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Luther on the centrality of the Word in worship

Kirchenordnung_Mecklenburg_1650Martin Luther did not want to revolutionize completely the traditional worship of the Western church. He did, however, believe that preaching of the Word had been sorely neglected. In 1523, he published some instructions on the “Order of Public Worship,” and therein he identified three errors that were common in papal worship services: (1) the Word of God was lacking, (2) a “host of un-Christian fables and lies” had filled the void left by preaching, and (3) worship services had become a work whereby God’s merit might be earned.

He proposed a solution: “a Christian congregation should never gather together without the preaching of God’s Word and prayer, no matter how briefly.” Luther cited Psalm 102:21-22 and 1 Cor 14:26-31 as proof-texts for this practice. It’s better to not even gather if the Word is going to be neglected. After all, the earliest Christians attended to the Word in their gatherings, he argued.

Luther believed that daily worship in the morning and evening should continue, but they should be given over to Biblical instruction. The morning service was to be “at four or five in the morning.” During these morning services, Luther prescribed daily Old Testament readings book by book (of the Pentateuch and historical books), chapter by chapter. This was to be followed by a half-hour (or so) lesson or explanation of the text read. “Thus Christian people will by daily training become proficient, skilful, and well versed in the Bible.” Singing should follow the Bible lesson. The whole service should not go much longer than an hour, so not to burden the people (unlike wearying practices of the monasteries and convents). The evening services should be similar to the morning’s, but with readings from the Old Testament Prophets or New Testament. Again, the most important part of this service must be the preaching of the Word, which must “be given free reign to uplift and quicken souls so that they do not become weary.” Luther wanted the daily masses to come to an end.1

Luther did not expect everyone to attend these daily services, but he strongly encouraged aspiring priests and pastors to be there.2 The services on the Lord’s Day, however, should be attended by all. The preaching on the Lord’s Day should be from a Gospel in the morning and from an Epistle in the evening.

To reiterate, the most important part of the Western service that needed reforming was the preaching of the Word of God. “Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that has been the rule up to now. We can spare everything but the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word.” Citing Luke 10:42, Luther said the “one thing” that is “needful” is to sit at the foot of Jesus and hear his teaching daily. “This is the best part to choose and it shall not be taken away forever. It is an eternal Word.”3

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Luther said that chants, psalms, and a few of the feast days associated with biblical events should continue, but he said that “for the time being we can shelve” the antiphons, responsories, collects, as well as the legends and festivals of the saints. []
  2. Luther said of the priests and pastors, “And one should admonish them to do this [be present for daily worship] willingly, not reluctantly or by constraint, or for the sake of reward, temporal or eternal, but alone to the glory of God and the neighbor’s good.” []
  3. All citations in this article come from Martin Luther, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship,” in Liturgy and Hymns, vol. 53 of Luther’s Works, edited by Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 11-14. []