The Sermon as Absolution

PROPTER CHRISTUM—The Sermon as Absolution

What is the relationship between preaching and absolution? Rev. Klemet Preus tackles this question in an essay included in Luther Academy's forthcoming festschrift honoring his brother, Daniel: Propter Christum: Christ at the Center. Below you will find a bit of the essay to stimulate your own reflections on the question.

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— Klemet Preus

In 2011 Concordia Publishing House republished a book of essays called Preaching is Worship.1 Originally entitled Liturgical Preaching, it had been published ten years earlier. It was and is a very valuable volume. Especially welcome in the second permutation are two additional essays by David J. Peter and Bo Giertz. Particularly helpful, at least for a broad understanding of the purpose of the sermon, are the essays entitled "Sacramental Preaching: Holy Baptism" (by Robert C. Preece) and "Sacramental Preaching: The Lord's Supper" (by Kenneth W. Wieting). But there is an essay missing and it is a glaring omission. What is lacking in this volume-and I fear, lacking in our basic homiletic theory and understanding-is "The Sermon as Absolution." This essay seeks to correct that omission and argues that the Christian sermon, more than pointing to the absolution or to the other sacraments, actually does and must absolve the sinners in the pew.

Luther said, "If I preach the forgiveness of sins, I preach the true Gospel. For the sum of the Gospel is: Whosoever believeth in Christ shall receive the forgiveness of his sins. Thus a Christian preacher cannot open his mouth unless he pronounces an absolution."2 Johann Michael Reu says the same:

It is its testimony of the forgiving and life-giving grace of God in Christ, that assigns to the sermon its place in the sacramental part of the service and gives it the character of a general absolution. In this sense Luther says of it: "It is a definition of the office of preaching to say that we are to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and forgive the sins of contrite and timid consciences.…If a sermon does not do this, it is not a right preaching of Christ.3

Absolution is a singular and exclusive act of God. Its pronouncement tells us not that we have changed or even that we must change. It tells us that God's attitude toward us has changed in Christ. This change is based upon the finished work of Christ for us through his vicarious life and death. It is announced by Jesus on the cross (John 19:30) and again in the resurrection (1 Cor 15:17, 20). The absolution is spoken in words normed by the Scriptures and announced every time the cross and resurrection are proclaimed properly.

By means of proclamation Lutheran preaching justifies! The act of justification is historically grounded in the cross and resurrection of Christ, propositionally articulated in the inspired text, and relationally connected to the faithful in Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper. This same act of justification is delivered to the hearer in the proclamation of the Gospel. It happens in proclamation. The perspective of the justified is altered, reinforced, and sustained in the proclamation. That is what sermons "do," as they bring the people of God under the Biblical Word of God.4

Sermons, then, are not primarily intent on affecting change in people but in announcing the changed heart God has towards us in Christ. It is a theological, not an anthropological or psychological, task. Robert Preus says, "There are those who say that God is immutable, ergo the death of Christ could not really affect Him and move Him in any way. This…is poor theology and would lead one only to some sort of quiescent Deism. No, just as God was moved by His grace to send His Son to the cross, so He is moved by the death of His Son to think of us only in thoughts of peace."5 We announce primarily a changed God and not primarily a changed man.…

  1. Paul Grime and Dean Nadasdy, ed., Preaching is Worship (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011).
  2. Martin Luther, “Confession and the Lord’s Supper,” in The Precious and Sacred Writings of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, vol. 11 (Minneapolis: Lutherans in All Lands, 1906), 198. Reproduced in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 1.2:198.
  3. M. Reu, Homiletics: A Manual of the Theory and Practice of Preaching, trans. Albert Steinhaeuser (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, 1922), 60.
  4. Robert W. Schaibley, “Lutheran Preaching: Proclamation, not Communication,” Concordia Journal 18 (1992): 17.
  5. Robert Preus, Preaching to Young Theologians, ed. Klemet Preus (St. Louis: Luther Academy, 1999), 37.