Luther on the Christian Life (3)

We pick up where we left off in our review of Carl Trueman’s book Luther on the Christian Life with the third chapter. Chapter three deals with Luther’s theology of the Word of God and the preaching of that Word. Luther’s theology of the Word is integrally connected with His Christ-focused understanding of the Christian faith and life. In Christ alone we find a gracious and merciful God. In Christ alone we find forgiveness of our sins. From Christ alone we receive everlasting life. This leads to the question: where then can we find Christ today seeing that He is no longer physically present with us but has ascended into heaven? Luther’s answer is this: Christ is found in the preached Word of God and the Sacraments in the context of the instituted church. Due to the fact that Christ is present with His people primarily through the preached Word of God, it follows that the Word must occupy a central place in the life of every Christian. Thus it is that Luther placed the utmost emphasis on the necessity of the preaching of the gospel for the Christian life. Without the preaching of the Word of God, the Christian’s spiritual life will be sapped. He or she will become spiritually malnourished and waste away. It can be said without exaggeration that to be removed from the preaching of the Gospel is to be removed from Christ’s presence.

Trueman brings to light many of Luther’s insights into the function of God’s Word in the Christian life. The Gospel as it is preached in the church both lays the foundation of Christian piety and then builds upon it. Luther’s point here about preaching stems from his understanding of the Word of God. Luther believed that the whole world and everything in it is entirely dependent upon the Word of God. When God speaks, His word creatively determines reality. Thus in the beginning God spoke the world into existence and by His continued speech He upholds and maintains the world. God is the great architect and artisan whose Word is the tool by which He has created and continues to uphold all things. The same is true of spiritual lives of God’s people. God employs His Word as the means by which He creates faith in the hearts of His people. And thereafter by means of the same Word God nurtures and feeds that faith, increasing it to final perfection. By faith we are united to Christ and receive all His benefits through union with Him. The Word of God establishes and sustains that vital link. For the Christian to have a vibrant spiritual life, to have uninterrupted communion with Christ, he or she must daily and weekly feast upon the Word of God.

In this connection, Luther emphasized the importance of the church. The church is the place where God speaks and where believers can hear the Word, proclaimed by the very voice of Christ through the mouths of His ministers. As important as the personal reading of God’s Word surely is, it is no substitute for the preaching of the Gospel. It is an accessory to, not a replacement of the preaching of the Gospel. Trueman calls attention to this important point. In our day the trend has been to minimize the preaching of Gospel in favor of small group Bible studies and private devotional exercises. Some, particularly in the house church movement, have gone so far as to leave the instituted church and replace it entirely a small group like setting. Especially in the United States, the Christian faith has become increasingly privatized and individualized. But such a view of the Christian life is utterly foreign to Luther’s thought, indeed it is at odds with the entire heritage of the Reformation. Luther, and we as well, identifies the preaching of the Word as the chief means of grace. Without the Word preached faith cannot flourish. But wherever it is faithfully preached, faith cannot but spring up and blossom. Such is the power of the Word of God. Ordinarily it is only in the church, in the gathered congregation on the Lord’s Day, that the preaching of the Gospel can be heard. In the preaching of the Gospel the authoritative voice of Jesus Christ calls His people, teaches them, consoles them, exhorts them, corrects them. Nowhere else can Christ’s authoritative voice be heard. That is why Luther pressed so hard for weekly preaching in the language of the people. He saw that the best way to rejuvenate a spiritually languishing people was to expose them constantly to the Word of God.

Reformed Christians will find this chapter especially stimulating. Our tradition places great emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel and the sacred duty of every Christian to place himself or herself under that preaching. Preaching is at the heart of our liturgy. Luther’s view of the Word of God and of the Word preached is ours as well. Luther reminds us why it is so important to hear sermons every Sunday, and that twice. It is because our spiritual health and our Christian lives utterly depend upon hearing and heeding the voice of Christ. Let Luther’s wise counsel remind us not to neglect that which is most needful for our Christian lives.

Justin Smidstra

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