The last sermon Martin Luther preached was in the second week of February 1546 in his hometown of Eisleben. Two days later, he would become ill and soon after perish. In this last sermon, Luther preached with passion about his concern for Germany. He observed that after the gospel had been rediscovered—after light had dawned and pushed aside the darkness that had eclipsed it during the Middle Ages—people were now becoming somewhat jaded to the gospel. They could hear it from virtually every pulpit in Germany, but it was no longer something that ignited fire in their bones. Instead, peasants were journeying to see relics throughout various villages in Germany, which signified a return to the system of medieval Roman Catholicism.
The peasants were going to these villages because in one town, they boasted the possession of the trousers of Joseph, and another one had a vial of milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary. And so, people flocked to these places just to get a glimpse of the pants of St. Joseph and the milk of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Luther was very upset about this. He wondered, “Why in the world would peasants anywhere make an arduous journey just to see a piece of cloth that was worn by Joseph?” The answer was very simple: they were looking for power. They believed that the relics of the saints contained power—power to heal, power to forgive, and power to transform their lives.
In his dying sermon, Luther pled with the people not to be fooled by impotent articles that weren’t the real thing. He implored them not to seek after these things as if they were an improvement to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The problem that Luther had identified is that the people were departing from the power of God.
When Paul introduces himself at the beginning of his epistle to the Romans, he says that he is “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1). That’s the first mention of the gospel in his epistle, an epistle that is itself an exposition of the gospel. Notice whose gospel it is: he is set apart to the gospel of God. Paul is saying that the gospel is God’s possession. He owns it. He is its author.
This gospel is the very gospel of the kingdom crystallized into a message about its King. The gospel is objectively about the person and work of Jesus. That’s God’s gospel. And anyone preaching any other gospel is not preaching God’s gospel. My personal testimony may be meaningful to somebody, but it’s not the gospel. The content of the gospel is Jesus.
Paul continues speaking about his indebtedness for having been set apart to preach this gospel. He’s a debtor to the Jew and to the Greek, to the wise and to the unwise, to the cultured and to the barbarian, to every place that he goes (Rom. 1:14–15). He has a debt to pay. He has an obligation to fulfill to preach that gospel.
But what he says next is what we most need to understand: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” Why? “For it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).
That’s what Luther was trying to say in his last sermon. Where’s the power? It’s in the Word, and we’re looking for it everywhere else. I doubt if any of us have relic collections, but some churches seek power in adding a coffee shop to their church or pursuing the latest trendy church-growth method. These things don’t have power. There is a formula for a prosperous and successful ministry, and that formula is in preaching the Word of God in season and out of season.
This excerpt is adapted from the 2008 Ligonier Ministries Pastors Conference message “Preach the Word” by R.C. Sproul.