In the mid-twentieth century, a full-length film was made about the life of Martin Luther. It included a scene that I found particularly provocative. The scene took place after Luther’s historic meeting with the authorities of the Holy Roman Empire and of the Roman Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms. When Luther was called upon at Worms to recant of his teachings, he made his epic stand, stating: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason . . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me.” He then left the assembly hall and was taken on horseback by his friends to Wartburg Castle, there to be hidden and protected from the authorities, who were soon to put a price on his head. At the castle, Luther grew a beard and disguised himself as a knight known as Sir George. Then he set to work on the task of translating the Bible into German.

While Luther was hidden away in the castle, his colleague, Andreas Carlstadt, in his zeal to promote the Reformation, went to churches and smashed stained-glass windows and other pieces of art. It was a reckless work of vandalism in the name of reformation. When word of Carlstadt’s destructive activity got back to Luther, he was horrified, for this was not what he intended by the Reformation. Despite the fact that Luther was wanted dead or alive, he got on his horse, left the castle, and came back to the church in Wittenberg. The scene in the movie shows Carlstadt, Philip Melanchthon, and others meeting quietly behind closed doors. Suddenly, Luther enters, dressed as a knight in chain mail. They look at him and ask: “Brother Martin, what are you doing? Why are you here?” Luther replies, “I want my pulpit.”

I don’t know whether that event actually took place in church history or whether this represented the director’s creativity in producing the film, but that scene thrilled me because it captured the spirit of Luther. One of the most significant things about Luther’s life is that after the Reformation began and he had become a celebrity throughout Western Europe, he did not spend his time traveling around the Continent trying to consolidate the movement. Rather, he returned to the primary vocation to which he had been ordained. He spent his years teaching and preaching in Wittenberg, just as John Calvin did in Geneva. So when Luther writes and comments about what a preacher should be and about the task of preaching in the church, I listen. Surely we all can be instructed from his insights.

One of the great gifts to the church is a large book titled What Luther Says. The corpus of Luther’s Works consists of fifty-five thick volumes, so I utilize this anthology to survey Luther’s writings topically. In this book, one can find collected statements from the various works of Luther regarding the preacher and preaching. What follows is the distilled essence of that collection.

The Preacher: Apt to Teach

The first thing that is required of a preacher, according to Luther, is that he be “apt to teach.” At this point, Luther is simply echoing the apostolic qualifications set forth in the New Testament for the position of elder (1 Tim. 3:1–7). The person who is elevated to a position of leadership in the church of God, and is given oversight and supervision of the flock of God, must be able to teach. Luther saw this as the primary task of the minister.

This concept is all but lost in the church today. When we call ministers to our churches, we frequently demand that they be administrators, skilled at fund-raising and project management. We also hope that they might know a little bit of theology and a little bit of the Bible, and we expect them to preach interesting and often entertaining sermons. But we often don’t make it a priority that pastors be equipped to teach the congregation the things of God.

Not only is this tendency contrary to Luther’s admonition, it is against scriptural teaching. Think of Jesus’ confrontation of Peter following Peter’s three public denials of Jesus:

So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”

He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?”

Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?”

He said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:15–17)

Three times Jesus instructed the Apostle to be engaged in the tending, leading, and feeding of His sheep. Why? It was because the people of God who are assembled in the congregations of churches all over the world belong to Jesus; they are His sheep. Every minister who is ordained is entrusted by God with the care of those sheep. We call the position “the pastorate” or “the pastoral ministry,” because the pastor (from the Latin pastor, meaning “herdsman” or “shepherd”) cares for the sheep of Christ. What shepherd would so neglect his sheep that he would fail to feed them? It is the feeding of the sheep, according to Luther, that is the prime task of the ministry. And that feeding comes, principally, through teaching.

The teaching of the Word is what God expects from those whom He sets apart and ordains as ministers.

I make a distinction between preaching—which involves exhortation, exposition, admonition, encouragement, and comfort—and teaching, which involves the transfer of information. I practice both in my own ministry, and sometimes I obscure the distinction. The students in my seminary classes will testify that sometimes, in the middle of my lectures, when I’m trying to communicate certain doctrines and information about theology, I’ll start preaching, because I’m not interested in the mere transfer of information. I want that information not only to get in their heads but in their bloodstreams. In fact, I warn them at the beginning of each course: “Don’t think that I’m in this classroom as a professor in a state of neutrality. I’m after your mind and your heart. I hope not only to instruct you, but to persuade you. I want to move you to grasp not only the truth of this content, but also the importance and the sweetness of it, so that you will take it with you for the rest of your lives. It is not my goal simply to transfer information from my brain to your notebook, because learning doesn’t take place until it gets in your head and into your life.” Likewise, when I preach, I often sprinkle some conceptual education into the content of my sermons. So I have a tendency to skate back and forth across the line between preaching and teaching. However, I’ve always thought that the primary thing, as Luther understood, that I’m responsible to do as a minister is to teach the people the things of God.

The Content of Teaching

Here we may well ask Luther: if the top priority of the minister is teaching, what is he to teach? Luther would reply: The Bible, the content of Scripture. Calvin wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, and those commentaries grew out of teaching seminars he gave to his congregation in Geneva. Luther also wrote many commentaries based on his lectures to his congregation and students in Wittenberg. These Reformers gave much of their time and effort to teaching the Bible, and all pastors should do the same.

Some years ago, when I was on the faculty at a theological seminary, we reviewed the curriculum. We asked ourselves: what does a man have to know in order to be a godly pastor? We decided that the main thing was the content of Holy Scripture. So many seminary courses are designed to answer academic questions of background, of authorship, and technical problems that we never get around to the English Bible. Our future ministers are coming out of seminaries not fully conversant with the content of the Bible. So we began to develop a curriculum from ground zero. We said, let’s step out of the academic world for a minute and design the curriculum not to train professors in the areas of their specialties, but to serve the church and thereby to serve Christ.

Many ministers are frankly afraid to teach the content of Scripture to the people because they haven’t learned it themselves. The people of God need to say to their pastors, or to their prospective pastors, “Feed us the Word of God.” Congregations must be careful to choose pastors who will open up the Scriptures to them.

The last months of the year 2000 were a period of mourning for me over the loss of one of my closest friends and comrades in the ministry, Dr. James Montgomery Boice. Jim Boice represented to me the model minister. Here was a man who went to Harvard University for his undergraduate degree, then to Princeton Seminary for his degree for ministry, and from there to the University of Basil in Switzerland for his doctor’s degree in New Testament study. He had all the credentials a person could want to go to the top of the ladder in the academic world, but that was not his call. His call was to be a pastor. For more than thirty years he opened the Word of God in his preaching, in his teaching, and in his writings. Fidelity to Scripture drove him, and a more courageous Christian I have never met.

The teaching of the Word is what God expects from those whom He sets apart and ordains as ministers. He desires that they will take His Word and give it to the people.

A Sound Understanding of Scripture

Pastors are expected, according to Luther, to manifest a godly life. Yet when Luther made that comment, he wasn’t talking simply about moral virtue. The pastor must be irreproachable in his doctrine. Luther wasn’t interested in doctrine removed from life. For Luther, doctrine is life, because what a person believes determines his behavior. Therefore, the preacher who teaches the Word of God must be sound in his understanding of the sacred Scriptures.

Furthermore, Luther said that the minister needs to be sure of his doctrine. That is a strange quality for a great minister. In this day and age, we tend to put a premium on openness; we don’t like the dogmatic spirit of people who are too certain of that which they teach or preach. We almost expect the minister, if he is to be politically correct, to say, “Well, maybe it is this and maybe it is that,” because we don’t want him to offend anyone by a proclamation that communicates too much certainty or authority. To that, Luther would say, “No, no, no, no.” The pastor is responsible to do his homework. He’s not supposed to manifest a certitude that is born of arrogance, but one that comes from the text of Scripture itself.

The great Dutch humanist and theologian Desiderius Erasmus initially was a fan of Luther, but he soon came to believe that Luther had gone too far. Thereafter, Erasmus emerged as one of Luther’s chief critics, and he wrote a scathing critique of Luther in his book titled The Diatribe. Perhaps Luther’s most famous written work (and I certainly believe his most important), The Bondage of the Will, was written in response to The Diatribe. In The Bondage of the Will, when Luther was responding to the attacks of Erasmus, he quoted Erasmus as saying that on difficult doctrines such as predestination, election, and issues of freedom of the will and so on, Erasmus preferred to “suspend judgment” and not make assertions. It was Erasmus’ view that the proper academic posture of the scholar, when investigating such issues, is to be very cautious, to reserve judgment, and to hesitate from coming to firm conclusions. Erasmus said that he would prefer not to make assertions on such subjects. Luther became apoplectic over this position of Erasmus. He said: “Nothing is more familiar or characteristic among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity.” Then, in his passion, Luther said: “Away, now, with Skeptics and Academics from the company of us Christians; let us have men who will assert.”5

Luther would have none of the spirit of those who are always learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7). The foundational truths of Christianity were built on the blood of the martyrs, because the Apostles didn’t go into the marketplace saying: “Well, maybe Jesus rose from the dead or maybe He didn’t. You need to examine this, and suspend judgment.” No, they were bold in their assertions because they knew what they believed (2 Tim. 1:8–12). They understood the things of God, were convinced of the truth of the claims of Jesus, and, having that assurance and certainty of the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture, they went boldly into a dying world. Luther did the same.

It is the task of the preacher to defend not his own honor, but the honor of God and Christ. That is where the preacher rises to defend the truth.

For instance, Luther was certain about the doctrine of justification. Without his assurance that the Bible taught that doctrine, he never could have stood against all the authority structures of his day. He wanted and expected the same kind of certainty from every minister—again, not a dogmatic spirit born out of arrogance, but a certainty that is rooted and grounded in a disciplined mastery of the Word of God. Both Luther and Calvin, even to this day, are regarded in the academic world as incredible geniuses who exhibited a rare and extraordinary mastery of their material. That is what ministers are called to achieve. The enterprise of teaching requires nothing less than that kind of due diligence. Why? Because their task is not to spread their opinions, but to set forth with clarity and boldness the Word of God.

A practicing psychologist from San Francisco came to me after a seminar on one occasion. She was very upset with her minister and said: “I’ve come to the place where I am convinced that our minister is doing everything he possibly can to conceal the real nature of God from us in his preaching. He’s afraid that the preaching of the gospel might offend somebody, or that the setting forth of the character of God in His holiness, sovereignty, justice, and wrath will make people uncomfortable and cause them to leave the church. I go to church to hear a word from God, and I’m starving to death in my church.” I can’t tell you how many telephone calls and letters I get from people who basically echo those sentiments. In desperation, they’re crying out to their pastors: “We’re not interested in psychoanalysis on Sunday morning. We don’t come to church to hear a commentary on the latest political issues in America. If we want that, we can turn on CNN or Fox News. We come to church to hear a word from God. We don’t want your opinions. We want to hear a prophetic ministry that prefaces the sermon with the words, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

This is how Luther and Calvin understood the task of the minister. The greatest awakening in the history of the church took place when, after darkness had eclipsed the truth of the gospel and hidden the Word in obscurity, the light burst forth and awakened Christendom in the sixteenth century. That light was carried to churches by men who saw it as their task to present the unembellished, undiluted, unvarnished Word of God and were bold enough to do just that. So they pored over the texts of Scripture, taking great care in their exegesis before they entered the pulpit. Since that was the center of their task, they were fearless. Their courage came from the conviction that what they were preaching and teaching was the Word of God.

Guarding against False Teaching

In our day, we’ve seen a revolution in worship that is being driven, in many ways, by an attempt to be winsome to the people of our age. As the culture has become increasingly secular, there has been an attempt to rethink the church, removing all of the artifacts of “churchiness”—pulpits, pews, and hymnals—turning the church building into what looks like a concert hall, and converting worship into an outreach ministry that comes across as exciting, interesting, and “relevant.” It’s almost as if we’re saying to our congregations today, “Let us entertain you.” However, the temptation to turn the pulpit into theater and the church building into a place of entertainment is not a new phenomenon. It was also a problem with which Luther struggled in the sixteenth century. When he preached his most powerful sermons on justification by faith alone, Luther noted that people fell asleep in his congregation. He reckoned that the people in the parishes came to church merely to be entertained. Even in the sixteenth century, during the middle of the Reformation, the pastors were struggling with the demands of their congregations that they entertain them with their preaching. Luther declared that it is not the task of the pastor to entertain, but to nurture and feed the flock in faithfulness to the Word of God. He said it is the task of the minister to protect the flock from heresy and from error. Today, if you preach against heresy and error, you are entering into the arena of the politically incorrect, because we live in a culture that has been captured by the spirit of relativism. Relativism says that truth is what you perceive it to be, and what is true for you may be false for somebody else.

In our society, you’re perfectly free to believe whatever you like, but the one thing you may not do is deny its antithesis. You can say, “I believe that this is true.” But you cannot say with impunity that that which opposes your belief is false. A whole generation of Christians has been brainwashed by the spirit of relativism, so they’re completely hesitant to say, “I deny that error over there.” We don’t have heresy trials anymore because, in relativism, there is no such thing as heresy.

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, when the Supreme Court was brought in to decide the matter, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor raised a question about voter responsibility. She commented that each voter had directions that told him or her how to operate the voting machines, and that the instructions warned each voter to be sure the stylus penetrated and no loose chads were left hanging. These things were the responsibility of the person who went in to cast a vote. One of the news commentators heard her question and declared that O’Connor was assuming that in America it is a privilege to vote, and that with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility. But he asked, “Doesn’t she understand that in our culture there is no such thing as responsibility?” In a relativistic environment, you can’t hold someone responsible for anything.

Even before relativism became fashionable, Luther had to deal with the responsibility of the shepherd to protect his sheep from false teaching. Luther understood that in Old Testament Israel, the greatest threat to the security of the nation was not the armies of the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Philistines. The people of Old Testament Israel were crushed by the false prophets within their gates. Jeremiah stood before God saying: “Lord, I quit. I will speak no more in your name. I am in derision daily.” Every time Jeremiah opened his mouth to proclaim the Word of God to Jerusalem, a hundred false prophets would answer him by telling the people, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace. The people didn’t want to hear the bad news that Jeremiah was prophesying, so they heaped to themselves false teachers. They went to hear the teachers and the preachers who preached what they wanted to hear. When Jeremiah complained about that, God reassured him, saying, “The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; and he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully” (Jer. 23:28a).

In the metaphor of the sheep, the false prophet was the wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was the one who came in and preached in a religious setting to the sheep (i.e., the household of God). The content of that preaching was to the people’s everlasting destruction and ruin. The true prophet, one who is a good shepherd, puts his life on the line for his sheep. There is a reason why the shepherd has that rod and staff—they are to protect the sheep from the wolves who would come in to ravage them. Luther said that the false teacher is the worst of all possible criminals, because he spreads a poison that has everlasting consequences. The pastor must protect his sheep from such spiritually criminal behavior.

Finally, Luther said that it is the task of the preacher to defend not his own honor, but the honor of God and Christ. That is where the preacher rises to defend the truth. He does not seek to protect his own opinion or his own reputation, but the truth of God. That is the duty of the pastor, because the honor of God has all but been wiped away in our day, not from outside the church but from inside. I tell my seminary students: “Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever preach your own anger. If you’re angry about something, recuse yourself from preaching on that issue. Don’t ever use the pulpit as your personal soapbox. If you want to proclaim the wrath of God, you’d better make sure it’s God’s wrath and not your own. You should be clear that your concern is the honor of Christ and not your own honor.” Every minister brings his flesh with him into the pulpit. It is a sacred thing to heed the spirit of the Word of God while guarding against the flesh.

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published as “The Teaching Preacher,” in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching, ed. Don Kistler (Lake Mary, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2008). 71–88.

What Is Faith?

A Method for Self-Examination