“When will the Gospel Drop?” A brief reflection on Lutheran preaching clichés.

bass drop

It’s a silly video, but if you’re offended/grossed-out by cartoonish depictions of people’s heads exploding, don’t watch it.

Whether one skims their endings or peruses his sermons in their entirety, one is hard pressed to read the sermons of Martin Luther and not feel that he approached the homiletical task rather differently than many of today’s Predigern in the church which bears his name. I would hazard to guess that he might find much modern Lutheran preaching a bit schwärmerisch, what with the frequent concern for ginning up feelings of terror and condemnation with concussive Law speech-acts, to be followed with the unbelievable sweetness and light of Gospel speech-acts. One is tempted to adapt comedian Andy Samberg’s parody of dubstep concerts “When Will The Bass Drop?” as a caricature of modern Lutheran preaching: first, a throbbing, agonizing existential crisis brought about by unresolvable tones of Law, then more of that… then maybe a bit more, and then BOOM! Sweet Gospelly release.

It’s my impression, which you may or may not share, so, as the internet says, YMMV (your mileage may vary). Whatever the case may be, today I’d like to share some excerpts pertaining to the homiletical from three respected doctors of the Church. As a regular hearer of sermons, a student of theology, and a former “Radical Lutheran”/former wannabe-existentialist (but I repeat myself?) I find myself concurring with them most heartily.

First Thought: Blessed Martin Luther

Reading Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations is quite the eye-opening experience. Although the title may sound dry and academic, the content is anything but. Indeed, one finds within its pages some of Luther’s carefullest formulations of pastoral theology. Where much of his life’s work consisted in polemics against the papists and the Protestants, in the Antinomian Disputations Luther directs his attention to ironing out issues within the Lutheran fold. The tone is stern, but loving: remember, many of the antinomian leaders had been his dear friends! From his Table Talk:

“How painful it is to lose a good friend, one who is cherished with a great love! I’ve had him [Agricola] at my table, he has laughed with me, and yet he opposes me behind my back. I won’t stand for it. Nor can he maintain his position, for it’s the crassest error to reject the law. It would be more tolerable if only it were other errors and offenses that were at issue. But to reject the law, without which neither church nor civil authority nor home nor any individual can exist, is to kick the bottom out of the barrel. It’s time to resist. I can’t and I won’t stand for it.”

Then he [Martin Luther] related with what gentleness he had rebuked him and with what cunning he [Agricola] responded. (Table Talk No. 3650a: “A Public Disputation on Antinomianism Between November 1 and December 21, 1537”; LW 54:249)

Luther was loth to lose a brother, though when push came to shove, he recognized when the error had become too great to permit fellowship— or even friendship— to continue.

That anecdotal digression having been made, let us turn to some comments from Doctor Luther on the preaching of the Law:

The Law is already mitigated greatly by the justification which we have because of Christ; and it thus ought not to terrify the justified. Yet meanwhile Satan himself comes along and makes it often overly harsh among the justified. This is why it happens that those are often terrified who ought not to be, by the fault of the devil.


Yet the Law is nonetheless not to be removed from the temples; and it is indeed to be taught, since even the saints have sin left in their flesh which is to be purged by the Law, until it is utterly driven out. For this wrestling match remains for the saints as long as they live here. Here they fight by day and night— there they finally overcome through Christ. Before justification the Law ruled and terrified all whom it touched. But the Law is not to be taught in such a way among the pious, so as to accuse and condemn, but so as to admonish to good. For I ought not to say or preach: “You are not under the remission of sins.” Likewise: “You will be condemned; God hates you,” etc. For these sayings do not pertain to those who have received Christ, but address the ruthless and wild. The Law then is to be attenuated for them and is to be taught them by way of exhortation: “Once you were gentiles; now, however, you are sprinkled and washed by the blood of Christ” (cf. Eph. 2:11, 13; 1 Cor. 6:11). “Therefore now offer you bodies to obey righteousness, putting away the desires of the flesh, lest you become like this world” (cf. Rom. 12:12; 6:13; Eph. 4:22). “Be imitators of the righteousness of good works (cf. Tit. 2:14) and do not be unrighteous, condemned like Cain etc.; you have Christ.” (Martin Luther, Antinomian Disputations, Argument 21; trans. Holger Sonntag)

It’s curious that Luther doesn’t think that preachers should be trying to terrify or accuse their hearers with the Law. The Law will always show us our sin, yes, for it is a mirror, and we remain sinners unto death. Be that as it may, Luther still does not to envision the preacher’s task to be one of orchestrating and then resolving existential crises among his hearers every Sunday. I think we can safely say that that’s a cliché, and that the Old Adam can spot it a mile away. As a hearer, you’d probably have to church-hop pretty regularly, otherwise you’d soon get used to a pastor’s sermons, and the arresting “gotcha!” effect of his speech-acts would start to wane.

Luther actually goes so far as to say that the preacher should actually attenuate the Law! (Man, that’s got to make Elertian ears bleed.) He says that preachers should exhort their hearers to do the good things prescribed by the Law according to their estate and vocation. Moreover, here and elsewhere, it is clear that Luther thinks the preacher should expect them to actually do these things to some degree. Yes, they’ll never be perfect, so even the gentlest exhortation (paraenesis) will convict them and show them their sin, but they’ll also be encouraged and enabled by the Gospel to live according to God’s good and gracious will.

Second Thought: C. F. W. Walther

Missouri-Synod patriarch Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, in the eighteenth thesis of his magisterial work on Law and Gospel, also denies that the Law should be preached in such a way as to terrify the believer. He writes:

In the fourteenth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the universal corruption of mankind is described in such a manner as to create the impression that even true believers are still under the spell of ruling sins and are sinning purposely.


You will observe that I am speaking of the claim that the universal corruption of mankind embraces living in dominant and willful sins on the part of believers. No one who is conversant with the pure doctrine will make the unqualified assertion that a Christian can be a fornicator and an adulterer. Such a thought would not enter the mind of a true teacher of the Word of God. But a preacher trying to give a very drastic description of the universal corruption of mankind is easily tempted to deviate from the pure doctrine. I am speaking of mistakes that are frequently made by zealous ministers and also by theological students. In their first sermons submitted for review they quite frequently say that all mankind lives in this or that sin, mentioning manifest sins unto death as though Christians also were living in sins of that kind. What damage can be done when people are made to hear that we human beings are living in every abomination, shame, and vice, without the qualifying statement: “as we are by nature” or “as long as a person is still in the state of natural depravity and is unregenerate.” With these qualifiers, of course, you cannot overdraw the horrible qualities of man’s natural condition. However, when addressing a Christian congregation, you will have to be very careful not to speak as if also all Christians were living in shame and vice.

Yes, it’s true that repentance is ongoing, that even Christians sin and are beset by sins, and that no one is justified by his own righteousness, but would rather be damned by it. However, it does not follow from these facts that Christians have no supernatural ability to fight and war— with some success, even— against their sinful flesh so that they are not ruled by sins. We do have such a supernatural ability: it is the gift (donum) of the Holy Spirit:

[A]s soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness. But this, i.e., that we cooperate, does not occur from our carnal natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun in us in conversion. (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.65, “Of Free Will, or Human Powers”)

Thus freed from the absolute enslaving power of sin, we are called “into lifelong military service and battle array, in order to fight and combat sin, the world, the devil, and your own flesh” (Luther). Through such Spirit-enabled striving, we are habituated to virtue (cf. 2 Peter 1:5). We have no natural ability, no native power, this is true; “supernatural” literally refers to what has been added to nature. Therefore, and contrary to the too-much protestations of popular Lutheran internet memes, “there is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized men,” at least if the Lutheran Confessions are to be believed. The Formula goes on:

For since, according to the doctrine of St. Paul, ‘All who have been baptized have put on Christ’ (Galatians 3:27), and thus are truly regenerate, they have now arbitrium liberatum (a liberated will), that is, as Christ says, they have been made free again (John 8:36), whence they are able not only to hear the Word, but also to assent to it and accept it, although in great weakness. (II.67)

Does this cause you to despair because you “don’t feel free”? Me, too. Here’s where I get Kierkegaardian and say, “Good! For doubt is the necessary concomitant of faith.” Now, go to confession and receive absolution. But we should also take heart, for there is also “a great difference perceptible among Christians”— you are not alone in your feeling of self-doubt. Here is the statement in context:

For since we receive in this life only the first-fruits of the Spirit, and the new birth is not complete, but only begun in us, the combat and struggle of the flesh against the spirit remains even in the elect and truly regenerate men; for there is a great difference perceptible among Christians not only in this, that one is weak and another strong in the spirit, but each Christian, moreover, experiences in himself that at one time he is joyful in spirit, and at another fearful and alarmed; at one time ardent in love, strong in faith and hope, and at another cold and weak. (II.68; emphasis mine)

So there is some truth to the evangelical-ese phrase, “I’m just going through a season in my life.” We do indeed go through seasons. Feelings, emotions, the life of the mind— these are real. So is depression. So is the dark night of the soul. So, too, is happiness. Our life is spent in an ambit between joy and sadness.

Third Thought: Kurt E. Marquart

Dr. Kurt E. Marquart, the sainted Concordia St. Louis professor of systematics, urges Lutherans to “beware of all legalisms that want to confine preaching to some particular formula,” specifically taking aim at the “goal, malady, means” formula, which he calls “pure manipulation.” (How much he was referring to Richard Caemmerer’s original approach itself or to the perversions thereof is unclear from the context of his comment. Suffice it to say, charity bids us to make a distinction between the two.) Marquart goes on:

The Christian preacher ought to present in freedom so that his sermons are basically unpredictable. People should not be able to see— look at their watch and say, “OK, he’s had ten minutes of Law, now he must be going to say— the next ten minutes, Gospel.” That’s too predictable, too mechanical. Rather, Law and Gospel ought to be intertwined. They ought to be in dialogue constantly. And the second use of the Law basically will concentrate on our evil and our sins. But the third use of the Law should concentrate on the good things which are pleasing to God. So that’s how these ought to be handled differently. But of course the Holy Spirit, in the preaching of the Law, will do both things at the same time. But, yes, pastors ought deliberately to have in mind to support the new creation in its struggles against the world, the devil, and the flesh. But there’s no particular formula, in other words, and, for example, some say, “Never end with an admonition.” Why not? What’s wrong with, after a rich Gospel sermon, saying, “And so the Lord gave us these riches; let us go and do likewise.” Nothing wrong with that. (emphasis mine)

The foregoing excerpt is from a CTS Symposium address which Marquart delivered in 2004; the only transcript I know of is the one that we made and posted here on Pseudepigrapha (especial thanks go to Katy Schumpert and Christopher Antonetti). The brief dialogue which immediately follows is illuminating:

Questioner: So, just to clarify, the Law is doing both when it is proclaimed— second or third use—

Dr. Marquart: It can.

Questioner: — first, second, third—

Dr. Marquart: It can do both.

Questioner: But the “uses” are more descriptions of how the Law functions—

Dr. Marquart: Right.

Questioner: — as opposed to being able to be—

Dr. Marquart: But the preacher needs to make the distinction, because otherwise, the recipient will feel that he is just an unconverted sinner and needs converting every Sunday.

The questioner is repeating a familiar Lutheran homiletical slogan: the Holy Spirit is the one who uses the Law, not the preacher; therefore, the “uses” are really functions. Marquart sees where he’s going and clubs it in the cradle, essentially saying, “It does not follow from the fact that the Holy Spirit uses the Law to curb us, convict us, and direct us, that the preacher therefore does not.” Such a non sequitur is as absurd as saying that because Scripture is God-breathed, it does not have human authors.

In the above excerpt from the Antinomian Disputations, we see that the Blessed Doctor concurs: the preacher ought to preach the Law differently to Christians than he would to the “ruthless and wild.” And, no, “simul iustus et peccator” does not mean that Christians are just as ruthless and wild as the unregenerate, “but forgiven.” That is a flawed view of “the simul” which has given fodder to antinomianisms and false Epicurean delusions of varying hues and hardnesses.


Dear Christian friend, the next time you feel bad about not feeling as rotten and despairing during the Law portions of your pastor’s sermon as you think you’re supposed to, or fault your pastor for not killing and condemning you enough with the Law, or anything like that, realize that you’re basically doing the same thing as the enthusiast evangelical who doubts that she really has saving faith because she didn’t cry and run to the anxious bench at the purity conference. Fix your eyes not upon yourself and your subjective reaction to the preaching, but upon Jesus. The pastor should be helping you do this by leading you deeper into the words of Holy Scripture, which are Jesus’s words. He shouldn’t be attempting to “repent you” with his Law speech-acts or “faith you” with his Gospel speech-acts. Nor should he at any point be trying to “Jesus you.” Jesus is not a verb. He is Our Lord. We should avoid using His name in trite ways.

Sorry for the wastebasket conclusion; this is a blog, so it’s allowed.




  1. Unfortunately for Concordia St. Louis, Dr. Marquart was not professor there. God gifted CTS Fort Wayne with his professorship. Otherwise, your comments are spot on.

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