For Martin Luther, the work of Christ came to sinners outwardly in God’s institutions and inwardly by the Holy Spirit and faith. Both the outward and the inward were necessary. He wrote:
“Now when God sends forth his holy gospel he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly. Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure or order the outward factors should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. For he wants to give no one the Spirit or faith outside of the outward Word and sign instituted by him, as he says in Luke 16[:29], “Let them hear Moses and the prophets.” Accordingly Paul can call baptism a “washing of regeneration” wherein God “richly pours out the Holy Spirit” [Titus 3:5]. And the oral gospel “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom. 1[:16]).
The Christian must give priority to the outward institutions of the Word, both in preaching and in the sacraments. As God came to us in the incarnation, so He continues to come through outward means to accomplish His purpose. They are the means that God has appointed and through which He works by His Spirit.
Luther always stressed that we find God in His institutions, His appointed means, not in our creations or our experiences. We must use God’s ways to come to Him. Luther rejected the inventions of Rome and the claims of the Spirit’s revelations among the Anabaptists. Only the institutions established in the Bible connect us to Jesus. Luther boldly declared that he would rather have Jesus present in the preaching of the Word than in person:
Thus He comes to us through the gospel. Yes, it is far better that he comes through the gospel than that he would now enter in through the door; for you would not even know him even though he came in. If you believe then you have; if you do not believe then you do not have.
This excerpt is adapted from W. Robert Godfrey's contribution in The Legacy of Luther editted by W. R.C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols.