October 31, 1517, is a pivotal date in church history, one on which the course of human events in Western civilization dramatically turned. On that date, Martin Luther, a relatively obscure professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, Germany, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This one-time Augustinian monk was registering his protest against the abuses of the sale of indulgences by the papacy. No one that day foresaw the firestorm Luther was about to unleash. This one bold act proved to be “the shot heard around the world” that launched the Protestant Reformation.
Noted church historian Philip Schaff has said that next to the beginning of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation was “the greatest event in history.” It was an unprecedented movement, a far-reaching, history-altering season when the invisible hand of God impacted not only individuals and churches, but entire nations and cultures. The Reformation was a series of strategic events involving many people in many places. At its core, it was an attempt to bring the church back to the singular authority of Scripture and the purity of the gospel.
At the birth of this epic movement, Luther became its leading figure and driving force. With the aim of restoring the Word of God to the life of the church, Luther used every legitimate means to make known the truths of Scripture. His strategies included writing books, tracts, pamphlets, and letters, as well as classroom lectures, public debates, and heated disputations in churches and universities. But his chief means of producing reform was the pulpit. Luther was, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserts, “pre-eminently a great preacher.”
That Luther’s preaching played such a significant role in establishing the Reformation should come as no surprise:
“A revival of true preaching has always heralded these great movements in the history of the Church,” writes Lloyd-Jones.
“And, of course, when the Reformation and the Revival come they have always led to great and notable periods of the greatest preaching that the Church has ever known.” This was undeniably true of the sixteenth-century pulpit during the Protestant movement.
Writing in A History of Preaching, E. C. Dargan notes that the Reformation was propelled chiefly by the preaching of the Word of God. A virtual army of preachers was unleashed upon a slumbering Europe. The Reformers awakened the Continent and the British Isles by restoring the primacy of the preaching of the Word. Dargan writes:
The great events and achievements of that mighty revolution were largely the work of preachers and preaching; for it was by the Word of God, through
the ministry of earnest men who believed, loved and taught it, that the best and most enduring work of the Reformation was done. And, conversely, the events and principles of the movement powerfully reacted on preaching itself, giving it new spirit, new power, new forms, so that the relation between the Reformation and preaching may be succinctly described as one of mutual dependence, aid and guidance.
John Broadus, a noted nineteenth-century professor, identifies four distinguishing marks of the Reformation. Each of these is critical to our understanding of Luther and the Protestant movement.
First, the Reformation was a revival of preaching. Broadus notes that during the Middle Ages, preachers were exceptions to the rule. The Roman Catholic Church had subjugated the pulpit to a subordinate, peripheral role. In its place were the Mass, rituals, and ceremonies. But the Reformation, Broadus
writes, was marked by “a great outburst of preaching, such as had not been seen since the early Christian centuries.” All of the Reformers were preachers, not merely authors and lecturers. These valiant figures restored the pulpit as the primary means of grace in the church.
As Dargan explains: “Among the reformers, preaching resumes its proper place in worship.…The exposition of Scripture becomes the main thing.…Preaching becomes more prominent in worship than it had been perhaps since the fourth century.” The Reformation historian Harold Grimm affirms this view, writing:
“The Protestant Reformation would not have been possible without the sermon.…The role of the sermon in making the Reformation a mass movement can scarcely be overestimated.”
Roland Bainton, a Luther scholar, also agrees:
“The Reformation gave centrality to the sermon. The pulpit was higher than the altar.”
As Lloyd-Jones observed, in every great movement of God, preaching is central. The Protestant Reformation was no exception.
Second, it was a revival of biblical preaching. Broadus notes that the Protestant movement did not merely bring back preaching per se, but a certain kind of preaching—biblical preaching, that is, expository preaching. He writes:
“Instead of long and often fabulous stories about saints and martyrs, and accounts of miracles, instead of passages from Aristotle and Seneca, and fine-spun subtleties of the Schoolman, these men preached the Bible. The question was not what the Pope said; and even the Fathers, however highly esteemed, were not decisive authority—it was the Bible.” Once again, the pulpit reigned in the church by the preaching of God’s Word.
In the sixteenth century, Broadus explains, “The preacher’s one great task was to set forth the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Word of God.”
Everything else the preacher did was secondary. With this new emphasis came a deeper study of the Bible:
“Preachers, studying the original Greek and Hebrew,” he writes, “were carefully explaining to the people the connected teachings of passage after passage and book after book…, [giving them] a much more strict and reasonable exegesis than had ever been common since the days of Chrysostom.”
“The glory of Reformation preaching was its use of Scripture. In the hands of the reformers, the Word of God, again…rules the pulpit…as the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice.”
Third, it was a revival of controversial preaching. Broadus explains that as the Reformers preached the Bible, controversy inevitably followed. They maintained not only sola Scriptura—“Scripture alone”—but tota Scriptura—“all Scripture.”
The Reformers believed that every truth was to be preached from their pulpits. Every hard saying was to be expounded. Every sin was to be exposed. After centuries of apostasy, the full counsel of God was suddenly preached, which brought unavoidable conflict in a slumbering church. Broadus rightly states, “Religious controversy is inevitable where living faith in definite truth is dwelling side by side with ruinous error and practical evils.” The preaching of the Reformers disrupted the status quo of the day. Critical issues were confronted. Sacred cows were butchered.
This was no simple task, Dargan affirms:
“The stern conflict which the reformers had to wage with error demanded abilities and training of no mean order. The task of Protestantism was not easy.”
However, the theological errors they had to oppose “served to quicken and render more earnest the preaching of the reformers.” Therefore, their preaching was “largely polemical and doctrinal.” They wielded the Word of God like a sharp, two-edged sword that tore down and struck dead. However, the Word they preached also built up and made alive.
Fourth, it was a revival of preaching on the doctrines of grace. Broadus finally notes that biblical preaching in the Reformation elevated the truths of the sovereignty of God in salvation:
“The doctrine of divine sovereignty in human salvation was freely proclaimed by all the Reformers.”18 In-depth biblical preaching always sets forth the doctrines of grace because they are so repeatedly taught throughout Scripture. A return to biblical preaching necessitates a return to preaching divine sovereignty in man’s salvation. The two are inseparably linked.
Broadus adds, “Protestantism was born of the doctrines of grace, and in the proclamation of these the Reformation preaching found its truest and highest power.”
In the Protestant movement, biblical preaching reclaimed the high ground of sovereign grace.
The lofty teaching of God’s supreme authority in saving grace shook Europe and beyond, serving as a launching pad for the Protestant cause. In teaching these God-exalting doctrines, the Reformers resurrected the core teaching of
Scripture that salvation is entirely of the Lord. In fact, these bold preachers asserted that the true church is comprised of the total number of God’s elect—no more and no less.
Standing at the headwaters of the Reformation was Martin Luther. This bold German Reformer became one of the greatest preachers in this remarkable time. His pulpit proved to be the first strong pulse in the heartbeat of the Protestant movement, pumping life into the body of Christ. Luther unleashed God’s Word on the European continent with the force of an electrical storm. The thunder and lightning of his biblical exposition were powerful in shaping this movement.
The focus of this book is Luther’s bold biblical preaching. A mighty force for God, he was one of the most fearless individuals who ever served the church. Luther was unflinchingly courageous as he stood in the pulpit. The reason he was so brave is that he was thoroughly biblical. His heroic valor arose from his deep convictions, which sprang from sound doctrine. As a mighty expositor of the Scriptures, Luther left a rich legacy of pulpit excellence. Therefore, in these pages, our purpose is to examine his life and pulpit ministry. Specifically, why was he so bold in his preaching, and how did that boldness evidence itself?
Whether you are a layperson or a preacher, may the Lord use Luther’s example to embolden your commitment to the cause of Christ and to the furtherance of His gospel. In these days, when there is a crying need for boldness both in the pulpit and the pew, may we see the restoration of Christ’s church to her pristine purity through a new reformation.
—Steven J Lawson