The centerpiece of Luther’s ministry was his forthright preaching in the pulpit. He believed the preaching of the Word must hold the place of preeminence in the church. “The pulpit,” Luther asserted, “is the throne for the Word of God.” He added, “The highest worship of God is the preaching of the Word; because thereby are praised and celebrated the name and the benefits of Christ.” The renowned Oxford scholar Alister E. McGrath comments, “For Luther, the Bible was central to the life and thought of the church, as it was to the personal devotion of the individual Christian.” Luther was clear that his fundamental commitment was the preaching of Scripture, for such preaching is the primary means of grace God has given to His people.
Such a Word-focused ministry represented a radical paradigm shift in the sixteenth century. At that time, the preaching of the Bible was completely lost in the Roman Catholic Church. Sermons had been reduced to short homilies in Latin, a foreign language to the uneducated populace. Worse, they espoused tradition-bound Roman dogma. These deluded messages were delivered by unregenerate men who did not even believe the Word. Rather than preaching, the Mass occupied the central place in the Roman church. This left the pulpit relegated to the side in the typical Roman Catholic church building, with the altar in the center. Thus, the Mass was elevated as the primary means of grace, while the preaching of the Word was eclipsed.
By Luther’s own estimation, God’s holy Word was being neglected. He lamented:
God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse.…A host of unchristian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons were introduced that it is horrible to see.…faith disappeared and everyone pressed to enter the priesthood, convents, and monasteries, and to build churches and endow them.…A Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly, as Psalm 102 says, “When the kings and the people assemble to serve the Lord, they shall declare the name and the praise of God.” And Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26–31 says that when they come together, there should be prophesying, teaching, and admonition. Therefore, when God’s Word is not preached, one had better neither sing nor read, or even come together.
This was the dire state of the church in Luther’s day. There was a famine in the land for the hearing of the Word of the Lord (Amos 8:11). Yet during this dark hour of church history, God raised up this extraordinary figure, a powerful prophet of God, to declare the Scriptures again. Luther restored the primacy of Scripture in the church, a decisive reformation of the pulpit. Though Luther did not invent preaching, he elevated biblical exposition to its grandest height since the early church.