Monday, February 21, 2011

Collecting Manna: C.F.W. Walther

While recently zoning out during a class, I came across an interesting online magazine, Gnesio: Online Magazine of Lutheran Theology. To all who think that sounds about as interesting as, say, the history of the formation of the Missouri Synod in the 1840s, I won't be offended. However, for those with Lutheran interests, its actually a pretty helpful site. I came across this quote, from C.F.W. Walther, who was instrumental in founding the LCMS in St. Louis - incidentally, not far from where my own German ancestors migrated, among whom were undoubtedly some of the new denomination's earliest members. While it was given as part of an address in the 1880's, its message is eerily prophetic, not just of the disgrace of German Lutheranism to come in a few decades, but also of the current degeneration in Lutheran preaching today, a century later. My family has since departed the church of our ancestors for more moderate shores, but I am proud these words are a part of my own Lutheran heritage, and pray they will continue to challenge me, and all preachers, not to take our vocation for granted.

The worst fault in modern preaching, my dear friends, is this, that the sermons lack point and purpose; and this fault can be noticed particularly in the sermons of modern preachers who are believers. While unbelieving and fanatical preachers have quite a definite aim, — pity, that it is not the right one! — believing preachers, as a rule, imagine that they have fully discharged their office, provided what they have preached has been the Word of God. That is about as correct a view as when a ranger imagines he has discharged his office by sallying forth with his loaded gun and discharging it into the forest; or as when an artilleryman thinks he has done his duty by taking up his position with his cannon in the line of battle and by discharging his cannon. Just as poor rangers and soldiers as these latter are, just so poor and useless preachers are those who have no plan in mind and take no aim when they are preaching. Granted their sermons contain beautiful thoughts; they do not, for that matter, take effect. They may occasionally make the thunders of the Law roll in their sermons, yet there is no lightning that strikes. Again, they may water the garden assigned to them with the fructifying waters of the Gospel, but they are pouring water on the beds and the paths of the garden indiscriminately, and their labor is lost.

Neither Christ nor the holy apostles preached in that fashion. When they had finished preaching, every hearer knew: He meant me, even when the sermon had contained no personal hints or insinuations. For instance, when our Lord Christ had delivered the powerful, awful parable of the murderous vine-dressers, the high priests and scribes confessed to themselves: He means us. When the holy Apostles Paul, on a certain occasion, had preached before the profligate and unjust Governor Felix concerning righteousness, temperance, and the Judgment to come, Felix perceived immediately that Paul was aiming his remarks ant him. He trembled, but being unwilling to be converted, he said to Paul: “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” But he never did call him. He had heard the sermon suited to his spiritual condition, and Paul’s well-aimed remarks had struck home.

The reason, then, my dear friends, why in the Lutheran congregations of our former home country Germany unbelieving preachers are nearly always in the ascendancy is unquestionably this: the sermons of the Christian preachers are aimless efforts. Unbelievers are increasing in the congregations about as fast as the Christian preachers are increasing, of whom there are considerably more now than when I was young. Why do they accomplish nothing? Oh, would to God that these dear men had the humility to sit down at Luther’s feet and study his postils! They would learn how to preach effectively. For the Word of God, when preached as it should be, never returns void.

May God help you in your future ministry not to become aimless prattles, so that you will have to complain that you accomplished so little, when nobody but yourselves is at fault because you have no definite aim when preparing your sermons and do not reflect: To such and such people I want to drive home a lesson, — not this or that person whom I am going to name, but persons in whose condition I know to be such and such.

However, while it is important that your sermons do not lack a special aim, it is equally important that your aim be the right one. If you do not aim properly, your preaching, after all, will be useless, whether you preach the Law or the Gospel. (from C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, Twelfth Evening Lecture’ (December 12th, 1889))

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