Preaching Christ Alone
The sum and substance of our preaching is Christ, for Christ alone saves.
One of the passages we often read at an ordination or installation brings our Lord’s clear word,
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations…” (Luke 24:46f).
We revel in St. Paul’s “riff” in Philippians:
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (3:7-9).
And we preachers also want our hearers to know Christ “and the power of His resurrection,” that we “may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10).
Lutherans like to repeat Paul –“I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) – and we seek to follow Paul on Mars Hill, beginning at a point to which his hearers could relate, the “unknown god,” and ending with Christ proclaimed for repentance and the forgiveness of sins:
now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31).
Yet even in the Lutheran Church you sometimes hear sermons essentially Christless. What do I mean? Perhaps the preacher has determined to focus on marriage. He even has Ephesians 5:21-33 for his text (it does come up in the lectionary!). He spends most of the sermon explaining how wives are to submit themselves (desperately trying not to offend too many women) and cajoling the men to self-sacrificing love, to love like Jesus did, giving up His life for His bride, the church. All the while he is extolling Christian marriage – a great thing to do, by the way! – but in the end, the preacher says little or nothing of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
What is happening? Preaching Christ as example, he is preaching law, a necessary task to be sure, but if that’s all he does, many of his hearers will be stuck in their own self-righteousness, thinking, “I’m doing my best, Jesus, to follow your lead! I may not be perfect, but I’m working at it, and I sure hope my wife notices, too!” Other men (not to mention the wives) will be crushed under the weight they perceive in the requirement. Some will be at the edge of despair. Even more will simply reject this word of God as “impossible,” “unrealistic,” “not connected to the real world.” And for them, the Christian enterprise will sound more and more like a fairy tale, a “once upon a time” thing out on the edges, rather than the nitty-gritty, down to earth, core of life thing it really is.
It doesn’t work, simply at the close of such a sermon, to tack on a few phrases, “Oh yes, Christ died for your sins, too!” when you have spent 95% of your hearers’ time developing “Six Biblical Principles to Make Your Marriage Great!” The Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and raised again for our justification can NEVER just be tacked on, “essential” perhaps, but functionally an after-thought nonetheless.
Indeed, whatever the topic, Christ crucified and raised from the dead, FOR YOU, must be the center. Even after we extol Christ as Friend, Christ as Example, we must above all preach Him as Savior of sinners – “repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed…” Christians DO need to hear the Law as a guide for living, for we do need to know what truly pleases God, but in the end the Law always also accuses, exposes where we fall short. To continue with our example, husband and wife, as hard as they may try to follow Christ’s example, will never live in perfect sacrificial, self-submitting love. They will always need Christ’s perfect sacrifice for them both, for they are still sinner/saints. The old Adam (our sinful nature) still clings and must be drowned daily by repentance, so that Christ, who gave Himself for both, might raise both to newness of life – daily.
So Christ’s sacrificial love for the church is much more than our example to follow, but is most of all the means by which we are forgiven when we fail, and the means by which we live in spite of our failures. Our sins kill us, but Christ makes alive. Our sins would separate us from God and from one another, but Christ washes us clean daily. Paul writes of this chapter,
This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:32f).
For in the center of this teaching is the promise,
…Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
The church is holy only because Christ washes her daily. A Christian marriage is made holy only with the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ spoken and received. In the creed we confess the church to be holy, the communion of saints. This is possible only by means of the line that follows next: [I believe in] “the forgiveness of sins.” “Repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed…”
Making the Gospel promises clear is actually quite difficult work for the preacher. It is often easy to develop, for instance, a sermon on prayer, in which the preacher talks about our need for prayer, how we don’t pray enough, how God promises to hear, so why don’t we pray more? That sermon can be quickly written. But it’s usually much more work for the preacher to go deeper, to bring pointed Law and specific Gospel, in other words, Law that kills, that allows no one to say, “I’m OK for now – at least I’m better than he is.” Killing Law prepares the hearer for the preacher to come with the life-giving Gospel promise specifically applied to the particular deadly corruption thus exposed. Properly preached, the Law brings even the Christian to despair of his own efforts so that Christ alone can be Savior: Here is the One who has done all for you! His perfect life, His death for sin, His rising from the dead, His righteousness, His peace, it’s ALL YOURS! Here in the promise, your sin is forgiven you. Go in peace, you are free! You are baptized, adopted sons and daughters in God’s household. Here is your brother Jesus, the One who prays for you, who gives you the right to call God Father! When you pray, you walk right into the throne room of the Lord of all the universe with your prayers and petitions, because He has promised to hear. You have at work in you the power of His resurrection. It’s ALL FOR YOU!
Christ now sees YOU as His holy bride, all of you who are baptized into His name, trusting His promise. Now, in your marriage, He enables you, husband and wife, to see each other as He sees you, in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. Now, even when we fail, He raises us, and we are alive in Him. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” Paul writes, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Philippians 3:12). Now we see it by faith, but it’s real, because He promised. Believe it, because it’s yours in Him.
Finding fresh ways to say this is not easy, for what theologians call the “opinion of the law,” is found also in the preacher. In other words, even though we might not want to admit it, we naturally think we will impress God by our doing, by how hard we worked. Or we think we have to do God’s work for Him. But when the preacher knows that he himself is truly broken, that apart from Christ he truly is a damned sinner just like the rest of us, that recognition will compel a constant searching the Scriptures for the healing balm of Christ, and a deep well-spring of eagerness to bring that healing message to others. An observation: When I hear a sermon particularly clear and persuasive in its Gospel presentation, often when I talk with that preacher I’m confident I will find a man who himself knows what it is like to be completely broken, to be utterly desperate to hear the good news of Jesus. That’s what makes him desperate to bring it to others. Just as the same man who said, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) also said, in the same letter, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (9:16).
Stated positively, we have the best news there is!
God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
What could be better? It’s Jesus, Jesus for you! There’s the sum and substance of our preaching, for Jesus alone saves!
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
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