Introduction to Praying the Gospels with Martin Luther
“Prayer is a very precious medicine, one that helps and never fails.” Martin Luther
(Luther 1956, vol. 21)
The daily and diligent practice of prayer opened a portal for Martin Luther to hear the voice of God, especially as he meditated on Holy Scripture. For much of my life I thought, There’s not enough time to spend more than a few brief moments every day in prayer. The only prayers I could manage were offered on the run.
Martin Luther held an opposite view of the importance of prayer. It’s reported that he spent two hours in prayer and meditation every morning. If he anticipated a particularly stressful day, he spent an extra hour in prayer. People who pause to listen for the voice of God and who invite God to guide their efforts are people who end up moving mountains. They become God’s instruments for change in the world.
I wondered, What led Luther to attach such great value to prayer? Is this where he gained new understanding and found strength to stand up to twelve hundred years of tradition? When a friend showed me a book of prayers (Praying in the Wesleyan Spirit by Paul Chilcote) designed to teach the themes in John Wesley’s sermons, I thought, I could do the same with Martin Luther’s sermons in the Church Postil. To write prayers arising from Luther’s sermons on the gospels might be an efficient way of learning what he believed important for the people in the pews to understand. At the same time, this would encourage the practice of prayer.
Systematically, I began reading the sermons based on the gospel texts in the Church Postil, taking copious notes on each one. Sometimes there were two or three sermons for a text. Once I developed an overall feel for what Luther was emphasizing in the text, I began writing a prayer for each sermon text based on my notes and the biblical text.
What appealed to me in Luther’s sermons was his focus on love as the determining factor in knowing and fulfilling God’s will. He explained how to discern which laws in Scripture are viable and which ones are not to be followed. He preached that we can only show our love for God through loving our neighbor. And he left no doubt that salvation that comes through faith alone by the grace of God produces more good works for our neighbor than the church in Rome ever demanded of anyone.
Luther’s sermons gave me a new sense of freedom—a new kind of power and confidence to be bold in my faith walk. I believe the concepts I share in the prayers of this book will give you that same freedom.
How to Use these Prayers
Allow yourself fifteen or twenty minutes to enter into a meaningful exchange during prayer. Just like it takes time to knead yeast into dough when making bread, you must allow Wisdom the time to knead the truth into your heart, mind, and soul.
Find a secluded place where you will have a minimum of interruptions. Sit in a comfortable position, take a few deep breaths, and release the tension from your shoulders, neck, arms, back, and legs. Be creative in your efforts to enter the inner room of your heart. Begin with a brief prayer asking the Holy Spirit to open your heart and guide your thoughts.
Each prayer in this book begins with a quotation from Luther’s sermon on a gospel text. The number preceding the quotation refers to a corresponding paragraph number in that sermon on my website (http://www.prayingthegospels.com) or in John Lenker’s 1983 edition of the Sermons of Martin Luther. The page number is listed after the volume number (e.g., Vol. 2:125) and will help you to find the quotation. When there are two or three sermons for one text, the page numbers are inserted into the online sermons at the place they appear in the print version.
Read the quotation slowly. Ask yourself, “How does this apply to my life today?”
The gospel text is printed next. Read it slowly. Let it be the foundation for your prayer.
Next, read the prayer slowly, one phrase at a time. Pause for reflection when something connects with your life experience. Can you see where a phrase connects to the Scripture text?
Give yourself permission to stay with a prayer phrase for as long as it speaks to you. Reflection is a powerful component of prayer that many people neglect. It’s one of the central places from which the voice of God arises.
Each prayer concludes with a verse or two from a hymn written by Martin Luther. He believed God spoke to people through the Bible and hymnody was the people’s response to God. Use the words of the hymn as a response to what you have heard in your prayer time.
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You can search for a prayer based on a biblical story that interests you. You can identify a prayer according to a theme that touches your life. Or you can simply open the book and begin with any prayer. If you like to begin your weekday with a short devotion, use these prayers for the next three months.
If you know in advance which gospel text is planned in your congregation for a coming Sunday, you might select that prayer as a preparation for your worship. Pray it a day or two prior to Sunday and then another day or two after you worship. You may find the gospel connecting with events in your life when you stay with a prayer over this length of time. And you will undoubtedly hear a new Word after deeper meditation.
Small groups or Sunday school classes could use these prayers as a guide to discussing Scripture texts through the year.
The Church Postil
The word postil means “explanation.” The Church Postil is a collection of Martin Luther’s sermons, written and edited from 1520–1544. He wrote them for local clergy to use for preaching and teaching the meanings of Scripture texts. Many priests of that time were not skilled in biblical analysis. When they preached, they often read from the New Testament, or they would read a sermon from one of the more popular preachers of the day. John Nicholas Lenker, editor of the 1983 edition, said Luther considered his Church Postil to be the “best of all his books.”
Themes repeated in Luther’s sermons might surprise you. He emphasized good works and service to your neighbor. He frequently explained things he saw hidden in texts that went beyond the plain meanings. You might also find it appealing how the Word spoke personally to Luther. The Spirit guided him to apply the Scriptures to his own life. He connected the people and events in the Bible to the people in his time. When Luther meditated on Scripture, no time barrier existed between the first century and the sixteenth century.
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The diversity of topics, the depth of his interpretations, and the underlying spiritual meanings explained in his sermons cannot be covered in the brevity of these prayers. My objective was not to condense his sermons point by point, but to highlight themes that spoke to me. I did not attempt to confirm nor conform to scholarly interpretation of Luther’s works. I also modified Luther’s terminology whenever it referred to the papacy, church councils, or specific doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. I want you to be able to apply these messages to the Christian Church in its diversity today.
A complete history of Martin Luther’s Church Postil can be found in the editor’s introduction to the Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Books and edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Luther’s sermons are in the public domain. If any of these prayers spark your interest to learn more about Luther’s postils, you can find his sermons listed by Scripture text on my website: www.prayingthegospels.com.
Martin Luther applied his talents beyond biblical translation and interpretation. He loved music and wanted to bring the gospel to people through the penetrating medium of song. Luther reasoned that within spiritual songs the Word of God and Christian doctrine could help people understand how to put their faith into practice in daily life. One of his primary goals was to repeat the message of the grace of God in Christ: Christ alone is our praise and our song. Many of Luther’s hymns can be found online at
Cover of the book: The picture on the cover is one of the caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Martin Luther said we can find the gospel in both testaments, in the promise of the Messiah and then in the fulfillment of that promise. The image is a reminder that treasure can be found in unexpected places. I hope you find a treasure worth sharing with others as you meditate on these prayers.
SAMPLE from his sermons on Matthew 4:1–11 (Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness)
Text: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV 1984)
Word of Life,
The benefit of fasting isn’t always clear to me. Please help me understand how refraining from food can help me spiritually. If You think the practice of fasting might help bring the desires of my flesh under control, lead me to want to fast. If not, let me be thankful for the physical nourishment You are providing me.
I’m in such a hurry to advance in life and faith that I rush into wildernesses I create for myself. When I feel alone and unsatisfied with my life, keep me from inventing ways to compensate for my emptiness.
Give me wisdom and patience to let the Spirit lead me into places where my faith can be stretched. May the Word help me to turn the evil one away.
I am tempted to think You don’t love me when my physical needs are at risk. I start falling for the world’s promises that fortune, power, and fame will satisfy my desires. These are stones disguised as bread that cannot nourish my soul. Feed me the food that supports my spirit: the Word that assures me of Your desire to be my God.
The devil puts on a beautiful outward appearance, tempting me with pleasure and prosperity. Grant me power to resist craving glory for myself because then I think I deserve the blessings You have given me.
How weak I am, Lord. I can be attacked from so many sides. Can I ever trust You enough to be able to defend myself from so many temptations? Yes, because the Spirit has led me to these places and will teach me to trust in You. I pray You will send saintly messengers to tend to me when I am tempted to lose confidence in You.
Satan makes me think there are better ways to achieve a holy life than You have already provided. Trusting You and loving my neighbor appear too simple and boring. Lead me to walk the path that has long been provided instead of thinking dramatic deeds and leaps of faith are required. You, Jesus, are the Way. I want to trust in You and follow Your example. Amen.
- Into temptation lead us not;
And when the foe doth war and plot
Against our souls on every hand,
Then, armed with faith, O may we stand
Against him as a valiant host,
Through comfort of the Holy Ghost.
- Deliver us from evil, Lord!
The days are dark and foes abroad;
Redeem us from eternal death;
And when we yield our dying breath,
Console us, grant us calm release,
And take our souls to Thee in peace.
(C) 2012 by Paul W. Meier
If you’d like to see some of the quotations I found in Luther’s sermons that I never heard in confirmation class or at seminary but opened my eyes to his heart, check them out at this link.
You can order the ebook version ($2.99) or the print version ($11.95) from Amazon at this link.
And if you’d like to look as some of my other books, take a look at them here.