Great Stuff — How Did Martin Luther Preach? A Summary of His Preaching Technique

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Luthers-Works-Church-Postil-364x500How Did Martin Luther Preach? A Summary of His Preaching Technique

by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes
First published on Concordia Publishing House’s Professional/Academic Books Blog:

The first volume of Luther’s Church Postil (LW 75, sermons for the church year) is out, and I hope you’ve been enjoying it. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing the next volume of the Church Postil, and as I did so, I became very aware of Luther’s preaching style. Luther’s preaching was popular at his time, but why? I think readers of these sermons and all preachers can benefit by understanding the basic structure of how Luther preaches.

Summary of the text.
Luther begins with a brief summary of the text, never with a story, analogy, or statistic. He goes straight to the Bible text and summarizes it in a sentence or two before moving to a more in-depth study. Luther either explains the text verse by verse or section by section. It appears that he has considered the rhetorical outline of the pericope, because Luther often gives an enumeration of parts of the text. After citing the Bible verse or section, Luther explains the following: What this passage says and means. Luther explains what the important words mean or restates the passage in his own words. This is usually quite short.

Application to himself and his hearers in faith and love.
Here Luther directly applies the text to his people at his time. If the Bible text is Law, he explains what the people are to do or avoid, in plain words. If the Bible text is Gospel, he explains the forgiveness and mercy of God in Christ, again in plain words. The important point is that this is not just something that happened back in Bible times; it applies to the hearers right now. This means that Luther is deriving the doctrine from the text and setting it forth for the people to believe, or he is deriving the moral teaching from the text and setting it forth for the people to do.

The next few points are not always present for each Bible verse or section. Luther uses them like tools to communicate the verse or section under consideration.

Luther gives illustrations of the moral teaching or the doctrine being discussed in the Bible passage. These illustrations are often biblical.

The rhetorical device of antithesis is the practice of setting forth the opposite, so that what God’s Word teaches is understood by the contrast. For Luther, antithesis takes the form of negative illustrations of sin and false doctrine. Luther can be quite vehement here. His goal is to show how shameful sin and false doctrine are and to make the people loathe sin and false doctrine. This is where Luther often attacks the monks, pope, fanatics, popular false beliefs, vices, and superstitions.

Apparent contradictions.
Sometimes Scripture seems to contradict itself. In such cases, Luther spends some time resolving the apparent conflict and explaining the possible ways in which the text should be understood so that one part of Scripture is not read in a way that conflicts with other parts of Scripture. This helps his hearers to understand Scripture in its canonical context and to let Scripture interpret Scripture.

As the final part of the sermon in the Church Postil, Luther often adds the “hidden meaning” or allegories. Allegories are used only with histories, and Luther does not use them to prove doctrine, but rather to illustrate what he has already taught from the literal sense of Scripture. He usually applies these allegories to the conflict of Satan against Christ, of human teachings against the preaching of the Gospel, or of salvation by works against salvation by faith. These allegories seem sometimes to be influenced by traditional, patristic readings of the text (such as the interpretation of the gifts of the Magi in the Epiphany Gospel). But at other times they could be Luther’s own inventions and can be just as fanciful as any allegory one reads in the early church fathers. That said, Luther’s allegories always are in harmony with the broader message of Scripture (the “analogy of faith”), and so his allegories are effective in illustrating doctrines that are found clearly stated in the literal sense of Scripture.

As an appendix, many of Luther’s sermons outside of the Church Postil also include an admonition. The admonition was essentially moral teaching, ethical encouragement, or even rebuke of sin, given as the last word of the sermon. This admonition often was related to the text for the sermon, though sometimes it was unrelated. It was a point that Luther felt had to be addressed for the common good of the parish and community and could not be put off until a later time. Modern Lutherans, having learned from C. F. W. Walther to end their sermons with a word of Gospel and grace, will likely find this disturbing. Luther did not hesitate to leave his hearers with the Law—as moral teaching, encouragement, or rebuke. Rather than focusing on ending each sermon with Gospel, Luther was more interested in following the shape of the text at hand. If the text was mostly Law, Luther preached mostly Law. If the text was mostly Gospel, Luther preached mostly Gospel. And Luther also had no problem with concluding a sermon by telling people what God wanted them to do. In Luther’s mind, at least, this did not entail a confusion of Law and Gospel. Rather than dismissing Luther as one who was unable to preach the Law-Gospel distinction that he taught elsewhere, we would do well to see why Luther preached this way and consider whether we have not misunderstood what the distinction of Law and Gospel is all about.

A final thought about Luther’s preaching.
The reformer studied and prepared for his preaching, but he did not preach from a manuscript. Instead, he usually preached from a brief outline or notes. Stenographers recorded his sermons, and then sometimes these shorthand, Latin-German notes were filled out and put into print. For an excellent example of how Luther’s preaching went from an outline to stenographer’s notes to print, see LW 69:373–401.

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Benjamin T. G. Mayes
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About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

Norm has been involved behind the scenes in many of the "go-to" websites for Lutherans going back many years.


Great Stuff — How Did Martin Luther Preach? A Summary of His Preaching Technique — 6 Comments

  1. I have to admit I haven’t read every page (or even close to every page), but I have the J. N. Lenker-translated *Sermons of Martin Luther* (8 volumes, Baker House 1983) and *The House Postils: Sermons of Martin Luther* (Baker House 1996, Eugene F. A. Klug et al. translators).

    One of my favorite portions of a Luther sermon is from his First Sunday in Advent Sermon:

    “. . .I have often said that there are two kinds of faith. First, a faith in which you indeed believe that Christ is such a man as he is described and proclaimed here and in all the Gospels, but do not believe that he is such a man for you, and are in doubt whether you have any part in him and think: ‘Yes, he is such a man to others, to Peter, Paul, and the blessed saints; but who knows that he is such to me and that I may expect the same from him and may confide in it, as these saints did.’

    “Behold, this faith is nothing, it does not receive Christ nor enjoy him, neither can it feel any and love and affection for him or from him. It is a faith about Christ and not in or of Christ, a faith which the devils also have as well as evil men. . .

    “That alone can be called Christian faith, which believes without wavering that Christ is the Savior not only to Peter and to the saints but also to you. Your salvation does not depend on the fact that you believe Christ to be the Savior of the godly, but that he is a Savior to you and has become your own.” [“First Sunday in Advent” — Sermons of Martin Luther, volume 1: Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, Baker Books, page 21]

  2. I apologize for the harsh sound of what I’m about to ask, but I’m not sure how else to put it: Do our seminaries teach that this (what’s described above) is precisely how not to preach in today’s pulpits?

    I do not mean to say that every LCMS pulpit is the same, or that all are equally bad. But I do find, for example, that in general, the sermons I hear from LCMS pulpits are very essayistic (setting aside whether the essay in question conforms to Lutheran dogma). And having studied Luther’s sermons, I’ve often wondered whether there was a deliberate shift away from his commentary style, and if so when this occurred.

  3. Hi Aaron,
    There was quite a discussion about what constitutes a good sermon a while back on BJS, maybe in March, 2013. I remember Dr. Holger Sonntag and Pastor Mark Surburg advocating a return to the model of Luther, if I’m correct. When listening to a sermon I try to go by the points Pastor Todd Wilken recommends.

    1. How many times is the name of Jesus used.
    2. Who is doing the verbs, Jesus or someone else.
    3. Listening for words that tell me about what Jesus has done for me not what I’m to do for Jesus.

    Number three may not be exactly right, I’m doing this from memory, but I’m sure you get the drift-It’s all about Jesus!

  4. @Aaron D. Wolf #2

    Dear Mr. Wolf,

    I have not seen a response here regarding your question, so I will try to answer on behalf of the LCMS seminaries and their homileticians.

    Samples of what is considered good practice in sermons today can be found in the CPR, i.e., the Concordia Pulpit Resources journal. The general editor is Dr. Carl Fickenscher of CTS, Fort Wayne. I believe you can order CPR from CPH: It includes homiletical studies for all of the upcoming Sundays and holidays in the church year, and sample sermons for some of those dates.

    Other homiletical studies can be found in the seminary journal of Concordia Seminary, i.e., the Concordia Journal. Most of those are just studies, but a few, on occasion, are entire sermons.

    Dr. David R. Schmitt of the Saint Louis seminary is today their leading homiletician. He holds the “Gregg H. Benidt Memorial Endowed Chair in Homiletics and Literature.” Check out Concordia Journal 37 #2 (Spring 2011): 107-129 for his article “The Tapestry of Preaching.” I think it is the best succint, theoretical description of what is considered good
    practice in LCMS sermons today.

    Schmitt calls the “tapestry of preaching” “a metaphor I use to describe a simple framework designed for pastors to help them evaluate their public proclamation of God’s word” (ibid., p. 107). He describes four “threads of discourse” in Lutheran preaching: theological confession (i.e., doctrine), textual exposition (i.e., exegesis of the text), evangelical proclamation (i.e., Law and Gospel with emphasis on the forgiveness of sins and Christ crucified), and hearer interpretation (i.e., description of how the text works out in a Christian’s life). I think my “i.e.” are fair summaries. But you should read his article to get his entire discussion of the matter.

    I use the sermons of Luther (both Klug and Lenker editions; also LW 51, 52, 58) all the time in preparation for my preaching on a text–I have for thirty years! I have read through all of them at least several times. However it is impossible to fit any of his sermons into a twenty-minute time slot; which is not even to speak of all the tangents he engages in.

    It is difficult to “pigeonhole” Luther’s sermons. Sometimes all he does expound the text. Other times the text is just a starting-point for a dogmatic treatise. In some sermons, he spends most of the time berating the pope and his minions (uh . . . not related to the Despicable Me guys 🙂 ). In other sermons, Luther tells you about his own spiritual life. In other sermons, it is all about faith and Christ, and you wonder where he got that from the text. In other sermons, there is heavy typology or allegorizing. So, in my experience, Luther’s preaching covers the whole gamut of the “tapestry of preaching.”

    I hope this explains both present LCMS practice (at least from the seminaries) and Luther’s own practice.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  5. It sounds to me like Luther preached the text. I have always used the text as the outline for my sermon. It tends to keep me honest and focused on God’s Word, not my word about God’s Word. All of those whom I consider superior preachers do pretty much the same thing. It is hard to be a good preacher without the Word of God being the heart and soul of it.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Noland, for a very thoughtful, detailed, and helpful response. I am grateful also for your faithfulness and diligence in sermon preparation, as you described.

    I’m about halfway through the “Tapestry of Preaching” article you mentioned, and this line sticks out at me: “But we need to remember that we communicate not only what the Scriptures mean but also how the Scriptures mean.” That, in a nutshell, summarizes my lack of affection for what I described as “essayistic” sermons. When the sermon, heavy on illustration, works from a pre-distilled interpretation of the text and does not model something of the distillation process, we hearers miss out on what Dr. Schmitt describes as “how the Scriptures mean”—the hermeneutic and the exegesis.

    Also, the article lays a heavy burden on MDiv students who are not trained in rhetoric the way they once were. I think that burden is the burden of the Predigtamt, but I think that underscores our desperate need to return to a classical model of education. Then again, my friend Chris Kopff met some heavy opposition on the Convention floor just by moving that we return to a more rhetorically effective translation of the SC—even after he demonstrated said effectiveness!

    Still reading . . .

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