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Preaching the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (in 8 Parts)

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"Martin Luther Visits Dresden," Image by chop1n via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


An accompanying podcast will be posted here by early September.

In perhaps his most famous sermon, Martin Luther said, “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”1

There it is. The life of a working preacher.

Simply preach, teach, and write God’s Word. Sleep. God -- through God’s Word -- will do God’s thing.

The “simply” is a bit modest on Luther’s part. He was indefatigable. Faithful to Paul’s admonition, he was “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). And -- oh! -- the effect his preaching and teaching had on the world. Not all of it was salutary or edifying, of course -- there is much to regret in Reformation preaching. But, in the main, there is far more to celebrate and rejoice over in Reformation preaching.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, many Christians from the Reformation tradition will want to hear and learn about essential Reformation teachings.

This series is for those congregations and preachers. It is designed to be used either by preachers or teachers.

Note: I assume that most preachers have studied these core teachings many times, so I do not explore the doctrines in detail. Many resources are available for such exploration. Instead, the work here connects each topic with Scripture passages, tries to frame the issue concisely, offers resources from Martin Luther’s writings, and suggests some hymns.

References to “The Catechism” are to Luther’s Small Catechism (available online) and citations from Luther’s Works (LW) refer to the 75-volume edition edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Boyd Brown (Philadelphia and St. Louis, 1955-).


Week 1: “Jesus is God’s Best Idea Ever”
(Salvation by Grace through Faith in Jesus Christ)

Suggested texts: Galatians 2:16-21; Luke 24:44-48

The Heart of the Matter: Justification is about how we have a right relationship with God. The Reformation insists that God does everything and we do nothing: "If justification comes through the law, Christ died for nothing."

Catechism Connection: When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”

From Luther’s Writings:

The truth of the Gospel is this, that our righteousness comes by faith alone, without the works of the Law. … Works of love are not the ornament or perfection of faith; but faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior. Human reason has the Law as its object. It says to itself: “This I have done; this I have not done.” But faith in its proper function has no other object than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was put to death for the sins of the world. It does not look at its love and say: “What have I done? Where have I sinned? What have I deserved?” But it says: “What has Christ done? What has He deserved?” And here the truth of the Gospel gives you the answer: “He has redeemed you from sin, from the devil, and from eternal death.” Therefore, faith acknowledges that in this one Person, Jesus Christ, it has the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Whoever diverts his gaze from this object does not have true faith; he has a fantasy and a vain opinion. He looks away from the promise and at the Law, which terrifies him and drives him to despair. (Luther’s Work 26:88.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”
  • “God Is Here!”
  • “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less”
  • “Take My Life, That I May Be”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly”
  • “Go, My Children, With My Blessing”

 


Week 2: “The Bible Is God’s Word for You, but It Isn’t Your God”
(The Word of God)

Suggested Texts: Psalm 1; John 1:1-5, 10-14

The Heart of the Matter: God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love.

Catechism Connection: We believe and worship God, not the Bible. The first commandment is “You shall have no other gods.” In the Catechism, Luther teaches that this means “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”

From Luther’s Writings:

“…although the letter [of Scripture] by itself does not impart life, yet it must be present, and it must be heard or received. And the Holy Spirit must work through this in the heart, and the heart must be preserved in the faith through and in the Word against the devil and every trial. Otherwise, where this is surrendered, Christ and the Spirit will soon be lost. Therefore, do not boast so much of the Spirit if you do not have the revealed external Word; for this is surely not a good spirit but the vile devil from hell. The Holy Spirit, as you know, has deposited His wisdom and counsel and all mysteries into the Word and revealed these in Scripture, so that no one can excuse himself. Nor must anyone seek or search for something else or learn or acquire something better or more sublime than what Scripture teaches of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Savior, who died and rose for us. (LW 28:77.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “Thy Strong Word”
  • “Dearest Jesus, At Your Word”
  • “O Word of God Incarnate”
  • “The Church of Christ, In Every Age”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “Break Now the Bread of Life”
  • “By Your Hand You Feed Your People”

 


Week 3: “Church is Messy and Holy”
(The Church and the Christian Life)

Suggested Texts: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Mark 10:35-45

The Heart of the Matter: The church -- which is the people of God, not a building or an organization -- is both fully human and fully divine. And every Christian is both fully made holy and also still fully a sinner. After being given a right relationship with God through grace, we paradoxically remain sinners (people who need a right relationship with God) and are already saints (people who already have right relationship with God.

Catechism Connection: When we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,” this means that we believe “the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth.”

From Luther’s Writings:

In short, the church is a dwelling, in order that God may be loved and heard. Not wood or stones, not dumb animals, it should be people, who know, love, and praise God. And that you may be able to trust God with certainty in all things, including cross and suffering, you should know that it is the true church, even though it be made up of scarcely two believing persons. That’s why Christ says: He who loves me keeps my Word; there I will dwell, there you have my church…. [The church is where the] Word is purely preached. So where you hear this, there you may know that this is the true church. … Christ says: My sheep not only hear me, they also obey and follow me [John 10:3–5]; they increase in faith daily through hearing the Word of God and the right and perfect use of the blessed sacraments. There is strengthening and comfort in this church. And it is also the true church, not cowls, tonsures, and long robes, of which the Word of God knows nothing, but rather wherever two or three are gathered together [Matthew 18:20], no matter whether it be on the ocean or in the depths of the earth, if only they have before them the Word of God and believe and trust in the same, there is most certainly the real, ancient, true, apostolic church. (LW 51:309-311.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “Come to Me, All Pilgrims Thirsty”
  • “Chief of Sinners Though I Be”
  • “We All Are One in Mission”
  • “The Church’s One Foundation”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “All Are Welcome”
  • “Let Us Break Bread Together”

 

NOTE: One crucial Reformation emphasis that is missing in the series is the doctrine of vocation -- that God calls everyone through baptism, not just pastors and church leaders. And that God calls us to many different vocations -- child, parent, friend, neighbor, citizen, and more. We are all called to be the light of God, to seek out those places where darkness and death reign and to shine the love of God there. Some might include that emphasis this week.


Week 4: “Forgiveness Will Change Your Life”
(The Forgiveness of Sins)

Suggested Texts: Psalm 51:1-12; John 20:19-23; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The Heart of the Matter: The Bible proclaims this good news: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We are all born into sin, into brokenness, into death. We all sin. In Christ, there is forgiveness for all. And the forgiven in turn forgive and forgive and forgive.

Catechism Connection: We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” In the Catechism, Luther writes, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins. ... Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.”

From Luther’s Writings:

See how wretched this life is, being devoid of food and comfort and nourishment for the soul, as the preceding petition demonstrates. Furthermore, it is a sinful estate in which we would deservedly be damned if this petition [“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”] did not uphold us by God’s pure mercy and compassion. Thus the Lord’s Prayer makes us see this life as being so full of sin and shame that we become weary and tired of it. And now, you yelping cur, judge yourself, speak about yourself, see what you are, search your own heart, and you will soon forget the faults of your neighbor. You will have both hands full with your own faults, yes, more than full! (LW 42:71.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “Holy God, We Praise Your Name”
  • “Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive”
  • “God, When Human Bonds Are Broken”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “Around You, O Lord Jesus”
  • “We Come to the Hungry Feast”

 


Week 5: “Finding God the Last Place You Would Look”
(The Theology of the Cross)

Suggested Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2; Mark 15:33-39

The Heart of the Matter: The cross is God’s promise -- God’s solemn commitment -- to be present in the last place human reason would look for God...in the midst of suffering, oppression, violence, even death. Be clear about this -- God does not cause the suffering. Suffering is the result of sin, human nature, and the brokenness of creation. But God has promised to meet us in our suffering and draw us into God’s preferred future.

Catechism Connection: Luther writes that the place to look for the almighty God is in a suffering human being: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord.”

From Luther’s Writings:

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls 'enemies of the cross of Christ' [Philippians 3:18], for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore, the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s. (LW 31:53.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
  • “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me”
  • “We Give Thee But Thine Own”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “O Bread of Life from Heaven”
  • “Come, Let Us Eat”

 


Week 6: “Guess Who’s Coming to Worship?!”
(The Means of Grace and Christian Worship)

Suggested Texts: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Matthew 26:20-29, 28:16-20

The Heart of the Matter: The main person doing something in worship is God. God greets us with the forgiveness of sins. God meets us with an open ear when we pray. God speaks to us in the Word, offerings words of promise and challenge. God joins us in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. God sends us out with a blessing. Why wouldn’t everyone want to start out each their lives in God’s actions?

Catechism Connection: Luther writes baptism “brings about forgiveness of sin, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” Also, that Holy Communion “is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

From Luther’s Writings:

The significance of baptism is a blessed dying unto sin and a resurrection in the grace of God, so that the old man, conceived and born in sin, is there drowned, and a new man, born in grace, comes forth and rises. … For just as a child is drawn out of his mother’s womb and is born, and through this fleshly birth is a sinful person and a child of wrath [Ephesians 2:3], so one is drawn out of baptism and is born spiritually. Through this spiritual birth, he is a child of grace and a justified person. Therefore, sins are drowned in baptism, and in place of sin, righteousness comes forth. This significance of baptism -- the dying or drowning of sin -- is not fulfilled completely in this life. Indeed, this does not happen until man passes through bodily death and completely decays to dust. As we can plainly see, the sacrament or sign of baptism is quickly over. But the spiritual baptism, the drowning of sin, which it signifies, lasts as long as we live and is completed only in death. (LW 35:30.)

Let this stand, therefore, as our first and infallible proposition -- the mass or Sacrament of the Altar is Christ’s testament, which he left behind him at his death to be distributed among his believers. … A testament, as everyone knows, is a promise made by one about to die, in which he designates his bequest and appoints his heirs. A testament, therefore, involves first, the death of the testator, and second, the promise of an inheritance and the naming of the heir. … [This testament is] the most perfect promise of all, that of the new testament, in which, with plain words, life and salvation are freely promised, and actually granted to those who believe the promise. (LW 36:37-40.)

Hymn Suggestions:

  • “As We Gather at Your Table”
  • “One Bread, One Body”
  • “Remember and Rejoice”
  • “For the Bread Which You Have Broken”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”
  • “As the Grains of Wheat”

 


Week 7: “Telling the Truth Twice”
(Law and Gospel)

Suggested Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Romans 7:7-13 or Hebrews 4:12-13; Luke 4:14-21

The Heart of the Matter: God uses God’s Word in two ways. First, God uses the Word as Law, to tell us how to love the neighbor -- to tell us those things we are to do for the neighbor and to tell us those things we are not to do to the neighbor. When God uses the Word as law, God creates a more loving world but also reminds us of our sin. Second, God uses the Word as gospel -- to tell us all of the good things that God will do for us, since we are not able to do them for ourselves -- forgive our sins, give us new life, grant us reconciliation and eternal life.

Catechism Connection: Regarding the Ten Commandments, Luther writes: “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we are to fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments. However, God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments.” In addition, throughout the Catechism, Luther emphasizes that for those who sin -- as we all do -- there is great forgiveness: “Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins.”

From the Writings of Luther:

I am saying this in order that we may learn the doctrine of justification with the greatest diligence and distinguish most clearly between the Law and the Gospel. (LW 26:113)

There is a time to hear the Law and a time to despise the Law.  There is a time to hear the Gospel and a time to know nothing about the Gospel. [When sin terrifies your conscience] let the Law go away now, and let the Gospel come; for this is the time to hear the Gospel, not the Law… But in a matter apart from conscience, when outward duties must be performed, then, whether you are a preacher, a magistrate, a husband, a teacher, a pupil, etc., this is no time to listen to the Gospel. You must listen to the Law and follow your vocation. (LW 26:117)

We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, “Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.” The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, “This is what God has done for you; he has let his Son be made flesh for you, has let him be put to death for your sake.” So, then, there are two kinds of doctrine and two kinds of works, those of God and those of men. Just as we and God are separated from one another, so also these two doctrines are widely separated from one another. For the gospel teaches exclusively what has been given us by God, and not -- as in the case of the law -- what we are to do and give to God. (LW 35:162)

Hymns:

  • “O Day of Rest and Gladness”
  • “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound”
  • “Son of God, Eternal Savior”

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “For the Bread Which You Have Broken”
  • “Draw Us In the Spirit's Tether”

 

NOTE: Once again, take note that this series does not include a separate week for the doctrine of vocation. That theme may be included here for teachers and preachers who are so inclined.


Week 8: “You Didn’t Choose Me, I Chose You!”
(Election)

Suggested Texts: Genesis 12:1-3; John 15:13-16

The Heart of the Matter: God doesn’t wait for us to make an application for acceptance into the kingdom of heaven, God chooses us. Think of any major character in the Bible: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, David and Bathsheba, Peter, Paul and Mary. Did any choose God? No, God choose them. And God chooses you.

Catechism Connection: Luther writes, “The Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel.” And again, “God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children.”

Luther Quotation:

For my own part, I frankly confess that even if it were possible, I should not wish to have free choice given to me, or to have anything left in my own hands by which I might strive toward salvation. For, on the one hand, I should be unable to stand firm and keep hold of it amid so many adversities and perils and so many assaults of demons, seeing that even one demon is mightier than all men, and no man at all could be saved; and on the other hand, even if there were no perils or adversities or demons, I should nevertheless have to labor under perpetual uncertainty and to fight as one beating the air, since even if I lived and worked to eternity, my conscience would never be assured and certain how much it ought to do to satisfy God. For whatever work might be accomplished, there would always remain an anxious doubt whether it pleased God or whether he required something more, as the experience of all self-justifiers proves, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost through so many years. But now, since God has taken my salvation out of my hands into his, making it depend on his choice and not mine, and has promised to save me, not by my own work or exertion but by his grace and mercy, I am assured and certain both that he is faithful and will not lie to me, and also that he is too great and powerful for any demons or any adversities to be able to break him or to snatch me from him. “No one,” he says, “shall snatch them out of my hand, because my Father who has given them to me is greater than all” [John 10:28]. (LW 33:288-289)

Hymns:

  • “Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness”
  • “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
  • “As Saints of Old”
  • “We Are Called"

If there is Holy Communion:

  • “Thee We Adore, O Savior”
  • “We Know That Christ is Raised”

Notes:

1. "Sermon on Monday after Invocavit" (March 10, 1522) Luther’s Works vol. 51, p. 77.

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