The year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Half a millennium has passed since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. During this year there is much to celebrate joyfully and ponder critically. This tension is perhaps best captured by Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase, “the tragic necessity of the Reformation.”
The Reformation resulted in the tragic division of the Western church. We need to ponder this critically and see the way in which we are called to unity while trying to live faithfully in a fragmented church. At the same time the Reformation was necessary. It was a movement of God among his people to reform the church according to the Word of God. We need to celebrate this, humbly seeking to receive from and imitate a long line of faithful witnesses within the Reforming tradition.
There are various ways we can study the Reformation as we try to hold these two things together. We can focus on the interpretation of Scripture and the development of doctrine. Or we can approach it historically, focusing on the people and personalities as well as economic and social factors that shaped and encouraged the Reformation. A more immediate way is to learn from the practice that defined and drove the Reformation: preaching. To that end, I want to pass on a particular reforming recommendation as a way we can celebrate and learn more from the Reformation.
Preaching in the Reformation
“The true treasure of the church,” according to Luther’s 62nd thesis, “is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” When Reforming pastors and priests discovered this treasure they simultaneously heard the call to share that treasure with their people through preaching. This emphasis on the hearing and speaking of the gospel fueled the Reformation and is captured by the declaration of the Second Helvetic Confession that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
This declaration stands in contrast to the prior practice of the church that elevated the sacraments and diminished the importance of preaching in worship. Before the Reformation, preaching was often done in town squares, along the road, and in the fields. Preaching was the special calling of certain priests and monks or a special task for parish priests or bishops on certain feast days. But with Luther and Calvin and Zwingli the sermon returned to gathered worship. It soon became the center point of worship; pulpits were raised literally and metaphorically to new heights.
The Reformers’ passion to share the treasure of the grace of God through preaching infuses their writings. This animating passion also led to the very specific charge to teach the basic truths of the gospel and Scripture. In his preface to the Larger Catechism, Luther includes a passionate exhortation to preachers to study the catechism as the epitome of Scripture so that they might teach the same. According to Luther, too many preachers were negligent and distracted. They were proud or ignorant, and so were their people. The remedy was to be found in becoming like a child who is willing “to keep on reading, teaching, learning, pondering, and meditating, and do not cease until they have made a test and are sure that they have taught the devil to death, and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints.”
Part of what must be learned and taught, according to Luther and Calvin, is the Ten Commandments. This is why the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and Apostle’s Creed appear again and again in catechisms of the Reforming churches. The most basic things turn out to be the deepest. Touching on this Luther wrote, “anyone who knows the Ten Commandments perfectly knows the entire scripture.”
This might come as a surprise to many of us who associate Luther with a strong division between the law and the gospel. But for Luther what must be distinguished to understand the gospel should never be divided. As Jaroslav Pelikan concludes, “The distinction between law and gospel was not a matter of biblical location or of chronology, but of ‘rightly dividing the word of truth.’” In this, Luther took his own medicine; he preached, taught, and wrote on the Ten Commandments throughout his life.
Preaching the Ten Words
After reading Luther’s exhortation, I preached on the Ten Commandments to begin Epiphany. I took the exhortation of Luther and the example of Calvin to heart. My congregation was not initially excited. However, we soon discovered what Luther claimed, namely, that to rightly understand the commandments we had to search the entirety of Scripture seeking to understand them in light of Christ. In what follows, I want to note several things we learned.
First, reading and teaching and preaching the commandments drove my congregation and me back to Scripture. In this we were unknowingly following the pattern of the Reformers for whom preaching was a return to the sources. In this return we can learn that Scripture interprets Scripture. This can happen as we read the Ten Commandments within the story of the Lord God and his people. The prologue of the Commandments should make this initial insight obvious. The Lord God who will give the commands is the one who first saves his people.
While many ‘replicas’ of the Decalogue start with “Thou Shalt Not,” the commands as we find them in Scripture are given by the one who first identifies and describes himself as their God, as the one who has brought them up out of Egypt. This God has a proper name revealed to Moses in the bush that burns but is not consumed. This God reminds them of the ordo salutis before giving the commands,
“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4–6)
As with Paul, the indicative precedes the imperative. The Lord God saves his people and then commands them. Grace precedes command. God acts and his people are set free to respond. In more abstract moments Luther often reversed this sequence. He spoke of Law and Gospel or Law then Gospel. However, here we see with Luther that it is the Gospel that precedes or contains the Law.
God, according to Luther, is the one from whom we receive and to whom we return. Echoing Jesus on a different mountain, Luther asserts that such faith and authentic trust settles on the only true God and trust in him alone. Such trust is a work of the heart. It is the first work done in faith that leads to worship and away from idolatry. In this way of being justified by faith and sanctified by faith we discover obedience to the First Commandment by being responsive to the saving action of God. If we take the Ten Commandments out of context and miss the initiating grace of God then we misread the commands and obscure the gift of obedience entirely.
Second, preaching the Ten Commandments forces us to read backwards and forwards with the grand narrative of redemption. To preach the Commandments as more than mere rules we have to push forward to Christ while looking backward to creation. When Jesus, like Moses before him, goes up the mountain he tells us that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Risen from the dead he also claimed that every scripture speaks of him. Preaching the Ten Commandments we discover this not only in theory but also in practice. Every command whispers his name and shows us how God’s work of salvation is connected to the work of creation.
For example, preaching on the Third Commandment we are forced to recognize the way we use and abuse the name of the Lord. In humility we are led to Christ. In him we find the one who teaches us to speak rightly to the Lord as his God and Father. As a result we learn to speak to God in prayer and to others as his witnesses. Because this is a movement of grace we can at the same time recognize and acknowledge and confess that we continue to misuse the name of the Lord. The result is that God’s name is blasphemed among the pagans because of the people of God (Romans 2). As we notice this pattern of fulfillment and salvation and ongoing conviction, the Commandments lead us to the Word that is the Alpha and the Omega of all God’s words.
So too the Commandments lead us back to Scripture. For example, the Sabbath commandment is grounded in the story and logic of creation. Going forwards and then backwards we can grasp that this Commandment calls us back into right relation with the God who creates and creates space for us to delight in creation with its Creator. In a parallel fashion, the Commandment to avoid adultery forces us to go back to the creation story. Here the creation story reminds us that we are created together in the image of God and given each other to rule and receive as we relate to each other. This relational reality is given in creation, commanded by Moses, and fulfilled in Christ. Obeying these we enter into the deepest mysteries of marriage.
Third, preaching and hearing the Commandments force us to confront our hearts’ desire and God’s deep desire. Do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul? If we do, then do we seek to obey his Commandments? Do our passions lead us on the narrow way and into the Lord’s promise of blessing children to the 1000th generation? The only other option, according to the Second Commandment, is to hate God and disobey. If we follow this path, we place ourselves in the path of this jealous God who punishes the children to the third or fourth generation.
As I preached this Commandment I was tempted to explain this language away. But instead I found in these words the gospel of a God who loves completely and calls us to come to him in complete love and obedience and trust. This is not the distant and dispassionate God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who calls us to enter into the joy and delight of the Triune life. This is a God who calls us to live in faith even while we recognize that there are real consequences to our disobedience. This is the God we are free to love and free to fear. As Stanley Hauerwas says, this is the God who cares about what his people do with their pots and pans as well as with their words and genitals. This God has created all things and created them to be received in gratitude and used in faith. Nothing less is worthy of his name and his people. In this way, the Ten Commandments challenge the way we try to keep the living Lord on the surface of our lives. So too they are a challenge to superficial preaching.
Finally, preaching the Ten Commandments reminds us that we are called to be united to Christ and distinguished from the world. People who follow the Ten Commandments do not follow their own desires. They do not follow their own way. They are a counter cultural community. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon never tire of pointing this out. They write, “The Commandments are not guidelines for humanity in general. They are a countercultural way of life for those who know whose they are. Their function is … to produce a people who are, in our daily lives, a sign, a signal, a witness that God has not left the world to its own devices.” They go so far as to want to put this label on the Decalogue: “Don’t try to obey any of these commandments alone.”
To preach on these countercultural words is to call a people to a new life. Here the people and the newness are important. We are called to turn from our old lives controlled by sin. In Christ we are new creations. Moreover, we are called to be made new with others who call on the name of the Lord and depend on the empowering presence of the Spirit. In other words, preaching on the Decalogue forces us to fight our individualism and confess our pride and turn from our lust for autonomy.
A Relevant Recommendation
Autonomy literally means being a law unto ourselves. Our contemporary culture is obsessed with autonomy. We assert and defend the right to identify ourselves, name ourselves, and change ourselves at will. In this way we are driven deeper and deeper into ourselves.
The Ten Commandments come at this ‘curving in’ on ourselves in a way that is direct and devastating. The Lord who commands is the one who gives life and salvation and calls his people to himself to give them to the world. The two stories with their different trajectories could not be more different. Noting this we can see the relevance of the Ten Commandments and our need to hear them and preach them till we preach the devil to death. I have not gotten there yet. However, the Reformers’ recommendation is a great place to start.
The Reverend Tee S. Gatewood III, Ph.D. (University of St. Andrews), is pastor of the Arbor Dale Presbyterian Church, Banner Elk, North Carolina.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1959), 45.
 Peter J. Leithart, The End of Protestantism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016) is helpful in keeping the tension both theologically and practically.
 For a brief introduction to the importance of catechetical preaching, see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 16–19.
 Martin Luther, Large Catechism, trans. Theodore Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 4–5.
 Jaroslav Pelikan, Reformation of Church and Dogma, 1300-1700 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 168.
 See Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments, trans. Benjamin Farley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
 Martin Luther, Large Catechism, passim.
 Stanley M. Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, The Truth about God. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 18.
 Ibid., 19 (italics in original).