It’s an understandable question when one considers what the average non-Lutheran sees when they walk into a Lutheran church for the first time. Sitting in the pew racks are a bunch of books entitled The Lutheran Hymnary. Down the hall in the narthex is a portrait of Martin Luther. A peek into the pastor’s study would reveal a large, multi-volume set of red books with Luther’s Works emblazoned on the binding, not to mention the sight of Luther’s Seal captured in stained glass over the front door to the church. “Do Lutherans worship Luther?” It might seem that way.
We Lutherans ourselves might wonder the same thing, especially at this time of year. We gather together with our fellow believers for special afternoon Reformation services, often to hear sermons that direct our minds and hearts back to the early part of the sixteenth century with stories about Martin Luther’s life and work. We’re almost disappointed if we don’t hear the words “Here I stand” at some point during that service. What does this mean? Are we worshiping Martin Luther?
Lutheran Preaching Does Not Worship Luther
Occasionally, a congregation may hear a quote from one of Martin Luther’s writings or an anecdote from his life. That does not mean, however, that Lutherans are worshiping Luther.
Lutherans recognize that Martin Luther is not God. He was a sinner like the rest of us. He could be short-tempered at times, and as much good as he accomplished with his words, some of his words were not good. In the years before his death, Luther wrote some particularly terrible things about Jews, for instance.
So how do Lutherans deal with Martin Luther’s shortcomings? Some might be tempted to eulogize Luther, exaggerating the good he did in his life while downplaying or ignoring the bad. Yet that would be dishonest. Besides, Lutherans have no need to eulogize Luther—or anybody else, for that matter. One of the blessings God has granted us in the Reformation is the ability to be honest about our shortcomings as sinful human beings. Recognizing our own faults, we cling to Christ all the more.
Lutheran Preaching Points to Christ
Instead of eulogizing Luther, true Reformation preaching points to Christ—and that’s not a distinction to be taken lightly. Prior to the Reformation, it was precisely Christ Himself and His saving work that was missing from most preaching. Martin Luther himself often spoke of how he feared Christ until he came to know Christ as revealed in Scripture. People knew Christ the Lawgiver and Christ the Judge, but they didn’t know Christ the Savior.
So the Reformation gave a great gift to preaching by restoring the message of Christ and Him crucified to its place of primacy in the sermon. The famous Wittenberg altar painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (a contemporary of Luther) depicts the kind of preaching Martin Luther gave back to the church. The people are on the left; Luther is in the pulpit on the right; but the message is in the middle: Jesus Christ on the cross to pay for the sins of the world.
That message of Christ crucified for sinners continues to be the hallmark of Lutheran preaching to this day. In the Lutheran church, someone might occasionally hear a sermon about Martin Luther, but hopefully every service and every sermon—even the ones that mention Luther—are based on the Word of God and direct us back to the death and resurrection of our Savior.
“Do Lutherans worship Luther?” No, we don’t. Lutherans worship Christ. It’s as simple as that.
Reverend S. Piet Van Kampen
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Green Bay, WI