Martin Luther for Struggling Preachers

As we give thanks for the Reformation, here is an extract on Luther from my book Silent Witnesses which I hope will encourage preachers. It picks up on the theme of the dangers of Christian biographies that I looked at in a previous post (‘Beware the Burdens of Biography’). Most of the information in it comes from Luther the Preacher by Fred Meuser.

“Luther was a preacher on a phenomenal scale. The statistics are mind-numbing. He preached about 4000 sermons in all, mainly in the town church at Wittenberg. Given that he preached between 1512 and 1547, with a gap of about two years, this means that he preached on average around 120 sermons a year, or one sermon every three days. He preached so many sermons because in Wittenberg there were three sermons on a Sunday and a sermon every day during the rest of the week. So even with a pastor at Wittenberg there was plenty of scope for Luther to preach. Sometimes he preached significantly more than the average number. In 1528, for example, he preached 200 times. It is amusing to recall that when Johann von Staupitz started Luther preaching in 1512 he did so to busy his mind with something other than despair.

As well as preaching, Luther was engaged in a mighty struggle with Rome, he reformed the church in much of Germany, he wrote huge volumes of theological treatises, he engaged in fiery theological disputes face to face and in writing, and he had a wife and six children. Preachers often find that the task of preaching lays heavy upon them, but few add to it the cause of a national reformation and fear for their lives. Perhaps these facts about Luther will only serve to crush rather than to encourage us. The last thing I want to do in a book seeking to provide help is to exalt the extraordinary. As I said at the start of this book: God has gifted each of us differently in different situations and expects different things of us. It is wrong to dream of being a reformer like Luther or to measure yourself against the particular shape of his ministry. It is our sinful nature that wants to be someone else. The desire might arise from a lack of contentment with our own situation, or perhaps from a desire to be known like our heroes. We should indeed want to share Luther’s godly qualities, but in our own specific context with the particular tasks and gifts that God has given us, and, if he wills it, in utter obscurity.

In using Luther, God used a man who like so many of us was capable of being crushed by the discouragements of his ministry. Certainly he preached and preached. Indeed, he esteemed the role of preacher, saying: ‘If I could today become king or emperor, I would not give up my office as preacher.’[1] But despite that conviction, Luther did give up preaching. This man, so greatly used by God, stopped preaching. Interestingly, he stopped not when things appear to us to have been toughest for him, but after he had made much progress. In 1530, with a few exceptions, he did not preach at Wittenberg from January until the Autumn.[2] At that stage politically and militarily his situation was still far from secure, but he was in a much better position than when he left the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521 afraid for his life. Luther seems to have found the challenges of a secure ministry more difficult than the uncertainties of a pioneering work. He gave up because he found the longer term challenge harder than the immediate crisis, the slow attrition of ministering to an unresponsive congregation more discouraging than the enmity of all Rome. Strong opposition can spark strong resistance, a rising to the moment. In Luther’s case it was the slow siege that brought down the city, not the attempt to storm the walls.

It was the stubbornness of the ordinary people that discouraged Luther. He was so disheartened by the spiritual state of the people of Wittenberg that in 1529 he warned them with these characteristically blunt words: ‘I am sorry I ever freed you from the tyrants and papists. You ungrateful beasts, you are not worthy of the Gospel. If you do not improve, I will stop preaching rather than cast pearls before swine.’[3] Preaching to them was, he said, worse than preaching to crazed animals: ‘I would rather preach to mad dogs, for my preaching shows no effect among you, and it only makes me weary’.[4] There was more to the difficulty than just the people’s ingratitude. Luther felt the oppressive work of the world and the devil in the way his preaching was received: preaching was, in his experience, a hardship. Recall his positive comment that he would rather be a preacher than a king, and then compare these words: ‘I would rather be stretched on a wheel or carry stones than preach one sermon.’[5] In 1530 he wrote to the clergy in Augsburg: ‘No message would be more pleasing to my ears than the one deposing me from the office of preaching. I suppose I am so tired of it because of the great ingratitude of the people, but much more because of the intolerable hardships which the devil and the world mete out to me.’[6]

Luther’s experience speaks to preachers today. For many it is not the overtly embattled times when it is most tempting to give up, but the quieter times of little fruit. All seems relatively calm, but we are not getting anywhere. Things are not dramatically bad, but they are discouragingly slow, and it is the slowness which eats away at us. Here, I hope, is an encouragement: God used this man mightily, a man who abandoned preaching just because of that kind of attrition. God used a man who clearly struggled as we do and even gave up for a time because he was so discouraged. Luther is no super-human exception to the biblical principle that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).”

[1] Cited in Meuser, Luther the Preacher (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 39.

[2] See Preacher, p. 28 for the details.

[3] Cited in Preacher, p. 29.

[4] Cited in Patrick Ferry, ‘Martin Luther on Preaching’, Concordia Theological Quarterly, 54.4 (1990), p. 277.

[5] Cited in ‘Luther on Preaching’, pp. 276-77.

[6] Cited in Preacher, p. 33.