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by Rev. A. Brian Flamme

Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “Places, times, persons, and the entire outward order of worship have therefore been instituted and appointed in order that God’s Word may exert its power publicly.”[i]

A modern reader who insists that he’s “spiritual but not religious” might be surprised that Luther would recommend an “outward order of worship.” But the real surprise isn’t that Luther’s not cool with liturgical chaos. It’s that God’s Word is both powerful (Hebrews 4:12) and public (John 18:20).

This assertion of worship being “God’s Word exercising its power publicly” crushes the sentiments of the sinful flesh that’s been deluded by the lies of the devil and the world. The temptation of our day is to insist that power in worship is found merely in the fervency of your prayers and located only in the sanctuary of the heart. The devil would have you draw in on yourself. Luther directs you outward to the preached Word of God.

The power of worship rests not in your hands, but in God’s. Worship happens when God publicly declares sinners righteous for the sake of his Son who bore the sin of the world to the cross. What does this look like? Go attend the Divine Service in any faithful Lutheran church on Sunday morning and you’ll see and hear it. There God calls and summons you and the whole world to hear his Son’s last will and testament. Jesus’ body and blood, sacrificed once and for all on the altar of the cross, is pledged and given to sinners to eat and drink for their forgiveness.[ii]

Concerning the Mass, the ancient worship service of preaching and the sacrament, Luther insists that Christ’s Supper is not our work to gain God’s favor, but the Lord’s testimony and testament. “In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Corinthians 11:25). For a testimony is not beneficium acceptum, sed datum; that is, it does not take benefit from us, but brings benefit to us. Who has ever heard that he who receives an inheritance has done a good work? He simply takes for himself a benefit. Likewise, in the mass we give nothing to Christ, but only receive from him…”[iii]

God isn’t pleased to meet us half way, to split his works with our own in Christian worship. That’s why faith is so central for Luther. Faith is the opposite of works. It hears, delights, and rejoices in God’s effective Word to save (Romans 10:17). It claims no credit, but gives glory to God alone. Whatever the century, the we fall into error when we consider worship apart from the external/public power of God’s Word and our faith that receives the benefits of Christ’s testament.

Let’s take a moment to consider what particular abuses in worship were the most concerning for the reformers. Here’s Luther describing the state of worship under the papacy: “Three serious abuses have crept into the service. First, God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse. Second, when God’s Word had been silenced such a host of un-Christian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons were introduced that it is horrible to see. Third, such divine service was performed as a work whereby God’s grace and salvation might be won. As a result, faith disappeared and everyone pressed to enter the priesthood, convents, and monasteries, and to build churches and endow them.”[iv]

These three abuses show that, in Luther’s estimation, worship was treated like a magic rite that was performed to win God’s favor. Though there were readings, singing, stories about the saints, and so on, God’s Word was silenced. People treated the Scriptures legalistically, as if merely performing the work of reading them would be enough to make God happy. Luther understood that the Scriptures are God’s living Word; that they are not mere words on the page, but God’s voice to comfort sinners in all times and places.

What was Luther’s answer to such a cold handling of the Bible? Preaching. “Now in order to correct these abuses, know first of all that a Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly, as Psalm 102 says, “When the kings and the people assemble to serve the Lord, they shall declare the name and the praise of God.””[v]

When God’s Word is proclaimed, when Law and Gospel are rightly divided for and in the lives of its hearers, the Scriptures cannot be used legalistically apart from faith. The Holy Ghost proves that Christ’s words are powerful to save in this moment as much as they were when they were first spoken by the lips of the prophets and apostles.

Luther writes, “When we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”[vi]

Whether we are tempted in our own era to make worship an internal work of the heart or to make worship an external work of our hands as was the case under the papacy, the Holy Spirit pulls us back to true worship of God acting on our behalf where the Scriptures are preached and the sacrament rightly administered. The only thing you can say in response to such grace is “thank you” which is exactly what is prayed in the Lutheran churches after receiving the Sacrament. “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore you that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same in faith toward you and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord… Amen.”[vii]

The Rev. A. Brian Flamme is a pastor at Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, Colo.

[i] LC I, 94 (Kolb-Wengert, 399).

[ii] A Treatise on the New Testament, that is, the Holy Mass, LW 35:86ff

[iii] Ibid, 93.

[iv] Concerning the Order of Public Worship, LW 53:11

[v] Concerning the Order of Public Worship, LW 53:11

[vi] LC I, 101 (Kolb-Wengert, 400).

[vii] LSB, Divine Service 3, 201