Luther’s key musical reform of the church was that his hymns literally put the words and teaching of the gospel on people’s lips.
Aaron L. Christie
Luther’s Small Catechism is a witness to the fact that the Lutheran Reformation was primarily a reform of the church’s teaching. Millions of illiterate people were in desperate need of Scripture’s teaching. Luther’s solution was the Small Catechism—careful summaries of biblical truth that could be easily memorized. Lutheran boys and girls have been asking “What does this mean?” ever since.
In his Large Catechism, Luther provides us with a window into the purpose of his hymns: “When these parts have been well learned, one may assign them also some psalms or hymns, based on these subjects, to supplement and confirm their knowledge. Thus young people will be led into the Scriptures and make progress every day” (Preface, 25). In short, the songs were to be intimately connected with the student’s biblical learning. Based upon Luther’s advice, Lutheran pastors and teachers have been assigning their students memory work from the hymnal ever since.
A little over a year after Luther’s catechisms came off the presses, the Lutheran territories of Germany presented a confession of their faith before the emperor in the city of Augsburg on June 25, 1530. This confession opens the same window on a Lutheran view of the hymn’s role in worship: “Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people” (Augsburg Confession XXIV:2,3, emphasis added).
This is most certainly true: Luther and our early Lutheran fathers firmly believed in teaching hymnody.
Practically speaking, how did this play out in the Reformation of worship? For a man who grew up dreading the fire of purgatory and praying to saints, it is simply astounding how conservative Luther was in the reform of the church’s worship. Luther didn’t opt for an ax to hack down everything; instead he picked up the surgeon’s scalpel. He used a steady theological hand in reforming the service. Most of his changes removed praying to the saints and references that made the Lord’s Supper a sacrifice for sins.
Another significant reform was the people’s role in worship. For the average worshiper in the Middle Ages, worship was a “spectator’s sport”—something that the priest did at the altar rather than something engaged in from the pew. If the common people sang, the songs usually retold the legends of the saints rather of the story of the Savior. Luther’s key musical reform of the church was that his hymns literally put the words and teaching of the gospel on people’s lips.
Luther’s key musical insight for the church also happens to be the Scripture’s key insight. In many Scripture references, we can easily find the saints praising God by proclaiming the gospel in song. This leads us to another key Lutheran emphasis: The truths of the gospel are more than a body of facts we can recite. The truths of the gospel are God’s saving power (Romans 1:16)! Through their hymns, Lutheran Christians proclaim the saving power of Christ!
Now take a moment to peruse Luther’s hymns in our hymnal. Luther’s poetry may be vigorous and engaging, but rarely, if ever, does Luther get personal, expressing what he thinks, feels, or does. Instead, Luther’s hymns teach the Scriptures. They were deliberately penned to place the words and doctrines of Scripture on people’s lips and hearts. That’s why anti-reform voices in Luther’s day would often quip that Luther’s hymns had damned more souls than all his sermons combined!
Some of Luther’s hymns simply put the psalms into verse and rhyme: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Christian Worship [CW] 200/01); “If God Had Not Been on Our Side” (CW 202); “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven” (CW 205); and “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” (CW 574). Through them, the songs of Israel’s temple became the songs of Wittenberg’s shopkeepers.
Several of Luther’s hymns were based on the songs of the liturgy or Scripture’s canticles: “Kyrie, God Father in Heaven Above” (CW 266); “All Glory Be to God Alone” (CW 262); “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” (CW 267); and “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart” (CW 269). Through them, the ancient songs of the church became the song of peasants and maids.
An important group of hymns show us that Luther knew how to take his own advice to “assign them also some psalms or hymns.” Luther’s so-called “Catechism Hymns” serve as a musical supplement to the catechism: “The Ten Commandments Are the Law” (CW 285); “We All Believe in One True God” (CW 271); “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” (CW 410); “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” (CW 88); “From Depths of Woe I Cry to You” (CW 305); “Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior” (CW 313); and “O Lord, We Praise You” (CW 317). Through these hymns the doctrines of Scripture became the song of school boys and girls. They serve as a musical answer to “What does this mean?”
A final group of many other hymns brings the saving story of Christ to the people. “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (CW 377) and “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” (CW 38) are two prime examples. Through these hymns the eternal gospel goes to work in time and space, converting human hearts to faith and confirming the faith of the converted.
The Reformation of the church was born of an academic debate over the role of indulgences in repentance. The Reformation not only survived, but it grew and thrived because it deliberately placed the preaching, teaching, and singing of the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of the home, the classroom, the pulpit, and the hymnal. Our Lutheran fathers learned these scriptural lessons with care. And we well have fared!
Hymns that teaches us the gospel: It is pure privilege to sing them. We need to sing them. The world needs us to sing them.
Aaron Christie, the chairman of the Hymnody Committee, is pastor at Trinity, Waukesha, Wisconisn.
This is the fourth article in a nine-part series on hymns and their use in our churches.
The WELS Hymnal Project wants your feedback as it works on finalizing which of the more than 700 hymns from Christian Worship and Christian Worship: Supplement will be included in the new hymnal. Every month the WELS Hymnal Project will post a selection of hymns online, indicating which hymns are slated to be kept and which are slated to be cut. You can view the monthly list and, if you want, choose up to 10 hymns from the cut list that you would like to see kept in the new hymnal. To review this month’s list of hymns and take part in the process, visit welshymnal.com.
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Author: Aaron L. Christie
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017
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