C.F.W. Walther said, “Oh, would to God that these dear men had the humility to sit down a Luther’s feet and study his postils! They would learn how to preach effectively” (Walther, Law and Gospel, Twelfth Evening Lecture). If the need was true in 1884, then it is even more true today. The adoption of the three year lectionary which accompanied Lutheran Worship has meant that since 1982 many lectionary texts have no corresponding Church Postil sermon. In addition, differences in nomenclature for individual Sundays between the one and three year lectionary make it difficult to identify when there is one.
I strongly suspect that the training in sermon writing for most LCMS pastors included little about Luther’s own preaching or the reading of Luther’s sermons. There was much about whatever homiletic approach was the flavor of the day (always changing), but very little regarding what Luther’s preaching teaches us about preaching. In my own case, there was nothing about Luther’s preaching at all.
At the same time, this oversight is not limited to homiletics. It is also true more generally in the practice of historical and systematic theology as they deal with Luther. Scholars have used Luther’s many treatises, lectures and other works in order to develop “Luther’s” understanding of the Law and what this means for the Lutheran Church today (notably the denial of the third use of the law by Werner Elert’s In Zwischen Gnade und Ungnade: Gesetz und Evangelium [1948; Law and Gospel] and Gerhard Ebeling’s Zur Lehre von triplex usus legis [1950; “On the Doctrine of the Triplex Usus Legis in the Theology of the Reformation”]).
Yet as M Hopson Boutot recently observed, “Lamentably, in the midst of historical-theological skirmishes on the third use, Luther’s preaching is largely ignored. Scholars frequently cite what Luther said in his theological writings, but surprisingly little effort has been undertaken to ascertain what Luther actually did in the pulpit” (M. Hopson Boutot, “Invocavit Imperatives: The Third Use of the Law and the Survival of the Wittenberg Reformation” Mid-American Journal of Theology 27 : 49-66, 49; emphasis original). This is striking because in Luther’s sermons we see what Luther thought his theology meant for preaching. If we believe Luther’s theology as confessed in the Book of Concord, then we should be keenly interested in how Luther applied that theology in his sermons. Likewise, any interpretation of Luther (especially his understanding of the law!) that does not correspond to his preaching must be rejected as inaccurate.
The modern lack of interest in Luther’s sermons is all the more striking, because they were so influential in his own day. Benjamin Mayes comments: "Luther’s sermons were among his most influential writings, especially the collection of sermons known as the Church Postil. From 1525 to 1529 some twenty-five editions of Luther’s postil were published, while in the next half-decade the number rose to more than fifty, and publication remained strong for the remainder of Luther’s life and long after his death in 1548" (LW 75: xiii). Indeed, in contrast to the modern scholarly approach, the Formula of Concord cites Luther’s Church Postil as a source for understanding what is being confessed. In a very important example, as Formula of Concord article VI explains about the third use of the law it points to this work: “Similarly, Dr. Luther explained this in great detail in the summer part of the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity” (FC SD VI.9).
The Church Postil was an important means by which people at the time of the Reformation learned about the theology Martin Luther taught. This work was a collection of Luther’s sermons that covered the church year and, “From the beginning of his work on the postils, Luther had stated that they were supposed to serve ‘common pastors and people, and thus were to be the great devotional books of the Reformation” (Luther’s Works 75: xxiv). They provided models for Lutheran preachers and, “In 1526 Luther suggested that less-capable preachers could occasionally recite one of his postils as their sermon, thoughin 1543 he did not want preachers to use postils as a crutch for their own laziness” (LW 75: xxiv-xxv).
At the beginning of this work, Luther provided a “Short Instruction” which bore the title, “What Should Be Sought and Expected in the Gospels.” Luther warned first of all, that the books of the New Testament are not to be seen only as moralistic “law books.” He stated, “It is a still worse custom that people regard the Gospels and Epistles as law books in which are taught what we are to do, and the works of Christ are described in no other way than examples” (LW 75:7). He warned that “you should not make a Moses out of Christ, as if He did no more than teach and set an example” (LW 75:8).
Instead, the chief thing is Gospel. Of this Luther wrote: “Most briefly, the Gospel is a report that Christ is God’s Son who became a human being for us, died, rose again, and was made Lord over all things. St. Paul says as much in his Epistles and emphasizes it, though he omits all the miracles and acts which are described in the four Gospels” (LW 75:7-8).
Luther urges that we must first receive Christ as a gift. He states:
The main point and basis of the Gospel is that before you grasp Christ as an example, you first receive and apprehend Him as a gift and present given to you by God to be your own. When you see or hear that He has done something or suffered something, do not doubt that Christ Himself with His doing and suffering is yours. You can rely on Him no less than if you had done it – indeed, as if you were Christ. That is truly apprehending the Gospel, that is, the superabundant goodness of God, which no prophet, no apostle, no angel has ever fully expressed, which no heart can ever sufficiently be amazed at and comprehend. That is the great fire of God’s love for us by which the heart and conscience become happy, certain, and at peace; that is what preaching Christian faith means. (LW 75:8-9)
Yet for Luther that is not the end of the story. Indeed, it cannot be. Instead, after receiving Christ as a gift, the Christian then receives him as an example. Luther goes on to say:
When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and blessing of your salvation, then the second part follows, namely, that you take Him as an example and devote yourself to serving your neighbor, just as you see He devoted Himself to you. Then faith and love are both active, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and the person is cheerful and fearless to do and suffer anything. (LW 75:9; emphasis added)
According to Luther, Christ as gift is for you and your faith. Christ as example uses your works in order to help your neighbor:
Therefore, just look at this: Christ as a gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example uses your works which do not make you a Christian, but rather they come from you who have already been made a Christian. Now as far as gift and example are separate, so far are faith and works separate. Faith has nothing of its own, but only Christ’s work and life. The works do have something special from you, but they should also not be your own, but belong to your neighbor. (LW 75:9)
Luther immediately reinforces the importance of this approach in the sermon on the Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent (Mt 21:1-9). There he writes:
In the preface, I said that there are two things to be noted and considered in the Gospel readings: first, the work of Christ presented to us as a gift and kindness, to which our faith is to cling and in which it is to be exercised; second, the same work offered as an example and model for us to imitate and follow. Thus all the Gospel lessons first teach faith and then works. (LW 75:28; emphasis added).
Then after emphasizing the Gospel of Christ as gift, Luther again goes on to say:
We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith but also as an example through love toward our neighbor, to whom we are to give service and do good as Christ does to us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you as your own with all His possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love; and out of these grows hope in patience (LW 75:41-42; emphasis added).
Luther does not speak about good works in the abstract, but rather identifies them according to the vocations in which Christians find themselves:
A man is to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die for the love and service of his wife and child, the wife for the husband, the children for the parents, the servants for their masters, the masters for their servants, the government for its subjects, the subjects for their government, each one for his fellow man, even for his enemies, so that one is the other’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, even heart and mind. These are truly Christian and naturally good works, which can and should be done unceasingly at all times. (LW 75:44).
The Lutheran understanding of the law and what it means for preaching have been the subject of much discussion and disagreement in recent years. The introduction to Luther’s Church Postil provides clear and unambiguous guidance about what Luther’s understanding of the law means for preaching. The question then is whether modern Lutherans are willing to listen to him.