By Randy Sawyer
In order to understand the Reforming Power of Expository Preaching, we must trace the Reformation to the personal experience of the monk who shook the world from his lonely study in Wittenberg. Born in Saxony in 1483, Martin Luther has been called the Father of the Protestant Reformation. He was educated as a loyal member of the medieval Roman Catholic Church and became a monk and a priest.
The Word Shapes Luther
Luther gave himself to the vigorous pursuit of the monastic ideal. He devoted himself to study, prayer and the use of the sacraments. He especially used the sacrament of penance, examining himself, sorrowing for his sins, confessing his sins to a priest and fulfilling every requirement imposed upon him.
Through his study of the scriptures and his own spiritual struggles, Luther was led to an evangelical breakthrough. He began to teach the basic principles of the Protestant Reformation: justification by grace through faith alone and the ultimate authority of the Bible for Christian belief and practice.
In his Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,Luther writes,
“We reach the conclusion that faith alone justifies us and fulfills the law; and this because faith brings us the spirit gained by the merits of Christ. The spirit gives us the happiness and freedom at which the law aims; and this shows that good works really proceed from faith.”
In 1512, Luther accepted a professorship at the University of Wittenberg where he began his lectures on the Bible: from the Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, and back to the Psalms. These texts were basic in shaping the thought of the future reformer.
The Word Shakes the World
Four years later in 1516, Luther became the people’s priest in Wittenberg with regular preaching responsibilities. The combination of theology professor and pastor led him to take the actions that would make him famous.
In 1517, Luther became concerned about the abuses in the sale of spiritual privileges. Technically called indulgences, these privileges offered the removal or the reduction of satisfactions required of sinners as a part of the sacrament of penance.
In the Middles Ages the idea developed that although God does freely forgive sinners, it is appropriate to express your gratitude in various ways, one of which was financial. By the early 16th century, however, this idea had become corrupted; leaving people with the impression that if they would give money their sins could be remitted.
As a pastor and theologian, Luther strongly objected, and in response formulated his “95 Theses,” which he subsequently posted on the church door at Wittenberg. Luther was a brilliant, forceful communicator, addressing the most important religious issues of his day in the pulpit and with his pen. Between 1517 and 1520, he produced several of his most powerful Treatises which helped to rally support for the reform movement. And he needed the support.
As early as 1518, an order was issued for his arrest. Although the order was not carried out, pressure from church officials increased. In June 1521, Luther was excommunicated and in March ordered to appear before the Imperial Diet of Worms. Facing the council, Luther was asked if he wished to recant.
In reply he issued one of the greatest statements of church history:
“Unless I am refuted and convicted by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments, I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound by the Word of God: I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. God help me.”
Luther’s achievements as a pastor, scholar, theologian and Christian were monumental and have influenced the church profoundly to this day. Melanchthon provided a fitting epitaph for Luther when he said that God had given a violent age a violent physician.
“Violent” may be a good word to describe Luther. He was fiery and rough. He was always out on the firing line, especially in the pulpit His commitment to preaching shook the world.
The Word Saturates His Preaching
It is difficult to imagine that courageous Luther ever being afraid, but apparently his first experience at preaching terrified him: “Oh, how I trembled when I was ascending the pulpit for the first time,” he said.
Commissioned to preach in Wittenberg Church, Luther preached three times on Sunday and then at least once a day throughout the week. He even preached at home when he was too ill to ascend a pulpit.
Luther’s preaching was characterized by a sense of urgency. In fact, he regarded preaching as the central part of public worship and even placed the preaching of the Word above the reading of it. Luther believed the congregation ought never to come together without the preaching or expounding of the Word. During his youth, he had never heard the Bible explained, and thus he was driven to expository or expositional preaching.
Luther’s expository sermons varied from greatly detailed studies to generalized essays, but seldom did he strain the meaning of a passage or indulge in allegory. He regarded the context of a passage as important to the meaning of a text and sought always to discover the original intent of the biblical author.
To Luther, the highest eloquence was to speak simply. He spoke all of his sermons in the language of the common people. In fact, much of his language was so common that the school men regarded it as crude, perhaps even vulgar.
He once commented:
“When I preach I sink myself deeply down; I regard neither doctors nor masters of which there are in the church about forty. But I have an eye for the multitude of young people, children and servants, of which there are more than two thousand. I preach to them.”
Luther considered preparation to be of utmost importance, to be done as carefully as a mother would prepare food for her baby.
Concerning his preparation system, he wrote:
“When he (the preacher) preaches on any article, he must first distinguish it, then define, describe, and show what it is; thirdly, he must produce sentences from the Scriptures to prove and strengthen it; fourthly, he must explain it by example; fifthly, he must adorn it with similitudes; and lastly, he must admonish and arouse the indolent, correct the disobedient, and reprove the authors of false doctrine.”
Though Luther sometimes broke his own homiletical rules, he was always thoroughly prepared and communicated the deep convictions of his soul to the thousands who came to hear him.
Dargan singles out three characteristics which distinguished Luther’s sermons from those of his predecessors: 1) they were marked by right interpretation and application of scripture; 2) they preached Christ alone as Savior; 3) they proclaimed union with Him by faith as the only way of salvation.
Above all, Luther passionately believed the preaching of the Word to be the greatest power for Reformation. Concerning his role in the reform movement he wrote: “l simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing . . . . The Word of God did it all.”
As with Wyclif and Huss, the Word of God was supreme in Luther’s heart and ministry. He held firmly to the Reforming Power of Expository Preaching.
Article adapted from Contact magazine, August 2001.