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Bible preaching in century twenty-one

On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday, Merle Severy reflected on the “The World of Luther” in a feature article of National Geographic (164/4, 1983). “In the crucible of confrontation, Luther forged his creed: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide. Only through Holy Scripture, only from God’s grace, only through faith in Christ does the Christian receive salvation,” Severy writes. “The clarity of his teaching packaged a hundred years of Europe’s religious yearnings into simple, hard-hitting concepts that could be pounded home from countless pulpits and printing presses, spreading the Reformation far and wide.”

The creed of Luther is no less critical to the church of the 21st century than it was in the 16th, but this is a very different world. Canadian culture has indoctrinated its citizens to subordinate all values to the superiority of individual rights and freedoms. This may not be worse than the carnival air of the world in which Friar Johann Tetzel sold indulgences in Saxony. His business of saving souls from purgatory was authorized by the Pope to provide one of the chief forms of the church’s revenue. This decadence enraged Luther as would the indulgences of Canadian Christians pre-occupied in pursuit of temporal gratification.

Is the Bible a priority in preaching for today? I believe it is, but contemporary preaching will not have the kind of impact as the past. Sermons of such giants as Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, George Whitefield and Oswald Chambers continue to inspire and transform lives. But these men literally sacrificed their lives for their work; all but Wesley died before age 60, their bodies completely spent. No one would say their pursuit of preaching of the Scriptures is a model for preaching today.

Preaching the Bible in the 21st century can have the influence of the 16th to early 20th centuries, but it must deal with the legacy of modernism. Most preaching, especially by evangelicals, is devotional and inspirational. Such preaching does not address the weighty matters of a biblical theology that teaches a post-modern world about God and people. Post-moderns cannot define person; most Christians have only the vaguest ideas of divine holiness and living as the image of God. Unless people in the pews recognize a need for knowing biblical theology and preachers themselves understand it, the impact of the Bible will not continue the great legacy of the past.

Faith must seek understanding; credulity is not sufficient. The Bible as devotions may encourage for a day. The Bible preached as theology will transform generations, as it has in the past.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

August H. Konkel is a professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario and president emeritus at Providence University College and Theological Seminary.

About the author