Light for our path: “Vain repetitions”

When the Bible talks about “vain repetitions,” what does that mean? Several times I have heard people say that the Lutheran liturgy is nothing but vain repetition.

James F. Pope

Your question provides opportunity to distinguish between meaningless prayers and meaningful liturgies. There is a great difference.


“Vain repetitions” is part of the King James Version’s rendering of Matthew 6:7: “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Another Bible translation puts it this way: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (NIV).

That instruction comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Prior to speaking the words that we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus addressed two pitfalls for prayer. One is that people might try to impress others with a pretentious, ostentatious prayer life. Jesus explains that prayer is not for show but a sincere conversation with God. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6). The other potential problem is that people might think they can impress God with their non-stop conversations with him. That is the reason Jesus instructed his followers not to “keep on babbling like pagans.”

The verb in Matthew 6:7 in Greek has the idea of “repeating the same thing over and over, to babble, to speak without thinking.” We see that kind of mindless praying in the example of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings chapter 18), who cried out to their god incessantly from morning until evening.

Is this the stuff of Lutheran liturgies? Not at all.


There is no question that there is some repetition, from week to week, in historic Lutheran liturgies. Each service contains some common items like a confession of sins and absolution, prayers, hymns, Scripture readings, sermon, and a dialogue between the worship leader and the worshipers. But there are numerous places where the worship service offers variety and freshness. Common elements in historic liturgies provide continuity from week and week, and they help connect us to Christians from past centuries who treasured God’s promises and worshiped him.

While common elements in worship services include repetition of some kind, that commonality does not equate to “vain repetitions.” I think you would agree with me that “speaking without thinking” can take place in any worship service, even those that have no liturgy from week to week. The real concern is not the form of worship, but the heart of the worshiper. Consider how God rebuked his Old Testament people for their empty worship life, even when they were doing outwardly what he had commanded (Isaiah 1:10-15). With their sacrifices and celebrations of divinely-appointed festivals, the people’s outward actions lined up with God’s Word, but their heads and hearts were not involved; they were merely going through the motions of worship.

Similarly, Lutheran worshipers can find their bodies engaged in the actions of worship with little involvement of their heads or hearts. The problem, again, is not the order of service. The problem is the worshiper. Whether the format for public worship is familiar or foreign to us, worship requires our ongoing effort and concentration.

So let’s continue to give God our best in worship—again and again and again.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online at Submit your questions there or to [email protected].



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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

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