Review: Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross

Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross. By John Pless. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2013. 144 pages. Click here.

Christ the Lord sent out his apostles saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22–23). Jesus sent out the apostles to care for all sinners. The apostles did this by preaching and distributing the sacraments. This is still how pastors tend to sinners today. They are to preach, teach, and administer the sacraments for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The pastor is to preach Christ, baptize in the name of Christ, distribute the body and blood of Christ, and absolve sinners in the name of Christ in order that all may live eternally in paradise with their Lord. This is not a light task, but a burdensome and profound vocation. One tool that can help lighten the pastoral responsibility, or better yet, encourage and comfort the pastor in his vocation, is Professor John Pless’ book, Martin Luther: Preacher of the Cross.

Pless opens his book saying, “It was and is my conviction that the more pastors are grasped by Luther’s theology, the stronger their preaching of repentance and faith will be. Luther’s theology is nothing if it is not realistic—both about human sin and unmerited divine mercy in Christ. This realism will serve pastors seeking to minister faithfully to Christ’s sinful, yet holy flock” (11). Pless makes the clear and correct assertion that Luther’s reformation was a pastoral reformation, with the comfort of the terrified conscience at the center of all Luther’s theology. This understanding of Luther’s theology assists pastors today as they continue to care for the same terrified sinners. Preaching, which is more than the proclamation from the pulpit, but rather is the continual work of the pastor in the life of the congregation, is what drove Luther’s reformation. The sinner must always have the cross, the forgiveness of sins, proclaimed into their ears because they are constantly assaulted by sin, death, and the power of the devil. Pless concludes the introduction to the book by confessing the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in that the work of conversion is an “ongoing reality for the believer. Without the word of the cross continually in the ears and heart of the believer, faith withers. Pastors must preach and teach the one true faith, speak the absolution recalling sinners to their Baptism in repentance, and distribute the testament of Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins” (25).

Preaching is not a once a week event in the congregation’s life, but is the regular business of the pastor. He preaches in the pulpit, at the font, by the bedside, and next to the grave. Preaching is the ongoing proclamation of the justifying God, justifying sinners for eternal salvation. Preaching is therefore the act of Jesus, not the words and opinions of man. Preaching is pastoral care. After his introduction, Pless summarizes that Luther’s pastoral theology, best expressed in the Small and Large Catechisms, was a fruit of the Saxon visitations. The ignorance of both the clergy and the laity showed that a prayer book was needed, one to guide preachers and hearers in their baptismal life under the cross with the hope of the resurrection. After this summary of the catechisms, Pless guides the reader through Luther’s theology of pastoral care in seven chapters with foundational pastoral topics ranging from anxiety to vocation. In each of these chapters, Pless gives a plethora of Luther quotations and accounts of Luther’s pastoral practice. One verse that can best summarize all of Luther’s pastoral theology and practice is in the first chapter on anxiety and distress. Pless says, “Jesus is not ashamed to be found in the midst of barn flies and manure. He is not ashamed to be found in the company of weak sinners” (45).

Pless gives a stupendous summary of Luther’s pastoral theology with a fantastic bibliography and an appendix of additional readings. Pless is faithful to Luther’s theology of preaching and pastoral care of the terrified soul. This little book is essential for every pastor because it is nothing if not practical for a variety of pastoral needs. I would encourage you to get this book if you do not already have it, and to read it again if you do own it. This book will help every pastor as he cares for the sheep given to him as he preaches, baptizes, communes, buries, catechizes, and absolves all sinners who are brought to him. This book will make you a better theologian and a better preacher because it draws you closer to Luther, the Confession, and our Lord Christ Himself as you study Holy Scripture.

Chris Hull
Normal, Illinois