Re: In our Pulpits?

A Letter to the Editor from Rev. Andrew Craig
After reading In Our Pulpits? (Where’s Walther? The Canadian Lutheran, May/June 2010) I feel inclined to respond to the article as a pastor who is passionate about the preaching task and as a theologian who holds in high regard the proper distinction between Law and Gospel. I have read Walther, I have read Luther and like Rev. Teuscher I believe that God’s Word must stand clearly in our sermons. As to how that is achieved the author and I could not disagree more. In an effort to shed more light than heat, as it were, I would like to respond directly to the article quote by quote so as to appropriately represent the author.
“There are many gifted public speakers in our synod yet many sermons these days tend to be rather shallow messages on practical living and other “relevant” topics. In some churches the pulpit is a soapbox from which the preacher delivers his religious pep-talk of the week and tells a few stories which supposedly illustrate some spiritual truth.”

For me the key issue here is “relevancy” a term that is coined with much zeal in some denominations and which we tend to cringe at. To me, relevancy means simply to help a person understand what the text means for them, how it connects in their lives and why both Law and Gospel matter. With every passing day both are becoming increasingly irrelevant to people. Just ask the unmarried couple who is living together and yet attends worship every Sunday and they will tell you that they understand how that made sense then but doesn’t really in today’s world where we are more moderate. I could choose to simply lambaste them, or I can make the effort to illustrate exactly why God’s Word is unchangeable and His Law is eternal in a way that actually affects them instead of simply alienating them from the church. While I would agree that the pulpit is not a soapbox for personal matters or political views and the like, it IS a soapbox for the Gospel so that it can be held high and preached in a way that people hear it.

“Not a few pastors have even left the pulpit and now strut across the stage (chancel) to deliver their off-the-cuff monologues (sermons), like a religious version of The Tonight Show. All this, of course, is justified in the name of missions and is done to flatter, amuse, or market people into heaven.”

A pulpit is simply a stand from which to speak and matters little to the content of a message. If both Law and Gospel are present and preached properly it doesn’t matter where that happens from. Jesus had no pulpit, neither did Peter in preaching at Pentecost, or Paul at any point in his ministry. A pulpit is simply a tool for the pastor and nothing more. I preach from a manuscript and therefore tend to stick pretty close but other pastors are gifted at preaching without notes or even memorizing their sermons and are free to roam as they will. An average parishioner can and does appreciate the message from both perspectives. It is not a method which requires any justification as it is not sinful to step away from the pulpit. It is not done to flatter or amuse but to reach people with the message through the God given gifts of the pastor. He is fulfilling his vocation by using those gifts and he is led by God to speak in whatever way he feels works best according to the scriptures and according to his call and ordination wherein he pledged, as all pastors in our synod do, to uphold God’s Word and our Confessions to the best of our ability.

“However, pastors are not called to be salesmen of salvation, public relations consultants for Jesus, or corporate builders of His church. Salvation is not for sale. Christ’s image does not need sprucing or spicing up. The Holy Spirit is quite capable of building Christ’s church with the means He has ordained.”

I couldn’t agree more, the issue here is “the means He has ordained.” The Office of the Keys which rests upon each pastor is one of the means whereby the Law and Gospel are rightly taught and dispensed in the church. The Holy Spirit speaks and works through these pastors. The question that ultimately comes from this is, “If the pastor is not supposed to make a sermon relevant, illustrate or act outside of God’s Word, then why write a sermon in the first place?” What is the purpose of preaching if we are never permitted to illustrate and open God’s Word to people through his guidance. We don’t sell the Gospel, but we do need to put it out there for people to hear and given that scripture tells us that we don’t want to hear it that makes for a huge task. God can and will work but it is our job to make sure we are not standing in the way of it while at the same time defending it. Preaching is one of the means that God’s Word has gotten out into the world since the church began. We have examples of those sermons in scripture and we should be inspired by them to be clear in our approach and goal but also impassioned for hurting people to hear it. We must not be so aloof as to simply say, “Here’s the Gospel, take it or leave it, it’s up to you.” At times we need to take people to the inn, look after them and then follow up to ensure they are healing, as it were.

As to the quotes from Luther and Walther, here I feel compelled to respond as well but for the sake of space I will not include the quotes themselves. There is a reason that Luther and Walther are revered and respected as preachers and teachers. They are both eloquent writers and respected preachers. They themselves use illustration and stories to present their messages, and hold high the value of using good and descriptive language. They follow in the steps of Peter, Paul and most importantly our savior. While the included quotes speak strongly to the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, they do not speak to the methods by which this is done other than to say we should not confuse the two, which is absolutely true. However, there are myriad ways to do this which allow both to be conveyed that does not confuse the two. It is indeed a difficult task, which is why pastors receive training the way we do and why these points are so strongly emphasized in seminary. Presenting the truth in sound words does not exclude eloquence, illustration, and stories but rather encourages their proper and appropriate use. Churchly words do not have power in and of themselves without definition. It doesn’t mean we should shy from using them but that we should seek to define them. I have yet to meet a pastor who doesn’t take the preaching task seriously, who does not feel that angst and anxiety. Walther and Luther are not speaking against these things but emphasizing that we should not place the cart before the horse. The Law and the Gospel must stand first and foremost, and this can be supported by the use of eloquence etc.

Finally let us remember that we, both preachers and hearers alike are sinful human beings under the Law in need of the Gospel. On this Rev. Teuscher and I agree. We must also remember that in addition to our task of preaching, pastors have responsibility to themselves, each other, and our membership to love and care for one another as shepherds and sheep. God commands us to support one another and to stand shoulder to shoulder as brothers while we lead the sheep has given us to lead. We are meant to encourage and admonish one another in love and mutual consolation. It is important that we do that not just for us, but for the sake of God’s people who look to us to be examples of His grace and virtue in His church. Is that the Law? Yes! It is also the truth. The Gospel is of course the forgiveness we are granted through Jesus Christ and that we need to freely share with each other if we are to preach the Gospel in all of its fullness to our parishioners. Hopefully we can all continue through dialog to present the Law and the Gospel in all of their fullness with distinction.

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