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Where’s Walther…in our pulpits?

August 27, 2010 No Comment

by Timothy Teuscher

“He was a preacher, too, and never charged money for his preaching, and it was worth it” Mark Twain once quipped. While humorous, his words are also rather sobering because there is probably more truth in them than we would care to admit.

There are many gifted public speakers in our synod yet many sermons these days tend to be rather shallow messages on practical living and other “relevant” topics. In some churches the pulpit is a soapbox from which the preacher delivers his religious pep-talk of the week and tells a few stories which supposedly illustrate some spiritual truth. Not a few pastors have even left the pulpit and now strut across the stage (chancel) to deliver their off-the-cuff monologues (sermons), like a religious version of The Tonight Show. All this, of course, is justified in the name of missions and is done to flatter, amuse, or market people into heaven.

However, pastors are not called to be salesmen of salvation, public relations consultants for Jesus, or corporate builders of His church. Salvation is not for sale. Christ’s image does not need sprucing or spicing up. The Holy Spirit is quite capable of building Christ’s church with the means He has ordained. Rather, the preacher’s task is proclaiming the Word of God for what it is—the Law which sears the sinful flesh and afflicts the comfortable, and the Gospel which soothes the tormented soul and comforts the afflicted.

“We believe, teach, and confess that the distinction between Law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church,” so we read in our Lutheran Confessions. From these words comes the title of the most important and influential work of a contemporary of Mark Twain—LCMS founder C. F. W. Walther, who delivered a series of lectures on the subject of The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. To those who hold the holy office of preachers and to who hold the holy office of hearers of the Word, let’s give ear to a few things Walther has to say about the pulpits in our congregations:

“The true worth of a good servant of the church consists in his ability to preach properly. If he can’t do that, he has no business in the pulpit. And what is the preacher to effect by his preaching? He must alarm the secure sinners and rouse them from their sleep of sin; then he must bring the terrified to faith; then he must lead the faithful to certainty with regard to their state of grace and their salvation; those made certain he must then bring to sanctification; and he must strengthen the sanctified in their holy and blessed estate and preserve them in it until the end.

They grope for terms that do not strike their hearers as strange or offensive

“What a task! And the performance of this task requires especially that the Word of truth be rightly divided, that is, that Law and Gospel be properly distinguished. Whoever does not understand this, and mingles and confuses both, preaches in vain. Even more, his sermons are destructive and lead souls to a false faith and a false hope. But to distinguish properly between Law and Gospel is an exceedingly difficult task. Here all must remain pupils as long as they live, as Luther says.

“Only one thing is absolutely necessary to be a true Christian, namely to have true faith. But to be a proper preacher it is not enough for me to have true faith. I must also be able to express in proper words what must be believed. Presenting the truth in sound words is indispensable.

“And yet, many preachers of the modern type often shrink from using churchly and Biblical terms because they fear that such might be offensive to their hearers. In their sermons they hesitate to speak about original sin, God’s wrath over sinners, the devil and his prowling around. On the contrary, they grope for terms that do not strike their hearers as strange or offensive. They substitute words that are more appropriate to the religious feeling of an enlightened people.

“But those who do not clearly proclaim the Gospel which the world finds offensive are not faithful in their office and do many souls great harm. As servants of the Gospel, it is not only your duty to believe as the church believes, but you must also speak the language of the church.

“Preparing and delivering a sermon should always be done with fear and trembling, in the holy anxiety of not saying something false. The preacher must carefully scrutinize everything he has written to see whether it conforms to the Word of God. Let him not be enchanted by the beauties of style or rhetoric, but be especially concerned that his language is not false or subject to misunderstanding.

“After all, the only way to make a person a true Christian is not through eloquence, be it ever so lofty and impassioned, but through the Word of God alone. It alone produces repentance and faith and piety, and preserves people in them to the end. But here preachers are greatly found wanting.

“Many waste much time in unnecessary matters during the week and then give less than their best in the pulpit. They say something only because they must say something. That’s terrible! The time spent in the pulpit is extremely precious, a time that may be the deciding factor in the welfare and salvation of many a soul. Woe to the preacher who does not properly use that time to offer the best he can! Woe to the preacher who simply spouts the first thing that enters his mind!”

Perhaps it’s time for preachers to dust off our copies of Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel and read it again?! Concordia Publishing House recently released a “reader’s” edition of Law and Gospel, plus there is a condensed version, God’s No and God’s Yes available. In addition, CPH offers Bible studies on this most important topic of Law and Gospel.

Above all, let us all—preachers and hearers of the Word alike—pray more fervently the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer—the one of which the catechism says, “God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven!”

Rev. Timothy Teuscher is pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Stratford, Ontario.

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