We say that the Reformation was a return to preaching, and so it was; but that is true because God used the preaching to effect the Reformation. Often we think that the Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95,Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. But the foundation was already laid, for Luther had been preaching the Word for seven years in Wittenberg. Luther was above all a preacher. The Word of God captured Martin Luther—not overnight of course, but as he began to read and study the Scriptures he came more and more under their power.
Luther did not become a preacher when he became a priest in 1507. A priest was not automatically required to preach. Luther began his preaching in 1510 with fear and trembling, which showed that he understood the seriousness and importance of preaching God’s Word. Soon the little chapel where he preached could not hold the crowds that came to hear him. The council of Wittenberg then invited Luther to preach in the City Church where he continued pastor until his death in 1546.
Luther preached often, not only on Sunday but on weekdays as well. He preached in such a way that the common people could understand, and thus he opened to them the Word of God in its clarity, simplicity, and authority. The power of Luther’s preaching lay in its biblical content. The Scriptures were for Luther the majestic Word of the King and therefore the sole and infallible authority. Luther viewed himself as a messenger of the King, and his work as that of announcing the King’s message faithfully. That gave Luther’s preaching a freshness that distinguished it from the stale scholasticism of his day. That gave it an air of authority that commanded respect and obedience. But above all that message pierced into the hearts of the people of God and nourished their faith. Once again the sheep heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and they followed Him.
Rome had all but silenced the Shepherd’s voice, for she ascribed more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and would not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. This the Belgic Confession, article 29, tells us is a mark of the false church.
Rome’s departure from the foundation of the truth over the centuries finally led her to the point where she considered the preaching unnecessary, or peripheral at best. Rome began to lay another foundation in institutional power and glory. She could make infallible declarations by a general council; she had a priesthood that could miraculously reproduce Jesus Christ by transubstantiation; she had tradition that was more authoritative than the Scriptures—why did she need the preaching of the Word? Rome’s worship was complete without the preaching. Yet for all of Rome’s pomp and power Luther could find no rest for his soul. Rome said, “Peace, peace, when there was no peace.” God caused Martin Luther to see and ask for the old paths, which is the good way; the way in which there is rest for the soul. The Reformation was a return to preaching.
Luther’s faith was strengthened in the preaching when he saw that God used it to smash the false foundation of Rome. Luther saw that the Word of God alone was trustworthy, and upon that Word he took his famous stand at Worms in 1521:
Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience. Here I stand. God help me! Amen.
Luther’s faithful confession at Worms emboldened many adherents of the Reformation. During the year that Luther was hidden at the Wartburg Castle overzealous and radical men thought to help along the Reformation of the church with the arm of the flesh. This worked a great confusion, and the Reformation was threatened with disastrous failure.
The “ox cart” that was returning the gospel of grace to God’s people had now run upon a rocky road and seemed sure to be overturned. Would Luther now respond as Uzzah did in Israel? Would Luther put forth the arm of the flesh in order to stabilize the cause of God?
Luther was fervently summoned to return to Wittenberg to save the cause. He left Wartburg at the risk of great personal danger, even death itself, for Worms had declared him a dangerous heretic and excommunicated him.
How would Luther handle the explosive situation once in Wittenberg? Would he advise physical force? Would he recommend psychological counseling for the troublemakers? Would he do nothing, so as not to offend any? No! He would preach! Luther dared to preach because he believed in the preaching. Eight sermons in eight days he preached, and the power of God that had begun the Reformation now stabilized it. In the second sermon Luther sets forth the underlying principle of the whole Reformation:
Summa summarum, said Luther, I will preach, speak, write, but I will force no one; for faith must be voluntary. Take me as an example. I stood up against the Pope, indulgences, and all papists, but without violence or uproar. I only urged, preached, and declared God’s Word, nothing else. And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip Melanchthon and Amsdorf, the Word inflicted greater injury on popery than prince or emperor ever did. I did nothing, the Word did every thing. Had I appealed to force, all Germany might have been deluged with blood; yea, I might have kindled a conflict at Worms, so that the Emperor would not have been safe. But what would have been the result? Ruin and desolation of body and soul. I therefore kept quiet, and gave the Word free course through the world. Do you know what the Devil thinks when he sees men use violence to propagate the gospel? He sits with folded arms behind the fire of hell, and says with malignant looks and frightful grin: Ah, how wise these madmen are to play my game! Let them go on; I shall reap the benefit. I delight in it. But when he sees the Word running and contending alone on the battle-field, then he shudders and shakes for fear. The Word is almighty, and takes captive the hearts.
Do we have that same reformational faith in the preaching? Do we have the confidence that by the lively preaching of His Word, applied by the Holy Spirit, Christ gathers, defends and preserves His church?
Preaching has fallen upon bad times in our day. Few in our day trust the preaching any longer. Many preachers, even in the historical line of the Reformation, add to or take away from the message of the King of the church; The simple preaching of the Word may have been alright in Luther’s day when men were not nearly as well educated as they are today; but many now believe that the preaching needs to be aided by man’s wisdom. In Luther’s day men sought to add to the preaching with the arm of the flesh, and the devil delighted. In our day men seek to add to the preaching with the mind of the flesh, and the devil is very pleased because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. The mind of the flesh is the wisdom of the world and not the wisdom of the Word. But it pleased God by the foolishness of the preaching to establish the Reformation, and now it pleases Him to preserve the church, reformed according to the Word of God, through that same Word preached.
Reformation Day is a good time for us to renew our faith in the preaching so that our faith may through the preaching be renewed.