Lutheran Spirituality and Preaching

Lutheran Spirituality and Preaching: The Preaching of Law and Gospel as an Act of True Spirituality, Rev. Dr. Edward O. Grimenstein, Chaplain (Captain) 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, U.S. Army, Ft. Bragg NC.


Many Lutherans often see the two topics of spirituality and preaching as oil and water - they don't seem to mix.  Not only do denominations outside of Lutheranism often regard Lutheran preaching as a-spiritual, but even Lutherans themselves may confess their preaching is not very "spiritual."  Lutherans may not feel like they have much to bring to the table when conversing about spirituality and preaching with say a Baptist or Pentecostal preacher.  After all, Lutherans usually don't shout at the top of their voices from the pulpit, nor do they often preach an extra 45 minutes because "the Spirit has just laid something on my heart."  So, Lutherans often shy away from discussing spirituality and preaching.  They abandon this topic to those who, at least in their own eyes, seem to bring more to the table.  But Lutherans couldn't be more mistaken in abandoning the topics of spirituality and preaching.  Not only do Lutherans have much to bring to the discussion of spirituality and preaching, I propose that the Lutherans' espousal of preaching law and gospel is in its very essence true spirituality.



The Question at Hand

So what makes a sermon truly "spiritual?"  Many Baptists are proud of their ability to pour forth unending streams.[1]  African American preachers pride themselves on being encountered by the Holy Spirit in the moment of proclamation, although research, and their own admissions, may have proven otherwise.[2]  Perhaps it is the ability to preach without notes or being able to project without a microphone that characterizes the indwelling presence of God.[3]  Far too often preachers and even professional homileticians are the ones who have equated spirituality in preaching with some form of ecstaticism in order to pass the litmus test for "spirituality" - a test Lutherans often fail to pass.  But Lutherans do preach spiritually. 

I contend that as Lutherans preach the law and the gospel they epitomize the very essence of "spiritual" preaching - a preaching originating from and informed by the Holy Spirit who testifies about Christ.  Clearly the best preaching comes not just from outside ourselves, but from Christ's cross and open tomb.  True spiritual preaching comes from the proclamation of law and gospel.    


Will the True Spirit Please Stand Up?

            Spirituality is all too often equated with ecstatic, charismatic utterances or actions.  The field of Homiletics suffers just as much as other disciplines from this misnomer and maybe even more so.  Throughout history those who have been able to speak publicly in persuasive manners were often seen to be blessed by a deity and such speaking presupposed a spiritual indwelling.[4]  St. Paul was even thought to be the incarnate manifestation of Hermes for his rhetorical prowess in the cities of Lystra and Derbe.  But time and time again Paul did not point to his speaking ability as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit's power.  Instead, Paul always pointed to the gospel he spoke.[5]  For the Apostle Paul it was the message, the law and gospel he preached, that was evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence.

            Paul's message and all true preachers' sermons are truly spiritual through the law and gospel preached.  Anyone can babble in made up languages, the best of charlatans can speak for hours, but it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that God's desire to save us is revealed.[6]   Law and gospel extend from God himself through the Holy Spirit and remain God's spiritual manifestation in this world.[7] 


I Believe That I Cannot Believe

            Since the Fall into sin, mankind does not, by nature, understand the will of God.[8]  But through God's word and sacraments, a true spiritual understanding of creation is bestowed once more upon this world.  The very preaching of law and gospel is in its very essence and nature "spiritual" since its derivation is foreign to fallen man.[9]  Without the Spirit no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," since such proclamation only comes by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Just as the prophet Daniel was unable to know and interpret King Nebuchadnezzar's dream without the Holy Spirit, so also is the preacher unable to know and interpret law and gospel without the work of the Spirit.[10]  The very act of knowing and speaking the gospel is the manifestation of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.

            Luther's explanation to the 3rd Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism especially highlights the Holy Spirit's work in law and gospel. He begins with a paradox by admitting, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him."[11]  Although it may seem odd to believe that you are unable to believe, this very fact has been revealed to us:  sinful human beings are unable to believe in Jesus Christ by themselves. 

The recognition of an inability to believe is nothing less than sinners' resigned assertion that they are indeed fallen creatures in the eyes of God.  The Holy Spirit not only causes believers to believe in Jesus Christ, but the Holy Spirit also causes believers to believe that they don't believe in Jesus Christ; they are lost in sin, children of the devil, breakers of God's law, in short - sinners.   The Holy Spirit already knows that sinners are sinners, but now the Holy Spirit convicts sinners to admit, "Yes, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord."  The Holy Spirit is not only active in the proclaiming of the gospel, the Holy Spirit is also active in the convicting of the law which is a "holy work" of God.[12]  Although such work of God by means of the law has been described as God's "alien" work, nonetheless it is still part of God's plan to proclaim the gospel (FC Ep V, 8).[13] 

God's desire is for the salvation of sinners. The preaching of the law ultimately serves that end.[14]  The preaching of the gospel is especially the work of the Holy Spirit and is the telos of spiritual preaching.[15]  Since the gospel is foreign to fallen man's mind (Romans 8:7) and since the gospel cannot be generated by sinful man (1 Cor. 2:14) the presence of the gospel is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit's activity through the word.  Accordingly, anything that is not connected with Christ (i.e. a message created by man that seems comfortable and easily received by the market-driven, lusting eyes of a congregation) could rightly be called unspiritual and anti-Christian.[16]  True spirituality in preaching has nothing to do with a smiling pastor, rhetorically savvy sermon or emotionally driven ecstasy.  True spirituality comes in the preaching of law and gospel, the true manifestation of the Holy Spirit who calls to remembrance all that Christ has done and is doing in this world.[17]

The spiritual preaching of law and gospel is the enactment of Christ's death and resurrection in the lives of the hearers.  Just as baptism really slays and resurrects, and just as the Lord's Supper is the reception of God's divine forgiveness, so also is the preaching of law and gospel the very bestowal of Christ's gracious activity in this world.  Preaching that ignores law and gospel, or preaching that might be considered to be law and gospel yet views these as merely static doctrines to be pondered, fails to see the active redemption occurring when law and gospel are preached.[18]  A truly spiritual form of preaching is one centered upon and originating from the very redemption achieved by Christ, now made available to hearers through law and gospel. In such preaching, as Christ said, the Holy Spirit "brings to remembrance all I have said and done" (John 15:26).


Law & Gospel as God's Self Communication

            Law and gospel should be far more than just something preachers struggle to find, discover or build up in a sermon.  Law and gospel is the very self communication of God in this world.  Since law and gospel can only come from the Holy Spirit, because it is only by the Spirit that such law and gospel can exist, the proclamation of law and gospel is the very outstretched extension of God's self, his purpose and activity in this world.  Law and gospel is God's action of bringing and securing salvation.  Law and gospel is not an artifact dug up or researched; the dimensions are more far-reaching and divine.  Law and gospel is God's self-communication in this world.  Just as the Logos was made flesh in the manger, so God now speaks the same Logos through the Holy Spirit in words that offer and convey salvation to us.  Where law and gospel is preached, there is the Holy Spirit.  And where the Holy Spirit is, there will be law and gospel - the two are inseparable.


Artifact or Agent?

Unfortunately law and gospel are often regarded as things rather than as an activity of God.  For example, consider the bones of a dinosaur held together in a museum.  The bones are held together by pieces of metal shaping them into this monstrous creature.  The legs are poised in positions that look like the beast could jump off the pedestal and chase a person down.  The gaping jaw gives the impression that it has the ability to swallow a person whole.  But these activities are mere illusions.  The dinosaur can't move.  It won't walk.  It can't chomp.  It is an object to be looked at.  It is a museum piece that is incapable of eliciting change in this world.  The dinosaur is dead, and, most importantly, is unable to affect any circumstance in this world of its own accord. 

Even though we preachers can testify to the physical resurrection of Christ, it is still possible for preachers to preach a Jesus who is lifeless, unmoving, unacting, unable or unwilling to change life in this world; basically a dead Jesus.  Preachers can preach Jesus as an object or thing that lived a long time ago and all that we have left of this Jesus are some dusty stories held together by some loose ligaments.  We preachers can sometimes stare at Jesus, impressed by his past stance and actions of long ago, but fail to see Jesus as an active agent ready to walk onto the scene and act.   

            True law and gospel preaching is about activity - the activity of Christ slaying this world with the voice of his word and raising creation to a new life through the breath of his Spirit.  How easy it is to forget that Jesus is alive.  He was not just alive 2,000 years ago.  He is alive right now!  Since Jesus is alive right now he is possessor of all things in the church.  Christ is the One who distributes his death and resurrection through his Spirit and into the mouths of simple preachers.  Those preachers in turn preach that law and gospel right here, right now as a living Word to living people who crave the activity of Jesus right here, right now, in this place - the living Jesus who comes as law and gospel.


A Proposal for (at least) Three Holy Spiritual Traits in Preaching

It is time for preaching to shed the dried carcass of its historical critical approach.  For too long this method has gone relatively unnoticed and undiagnosed in preaching.  But we see it everyday in the museum - preachers will treat Jesus like a distant, dead, dried up God.  How shameful that we Lutherans, bearers of the law and gospel, have forfeited on so many occasions the chance to speak the living Jesus right here, right now. 

What that preached Logos may sound like in a sermon comes in many forms and will not be treated here exhaustively.  Nevertheless, there are a few traits to consider in allowing the Spirit to grace our tongues with the living Christ.  Preaching does not have to remain unspiritual (i.e. a dry valley of dead bones).  This does not mean that preachers need to get "excited" or dramatic in their preaching as the world so often thinks of drama.  To preach a living Word is to allow law and gospel to do what law and gospel do; slay and bring to life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 


First Trait: A Present Presence

Christ is present and active in this world.  It won't take too much diagnosis for a preacher to glance through his sermon to see if he speaks of Jesus always in the past tense, or speaks of Jesus as an object to be held, rather than as an actor who is doing something.  Preachers can often talk "about" Jesus as if he is an object to be manipulated rather than the Creator of new realities in this world.  Theologically, a great deal is said when Jesus is referred to in the past or as a "thing" to be pondered or viewed, rather than as an actor through baptism, word and supper.

But Jesus can be spoken of in the present as the doer of great things. Consider the confession of sins. In the absolution the pastor speaks of a present tense activity, "In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."  Pastors don't talk about how nice it would be for sins to be gone, pastors don't talk about the possibility of striving to be a new person, nor is a committee organized to discuss the constitutional possibility of having a member's sins taken away.  Christ, through the pastor (acting in the stead of Christ) makes a sinner a saint.  Sins are forgiven in the here and now, the dead are raised, a person overwhelmed by his actions against God has now been forgiven by God.  This is present redemption.


Second Trait: An Active Redemption

            What should the content of a sermon be?  If Jesus is indeed present through the preached Word and as the preached Word,[19] Jesus would not really want to talk about the weather, or talk about the pastor's recent vacation.  In fact, Jesus would not want to talk about anything.  A pastor does not speak so that members may gaze upon a bronzed Jesus, contemplating his life and times like some ineffectual Buddha.  Instead, the pastor will proclaim Christ, bringing salvation to sinners.

            What should a truly Holy Spiritual sermon be filled with?  The pastor's words should remind listeners of everything that Jesus said and did (John 16).  A sermon will be redemptive in content and action.  The sermon will not merely speak about Christ's redemption as an object to be contemplated or considered.  On the contrary, the sermon will actually speak the act of redemption itself.  The sermon will speak law in such a way that hearers are able to confess, "Yes, I am indeed a sinner, living in a fallen world and I am without hope."  At the same time the preacher will also speak the gospel so that hearers can say, "In spite of my sin and this world's incredible wickedness, I have a real and living hope thanks to Christ!"  A truly spiritual sermon is one that reminds hearers of Christ's redemption; a redemption that happens for them in the here and now through Christ.

Jesus isn't present as the Word simply to sit around and drink coffee with us.  Jesus is present as the Word to do one thing - redeem the cosmos.  The truly spiritual Word of Jesus is the Word that is constantly enmeshed with the task of noting the many and various ways God can speak his law and the many ways that God offers wondrous gospel deliverance through Christ's death and resurrection.


Third Trait: A Declared Reality "for you"

            New realities are declared to people through the gospel.  Ultimately, preachers do not preach only to themselves.  Preachers speak to people who listen.  The words the preacher speaks are words for people to hear.  The message is ultimately "for you," the hearer.  The speaking of the gospel is the bringing of a gift, Christ himself, to people so that Christ may be received as a gift.  In a sense, every sermon should be like the handing of a present from the preacher to the hearer as the pastor says, "Here, I have a gift.  This gift is from God and it is for you."[20] 

Preachers have been guilty of not always stating concretely what is "for you." Ultimately preaching should declare new realities of life to dying sinners.[21]  Preaching is the bringing of Christ's gift of salvation for people.  For instance, think of the absolution that is pronounced each Sunday.  The pastor has been called by God to act in Christ's stead and to declare a new reality to hurting sinners.  Preaching should be absolution.  To say that preaching should be absolution means that it will deliver new realities to people.  These realities may be many and varied, "you are clean . . . you are forgiven . . . you can believe in Jesus . . . you don't have to follow sin anymore," but all will be a reflection of the new life Christ has won "for you."

            Although preaching will teach, that is not its primary purpose.  Although preaching may describe a reality, it is not merely descriptive.  Although preaching may reference the past, it is present.  Preaching is the actual bestowment of real salvation through the Word, as law and gospel, to people who are changed through the Word as they are regenerated through baptism or refreshed through the Lord's Supper.[22]



It is time for Lutherans to confront the topic of spirituality and preaching.  If anything, Lutherans are the ones who should be first and foremost in the conversation regarding spirituality and God's Word.  Any monkey can get excited in a pulpit, a baboon can jump around spouting excited verbiage and the devil himself can offer the slyest of witty grins.  But who will stand up and speak Jesus as law and gospel?  Preachers should not be willing to invest their time and precious energy in meeting some supposed felt need of a congregation.  Rather, preachers should invest themselves in Christ's need to speak a present word, bring an active redemption and to offer a gift to listeners that is "for you."  We Lutherans have been given such magnanimous gifts in the Scriptures and the confessions.  Christ has spiritually blessed us with the knowledge of truth in Christ, the spiritual words to speak and the clear law and gospel immersed in Christ's death and resurrection.  Does it get anymore spiritual than that?  I don't think so.



[1] Bruce Rosenberg speaks about the African American preacher's tendency to repetition and lengthiness during preaching so that "the pace of delivery is such that preachers need as much time as they can afford not only to think of the imminent idea but to formulate its diction and structure." Bruce Rosenberg, Can These Bones Live? (Chicago: University of Illinois Press), 48.  Essentially, many African American preachers will, to put it quite bluntly, babble until their thoughts are organized and coalesced.   Although quite prominent within the African American tradition, such "babbling" also infects other denominations and races.  Jesus spoke about vain repetition by hypocrites and those who do not possess the Holy Spirit (Matthew 6:7).  Pontificating in an unending stream until a preacher finds direction in his preaching is hardly evidence of spirituality.  The tendency to believe that babbling during preaching is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit belies the nature of God whose Spirit was called to bring order out of chaos and speak a clear word in the midst of the world's incessant babbling.

[2] Bruce Rosenberg provides critical research into the realm of the supposed spiritually driven "spontaneous" preaching of African Americans.  Rosenberg says "spiritual" preachers will often "work up" their sermons for several days or several hours prior to the delivery of their sermons and even announce the subject of their "spontaneous" sermon a week in advance (Rosenberg, 39-41).  On one occasion Rosenberg interviewed a "spiritual" preacher after which Rosenberg questioned the spontaneity of the preacher's supposedly spiritually driven, spontaneous preaching.  "On Sunday mornings it was common for the men I interviewed to use many of the words, phrases, and even ideas that they were going to use while preaching.  One Sunday morning, Brown welcomed me with the remark that he was thankful that ‘God's hand' had guided me to Bakersfield, and he excused himself several minutes later, leaving me in ‘the good hands' of the deacon.  His sermon an hour later was on ‘Being in the Hands of God'" (Rosenberg, 39).

[3] Historically, impressive orators were often thought to have been touched by the divine. Such a belief was held as early as the eighth century B.C. if not earlier.  "Reliance on improvisation rather than memorization imparted uniqueness to each presentation; the poet was literally a maker."  Ronald E. Osborn, Folly of God: The Rise of Christian Preaching (St. Louis, Chalice Press), 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] In response to being referred to as Hermes Paul says, "Men, why are you doing this?  We too are only men, human like you.  We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them" (Acts 14:15).  Elsewhere, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2).

[6] Baptism, the Lord's Supper and the Word are all manifestations of Law and Gospel through which God chooses to drown, starve and slay our sinful flesh through the law while at the same time raise, feed and bestow a new life in the gospel.  Law and gospel is the culmination of God's revelation in this world as evidenced in the flesh of our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

[7] Luther often combined spiritual and physical understandings of God's presence.  Luther even referred to the presence of Christ in believers as evidence for how Christ may be present in the Lord's Supper.  "Again, I preach the gospel of Christ, and with my bodily voice I bring Christ into your heart, so that you may form him within yourself . . . each person who hears the sermon and accepts it takes the whole Christ into his heart.  For Christ does not permit himself to be divided into parts; yet he is distributed whole among all the faithful, so that one heart receives no less, and a thousand hearts no more than the one Christ . . . Why then should it not be reasonable that he also distributes himself in the bread?" Martin Luther, "The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ - Against the Fanatics," AE 36:340.  Johann Gerhard's sentiments regarding the Lord's Supper also help explain Luther's statement, "Thus for something to be a true body and not to be circumscribed in actuality to an external place are not contradictory, because place is neither of the essence of a body nor a necessary accident of it." Johann Gerhard, On the Nature of God and on the Most Holy Mystery of the Trinity, trans. Richard J. Dinda, ed. Benjamin T. Mayes (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 16.  Fred Craddock also says, "Spoken words thus belong, as our lives do, to time, not space."  Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 44.  If this can be said of the Lord's Supper, why not also of the Word itself?

[8] The apostle Paul says, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14) and also, "The sinful mind is hostile to God" (Romans 8:7).

[9] Michael Pasquarello says, "Moreover, because the holy conversation of the Son and Spirit with the Father constitutes our life as church, the language of preaching is not of our own creation.  We are . . . under the sway of the breath or power of another."  Michael Pasquarello III, Christian Preaching: A Trinitarian Theology of Proclamation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), 40.

[10] Many Christians are familiar with the story of Daniel's interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream (Daniel 2).  What many may not realize is that King Nebuchadnezzar's test was far more advanced than merely dream analysis which any good charlatan or psychotherapist could perform.  Nebuchadnezzar asked the impossible from his magi by requesting them to perform two tasks. "Tell me the dream and interpret it for me" (Daniel 2:6). The preacher finds himself in a similar situation.  Preachers do not know the mysteries of God's mind.  It is only through God's mercy that his word is revealed through the gospel and by his grace that preachers are able to "interpret" the word by means of the Spirit. 

[11] Martin Luther, Luther's Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 17.

[12] David Scaer says, "Desperation worked by the law so that the believer loses the sense of God's presence belongs to sanctification . . . This sense of abandonment is a holy work of God, dare we say the holiest, because in that moment we have no choice but to flee to Christ alone who is our wisdom, our justification, our sanctification, and our redemption."  David Scaer, "The Third Use of the Law: Resolving the Tension" Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 69:3-4, July/October, 2005, 237-258.

[13] The reference to the preaching of God's alien work stems from Isaiah 28:21 in which God brings destruction and judgment.  This "alien" reference is taken up again by the Reformers in Article V of the Epitome to the Formula of Concord (FC Ep V, 8).  Although the slaying of the law is indeed foreign to the nature of God and Christ, such preaching nonetheless occurs by God's design and purpose to reveal the intricate follies of sin and to lead ultimately to the redemption only God is able to provide through Christ.

[14] 2 Peter 3:9 speaks of God's disposition towards sinners: "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."

[15] According to the Small Catechism the primary work of the Holy Spirit is conversion or regeneration (SC, 152).  "The Gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit offers us all the blessings of Christ and creates faith in us" (Ibid).

[16] Michael Pasquarello offers an excellent summation of Trinitarian preaching in his work Christian Preaching.  He says, "Preaching as a scriptural practice, then, serves the Word in the task of forming and re-forming a people whose sense of past, present, and future is congruent with its story of God and the world.  The liturgical use of Scripture cultivates a narrative vision of reality that summons the church toward its true end, a life of praise in response to the Triune God, which is its primary witness to the world" (Pasquarello, 139).

[17] John 15:26 says, "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me."

[18] Johann Gerhard speaks of God's power as being active rather than passive.  The fact that God displays active power through the preaching of law and gospel (i.e. the change of the sinners' state) is reflective of God's very nature and essence.  "God is utterly pure act; therefore the active principle and infinite power belong to Him especially, for He acts through Himself, not through a power added to His essence" (Gerhard, 8).  Luther also says, "He (Christ) does nothing except through his Word . . . his power is not an ax, hatchet, saw, or file with which he works, but is himself."  Martin Luther, "This is My Body," AE 37:61.  The preaching of law and gospel is the preaching of Jesus Christ himself, the very actor of such preaching as the Word.

[19] Luther said, "When you open the book containing the gospels and read or hear how Christ comes here or there, or how someone is brought to him, you should therein perceive the sermon or the gospel through which he is coming to you, or you are being brought to him."  Martin Luther, "A Brief Instruction," AE 35:121.

[20] Luther said, "The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is your own.  This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you."  AE 35:119.

[21] Craddock calls for preaching to offer "an incompleteness, a lack of exhaustiveness in the sermon" so hearers may participate in the sermon's creation (Craddock, 64).  McClure insists that preachers and listeners go a step further in actually collaborating together in what to say in the sermon.  John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership & Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press),48.  The danger of inductivism or collaboration is the possibility that preachers and hearers will create their own realities rather than being informed of their reality by Christ's life, death and resurrection. 

[22] Michael Pasquarello speaks of this declared reality in preaching by saying, "When preaching is expressed in forms of teaching that offer explanations of Christian life abstracted from the mystery of Christ narrated by Scripture, the church loses its story - the surprising, astonishing power and wisdom of God whose Word speaks to, with, and in the world to create and sustain a holy people whose presence demonstrates and extends the God-given life of salvation" (Pasquarello, 47).