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Christian, Evangelical Worship

Presented for use by the Theological Advisory Board of the WordAlone Network

Date Unknown

We give thanks always to God the Father of all mercy who in the unsearchable riches of his grace has given the treasure of his Word in which we possess the knowledge of his dear Son, a sure pledge of the life and salvation which awaits us in heaven. “For through the Holy Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5). Amen!

The renewal of worship was one of the major achievements of the Lutheran Reformation. In the five centuries since then, this renewal provided the churches of the Lutheran tradition (as well as others) with a rich liturgical heritage that in preaching, sacraments, song, adoration, and prayer has sought to proclaim the gospel in every time and place.

In our day, renewal movements have sometimes enriched Christian worship, but have also on occasion caused confusion and factions among Christ’s assembled people. The twentieth century liturgical movement has had a significant impact. This movement pointed Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to forms of worship in use prior to the sixteenth century, especially to those in use in late Antiquity. At the same time, some movements that describe themselves as non-liturgical have challenged received Lutheran worship practices. Ecumenical impulses have also influenced worship. Some believe that the oneness of the church is manifest when churches follow the same patterns of worship. For Lutheran churches these diverse impulses have raised questions concerning worship. Clearly, Lutheran churches must answer these questions on the basis of biblical insights and the Lutheran confessions.

Presently, a process is underway in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that endeavors to provide resources that are “offered to assist the renewal of corporate worship in a variety of settings, especially among Lutheran churches, in anticipation of the next generation of primary worship resources” (Principles for Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2002, p. iv). To promote unity among Lutherans everywhere, we offer this Statement for the evangelical renewal of Christian worship. Our purpose is to call attention to fundamental Lutheran insights on worship so that pastors and parishioners may have a basis on which to assess the validity of current or proposed worship practices.

1. The Evangelical Definition of Worship

1.1. A dialog

Christian worship is nothing but “that our dear Lord himself speaks to us through his holy Word and we respond to him through prayer and praise” (Martin Luther, “Sermon at the Dedication of Castle Church, Torgau, 1544,” in Luther’s Works 51, p. 333). Christian worship is thus a particular dialog between the Triune God and the community of believers. In this dialog, God takes the initiative: By speaking the first and last Word of law and gospel, he alone creates the community that responds to him. As law, God’s Word identifies and judges our sinfulness; as gospel, God’s Word raises us to new life in Jesus Christ.

1.2. A variety of forms

The Triune God’s Word of law and gospel and our response to it take a variety of forms. God speaks his Word to us through the reading of scripture, preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution. He thereby grants forgiveness, life, and salvation, condemns our sinfulness, and frees us from the forces of evil. By speaking to us in such a way, God through Jesus Christ creates and renews both faith and the community of believers. We respond to him in spoken prayer, song, praise, thanksgiving, confession, and petition, and in service to the neighbor. By these, we thank God in Christ for his benefits, confess our unworthiness, and ask for the ever-new bestowal of his grace.

1.3. The public, external means of grace

The Triune God creates and sustains faith by communicating the Holy Spirit to us through external means. It is this Spirit who effects faith where and when he wishes in those who hear the gospel. God neither communicates with us in clearly discernible ways by direct inspiration that contradicts scripture nor imparts his Spirit independently of the external means to which he has attached his promise. Just as the Spirit is tied to the Word of God, so the Word addresses us through public proclamation. Christian worship is centered on these public, external means of grace: preaching, baptism, Lord's Supper and public absolution.

1.3.1. Preaching

Preaching is nothing else than the Word of God in human words. It is proclamation of the Word shaped by specific Biblical texts wherein God condemns our sinfulness and raises us to new life in Christ. In preaching, God does two things: Through the law, he sets out what is required of us and what he holds against us. Through the gospel, he raises us to new life by witnessing to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners. Although it is the voice of the preacher, the speaker is Christ and the God who sent him: “Whoever hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16). The one who makes such preached words effective in the human heart as law and gospel is the Holy Spirit. The preacher’s responsibility, however, is to discern between law and gospel so that the two are not commingled but properly distinguished. Still, in so distinguishing between law and gospel, the preacher will not be content to make vague reference to the whole scripture but will be certain to make specific reference to the text of the sermon. It is through pastoral use of specific scriptural texts that the proclamation of law and gospel will take place and troubled consciences find true comfort.

1.3.2. Baptism

“Baptism is nothing else than the Word of God in water” (Smalcald Articles III.5). Baptism is not only water, but water together with the Word of God. Here the audible Word takes on visible form and in this way forgives sin and so creates and sustains faith. By this means, God promises to unite us with Christ in his death “so that we may walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and to incorporate us into the body of Christ. Baptism is God’s act for us. Faith clings to the benefits of Christ bestowed in baptism and witnessed to in the community of believers.

1.3.3. The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is nothing else but the Word of God in the elements of bread and wine. The Supper is not made up of bread and wine only but bread and wine together with God’s Word. In the Lord’s Supper we receive the true body and blood of Christ to eat and to drink in, with, and under these elements. Here the audible Word takes on edible form and in this way nourishes faith. The risen Christ, who is present in, with, and under these elements, gives the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to sinners. In the use of this meal, faith feasts on the promise “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

1.3.4. The Absolution

The absolution is nothing else but God’s Word in a human voice that addresses the sinner. By this means, the Triune God draws us into his life and effects the forgiveness of sins. Sinners are therefore freed to repent and confess, and to live a new life in Christ’s forgiving grace. Thus, absolution brings forward the gifts of baptism, and the Christian life is a daily return to the promise of baptism.

2. The Instrumental Character of the Church’s Proclamation

2.1. God’s Instruments

In the proclamation of the Word, God speaks to us. God uses means, or instruments—his audible Word and the sacraments—to address us, bestowing on us his grace. The audible Word of God comes to us both in preaching and song. Word and sacraments are not an expression of the church’s response to God; they are God’s gifts to us. Yet, for those who have already been gathered by Word and sacrament, or called to the office of public ministry, serving God by tending to the task of proclamation may be an obedient and thankful response.

2.2. The task of the church

By the means of grace, God creates and sustains the church as the communion of believers. The church, created by the Word of God, is also commissioned by God to witness to the world in word and deed so that salvation is given by Christ alone. Through proclamation and administration of the sacraments (Augsburg Confession, 5), the church transmits this gospel. So to transmit the gospel is the right and duty of all believers (the priesthood of all believers), and the office of the pastor exists to assist and enable the community to do this. The particular tasks entrusted to the pastor are the public proclamation of God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments. The act of ordination does not confer on pastors a special power or character as though they had undergone ontological change or had acquired some elevated status in a hierarchy of being by virtue of which they now preside over the sacraments or the rituals of the church.

3. The Responsive Character of the Church’s Prayer, Praise and Thanksgiving

Whether in preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or absolution, the fixed order is that of “proclamation of the Word” followed by the “response” of the believers. Such response is to God in Christ and takes the form of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Prayer is commanded by God, who promises to hear it. In prayer, the believers call upon God in the sure knowledge that the Holy Spirit will intercede for them as Christ does, with sighs and groans too deep for words (Romans 8). With praise, the believers rejoice in the persons of the Triune God, expressing such adoration in communion with the whole church on earth. In thanksgiving, the believers delight in the bountiful goodness of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ and anticipate the day when all of God’s promises will finally have been fulfilled. As part of their thanksgiving, believers also share their goods with those in need.

In Lutheran worship, singing and church music play a particular role to proclaim, teach and allow the faithful to respond to God’s Word. Since the time of the Reformation this has been the case. In every period in the history of the Lutheran Church, new hymns and church music have flowered, and such faithful responses continue today.

4. Implications for Worship and Church Practices

4.1. Christian worship as a dialog

4.1.1. Priority of God’s Word and the response

Because Christian worship is the particular dialog between God who speaks and the community of believers who responds, any form of worship that does not embody the priority of God’s Word and the response of the community must be reformed. For example, reform is necessary when worship services dissolve the Word of God into the community’s response. Such dissolution occurs when the service is performed entirely or primarily as a sacrifice, thanksgiving, celebration, or action of the community directed toward God. Reform is also necessary when Word and sacrament are treated in a manner that suppresses the response of the congregation.

4.1.2. Freedom regarding liturgical uses or ceremonies

Liturgical practices and ceremonies in the church are numerous. If they conform to the true, dialogical character of worship, they are matters of freedom (adiaphora). They must all be examined as to whether they conform to the sent-down-to-earth gift of our crucified and risen Lord and make possible the response of the community to him. “May-be’s” in worship ought not to be converted into “must-be’s.” The community is always at liberty to alter its practices of worship but only as long as these meet the criterion of justification by faith alone, apart from works of the law. Hence, when changes in worship practice take place, pastoral advice dictates that the weak and inexperienced in the community not be overlooked or neglected for the sake of theological innovations that appear to some as doctrinally, ecumenically, or practically advantageous.

4.1.3. The danger of devising universal orders and practices

As the community of believers considers worship practices, appeals to tradition can be important. Practices should not be introduced, however, merely because they reflect a “wider ecumenical heritage of the liturgy” or a “consensus of the first five centuries,” or a “practice of the early church.” Any practice of worship allegedly ordained by God or given by Christian tradition must be measured against the chief article of justification by faith alone. As Lutherans confess, “it is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere” (Augsburg Confession, 7). Luther’s warning remains valid today: “those who devise and ordain universal customs and orders get so wrapped up in them that they make them into dictatorial laws opposed to the freedom of faith” (Martin Luther, “Exhortation to the Livonians,” in Luther’s Works, 53:46).

4.2. Public worship means preaching

“When God’s Word is not preached, one had better neither sing nor read, or even come together” (Martin Luther, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship,” in Luther’s Works, 53:11). Preaching is not merely preparatory to the Lord’s Supper but is itself sacramental. In it, God in his own Word addresses the community of believers in human words. No Christian preaching exists except where it is grounded in the Biblical text. Preaching is not mere commentary on the text but address to particular people in need of God’s Word. Nor does Christian preaching exist where law and gospel are not proclaimed or not properly distinguished. Such proper distinction is likewise bound to the Biblical text. It is only in preaching so described that Christ’s promise of “he who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16) bears fruit.

4.3. Baptism

4.3.1. Baptism is the Word of God in water bestowing upon us once and for all the forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ. To recognize this is to recognize both how we are justified in baptism and what role the water plays in it. We are justified in baptism neither through personal confession alone nor by the simple performance of the rite (ex opere operato), nor is it effective only by personal confession. What justifies is baptismal grace received in faith. Such justification by grace through faith, however, shows that no understanding or use of baptism can ever be proper that would make the water the central element. Central to baptism is God’s promise. Only because it is connected to the Word does the water have a role to play. The water mediates no special power because of its naturalness and it is not to be blessed in any special way.

4.3.2. Christian faith clings only to the benefits of Christ bestowed on us in baptism. It never leaves them behind or advances beyond them. Baptism, therefore, is not simply a rite of initiation but is the lifelong heart of Christian existence. In baptism, God makes a trustworthy promise to us and is faithful to this promise. Therefore baptism can and need never be repeated even if the baptized person is unfaithful to it. This is also why secondary practices, if they detract from the promise of God’s Word in the water of baptism, are to be rejected. This holds for practices such as the ritual of laying on of hands, anointing with oil, clothing with a new garment, or the presentation of a candle and so on. If these be regarded as essential to baptism, they cease to be what they are, matters of indifference (adiaphora).

4.4. Lord’s Supper

4.4.1. The Lord’s Supper is the Word of God in bread and wine and gives to us Christ’s own body and blood in these elements. The host always remains our Lord Jesus Christ, who bestows upon us, his betrayers, “the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation” (Small Catechism).

4.4.2. The Pauline name of “Lord’s Supper” declares who the host and giver is, and what the central benefit of the sacrament is. It is thus to be preferred to the later term of “eucharist.” The latter is derived from the Greek verb meaning “to thank,” which implies that the main action that takes place is what the community does, namely, offer up thanks to God. Christ’s gift is what matters, not our thanksgiving, celebration, or sacrifice.

4.4.3. In the Lord’s Supper the power consists in Christ’s Word. Apart from the Word, bread and wine have no power. On the contrary, the sacrament depends on Christ’s promise, which creates the faith that receives it. Faith, then, does not create the promise but receives it. Christ’s words of institution (“…given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins…”) constitute proclamation to the communicants. No eucharistic prayer that converts Christ’s words into a prayer of ours to God should be used. Liturgical rites and language ought not detract from either the centrality or the proclamatory character of Christ’s words. If they do so, the words of institution cease to be a proclamation of the present Christ and become no more than a quotation of Scripture.

4.4.4. Prayers before and after the words of institution should be used with great care. Prayers recalling God’s mighty acts for his people (anamnesis) can be an appropriate response to God’s Word. The Lord’s Supper is not initiated, however, through any prayer of ours that serves as a reminder to God of his mighty acts. Christ’s command “Do this in remembrance of me,” means that the elements of bread and wine are distributed in conjunction with Christ’s own promise to give himself in these elements for our salvation. Christ’s command is not fulfilled by any eucharistic prayer or symbolic practices such as that of breaking the bread while the words of institution are being spoken (fraction of the bread). Our act of remembering Christ does not cause him to be present in the Supper nor to do his work of forgiving sins.

4.4.5. It is in our response to God’s Word that our sacrifice of praise and of self (Romans 12) has its proper place. Such placement precludes our understanding the Lord’s Supper either as a sacrifice that we offer to God or as something of ours that is conjoined to Christ’s sacrifice. In itself, the language of sacrifice in the liturgy or in our interpretation of the Lord’s Supper tempts us to think of the Supper not as the gift of God that comes down to us but as our upward movement toward God.

4.4.6. Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper because this is his promise. No human initiative or action of the church can cause him to be present. In the Supper, the present Christ truly forgives sins. The Lord’s Supper is neither a repetition, nor a re-presentation, nor a completion of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

4.4.7. Since the Lord Christ instituted his Supper with the elements of bread and wine the latter are to be distributed in both kinds. We eat and drink these elements as Christ commanded us. The pastor does not self-commune but receives the elements in like manner as the other communicants. Because Christ has given us these elements to eat and drink, they are not to be reserved so as to be adored. And because promise and distribution are indissolubly linked, the elements are also not to be taken from the altar and, apart from speaking the words of institution, distributed to persons at a later time.

4.4.8. Who is the person who in the Lord’s Supper receives “such power and benefit” as forgiveness of sins, life and salvation? “It is the one who believes what the words say and what they give,” for they strengthen and nourish the new creature in this old world as “a daily food and sustenance” (Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” par. 33, 23-4). The specific words are also said to each communicant, “The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you,” so as to stress that the promise embodied in the Lord’s Supper is given to each one who eats and drinks.

4.4.9. To receive the Lord’s Supper in faith and at the same time to reject baptism is not possible. Baptism is the permanent basis of Christian life. Like preaching and absolution, the Lord’s Supper is continual nourishment for Christian life. Whereas the words, “as often as you do it,” mean that no one is compelled to partake of the Supper, they do “imply that we should do it frequently” (Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” par. 47). Still, the frequency with which one partakes of the Lord’s Supper is a matter of freedom, since the Lord’s Supper is not relegated in the church year to specific times.

4.5. Absolution

4.5.1. The absolution is God’s Word in a human voice that addresses the sinner in a particular way whereby the Triune God forgives our sins. Sinners are therefore freed to repent, confess their sins, and to live a new life in Christ’s forgiving grace. The Christian life is the daily return to baptism wherein the gift of forgiveness and new life is bestowed.

4.5.2. In absolution God looses and absolves us from our sins. Hence, absolution is sacramental in the same sense as are preaching, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The rite of absolution is to be used freely and frequently so as to strengthen and comfort troubled consciences. Absolution is always “the surpassingly grand and noble thing that makes confession so wonderful and comforting” (Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” par.16).

4.5.3. Repentance does not impel God to absolve us of our sins. Those who know themselves to be sinful also recognize their need to confess their sins and to hear the words of absolution. In baptism, God has placed the words of absolution in the mouths of the members of his Christian community and commanded them to absolve one another of their sins (Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” par. 14). The result is that all Christians need to receive absolution. All, whether ordained or not, are able and, where necessary, obliged to speak to one another the words of absolution.

4.6. Hymnody

Hymns used in worship should be chosen with care. They should express the richness of the Lutheran hymn tradition by proclaiming God’s Word, teaching the mighty acts of God among us, and allowing the faithful to respond to the Word. Modern “praise” hymns focus only on one aspect of the response to God’s Word. If “praise” hymns are used exclusively, preaching and teaching the great works of God in the past, present, and future are neglected. In our time, numerous new melodies and lyrics, some from various cultures, have been added. Hymns should be singable for everyone; neither proclamation nor praise is aided when hymns are difficult to sing. Those who choose hymns should be conscious of the rich hymnic heritage of the Lutheran church and should not neglect the old merely for the sake of the new—even as hymnody’s creative process continues.

4.7. Other Practices

4.7.1. Practices without a particular promise

God has attached his promise of grace to the preached word and to the words of absolution, baptism, and Lord’s Supper. To no other practice in the church has he attached this promise. For example, no promise of grace is attached to the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil, the marking with the sign of the cross, the sprinkling of the congregation with water (asperges), the calling of the Spirit down upon the baptismal water or upon the bread and wine (epiclesis), the blessing of the water, the kissing of the Bible, or to processions, banners, garments, liturgical dance, and so forth.

4.7.2. The collection of gifts

Associated with our responses of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is the collection of gifts for the church and for the poor. The location and means for such collections ought not to be confused with the Lord’s Supper. Processions in which the bread and wine are offered to God before consecration may mislead us into thinking that what is central in the Lord’s supper is our gifts to God instead of Christ’s gifts to us.

4.8. Worship Space

4.8.1. Because no service of worship exists without the preaching of God’s Word, worship space must allow for all to hear the preacher clearly.

4.8.2. In the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the position of the altar in the sanctuary is not the central matter. Nevertheless, the position and use of the altar ought not to prevent the worshipers from comprehending the chief benefit of the Lord’s Supper. This benefit is proffered in Christ’s promise, “…Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins…” So that the worshipers hear the promise, the pastor utters it while facing the congregation and, if possible, standing behind the altar.

4.8.3. The use of terminology is also important. A too frequent use of the word “table” may lead some worshipers to construe the Lord’s Supper merely as a fellowship meal. A too frequent use of the word “altar” runs the risk of picturing the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice that worshipers make to God.

4.8.4. In the rite of baptism, neither the position of the font nor the amount or type of water is essential. Should the baptismal font, however, be located at the entrance of the worship space, misconceptions may result. Worshipers may infer that baptism marks the beginning of a Christian journey to holiness or entrance into a mystery.


Because these fundamental Lutheran insights facilitate an evaluation of current or proposed worship practices, they should be applied in conjunction with Luther’s prudent counsel: “And this is the sum of the matter: Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course instead of the prattling and rattling that have been the rule up to now. We can spare everything except the Word. Again, we profit by nothing as much as by the Word. For the whole scripture shows that the Word should have free course among Christians. And in Luke 10:42, Christ himself says, ‘One thing is needful,’ i.e., that Mary sit at the feet of Christ and hear his Word daily. This is the best part to choose and it shall not be taken away forever. It is an eternal Word. Everything else must pass away, no matter how much care and trouble it may give Martha. God help us achieve this. Amen.” (“Concerning the Order of Public Worship, 1523,” in Luther’s Works, 53:14).

Presented for use by the Theological Advisory Board of the WordAlone Network