There’s an incredible amount of bad preaching out there these days. And lest we get hung up and confused about definitions, let me explain right off the bat what I mean by “bad preaching”. I am not speaking in a literary sense, that is, about a lack of “word smiths” who can turn a clever phrase and of “creative geniuses” who come up with those clever illustrations that hold the hearers’ interest. Nor do I have in mind oratory skills, that precious few ministers these days present their message well.
Now to be sure, writing and speaking skills can serve the one who occupies the Preaching Office (Predigtamt), but as far as I can determine, there’s nothing in the Holy Scriptures that implies the Holy Spirit is able to do his work more effectively if the preacher has good style. (Oh, who can count the ways in which the devil has deceived Christians into giving man the glory?) On the contrary, as the cliché declares, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
It’s what’s inside that counts!
Instead the Holy Scriptures say that the Holy Spirit works through the words of Christ (Rom. 10:17), and to that our Confessions add, “In them that hear the Gospel” (AC V). Consequently, when I judge preaching I do so in light of what is preached, not by how it is preached.
And as I said in the beginning, there is an incredible amount of bad preaching out there these days. In this past year alone I have read a sermon about oatmeal, that it is “a warm, gooey breakfast paste that mom used to make you eat on cold winter mornings before you shuffled off to school;”1 also a sermon about a leaky church roof that due to poor giving on the part of members has permitted drops of water “to fall on Christ,” that is, on the visitor who was unfortunate enough to be sitting under the leak. 2 Then there was this sermon, in which the preacher equated the Gospel with a football, which the center (God) snaps to the quarterback (all believers), who in turn hands it off to the running back (the unchurched). Of course the running back wants to take it into the end zone (heaven), but he must first make it past the defense (Satan and his allies), which is trying to prevent this. 3
Now I could go on and on ad nauseum with examples of sermons just as silly as these, for they’re out there on the internet for all to read. 4 But for brevity’s sake let me simply give you their basic outline:
I. You are a sinner who doesn’t always behave (2nd use of the Law, which is often tempered in such a way that it doesn’t offend too much.)
II. Jesus died for you so you can be forgiven (usually one paragraph that we affectionately call “the Gospel paragraph.” However if it’s a holiday then maybe the hearers will be treated to a second or even third Gospel paragraph.)
III. Now start behaving better (3rd use of the Law, which by its sheer length indicates that it is the main point of the sermon, and these days the “good behavior” that is often sought is: 1) Do evangelism, and 2) Give more money to Synod.
A Better Way
Yes, there is indeed an incredible amount of bad preaching out there these days, and even though we Magpies have often been accused of being heatless jackdaws, this concerns us and should this not concern us all who love the Church, for which our Savior gave himself into death? And we vowed on the day of our Ordinations to preach the Gospel, which is by far the much better alternative to law/gospel/law preaching.
The Gospel is Christ. And so to preach the Gospel is to preach Christ, as Jesus did to Nicodemus, and to preach the sinner to Christ, which implies preaching him to the font, as once again Jesus did Nicodemus, (John 3:3-5), also to the Confessional and the Altar, where the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross is given by Christ, through his ordained minister for salvation and life. 5
“These are they that testify of Me.”
However it is my conviction that on far too many Sundays, in far too many congregations Christ is not preached as he was to Nicodemus, but is, at best, only being preached about. Why is that?
I see two reasons for this: One, the purpose of preaching has changed for many. Rather than to absolve sinners, which is the purpose our risen Lord gave to his Apostles when he said, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in His name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47), most preaching today seeks to effect in the hearer a certain desired behavior, explaining the popularity of the law/gospel/law motif.
The other reason has to do with a hermeneutical problem. So many ministers today have not been trained to find, in fact have actually been discouraged under the accusation of allegory from finding Christ in the Scriptures.
Now to be sure, allegory, which is to find some hidden, underlying meaning behind the literal meaning of the text, can be and at certain times in the history of Church has proven to be a most dangerous thing. But does this mean a minister dare not find Christ in the text, unless the text mentions Christ by name?
Dr. Luther of blessed memory disagrees. In fact he stated as much when he wrote, “All Scripture is pure Christ”6. The two words in that statement that jump out are “all” and “pure”. Pure Christ is to be found in all the texts of the Scripture, not that the Church understands how every text identifies with Christ. One could say that the Scriptures are like a mine. As the Church digs more deeply into this mine, she finds more and more Christ, and there is plenty of mining to be done by future generations. Yet thanks to godly men such as Dr. Luther and the revered Church fathers before him, the Church has already mined a significant amount of the precious treasure that is Christ from the Holy Scriptures.
Still I have another, even greater authority than these men on which to rely. Speaking to the Jews of Jerusalem, our Lord said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they that testify of Me” (John 5:39). Could it be said any more clearly than that? All Scripture is pure Christ, because all Scripture testifies of Christ.
So when teaching two disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are told that Jesus, “beginning with Moses and the Prophets…expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Lk 24:27). After finally recognizing him by the breaking of bread, they exclaimed, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us” (44)?
Later that same day, when Jesus appeared to the Eleven, “He said to them, ‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Lk 24:44).
Now perhaps someone might argue that when Jesus said, “the Scriptures testify of Me,” he meant only those parts in the Scriptures that specifically mention him, and that those were the parts Jesus used when preaching to the Emmaus Disciples and later to the Eleven. But that goes against Jesus, who said, “They,” not, “parts” or “much” or even “most” of them “testify of me.” Speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Evangelist, St. John, who in the beginning of his Gospel called Jesus “the Word,” writes towards the end of his Gospel, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may life in His Name” (John 20:31). Tell me, was he guilty of allegory?
Church and Change
Unfortunately, here we see the ability of Satan to adapt. In the 50’s and 60’s the battle was being fought over God’s words. While just about every “theologian” agreed that God’s words are in the Bible, many were quick to add that it also contains a collection of myths and fables added over the years to embellish God’s words. My father’s generation fought against this heresy, so that today we confess all the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, are God’s holy, inspired words. For this we thank them.
However, Satan is not easily discouraged but willing to adapt, and adapt he did, so that today, thirty years later, rather than a battle over the words, the battle is being waged over the incarnate Word of the Scriptures. Are all the Scriptures pure Christ, as Dr. Luther believed and boldly confessed, or are only those parts that specifically say they’re about Christ, as the conservative Biblicist teaches? I know one thing for certain, if we do not fight this battle for the Incarnate Word as hard as our fathers fought theirs, we lose Christ. And sadly, I fear, that’s the very tragedy to which many are, in fact, heading these days.7
Finally, Satan doesn’t care if you hold onto the words of the Bible as long as you do not find the Word in the words of the Bible. Let me conclude by giving three examples.
Satan doesn’t mind if you believe that God created the world in six days. Such a faith never saved anyone anyway. What Satan doesn’t want, however, is for you to find Christ in the creation account, that God created all things through him (John 1:3), and that God gives life to the lifeless when his Breath (the Holy Spirit) breathes the Life (Christ) into them (Genesis 2:7) through preaching, just as the Father, through His Spirit, used the preaching of Gabriel to carry Christ through the ears of the Blessed Virgin and into her womb.
Satan doesn’t care if you believe that Jesus took a boy’s lunch, five small loaves of bread and two fish, and with it fed a crowd of 5,000 men plus women and children. In fact, he is most pleased if all you hear in this miracle is a message about how God provides for our temporal needs. But that is not how Jesus preached on the miracle, in fact, just opposite, to the crowds that filled the synagogue of Capernaum the next day Jesus declared, “Most assuredly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for food which perishes but for food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (Jn 6:26f). Then a bit later he identified this food when he said, “I AM the living Bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats this Bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give him is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Thus according to our Lord’s own words, God’s provision of our daily bread is but a shadow of how he serves us the living Bread that we may eat in faith and live forever.
Satan doesn’t care if you, after hearing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, are determined to be a good neighbor, even to your enemies and to help all who are in need. Nor is he upset if you are moved to despair by the fact that you haven’t been, can’t, and won’t be a good neighbor to all people, especially to your enemies. But Satan will not tolerate it if you, together with Luther and many of the Church fathers, identify the Good Samaritan as Jesus.
Yet I ask you, is not Jesus the One who came to our rescue when we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), and that even though we by nature regard him as our enemy (Romans 8:7), just as this Jew did the Good Samaritan? And did he not, as did the Good Samaritan, put his life at risk to save us? Indeed, he gave it up for us. And did he not then cleanse us and heal us by the washing with water and the Word of Holy Baptism and by covering our wounds with the bandages of his righteousness (Galatians 3:27)? Did he not, after our Baptism, bring us into his Church where he has charged the minister to care for us, until he returns on Judgment Day? “Allegory,” Satan says, but Jesus replies, “These are they that testify of Me.” And now perhaps you see that the Parable of the Good Samaritan is in reality a beautiful preaching of both the law (Satan has attacked us and left us dying and helpless) and also the Gospel (Jesus comes to save us).
Therefore, from Jesus’ own example, the solution to bad preaching is not to be found in good style, but in good substance. Yes, even with a high voice8 a minister can preach a good sermon, if he preaches Christ, as do all the Scriptures, which testify of Christ, and preaches him in such a way that the hearer will know that because of Christ, should he die that very day he will be with Christ in the bliss of eternal life. §
The Reverend James A. Frey preaches Christ at St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.
1 The illustration went on to talk about how breakfast foods have developed to cater to the crowd on the go, and the point” “We’re all busy. Too busy. Even for God.” Sadly you will find precious little Gospel in this sermon. However, a “google search” of sermons with oatmeal illustrations turned up this interesting tidbit. The oatmeal illustration used by this “Lutheran” pastor was plagiarized. (See the Editorial update.) Indeed, its source is a sermon preached by a Unitarian minister of all people. What strikes me about this is that should a Lutheran parrot Luther and say the Feeding of the 5,000 is a shadow of Holy Communion, or that the Good Samaritan is Christ, chances are he will be chided for allegorizing the text. Odd.
2 How is it that some Lutheran ministers see Christ in the visitor but refuse to confess his presence on the Altar in the humble forms of Consecrated Bread and Wine?
3 Ok, I admit it. As a Lions’ fan, perhaps I’m a little bitter about football analogies, since my team’s running backs rarely make it into the end zone. Still I can’t help but be concerned about the offensive linemen, who by rule aren’t allowed to touch the football? Where will that leave them on Judgment Day?
4 Perhaps an artesian spring, rather than a well, would be a good illustration, for like an ever-flowing spring, the constant flow of these sermons never seems to stop, though I wouldn’t suggest drinking the water.
5 Cf “Let’s Kick Calvin Out of the Pulpit”, MM, vol. 1, issue 1).
6 Treatise on the Last Words of David, AE 15, 339. Luther also writes: “I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of all the subject matter of Scripture. For what still sublime thing can remain hidden in the Scriptures, now that the seals have been broken, the stone rolled from the door of the sepulcher (Matt. 27:66; 28:2), and the supreme mystery brought to light, namely, that Christ the Son of God has been made man, that God is three and one, that Christ has suffered for us and is to reign eternally? Are not these things known and sung even in the highways and byways? Take Christ out of the Scriptures, and what will you find left in them? (Emphasis added. The Bondage of the Will, AE 33, 25-26).
7 Especially when I hear comments such as this: that in those texts where there is only law (and the text specifically being referring to was the Parable of the Good Samaritan), the minister must “import” the Gospel, as did Luther. It makes you wonder. Don’t these people realize how they’ve condemned the Lord, who while commanding his ministers to preach the Gospel, often failed, at least in their minds, to do so himself?
8 God once even spoke through an ass to Balaam. (Editor Note, Fr. Frey is known for his rather soprano-ish voice)