Category Archives: Martin Luther
Authority is a tough topic these days. Although we find evidence of authority all around us (speed limit signs, workplace rules, church building use policies, etc.) we often find creative ways to get around authority, or at least justify why WE can bend the rules and not conform to the established authority.
The casual way this happens in our daily lives flows directly into the worship of the church. Worship planners, pastors, lay people and congregations have discovered innumerable ways to avoid being under authority – and specifically under the authority of God’s word.
Now, I understand that most churches use the Bible in their services. At least there is evidence of Bible verses in songs, or in the sermon, or somehow Scripture is represented in some aspect of the worship service. But, I’m referring to something beyond the presence of Bible verses and suggesting that the church must holistically be under the authority of Scripture. It must move, and live, and breathe as dependent on and directed by that authority.
But we resist. We refuse to place our intellects under the authority of the Word by explaining away clear principles of Scripture as outdated or intolerant. We refuse to place our reason under the authority of the Word by allowing cultural norms to shape our thinking rather than biblical norms. We refuse to place our lifestyles under the authority of the Word by dismissing moral and ethical expectations as too stringent.
To stand outside the authority of God’s word is to effectively move away from what can rightly be called Christian. The further we move away, the greater the negative impact on the life changing declaration of the gospel. Only as we submit to the Word of God will His Spirit empower the church to do the work of God.
As Martin Luther stated:
God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word. Otherwise, who would preach or hear it preached, if there were no people of God? And what could or would God’s people believe, if there were no word of God?
…It is enough for us to know how this chief holy possession purges, sustains, nourishes, strengthens, and protects the church, as St. Augustine also says, ‘The church is begotten, cared for, nourished, and strengthened by the word of God.’
 Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church, Part III.
I was struck recently by the thought that worship in the modern and popular mode may be a manufactured worship, rather than a responsive worship. In other articles, and in my book (The Life of Worship), I have discussed the mischaracterization and mishandling of John 4:24, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” Often directed at some kind of feeling one must have to truly worship, the verse is actually about the spiritual reality of the believer and has little to do with feelings, atmosphere, or other elements of the worship experience.
In his treatise on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Martin Luther swerves into this idea and places some perspective on the manufactured praise that was offered in his day as worship. I will allow his words to speak for themselves, but I wonder how much of our modern worship is manufactured rather than responsive? Are you sure that your corporate worship is a response to God’s person and work?
…to think to worship God with many words and a great noise, is to count Him either deaf or ignorant, and to suppose we must waken or instruct Him. Such an opinion of God tends to His shame and dishonor rather than to His worship. But when one ponders well His divine works in the depths of one’s heart, and regards them with wonder and gratitude, so that one breaks out from very ardor into sighs and groanings rather than into speech; when the words, not nicely chosen nor prescribed, flow forth in such wise that the spirit comes seething with them, and the words live and have hands and feet, yea, that the whole body and life with all its members strives and strains for utterance — that is indeed a worship of God in spirit and in truth, and such words are all fire, light and life. As David says, in Psalm 119:140, 171, “Lord, Thy word is exceeding refined;” and again, “My lips shall utter a hymn” even as boiling water overflows and seethes, unable to contain itself for the great heat within the pot.*
*Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, “The Magnificat” (Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Company, 1930), 160.
Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave them and made them. I therefore pray that every pious Christian would be pleased with this (the use of the arts in the service of the gospel) and lend his help if God has given him like or greater gifts. (from the Preface to the Wittenburg Hymnal of 1524)
In this statement the great Reformer, Martin Luther, sums up an attitude of openness and inclusiveness that sets the foundation for our rich heritage of music in the Christian Church. Granted, there are traditions within Christianity in which the use of music is limited, or even eliminated, but for the most part music is a commonly accepted and essential part of our worship experience. I would note, however, that Luther is making a statement which has much broader significance. Although he specifies music (because he is writing a Preface for a hymnal), he is actually referring to the arts in general. In other writings he points out that the arts are a reflection of God’s image in humanity – that part of His image which is creative and dramatic.
This should cause us to reflect upon our own opinions and notions of the arts and whether we utilize them or neglect them. Music, drama, painting, sculpting and a multitude of other arts can be practiced for God’s glory and the communication of the gospel. We learn more about God as Creator when we see a painting or photograph of majestic scenery or the intricacies of a flower. The prayer of the heart can be made more intimate when coupled with appropriate music. The need of humanity for redemption in Christ can be seen in a drama depicting the broken-hearted and move us to action.
The Christian message is one of redemption – of restoring our relationship with God – yet for many Christians that redemption has too often only focused upon the spiritual. We miss the reality of what redemption means to each of us today, where we live, and how we act. We have been blinded to the ways in which Christ restores in us those things that represent the image of God. Our redemption is holistic – body, soul and spirit. Our experience of redemption is both now…and not yet. This means that as we live here on earth our lives are evidence of that redemption every day – even as we look forward to our final redemption (see Romans 8:18ff). Not just in our devotional life, but in those acts which reflect Him, even in the smallest way, in who we are. In other words, part of what Christ has redeemed is the arts and creativity in man. We all express, in some way, our gratefulness to God and artists do so out of their creative imagination and expertise. Again, this imagination and expertise is under Christ’s Lordship as He draws the artist to Himself and begins to mold him or her and these gifts for His purpose and glory (see Romans 8:29). Paul even speaks of each of our lives as great “masterpieces” of art, and that God is active in preparing our way in this (see Ephesians 2:10).
Artists in so many fields yearn for the opportunity to use their God-given gifts in service for Him and the Church. Often their expression of faith is misunderstood, or entirely rejected without allowing for a fuller explanation from the artist. Sometimes our own preferences cause us to miss the value of a particular art form for someone sitting next to us in the pew, or people of a different generation. I would encourage you to find the artists in your own congregation and set them free to use their gifts for His glory. Your faith will only be enriched as God works through these men and women to help us see (both literally and figuratively) His word in fresh and creative ways.
During a recent class session, I was teaching on how stories are taught through the lyrics of various hymns. Since we were close to the Reformation Day holiday, we talked through Luther’s great hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” In the lyrics of this hymn, we found a short, powerful story about the Christian life, including its dangers and its hope.
Before we look at Luther’s story, let me share several insights regarding the use of stories in modern worship settings. There are several kinds of lyrical content in worship music that can be found throughout the centuries. One of these is a testimonial kind of song, in which the writer is responding to what God has done in their lives and being thankful and worshipful for His blessings. Another form is a teaching kind of song, in which the writer is explaining something about God or Christ (such as their attributes like “greatness”) and calling the worshiper to respond. Further, we find songs that include the stories of the Bible in the lyrics. These kinds of songs remind us of God’s works through the telling of stories.
I’m sure we could determine other forms of lyrical content, but in general these three cover most songs. What is striking is the relative absence of certain of these forms in modern worship settings. By and large, modern worship songs fit in to the category of personal testimony. The lyrical content is a personal response to God’s work in a person’s life. After that, we find a few songs that contain teaching elements that are mostly focused on the attributes of God. However, in reviewing a list of the most popular modern songs used in modern worship settings, there are very few that tell a story within the lyrics. I find this unhealthy and unbalanced; since it demonstrates a self-focused worship that sees personal experience as the most important element of worship.
In contrast to this modern imbalance, it seems to me that there was a greater reliance on the telling of stories in the history of Christian hymnody. St. Francis of Assisi (13th Century) created a tapestry in his song “All Creatures of our God and King.” In this song, he uses story-telling devices to take the worshiper on a tour throughout creation, calling all of God’s created things to join in worship which ends with a celebration of God as Trinity. James Montgomery (19th Century) used a changing perspective to tell the story of the nativity from the viewpoint of various participants in “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” We hear about Christ’s birth from the viewpoint of the angels, the shepherds, the sages, the sinner, and even from that of Jesus. Again, this song ends with a celebration of God as Trinity.
Returning to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” let us consider the story within these lyrics. Upon considering the words of Psalm 46, Luther penned his hymn as one to remind us of the reality of the difficulties and hope within the Christian life. Verse one begins by juxtaposing these two realities:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Luther sets the stage by placing God as the Fortress and Helper of the Christian in an epic battle, for our “ancient foe” (Satan) is determined to make our lives miserable – for he hates us as Christians, and anything that reminds him of God’s reign over all things.
In verse two, Luther helps the Christian keep a balanced perspective and notes that if we, in our own strength, sought to win this war we would surely lose. However, we are not alone in this battle. Not only is God the fortress and refuge, we have “the right Man on our side.” Christ, in fighting for us, will win the battle that Satan and this world “with devils filled” is fighting against us (verse three). In fact, in the word of Christ (the gospel), there is enough power to topple the Devil and all of his plans.
But this is not all, for another powerful weapon is in the Christian arsenal. The “truth to triumph” resides within us. Verses three and four bring out the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, along with the presence of God’s word. There is powerful truth found by understanding God’s word and seeing life (and death) through God’s eyes. This life is not all there is.
And as Luther comes to the end of his story telling, he comforts the Christian by coming full circle back to the safety and refuge we find in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in both life and death:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
By crafting these lyrics in a holistic fashion, Luther has fashioned a story telling about the reality of the Christian life. Ours is a life lived within a battle. Satan is attacking relentlessly, and though at times difficult, our help comes from God, through His Son and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because of Christ, we are victorious.
It is this kind of holistic story telling that seems to be markedly absent, for the most part, in modern worship song writing. This is but one example that the central focus of modern worship is the tendency toward a shallow, personal experience. Personal experience is not enough to live a victorious Christian life. While the modern worship movement remains focused in such a way, the true worship of Christians will be limited and anemic. Biblical worship, by nature, is much more than a personal experience.
(Original Post on November 12, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/20733-missing-stories-in-worship)