Bethany Woelmer

Can you hear it? It’s still beating—the heart of Lutheranism still flowing through time, not just once during the Reformation service we anticipate every year, but from our new heart of faith. Can you hear it? It’s there in God’s Word, renewed in your baptism, restored by faith in the Lord’s Supper, refreshed by the words of absolution. Can you hear it? The Law pounds into us our need for a Savior, and the Gospel frees us with a new rhythm of faith, flowing forth forgiveness of sins and love for the neighbor. It is the beautiful sound of God’s love to us in Christ.

Oh, and you thought I was talking about music! Yet without the heart of faith, how could we have received such strong hymns we can hear even now as we read them? “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon,” “Dear Christians, one and all rejoice with exultation springing,” “Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word,” or “These are the holy ten commands,” just to name a few. If they’re stuck in your head the rest of the day, you can thank me later.

We all know Martin Luther as the leader of the Protestant Reformation, a faithful preacher of the Word, and a strong defender of the truth and clarity of Scriptures against the false doctrine that clouds the message of forgiveness that rings forth to all nations. Did you know that Luther was also an integral part in the music of the Reformation that began a new musical movement, affecting the church here and now?

Martin Luther’s life in the monastery and as a priest gave him the education and experience of singing within the church. Luther became completely familiar with the ritual of seven services within the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, where he was devoted to the religious exercises of singing, praying, and other ascetic practices that were required to the sanctification of the self. Early Luther, as taught from early church fathers, would have regarded music in mystical or allegorical speculation, meaning that music was emphasized as a science rather than as a performed art.

One of the ways in which Luther sought to preserve the truth of the Scriptures was through music. The new musical movement of the Reformation did not mean that Luther threw away the old copies of music and started over. Certainly not! He used the traditions of the past but altered them in new ways and with new teachings. This change of attitude and thought toward music affected the style and place of music in relation to the worship and life of the church. Instead of creating a theology for music through mystical speculation and self-sanctification, Luther sought to create music for theology, ultimately for the glory of God. Music was regarded as the handmaiden to the Gospel and deserved the highest praise next to the Word of God.

This living voice of the Gospel (viva vox evangelii) thus served as the church’s “sung confession” in proclamation and praise for what Christ has done for us. It became lyrical, congregational, and confessional. The Reformation transformed spectators into participants in the dialog of the worship service between God and His people. Melodies in the form of Lutheran chorales were constructed—not on a particular period structure or harmonic scheme but rather they “enlivened the text,” interpreting it according to the important stresses placed on the important words of the stanza. For example, in the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” Luther emphasized the German words feste, Burg, Gott, gute, and waffen through the rhythmic stress of music to hammer into us the teaching of God as our mighty fortress, shield, and weapon. Sing it, and you can feel it, too!

Our rhythm of faith creates a rhythm of strength and weakness throughout the Christian life. Luther recognized this in his preaching of Law and Gospel. Music during the Reformation reflected this rhythm of preaching by its own rhythmic vitality that served to bring vigorous encouragement to our confession. Faith is an ever-flowing fountain of the New Song of the Gospel in the life of forgiveness; therefore, finding delight in hymns and liturgy that support this New Song encourages us to sing as forgiven sinners in Christ. Luther remarked, “We often sing a good song over again from the beginning, especially one we have sung with pleasure and joy.”

Luther not only viewed music as a liturgical song through the participation of all the people in worship, but he also viewed music as the song of the royal priests, meaning all Christians—that means all of you! Therefore, praise, proclamation, and adoration was not just for the priests, choirs, and leaders of worship, but included the whole people of God. Thus, many Gregorian chant melodies were adopted into hymns, such as “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest,” “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands,” “O Lord, We Praise Thee,” and “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.” Hymns were also written in catechetical nature, in order to teach, bind, and aid memory. Luther’s hymn, “We All Believe in One True God,” teaches the creed, “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” teaches the Lord’s Prayer, and “These Are the Holy Ten Commands” teaches the Ten Commandments.

So, there you have it! Luther grew up listening to music that accompanied the Mass, which was perverted into a good work. He instead sought to use music as proclamation and praise. Luther regarded external ceremonies as necessary, good, and beautiful, but stressed the importance of their edification to the truth of Scripture. The rhythm of faith from the Reformation still continues, and you, as the Church, can contribute to the spread of the Gospel’s message every time you sing those treasured hymns and liturgies in all truth and purity. Can you hear it? Forgiveness still rings forth! Though you may fail to uphold the Gospel, receive God’s gifts, or sing with delight, Christ still died for you and gives you new life in Him. As Luther clearly states, “I have no one to sing and chant about but Christ, in whom alone I have everything. Him alone I proclaim, in Him alone I glory, for He has become my Salvation, that is, my victory.” That’s certainly something to sing about!

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