Battling the Devil
The task of preaching can be thought of as entering a battle with the Devil. This approach ought to benefit both the preacher and the hearer at a few decisive points. First, it directs the argument in preaching toward the proper adversary and helps keep the preacher from becoming improperly argumentative. The preacher, instead of assaulting the Christian, is defending the truth against an articulate and effective deceiver. Second, it undermines the hearers’ (even if not the preacher’s) idea that the best sermon is an instruction in the Law for those who have already been redeemed. A lesson in sanctification according to the Law to those whose justification is complete does not pass muster for a sermon anymore if there is actually a powerful opponent constantly working to break the connection of faith between people and their Redeemer. Third, it gives form to the proclamation of the Law, which is then not simply telling people how they should be, but first and foremost revealing the very misunderstanding about how they are that has prevented them from feeling the danger of their predicament.
To begin, a few words about proclamation. I was once invited to serve as a “motivational speaker” for a group of university students getting ready for their final exams. My interaction with the expectations of those students made one thing remarkably clear: Proclamation is its own genre, unsuited for what I was asked to do. Instead of motivating or encouraging, describing or explaining, proclamation declares and effects a change in circumstance. It addresses the status quo situation, but only in order to strip it of its relevance. Preaching takes the old situation of separation from God and enmity with God and puts an end to it. In its place, redemption in Christ Jesus is set up.
But God, in His wisdom, works this change through communication and language which means through cogent and thoughtful arguments. Of course, making arguments does not immediately make a person argumentative, but some of that is necessary here because the old situation, the status quo, does not just go away. Treating preaching as a battle with the Devil keeps a preacher on the offense and prevents him from being caught off guard. The Devil stands-in for the old regime. He is the one battling to keep it. He is the preacher of its deceptive, but convincing message alternately of arrogant self-trust and abject despair.
And so, it is against the Devil that a preacher argues, explaining and uncovering his deception and the death to which it leads. It is against him that a measured amount of aggression and fervor can be directed. These, correct enough in their motivation, can sometimes be aimed at the hearers, but the preacher who knows himself to be in a battle not so much with the hearer as with the Devil can employ them in his sermon even as he serves in his ultimately gentle task of spiritual care, nourishment, and edification.
The second advantage in this approach to the sermon is how it may help a pastor, as he prepares his sermon, to keep the proper work of proclaiming the Gospel in the center. At some time or other, most of us have heard the suggestion that our sermons could move on to the next thing. Our people all know the Gospel, they have got this justification thing down pat, now they would like to get down to the nitty gritty of the Christian life. There is a certain truth in this genuine sentiment. Christians who want to serve God are a blessing to their Lord and their neighbor, and neither they nor their good works ought to be stamped out. But the request for less justification and more sanctification in the sermon can only be made by someone who does not realize everything going on.
The missing, or rather concealed, matter is the constant activity designed to turn the faith of the hearers away from their Savior. In the Large Catechism, Luther ascribes this work to the Devil. In fact, this activity along with the effort to conceal it is the purely functional description of the Devil that Luther gives. About his exact nature or existence, Luther says nothing; only his activity is of interest. There we are dealing with a daily effort to turn faith and trust away from the promises of God in Jesus Christ and toward whatever else will do, likely oneself, but certainly also money, relationships, and careful planning of the future.
The significant thing here is not the precise action the Devil takes, but his consistency in pursuing the condemnation of each person listening to the sermon. It is not the stifling of good works that is most likely to undermine faith, but the slow and unnoticed turn of trust away from God’s great mercy, even as the good deeds continue. As long as the Christian lives in the world, which he should, the temptation not just to sin, but to unbelief, will be stoked and strengthened by the Devil from all directions. It is against the subtlety of this effort that the preacher battles because the people must see it before they can be armed against it. But never suppose, or allow the hearers to suppose, that the events of the week have not been systematically employed to weaken their faith. The Christian is in a battle with the Devil before the preacher even arrives. They just might not realize it.
Finally (and this last point is a bit narrower and more specific) if a preacher recognizes himself as doing battle with the Devil, then he can know what he is trying to accomplish as he preaches the Law. This legal proclamation can take on color and life when the preacher realizes that it is not about making sure they know (they probably already know the 10 Commandments), but about making them see and feel that to which the Devil has made them blind and numb. Luther says it this way: The Devil is a, “…liar, to lead the heart astray from the Word of God, and to blind it, that you cannot feel your distress or come to Christ” (LC Lord’s Prayer, para.81).
So, preaching the Law is about restoring feeling to the numb. For a sinner to seek Christ, it is not sufficient that he knows the Law. He must feel its consequences and effecting this is the task of a preacher battling the Devil. They must come to experience their own sin for what it is, but even more: the Devil’s deception is truly revealed when they are brought to see how unfeeling they have been.
The image of the blind man restored to sight is apt here. Not only the appearance of things amazes him, but also the chasm between what he had seen and what he now sees. Also consider the prisoner freed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, appalled by the idea of going back. When the hearers realize that a deception has been perpetrated against them, then the deceiver is revealed and can be banished.
A term like Spiritual Warfare sounds a bit sensational these days and is certainly subject to plenty of misuse, but the concept is deeply embedded in Lutheran theology. In A Mighty Fortress we sing, “The old evil foe now means deadly woe.” In Dear Christians One and All Rejoice we have the words, “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay.” In In the Very Midst of Life, “Pow’rs of hell o’ertake us.” It is true that sometimes it is hard to tell if the opposition should be ascribed to the Devil, the world, or the sinful heart (or some combination of the three), so we must admit other ways of framing the preaching task. But may it suffice for the present to draw attention to this perhaps forgotten approach.