Martin Luther’s Reform of Worship
- Dirk G. LangeDirk G. LangeLuther Seminary
Martin Luther’s reform of worship centers on gospel proclamation in its various manifestations. Gospel-centered worship necessarily de-centers the individual in his or her own quest for fulfillment or meaning. It de-centers the community from an inward, self-sufficient, closed-border understanding of identity. God comes to the believer and the community in worship through means (that is, through preaching and the administration of the sacraments). These means disrupt, confront, create, renew, and re-orient faith and love.
In A Treatise on the New Testament, That Is, the Holy Mass, Luther sums up the reform of worship in one sentence: “Christ, in order to prepare for himself an acceptable and beloved people, which should be bound together in unity through love, abolished the whole law of Moses. And that he might not give further occasion for divisions and sects, he appointed in return but one law or order for his entire people, and that was the holy mass” (LW 35:81; WA 6:355, 3–4). The law that Luther points to is none other than Christ himself coming to humankind, giving of himself, reconciling all of humanity with God. This work is finished. There are no other sacrifices to be made (The Misuse of the Mass, LW 36). Worship is now characterized by two things: thanksgiving and service.
In his reform of the liturgy, Luther argued that the liturgy is both about the word and the rites. The Word of God (as something “heard,” for example, in preaching) does not negate or replace the ritual of worship but the Word is encountered both in the preaching and in the rites (sacraments). Proclamation happens within the liturgical order. The liturgy is not displaced or replaced by preaching the Word alone. Though the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of the Altar (or Holy Communion) was misused, Luther did not reject the sacrament per se but sought to re-establish a correct interpretation. Sacrament was not to be equated with sacrifice but with a gift from God. Therefore, Luther continually argued for the maintenance of the bond between Word and sacrament as constitutive of the liturgy.
A corollary reform involved retrieving the role of the body in worship. Proclamation employs earthly means. The gospel expressed in words (preaching) presents only half the picture because God’s Word also comes to the worshiping community through non-verbal means. Luther explains how the words are also seen and tasted, how they are received through and in the body.
A key aspect of these characteristics of the reform of worship is on the interior sources of the liturgy. Luther and reformers keep the ceremonies and traditions of the Mass as long as they do not burden consciences (that is, create guilt in a person by making them believe they must still do something to be reconciled with God). The Word, whether preached or embodied in the sacraments, must point the believer always towards the gospel, that is, towards God’s free gift of forgiveness, reconciliation, and new creation. If, however, the preaching and the sacraments are considered works that make a believer righteous before God, they are to be condemned for then they no longer serve the Gospel.
This reversal in the theology of worship takes shape in Luther’s two proposals for a liturgical order as it does in his writing on public worship and on the sacraments, notably Baptism and Holy Communion. Though he proposed liturgical orders, Luther constantly maintained that such orders should not become “rules” but serve as demonstrations on how evangelical freedom is to be maintained within the framework of God’s Word and sacrament.