97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 8

97LutherContinuing my preacher’s journey through Luther’s lesser known 97 theses:

68. Therefore it is impossible to fulfill the law in any way without the grace of God.

The gravitational pull of a post Genesis 3 world will always pull us toward a morality that is bereft of the presence of God. This is the tendency we have: to try to be like God, apart from God. Let’s never settle for obedient compliance over genuine relationship with God by His Spirit.

69. As a matter of fact, it is more accurate to say that the law is destroyed by nature without the grace of God.
70. A good law will of necessity be bad for the natural will.
71. Law and will are two implacable foes without the grace of God.

I want to leave these theses rather than summarizing them. As a human being I am naturally in total opposition to God being God. Telling me to behave by his rules will only incite rebellion, or . . .

72. What the law wants, the will never wants, unless it pretends to want it out of fear or love.

Unless the person is fearfully self-protective, or loving self in some way. Thus the written code will gain a variety of responses, from younger brother rebellion to older brother self-righteousness, but nothing on this continuum is actually a good result. Seems hopeless?

73. The law, as taskmaster of the will, will not be overcome except by the “child, who has been born to us” [Isa. 9:6].

Our only hope is Christ himself. Apart from him we are deeply in trouble with a terrible foe. So as a preacher? I must, must, must preach Christ – the only hope. But if I reduce Christ and start to preach law in some way, the result will not be greater godliness.

74. The law makes sin abound because it irritates and repels the will [Rom. 7:13].
75. The grace of God, however, makes justice abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law.

Only the grace of God can create a new taste, a new inner relish…hang on, I am drifting into Jonathan Edwards now. God can do what the law never could, stirring the heart with a new appetite for good.

Reformation Lessons for Preachers – Part 2

Yesterday I quoted at length from Mike Reeves’ message on Justification (available on theologynetwork.org).  Mike was addressing the intriguing question, “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” The first part of his answer focused on the contrast between their views of Scripture.  For Erasmus the Scripture was to be revered, but could be squeezed to fit his own vision of Christianity.  For Luther the Scriptures were the only sure foundation for belief, the supreme authority allowed to contradict all other claims.  Now for the second part of Mike’s answer to the question:

But it wasn’t just the authority of the Bible that made the difference, it was also what they saw as the content of the Bible.  For Erasmus the Bible was little more than a collection of moral exhortations.  The Bible is all about urging believers to be more like Christ the example.  Luther said, that’s just turning the Gospel on its head.  Our issue is sinners first and foremost don’t need to copy someone, sinners need a Saviour!  Sinners need, first and foremost, a message of salvation!  . . . Without the message of Christ’s free gift of righteousness, his free gift of himself and all that he has, there would be no Reformation.  Justification by faith alone was what made the Reformation the Reformation.  . . . It was this gracious message of a sweet Saviour’s free gift of righteousness that made life changing ministries life changing.

Reformation is not a moral spring clean.  It’s not a revolution against the old ways, anything old fashioned and ritualistic.  It’s not just about opening the Bible, but not finding the message fully.  This is a profound challenge for the church today – what message do people hear?

Our attitude to Scripture is the foundational issue for our preaching.  The message we preach from the Scripture is the more visible issue in our preaching.  Do we stand, no matter how much contemporary culture, even church culture, not to mention the attacks of the enemy himself, are arrayed against us?  Do we stand and preach the message of Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to Scripture, because we are absolutely committed to the God who gave us the Scripture?  Do we preach in light of these simple yet profound lessons from history?

Reformation Lessons for Preachers

There could be no end to posts dealing with lessons for preachers from the Reformation.  I’d like to focus in on one today, then another tomorrow.  Both of them were brought out very clearly in a series of messages by Michael Reeves on Justification (available, and well worth listening to, on theologynetwork.org).  In the final session of a great series of talks, Mike asks “Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?” Let me quote the first part of Mike’s two-part answer to this question:

Why is it that Luther started the Reformation and Erasmus didn’t?  Because Erasmus is the one who unleashed the Greek New Testament onto Europe.  He was getting the Bible out there, so why didn’t he start the Reformation?  Well, even though Erasmus was a constant and deep student of the Scriptures, the Scriptures didn’t actually do a lot for him because of how he treated them.  Erasmus kept banging on about how vague the Scriptures are (which is very convenient for his own theology), and so he gave them very little practical, let alone overruling, authority.  So although he looked at Scripture, the message of Scripture could be tailored, squeezed, adjusted to fit his own vision of what Christianity is.

The only way to break out of that suffocating scheme and achieve any substantial reformation and change in the world – well, it took Luther’s attitude, that Scripture is the only sure foundation for belief.  The Bible had to be acknowledged as the supreme authority.  It had to be allowed to contradict and overrule all other claims, because if it couldn’t do that, it itself would be overruled and hijacked by another message, as it was with Erasmus.  In other words a simple reverence for the Bible was never going to change the world, even quite a high view of the Bible was never going to do much.  Sola Scriptura.  Scripture alone was the indispensable key for change.  Without acknowledging that the Bible has that supreme and foundational authority there would be no Reformation.  No Reformation in peoples’ hearts, no Reformation in the world.

That final emboldened text is well worth a “selah” for preachers.  On this matter are we an Erasmus, or a Luther?

The Aim of Preaching Easter

What is your aim as you preach this Easter?  In his book, Sacred Rhetoric (p119-120), Michael Pasquarello makes the following comment about Martin Luther:

Luther’s homiletic aim was to demonstrate, by means of the Gospel, that the resurrection is more than an idle tale or a painted picture that evokes admiration and religious sentiment. . . . He hoped that in telling others the Easter story, the presence of the risen Christ might elicit faith’s true confession: “Christ is my Savior and King.”

Let’s not settle for a complacent approach to sermonic purpose as Easter approaches.  Why am I preaching this passage on this date to these people?  Because it’s Easter, of course!  That’s not enough, what do we aim to achieve?

What should the result be for the non-Christian present?  Luther wrote, “Although Christians will identify themselves with Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate – sinful, condemned actors in the Gospel story – there is another who took the sins of humanity on himself when they were hung around his neck. . . . And today, Easter Sunday, when we see him, they are gone; there is only righteousness and life, the Risen Christ who comes to share his gifts.” (Sermons, 125, cited in Pasquarello, 120)

What should our Easter preaching do for Christians?  Again, same book, “Christians are now free to look away from their sins, from evil and death, and to fix their gaze upon Christ, which is the logic or grammar of faith.”

What is your aim as you preach this Easter?  Be specific.  Target your message.  Don’t waste a glorious occasion.

Easter is Coming – The Power of Identification

I know Easter is still a couple of months away, but as a preacher it is never too early to think about Easter.  In fact, there is a sense in which commemoration of Easter is never more than six days away – the Lord’s Day is a weekly gathering because of His resurrection.  So here’s a thought regarding Easter (whether you’re planning for April or preparing for tomorrow’s message).

In preaching any narrative section, we need to consider whom listeners will gravitate toward, with whom they will identify.  We should consider how to encourage that or redirect that through our preaching.  In the case of the passion narratives, this tendency to identify can be powerfully used in our preaching.  Luther pointed to this when he wrote:

“Although Christians will identify themselves with Judas, Caiaphas, and Pilate; sinful, condemned actors in the Gospel story – there is another who took the sins of humanity on himself when they were hung around his neck.”

When it comes to the story of the crucifixion we find ourselves identifying with so many characters: Judas, Peter, fleeing disciples, Caiaphas, Pilate, Roman soldiers, Simon from Cyrene, mocking executioners, mocking crowds, mocking thief, repentant thief, followers standing at a distance, followers standing close by, even the Centurion.  Yet the wonder of it all is that we are invited to identify with the perfect One hanging on that cross, for in that act He was most wondrously identifying with us.

Consider how the natural function of narrative – to spark identification – can be utilized to communicate the wondrous truth of Calvary this Easter, or even this Sunday.