500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation - 500 Years Proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ

The Reformation and Worship

Elements of Lutheran belief and worship are depicted in the background of this painting, which commemorates the 1530 presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V. Among the Lutheran beliefs/worship practices depicted are confession and absolution, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, catechesis, prayer, the singing of chorales, instrumental music, marriage, and more.
(Painting: Andreas Herrneisen, 1602 – Parish Church of Kasendorf, Germany).

by William Weedon

“The service now in common use everywhere goes back to genuine Christian beginnings, as does the office of preaching. But as the latter has been perverted by spiritual tyrants, so the former has been corrupted by the hypocrites. As we do not on that account abolish the office of preaching, but aim to restore it again to its right and proper place, so it is not our intention to do away with the service, but to restore it again to its rightful use” (AE 53:11).

So wrote Martin Luther at the dawn of the liturgical reform that took shape in the years 1523 to 1526 in Saxony—reforms that would set a template for whole territorial churches that embraced the Reformation. He would go on in this particular document to list the things that needed attention in his opinion: God’s Word needed to be noised abroad again through preaching, for when the Mass lacked preaching it lacked something absolutely vital; various stuff that had made its way into the service in contradiction to that Word needed to be removed; and above all, the hideous notion that the Service was some sort of work that earned God’s grace and favor (even for the dead!) needed to be thoroughly expunged. That had it exactly backwards, he thought, for the service always is first and foremost the work of God: the Heavenly Father giving us His Son through His Spirit that we might receive forgiveness, life, and salvation in Him.

So what did all this look like in actual practice? Luther began with the Latin Mass in the same year, 1523. What he provides in his little An Order of Mass and Communion is not so much a new order as instructions on how to use the medieval Missal in an evangelical fashion. Seen in that light, he runs through the medieval service saying what should be retained:

  1. Introit? Check, but one can use the whole Psalm if desired.
  2. Kyrie? Check, with its traditional melodies.
  3. Gloria? Check, but also with the freedom to omit as often as wished (Luther is perhaps intuiting here that the Gloria was originally a festive part of the Mass).
  4. Collect? Check.
  5. Epistle reading? Check, but Luther wishes that some of the more juicy bits of the Epistles had been chosen instead of so many sections on works.
  6. Gradual and Alleluia? Check, but to Luther the Alleluia is the perpetual song of the church and should never be dropped.
  7. Sequence (a hymnic reflection on the readings)? Better to dump it, Luther thought. Although he grants that some sequences could stay (a move that Trent would make later, though Luther’s advice here was largely ignored in Lutheran circles), he would want their number curtailed heavily.
  8. Gospel reading? Check, with candles and incense, or not.
  9. The Creed? Check, if the bishop so wishes (again, Luther is perhaps intuiting that this was a later addition to the liturgy).
  10. Sermon? Check, either here or at the start of the service.
  11. Preparation of the Elements? Check (possibly with mixing of the water and wine, but inclining toward not; none of the offertory prayers, cross those out!).
  12. Preface dialogue? Check.
  13. Canon? Check—sort of. Draw a line straight through the opening words of the Preface to the Verba (and chant them in the Lord’s Prayer tone); omit the rest.
  14. Sanctus? Check.
  15. Benedictus with Elevation? Check.
  16. Lord’s Prayer? Check, but omit the embolism at the end.
  17. Pax Domini? Check.
  18. Agnus Dei while celebrant communes himself? Check (though the personal prayers should be changed to the plural, precluding the notion of private mass).
  19. Communio? Check.
  20. Post-communion collect? Check, but not as a proper and only two options given (taken from the priest’s devotions).
  21. Salutation, Benedicamus (in place of Ite missa) and Benediction (Aaronic or from Psalm 67)? Check, check, and check.

What stands out immediately is that the only substantial change Luther carried out was the removal of the offertory prayers and the excision of parts of the Canon (the ancient eucharistic prayer) which he thought intolerable. He didn’t consider the Canon objectionable because it was a prayer, mind you, but because of what the prayer said; it laid a huge stress on “we offer” and not “we receive.” He saw it as contradicting the very directionality of the Words of Institution, which move from God to us. “Take and eat,” Jesus said, not “take and offer.”

Title Page from Luther’s German Mass (1526).

But as much as Luther loved the Latin service, people were agitating from the start for something from his pen in German. So in consultation with his musician friend Walther, he published a German Mass just three years later in 1526. In its introduction, he makes clear it doesn’t do away with the earlier Mass. They continue side by side, Latin and German, not one in place of the other. In fact, Lutherans actually kept up parts of the service in Latin for centuries!

In the German Mass, Luther was a bit freer in his approach. It is still largely a sung Divine Service, but with music framed specifically for the German vernacular rather than the Gregorian chant that suits Latin so well. The order of the German Mass runs as follows:

  1. Singing of German Psalm in first tone.
  2. Three-fold Kyrie in Greek (as opposed to ninefold in Latin)
  3. Collect, chanted in monotone
  4. Epistle reading chanted
  5. German hymn sung
  6. Gospel reading, chanted in fifth tone (same as for the Passion and the Words of Institution)
  7. German Creed: “We All Believe in One True God”
  8. Sermon
  9. Public Paraphrase of Lord’s Prayer and Exhortation to Communicants
  10. Words of Institution (sung)
  11. Sanctus: “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” with elevation
  12. Distribution with hymns, including “O Lord, We Praise Thee” and German Agnus Dei
  13. Post-Communion Collect (“We give thanks to You, almighty God…”)
  14. Aaronic Benediction

What both of these services did was to provide to Lutherans a template for how to receive the ancient service in a way that retained maximally all that was beautiful and true, while removing whatever contradicted the joy of the Gospel’s gift, no matter how ancient and venerable. Most of the classic Church Orders actually combined a bit of both, with country parishes with few musical resources favoring the German Mass order and city parishes with greater musical resources favoring the Latin Mass order.

In the way that Luther put the service into German (freely paraphrasing), he demonstrated a particular genius for handing over the theological richness and treasures of the liturgy in a way that would be accessible, yet reverent; clear, yet beautiful; easily learned by heart, yet deeply nourishing the soul. It’s similar in that sense to his Small Catechism. It is also important to note how he quite intentionally made use of music that preceded him. The “We All Believe” was a pre-Reformation tune for a paraphrase of the Creed; “Isaiah, Mighty Seer” has a clear relationship to some of the Latin Sanctus melodies. The tone for the Words of Institution would be readily recognizable as the tone the Passion was sung in.

What probably strikes people in our day as odd is that music was everywhere, even in the readings and prayers! Well, Lutherans were not called the “singing church” for no reason. Tolkien hints at something similar in his Lord of the Rings where the hobbits find themselves spontaneously singing in the house of Bombadil, as though that were more natural than speaking. In the same way Lutherans experienced the joy of the house of God! Robin Leaver, a scholar of sacred music, highlights this aspect of Lutheran worship by regularly quoting a phrase from the German Mass: “After the Gospel, the people sing!” So the robust singing of hymns became a feature of the Lutheran liturgy alongside a blossoming of the choir’s music as well. In fact, the congregation in effect formed a second choir—something Leaver describes well in his recent book The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg. Concern for music from start to finish was early on a hallmark of Lutheran liturgy (as opposed to, say, the Anglican tradition, which has tended to be concerned more with text).

Another point that we shouldn’t neglect is that the Divine Service, with all its musical splendor, didn’t stand alone. It was framed with the daily prayer offices. Most Lutheran orders provided at the very least for Vespers on Saturday (or the day before a feast) along with the opportunity for private absolution; Matins on Sunday (or the day of the feast); the Divine Service (called the Mass in most of the Church Orders of the 16th and 17th centuries); and then a Catechetical Vespers on the afternoon of Sunday. When Luther paraphrased the third commandment with: “Sanctify the holy day,” he meant the whole day and not merely a few hours!

Lutherans took this manner of receiving the liturgical template and adjusted it to serve the spiritual needs of their churches across numerous territories and countries. What lies at the heart of this adaptation was the recognition that the service is a gift from those who have come before. Each generation receives it, makes it its own, and passes it on. This Lutheran approach to the liturgy here differs somewhat from the Roman or Eastern approach (which tend to uncritically receive anything that makes it into the tradition without testing it against the Scriptures), just as it differed from the Reformed approach (where whatever couldn’t be shown to be mandated in the Scriptures of the New Testament, had to be jettisoned—the so-called “regulative principle”). With Luther and those who adopted his approach to the Reformation, the legalistic tendency of either of those positions simply had no place. Nothing that stood in the way of the Gospel could stand, but anything that served that Gospel could be joyously retained and celebrated.

The nineteenth century theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth had it right: the Lutheran Church possesses liturgical life without liturgical bondage! The Lutheran reformation’s impact on worship was beautiful, well-ordered services, conducted in reverence, and with every part chiming in to comfort the terrified conscience with the sweet consolation of forgiveness in Christ. Luther says so himself in the Large Catechism: “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sins through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage consciences as long as live here” (II:55).


Rev. William Weedon is Director of Worship for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.