study, CPH, 2017, page 202.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXVI, paragraphs 50-51 (Tappert, page 259)


Luther’s Works, American Edition, (CPH and Fortress Press) Volume 33, pages 19-21

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” The Lutheran Hymnal, CPH, 1941, Hymn #262, stanza 2

The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel: Thirty Nine Evening Lectures, by C. F. W. Walther, translated by W. H. T. Dau, 1928, CPH

The Necessary Distinction: A Continuing Conversation on Law & Gospel, CPH, 2017

Walther, page 4 & 403ff


Rolf D. Preus


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