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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Reform of Worship

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Martin Luther, worship, liturgy, Mass, sacraments, Word, spirit, body, community, ritual, practices

Liturgy and Theology

Luther’s reform of theology begins with a reform of liturgical practice. It can be argued that the Reformation is first and foremost a critique and a reform of practices. Theology and worship were intimately linked in all of Luther’s writing, mutually shaping each other. The Ninety-Five Theses themselves are a critique of practice, the sacramental practice of contrition and confession.1 Liturgical practice does not arrive on the scene after the fact or as an addendum to doctrinal debate but is at the heart of theological reflection, giving impulse and shaping thought.

A great number of Luther’s early writings (in the years 1517–1522) attest to the connection between theology and worship (devotional life, spiritual care and other pastoral practices). They range from the second psalms “commentary”2 and Galatians,3 to an exposition of Ten Commandments4 and the Lord’s Prayer for laity.5 They include Luther’s translation of the spiritual writing Theologia Deutsch,6 in which he focuses on the key themes of abandonment and the nature of existence as partial never complete (therefore necessitating faith) as well as treatises relating directly to liturgical practice: The Sacrament of Penance, The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism, The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ and the Brotherhoods,7 and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,8 to highlight only a few, and of course writing on prayer such as A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,9 and Personal Prayer Book.10 This sampling of Luther’s numerous writings on matters that pertain directly to the life of a Christian highlight the ways in which faith is exercised and becomes a framework for life

The interconnectedness of worship and liturgical practice with theology is at the core of Luther’s reform. Where theology is a reflection on the relationship with God (not a speculation on God’s essence), worship is an expression of that relationship, which addresses the entire human person (heart, mind, and body). Worship is a continual encounter with Christ who comes to break down the barriers that individuals and communities build around themselves. This encounter with Christ in worship is marked by tangible (sensory) elements: words spoken, tasted, seen, smelled, and touched. All creation is part of God’s good means for proclamation. The spiritual and the physical are not in opposition. Spiritual worship is faith active in daily life.

Where theology focuses on justification by faith alone, worship is faith.11 For Luther, human existence is marked by faith; however, that faith may be described as belief or unbelief depending on its source. When the source (origination and sustenance) of faith is the Triune God, faith is true. When the source is creaturely (whether money, education, comfort, etc.), it is unbelief. Jesus Christ is continually coming toward the human being to exercise faith, that is, to shape our belief into true faith, faith that relies only upon God.

The First Commandment as the definer of faith is also the definer of our worship (subsequently developed in the Third Commandment). What is more holy, Luther writes in The Judgment on Monastic Vows, “than the worship of God, the highest and the first commandment? And yet, what is more widespread than superstition, that is, false, feigned worship?”12 Faith originating in Jesus Christ is true worship; all other “faith” is superstition.13

“And this faith, this trust, this confidence from the heart’s core is the true fulfilling of the first commandment.”14 The inward trust, a total reliance and dependence on the God who acts, creates, and gives life and all that is needed for life is spiritual worship. “Faith is commanded in the first commandment; praise and confession of the name [of God] in the second; and the works of God in us are commanded in the third. In these three commandments the true and legitimate worship of God is fulfilled.”15

In worship, God is actively shaping faith through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through “means” instituted by God: preaching and the sacrament. Through these embodied practices, the gospel is given (Augsburg Confession, Article 5 in The Book of Concord). Worship in Word and sacrament is the center of Luther’s reform. By maintaining a balance between words spoken and heard and non-verbal words or “visible words” (Augustine’s term for the sacraments), Luther opposes those who wish to rationalize worship or turn it into a mystical (even esoteric) ritual. This is the radical agenda that Luther’s reform engages.

Worship and Faith

In Luther’s reform of theology and worship, the distinction between faith and superstition, between belief and unbelief, reinvigorates the meaning of spiritual worship. The material elements and outward characteristics of worship are not rejected in favor of a purely otherworldly form of worship. To avoid an apparent contradiction between spiritual worship and the use of outward means, it is necessary to understand that by “spiritual” Luther does not assume the classic divide between spirit and body. Worship consists primarily in two practices: Word and sacrament, the gospel preached and distributed. These are sensory activities, activities belonging to creation, which God does not reject and upon which Luther places great value.

The distinction that is operative for Luther is that between belief and unbelief, or faith and superstition, between God-centered worship and human-centered worship, not the Platonic divide between body and spirit. Luther’s reform of worship begins in the former distinction, and it must be maintained throughout any study of his approach to worship and to liturgical practice. When human ceremonies (in Luther’s words: “singing, [devotional] reading, playing the organ, reading the mass, saying matins, vespers, and other [canonical] hours, founding and decorating churches, altars, and monasteries, collecting bells, jewels, garments, trinkets, and treasures”)16 become the center, the “law” or rule of the liturgy, then the human spirit has turned in upon itself. It is guilty of spiritual concupiscence. When these same activities direct the worshiping community to an encounter with the gospel and lead to good works for the good of the neighbor, then, then, on the contrary, faith itself is being exercised.

The material elements and practices of Christian life belong to spiritual worship as long as they do not become law, that is, turned into a necessity and imposed upon the people. When they become law, they become idols, and worship is turned to superstition. This approach to worship also implies a fundamental recognition of the impossibility of an eternally valid translation or form for worship.

Another distinction must also be made. For Luther, it is critical to know the difference between worship and liturgy. The most common designation for both worship and liturgy that Luther employs is Gottesdienst. This German word does not translate well into English. It can be interpreted as either service to God or God’s service to us. It has primarily been translated with the word “worship”; however, this one English word does not capture the nuances of Luther’s use.17

The concept of worship denotes the believer’s stance toward God in any given moment, public and private. Worship is an expression of faith. Christian liturgy refers to the public practice of an assembly gathered around Word and sacrament (font, book, and meal). In this article, the terms “liturgy” and “worship” will both be employed depending on the context.

The Book of Concord (a compilation of confessional texts from the Lutheran reformation dating between 1528 and 1580) offers insight into this theological agenda. In the Augsburg Confession (1530) and the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (1531), Philip Melanchthon succinctly outlines Luther’s thought on worship and its reform as it developed throughout the 1520s.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the starting point. The gospel is given through oral proclamation (preaching) and through ritual enactment (sacraments). These acts (or gifts) are the means the Holy Spirit employs to create, sustain, and increase faith. This understanding of God’s work shifts the locus of activity from the hierarchy of the ecclesial institution (papal authority transferred through bishops and priests) to the action of the worshipping assembly listening and participating in an encounter with God’s Word. The task of the liturgy is not reinforcing an ecclesial institution, nor is it to be used by that institution to control people; rather, it is an event in which gospel becomes true for the worshipping assembly.

This encounter is both oral and experienced through the body. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession underlines the importance of both Word and sacrament. Luther’s reform of worship was far more than the retrieval of gospel-based preaching. It consisted in the reorientation of gospel proclamation in words and rituals, grounding all liturgical action in God’s continual gift to all creation. For human beings, both spirit and body are addressed.

The confessional writings also highlight Luther’s distinction between worship and liturgy. Article 24 of the Augsburg Confession states, “Our people have been unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. But it is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents.”18 It is now possible to understand what is meant by “greater devotion and earnestness.” This claim does not express moral or pietistic superiority; it simply states that the “Mass” (or liturgical order) translates the gospel and not human teaching or law. The liturgical order—as a series of actions, rituals, gestures, words, music—is maintained. It sustains and enhances worship “in the spirit,” that is, worship shaped by God’s Word.

Redefining the Direction of Worship in the Early Sermons

Luther’s reform of worship begins with a reform of the sacraments, freeing them from their metaphysical captivity in medieval theology and ecclesiology and highlighting their characteristic as gift. In the early treatises, Luther is still searching for a language to translate the central role of faith through the liturgical order and spiritual practice. Luther’s reversal or theological grammar (God as acting subject and not human beings) was difficult to transpose into practice and through ritual. If human beings are given everything they need, if there is no ladder that needs to be climbed through strenuous effort to reach God and God’s love, if they cannot make themselves holy, and if, in the midst of this situation in which nothing is necessary, God is the one making holy and promises to continually do that work, then what is the role of human works and particularly the “work of the people” or liturgy? If nothing needs to be done, how is this gospel reality translated into practice? Despite the conundrum that this situation poses (which the early reformers recognized), Luther understood that ritual practice was the first thing that needed to change. This is the situation that shapes both the early treatises.

Why do ritual practices need to change? Anthropologists have emphasized how myth and ritual always play a social function.19 People and communities are shaped by the regular rituals that they engage. In the early 16th century, the most regularly practiced public rituals were those connected to the liturgy of the church. The early reformers attempted to turn people away from the idea of works righteousness, (that certain rituals were necessary for salvation, for example, paying for Masses to be said in someone’s name in order to shorten that person’s time in purgatory) and toward greater participation in the liturgy. The rituals of worship were to embody and communicate God’s forgiveness as gift not as work (something to be merited).

By reforming liturgical practices, Luther and the early reformers not only constructed a doctrinal and confessional identity but even more so attempted to reshape the people’s piety. Popular piety was to be freed of superstition and a quasi-reliance on magic. The problem Luther and the other reformers encountered was the timeless popularity of superstition among the faithful.

In his early treatises (1517–1521), Luther searches for a language that would liberate rituals from superstition and toward proclamation. This attempt at shifting language is most evidenced in The Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism.20 The sacrament of baptism, though necessary, had become peripheral in medieval practice. A baptismal theology or spirituality did not shape the life of faith, because baptism was considered an initiatory rite that required completion through other practices such as penance. In this early treatise, Luther re-envisions the role not only of baptism but of the sacraments in general.

For the medieval church, the sacraments had a double function: as instruments that increased and strengthened grace when correctly performed and as steppingstones up to fuller participation in God’s glory. In the early sacramental treatises, Luther disrupts this well-worked-out schema in which rituals secure salvation. Rather than channeling grace into the already constituted lives of individuals (supplementing grace that is already present and demanding practices that would increase grace in the individual), the sacraments, in Luther’s reformulation, disrupt the subject and the context of human life.21

The sacraments in their ritual enactment embody God’s Word that confronts the individual and the community, bringing about a fundamental reversal. In this confrontation or encounter, the faithful become aware of their great need. The sacraments point to human vulnerability. They witness to humanity’s inability to make itself holy. Those participating in the sacrament are passive recipients, receiving Christ and all the believers—the communion of saints. Receiving Christ and the community of believers is receiving faith. The utter dependence of the worshipper does not render itself easily into German or English syntax. Luther struggles in the early sermons on liturgical practice to find the adequate formulation.

Faith, for Luther, is not believing as an activity originating in the human will. The common understanding of the statement “I believe” suggests that the individual is doing something. The “I” is the center, the subject of the action. For Luther, however, faith is not the human action of believing. In the early sermons, Luther uses one word in particular for the action of faith: Annahme. When someone “receives” faith, it adopts that person, slowly penetrating and permeating all fibers of their being. The Holy Spirit continually works faith into our lives, conforming us to Jesus Christ. Life is drawn from faith.

Faith is the way of pure and simple welcome.22 Believing is not a cognitive or even emotional act of “accepting”; rather, it lies in being the object of action—being enveloped and surrounded by God.23 Luther’s redefining of worship involves this complete reversal of direction in order to describe a complete dependence on God’s Word. The Holy Spirit creates faith through means—the Word preached and the Word distributed (sacraments) both the Word preached and the Word administered or distributed. The liturgy is then fundamentally a place of encounter.

Luther’s reform of worship is entwined with his new perspective on faith. This perspective comes to expression not in words or treatises or even sermons but within the liturgical order itself. Contrary to developments in subsequent centuries that focused more on “spiritual worship” (resulting in the demise of sacramental practice and the exaltation of preaching), Luther does not reject a liturgical order. In fact, it is precisely through gospel-based sacramental practice and preaching that faith becomes a reality for individuals and a community. The liturgy, through these practices, is a place of encounter with the Triune God. What Luther and the early reformers rejected are human-created ceremonies that obscure, distort, or hinder the encounter with an ever-benevolent, all-merciful God who has done all that is need for humankind in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Concord encapsulates Luther’s insistence on the centrality of these practices. “Ceremonies should be observed both so that people may learn the Scriptures and so that, admonished by the Word, they might experience faith and fear and finally even pray. For these are the purposes of the ceremonies.”24 The “ceremonies” of preaching and administration of the sacraments facilitate an experience, an encounter that is both admonishment and comfort. This encounter should lead to prayer.

When the Apology of the Augsburg Confession defines the goal of worship as bringing people to prayer, a particular understanding of prayer is assumed. Luther described his understanding of prayer already in A Meditation on Christ’s Passion as being “almost like baptism.”25 Luther suggests that in prayer a person’s self-constructed identity and self-centered desires are completely stripped away. Prayer is therefore God’s action, the Holy Spirit’s work, within the believer, continuing conforming the believer to Jesus Christ.

In assessing Luther’s reform of worship, it becomes clear that the liturgical order is not abandoned in favor of some form of “spiritual worship.” “Spiritual worship” is a worship in which the spirit knows and takes hold of God, as it does when it fears and trusts him.26 Worship engages the individual and the community in an event, an encounter not in a spectacle or performance (ex opere operato—something that is accomplished through the mere performance). The liturgical order itself, grounded in the gospel, is spiritual worship. The ceremonies and traditions are redefined to express God’s incarnation among the worshiping community and the incarnation does not happen without a body.

Concerning the Order of Public Worship

Luther outlines the various forms of distortion that ceremonies are prone to in his Concerning the Order for Public Worship, 1523.27 This treatise provides insight into Luther’s critical and analytical approach to worship.

Luther begins by describing the situation of worship life in parishes. “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 the 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 order, but to restore it again to its rightful use.”28

The liturgical order has genuine Christian origins. However, in making that statement, Luther is not idolizing a particular period. He is aware of the danger of taking one particular historical form of worship and making it the only form. He warns of this in his own writing when, in reference to his German Mass, he states: do not turn this into a rigid law.29 The purpose of looking back to early Christianity is to understand how worship practices translated the gospel and how those practices can do the same in the current context. The reform of worship entails a continual renewal based on going back to gospel sources (ad fontes).

In this effort of renewing worship, Luther observes that in his own context, the practice of preaching has been perverted by spiritual tyrants. These spiritual tyrants are preachers who simply give life-lessons, describe how an individual may be successful or how best to lead a good Christian life. This form of preaching is preaching the law, that is, describing what the believer must do or imitate to be made right with God. Luther also calls this approach preaching whatever pleases the preacher.

The liturgical order, Luther notes, has also been corrupted by hypocrites. His analysis in this particular case points to a fundamental issue concerning all worship practices. Luther criticizes those who maintain certain practices without understanding their purpose. This situation leads to the gospel being covered up or entirely forgotten and other meanings being added to the liturgical order. The most basic form of this hypocrisy consists in repeating a particular way of celebrating worship (practices) without examining what it means or what it is communicating theologically in that context.

The Augsburg Confession summarizes this insight in articles 7 and 8: “They wish to retain rites taken from the apostles, but they do not wish to retain the teaching of the apostles.”30 The reform of worship for Luther will always entail rooting practices in the teaching of the gospel. When this connection is lost, the rites or practices drift toward human-defined goals.

This attention to gospel-rootedness does not preclude experimentation in the liturgy. Luther himself experimented and “contemporized” the liturgy in his own day. Some of his experimentation was not successful and he quickly abandoned it. Luther’s own innovations are always undertaken with respect for the tradition and for the teaching of the gospel. On the other hand, Luther warns, there are those who experiment with new things but who do it simply to be “attractive” or “entertaining” or make themselves look good. The liturgical order and practices must be expressions of the gospel and not centered on the presider or curator of the liturgy.

After this general diagnosis of the “state of worship,” Luther continues his analysis by outlining three major problems in need of reform. All of these are related to a misuse of God’s Word, which has become not a gift but law.

“First, God’s Word has been silenced, and only reading and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst abuse.”31 Historically, preaching had almost fallen into disuse and the Word had been literally silenced in the sacrament. Worship had become a performance for the people who did not participate but simply watched. When the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated in the Mass, the congregation was rarely present. Private Masses (the priest by himself) abounded. It is important to note that the Word is silenced in both preaching and the sacrament. Preaching was turned into law (what the people must do) and the sacrament was turned into sacrifice (what the priest must do on behalf of the people).

When the Word of God is silenced in the liturgy, worship is no longer an encounter with God’s Word as an active, living thing. Worship becomes either pedagogy or performance. Luther struggles against both tendencies, seeking a connection between gospel-rooted practices and faith, between faith and love. The deepening of faith within and through the liturgical order always has the vocation of believers in view. In worship, the Holy Spirit sanctifies and vivifies, that is, calls and makes alive in service to the neighbor.

The second abuse occurs “when God’s Word had been silenced [and] such a host of un-Christian fables and lies, in legends, hymns, and sermons were introduced that it is horrible to see.”32 Stories from Scripture were read, but even more extra-canonical texts were presented, particularly stories about the saints. Stories were told under the guise of sermonizing. The critique of contents is a continual challenge demanding attentiveness to the gospel. Legends can always creep into the message of the liturgy, whether they are about fictitious saints or patriotic myths. Again, in Luther’s analysis, both preaching and the sacrament risk being distorted. Preaching becomes a reflection of particular cultural values or propaganda (as with the selling of indulgences), and the sacrament becomes either a commodity or the privilege of a closed, private group.33

Finally, the third abuse highlights the danger of turning worship into a work of human beings. “Such divine service was performed as a work whereby God’s grace and salvation might be won.”34 The whole reformation centered, it can be argued, on this question. The Reformation began as a reform of liturgical practice. Practice was not to be a work that merits salvation but a translation of the gospel into a living context, an activity of praise and service in Christian freedom.35

This third critique can be read as a major theological reversal: the focus is not on what a person can do but on what God does in worship. A careful examination of Luther’s analysis points to another dimension that he raises throughout this work on reforming worship. The role of the assembly or congregation is paramount in the liturgy. Preaching is not about self-help methods or simply stories about the saints, nor is the sacrament a work to be bought in order to reach heaven quicker. The liturgical order communicates through the means of preaching and sacrament an encounter with the living God that re-orients life in this world, moving the believer away from self-centeredness to God- and neighbor-centeredness.

In this reversal, the role of the worshipper is redefined. A worshipper engages the liturgy as an instinctive mode of being. Worshippers are not compelled to worship by some cultural or moral expectation but do so because they cannot do otherwise. The worshipping community is not a private club. The worshipping community, for Luther, is one in which Christ and the whole communion of saints is present. The focus of worship has shifted away from individuals and their efforts or desires to the community that is called to bear one another in love and live in service to neighbors—those not part of the community.36 Liturgy is no longer the “work of the people” but the “work of God,” confronting, comforting, and reorienting the faithful community.

Three Liturgical Orders

Luther’s radical reversal of the theology of worship and particularly his rejection of the sacrificial nature of the sacraments guides his approach to revising the Mass. Despite the radical shift in theology (from gospel as requiring human-centered work to gospel as God-centered gift), Luther’s practical and structural changes within the liturgical order are minimal, other than the complete rejection of the canon of the Mass. Luther’s reforms are continually shaped by a deep pastoral concern for the people, and especially for the “weak in faith.” His pastoral concern is so great that in 1522 he secretly returned to Wittenberg from safekeeping in the Wartburg after hearing how more radical reformers (among them Andreas Karlstadt) were imposing liturgical reforms on the people. At that moment in the reform, Luther reinstated many of the practices of the medieval Mass, including communion in one kind. Worship reform was not simply a matter of making new but of ensuring that the whole faith community was gradually shaped by proclamation in Word and sacrament.

An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg (Formula Missae)

In 1523, Luther created the revised Latin Mass, which he called “An Order of Mass and Communion for the Church at Wittenberg.”37 The basic structure of the Mass remained the same. “It is not now nor ever had been our intention to abolish the liturgical service of God completely, but rather to purify the one that is now in use from the wretched accretions which corrupt it and to point out an evangelical use.”38 He retained the chanting, either plainchant or polyphonic singing (Kyrie and Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) as well as other sung parts of the Mass (the Gradual, for example), though, where possible, he simplified and stressed the proclamatory function (does it point to the gospel?) of any given component. For example, the Kyrie is sung only three times rather than nine times. Only the sequences for Christmas and Pentecost (Veni Sancte Spiritus) were kept; all other sequences, offertories, and added prayers were eliminated as “priestly monopoly.” The lectionary and liturgical year were also kept intact, though they too were simplified to focus on the Lord’s Day and the major festival days relating to Christ’s life. The observance of the feast days of apostles and the veneration of Mary were not abolished, though Luther argued for the elimination of the feast days of many saints. The ritual enactment of the Mass also remained basically intact, with incense, candles, and vestments.

The basic outline of the Mass follows the pattern of “genuine Christian beginnings.”

  • Introit (Luther preferred the entire psalm rather than just verses but did not change this practice yet)

  • Kyrie (three times rather than nine)

  • Gloria (the angelic hymn)

  • Collect (prayer of the day to be based on the gospel)

  • Epistle (the Old Testament was not part of the late medieval lectionary; reading was done in the vernacular)

  • Gradual or Alleluia

  • Gospel (optionally with candles and incense)

  • Nicene Creed

  • Sermon

  • Sursum Corda and Preface and Words of Institution (sung and incorporated into the Preface)

  • Sanctus (including elevation of the elements during the Benedictus)

  • Lord’s Prayer

  • Pax (Luther understood the greeting of peace as an absolution)

  • Distribution during the Agnus Dei

  • Prayer

  • Benedicamus

  • Benediction

The substantial change occurred in the Sacrament of the Altar, or Holy Communion. Luther eliminated everything that suggested sacrifice or works righteousness, giving the impression that worshippers were offering something to God rather than receiving a gift from God. The offertory prayer was removed, as was the entire canon of the Mass because of its sacrificial language. Yet even here, it is important to note that Luther was not abolishing the action of offering, the ritual gesture of bringing elements to the altar, or the sacrifice of praise.39 He was ensuring that all these actions were rooted in the gospel and not in a sacrificial spirituality. The people do not offer the bread and wine to God; God comes in bread and wine to the people. The change in the liturgical ordering of the Mass is theologically substantial yet almost unnoticeable.40 Luther moved the Words of Institution (Verba) from the silent canon to the sung Preface, where it becomes audible for all to hear. The elevation of the elements remains as it always was during the Sanctus (as the choir sings Benedictus qui venit).

The entire action of the Mass can remain intact when it is gospel-rooted. Later reformers highlighted this subtle but significant approach. In article 7 of the Formula of Concord, the confessors make clear: “But this ‘blessing’ or the recitation of the Words of Institution of Christ by itself does not make a valid sacrament if the entire action of the Supper, as Christ administered it, is not observed … On the contrary, Christ’s command, ‘Do this,’ must be observed without division or confusion. For it includes the entire action or administration of this sacrament: that in a Christian assembly bread and wine are taken, consecrated, distributed, received, eaten, and drunk, and that thereby the Lord’s death is proclaimed.”41 The ritual actions themselves constitute the act of proclaiming the gospel. They must be so ordered that this proclamation is audible and visible.

Luther continued to advocate for the use of the Formula Missae. In 1526, he called the people not to abandon the Latin Mass but to use it when appropriate. If he had a concern, it was the lack of songs in German. In this first major work of liturgical adaptation, the principle component was established—that the gospel be heard.

The German Mass

In 1526, he produced the German Mass and Order of the Liturgy,42 which was a simplification of the Formulae Missae. The Formula Missae continued the use of Latin (Luther also advocated for the use of several languages in the Formula Missae, most likely meaning Hebrew, Greek, and some German) and was meant for the schoolboys, universities, and the like. The German Mass shifted almost completely to the vernacular. Luther noted that it is designed for the “uneducated.”43

Luther’s comments in the preface to the German Mass reveal his approach to worship in general and to liturgical practice in specific. A liturgical order is not a “rigid law” that is to be imposed in every context and on every community. The liturgical order translates the gospel through Word and sacrament. Luther understands that local contexts will vary; therefore the liturgical order must be adaptable. Translations and adaptations will differ. However, the liturgical order itself is at the heart of all innovation. It is in Word and sacrament that God promises always to be present.

Luther waited until 1526, almost ten years after posting the Ninety-Five Theses, to compose the German Mass. His hesitation was in part due to his concern that people would turn it into a model liturgy or a “law,” something he wished to avoid. Luther was not opposed to innovation as long as it was in the service of the gospel. Innovation builds on tradition, rejecting it only when the tradition itself has veered away from the gospel. In the 1520s there were many experiments in worship in an effort to create “contemporary” worship services. Luther responded both favorably and with caution. He lamented that some “have no more than an itch to produce something novel so that they might shine before others as leading lights, rather than being ordinary teachers.”44

Contrary to the preface and explanations in the Formula Missae of various components of the liturgical order, Luther’s preface to the German Mass focuses primarily on the purpose of the order. As the German Mass was composed for the uneducated layperson, its structure reflects simplicity and has a catechetical character, though Luther did not replace the liturgical order with teaching. The liturgical order in Word and sacrament, even in its simplest form, is always an encounter with God who comes in Jesus Christ and a rejection of superstition.

The German Mass again follows the pattern of the Formula Missae, with several adjustments.

  • Introit (Luther now proposes the singing of an entire psalm to begin the liturgy)

  • Kyrie (the Gloria is absent)

  • Collect (evangelically based)

  • Epistle

  • Hymn (Luther’s text: “Now to the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray”)45

  • Gospel

  • Creed (Luther’s text: “We All Believe in One True God”)46

  • Sermon

  • Paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer (intercessory prayer)

  • Exhortation before Holy Communion

  • Liturgy of the Sacrament with Words of Institution (Verba)

  • Distribution of the bread (after the words in the Verba concerning the bread)

  • Sanctus (Luther’s composition: “Isaiah in a Vision Did of Old”)47

  • Distribution of the cup of wine (after the words in the Verba concerning the cup)

  • Agnus Dei (“O Christ Lamb of God”)48

  • Hymns

  • Post-communion Prayer

  • Blessing

Some parts of the German Mass were not practical (the distribution of communion in two sections, for example), but its impact was nonetheless great. Two components are particularly significant: the introduction of intercessory prayer and its musical innovations, particular the hymns in the vernacular.

In the paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer, Luther re-introduces into the liturgical order a fellowship of prayer, connecting the faith community and the world, establishing solidarity with the world and its needs. This intercessory prayer shifts the focus from the individual and concern for personal salvation to the communion of saints in which believers bear one another in love. In his Treatise on Good Works, Luther calls the church a house of prayer and states that nothing should distract the church from this task.49

The community of faith is also at its most vulnerable in prayer. The forces of evil, Luther notes, wish to distract the community from this task. “The [devil] does all that he can to prevent such prayer. This is why he lets us build handsome churches, endow many colleges, make anthems, read and sing, celebrate many masses, and multiply ceremonies beyond all measure. This brings him no sorrow. On the contrary, he helps us to do it, so that we will regard such ways the best and think that in doing them we have done our whole duty.”50

Yet there is nothing more powerful against the devil than this prayer, “true holy water and sign that drives away the devil and puts him to flight.”51 Communal prayer is one of the defining marks of a Christian community. Its goal is not only spiritual enrichment but a means for the individual and the community to engage the world in which suffering is always present. Intercessory prayer is also a sign that the individual is not alone in faith but is connected to the world. Faith is not simply a private affair; it is communal.

Perhaps the popularity of the German Mass in its own time was due to Luther’s creative and demanding musical experimentation. His own compositions, in hymns and plainchant, gave the German Mass its gospel character and a rhythm that mitigated some of its more didactic character.52 In fact, the German Mass exhibits more original creative work in its musical setting and hymns than in the liturgical order itself. Luther was aided by two well-known musicians at the time, Conrad Rupsch (c. 1475–1530?) and Johann Walter (1496–1570).

For Luther, music is an instrument of proclamation. Luther wanted the people to participate in worship. Music is critical to accomplishing this goal. He therefore asked musicians and artists to create new hymns and chants in German.53 He was also particularly attentive to translation of the medieval plainchant into German. This task of translation must take into account both meaning and musical accent and rhythm. Text and rhythm, text and tone must match.54

Music serves a pedagogical purpose as well. In the preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal (1524), Luther states that the hymns have been composed for the young, “who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts—something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth.” He continues: “Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of [God] who gave and made them.”55

The music in the German Mass trains, teaches, and preaches. One powerful example is found in Luther’s use of the music with the Words of Institution. In his great desire that the people encounter the Gospel (as gift “for you” in the plural) in the sacrament of Holy Communion rather than a sacrifice, Luther composes the Words of Institution on the same melody as the gospel. The people would not only have heard the Words of Institution for the first time, they would have recognized them, via the music, as gospel for them and not as sacrifice to God.

During this singing of the Words of Institution, the presider should also face the people. The bread and wine can be elevated and shown to the people (not elevated toward God as sacrifice). This use of music and gesture in the liturgical order is a brilliant summation of Luther’s reform of worship and in fact of the entire reformation.

Despite the simplicity of the German Mass and its anchoring in German hymnody, Luther does not abandon the liturgical order. For example, as he introduces the gospel tone for the Words of Institution, he writes, “The celebration of Holy Communion and consecration follow in this tune.” The Words of Institution are part of a ritual order proper to the sacrament; they are not separated from their liturgical context. The surrounding liturgy would include the Sursum Corda, the Preface, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

The German Mass draws attention to the fact that, for Luther, proclamation occurs in words, music, and rites. The spoken and sung word and the word embodied in sacraments are integral components through which God’s promise is given to the faith community.

A Third, Unwritten Liturgical Order

In the Preface to the German Mass, Luther mentions a third possible liturgical order, however, he never develops it. The third liturgical order was to be for “those who want to be Christians in earnest and … meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works.”56 Such an order would have been for those who could worship in complete Christian liberty. Unfortunately, Luther notes, he knows of no such people who can really call themselves Christian or seriously desire to be, so this order was not necessary. (Luther always includes himself when discussing the weak in faith.) Luther’s reasoning serves to underline the points made concerning his approach to worship and the liturgical order. Even among those who seriously wish to be Christian or could be considered as such, there is still the need for a basic liturgical order in Word and sacrament. Though the liturgical order is practiced in a much more intimate setting, the community is still a necessary component. Finally, this third order was for teaching and admonishment and was directed toward the good of the neighbor: “Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor … Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.”57

The Foundation of a Liturgical Order: Word and Sacrament

Luther’s reform of worship does not separate Word from rite or make one more important than the other. Word and rite belong together. Their intimate bond is essential, so that the Word is never a mere doctrine or an idea. Should the Word be but an idea, it could be easily systematized and controlled by human reason. Luther wishes to preclude that type of rationalization. The bond also prevents the rites—symbols, gestures, earthly elements—from becoming superstitious fetishes, imbued with magical powers or overly spiritualized and cut off from any connection to daily life.

The rite is as important as the word. This is a critical—yet often ignored—component of Luther’s reform of worship. The entire human person is addressed—mind, body, heart.58 Word, as preaching and as sacrament, as teaching and as ritual, confronts and comforts the human being as a cognitive, emotive, and physical entity. The gospel is preached and distributed. The Word is heard, touched, tasted, seen. Proclamation of the gospel is both heard and physically encountered in worship. In this encounter, the community discovers new dimensions of faith. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon underlines the importance of this bond between word and rite. “God moves our hearts through the word and the rite at the same time so that they believe and receive faith just as Paul says [Rom. 10:17], ‘So faith comes from what is heard.’ For just as the Word enters through the ear in order to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart. The word and the rite have the same effect.”59

Not only does the person need to understand the gospel; the body needs to experience it. In this way, the liturgical order shapes the mind and body of individual believers and also of the community. For Luther, a liturgical order grounded in the gospel is essential, for it “may make Christians out of us.”60 But it always depends on its proper use, that is, according to the gospel, according to what God has done for humans being and all creation; therein lies “the life, value, power, and virtue of any order.”61

Review of the Literature

Luther’s reform of worship has been the subject of much debate in academic journals and church-related publications. Many of the debates of the 16th and subsequent centuries curiously find their way into contemporary interpretations. The most prevalent of these debates will diminish or even completely reduce the importance of a liturgical order. Yet Luther’s radical approach to reform does not lie in eliminating the liturgy or trumping ritual by the Word. Luther holds Word and ritual in a creative tension. A major work that highlighted and developed this tension with the term “juxtaposition” is the magisterial three-volume study by Gordon W. Lathrop Holy Things, Holy People, Holy Ground. His insistence on the embodiment of the gospel in central things of worship (baptism, reading and preaching, Holy Communion) has been the target of much uncritical analysis by those who maintain that for Luther the Word trumps ritual. Lathrop’s trilogy offers a profound symbolic interpretation of the liturgy, though he does not always reference Luther specifically or the confessional writings. Until the advent of Lathrop’s work, Luther D. Reed’s Lutheran Liturgy greatly influenced the practice of worship for generations in North America. Bryan D. Spinks focuses on Luther’s reform with regard to the sacrament of Holy Communion in Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass. The last major work that specifically focuses on Luther’s theology of worship is Vilmos Vajta’s Luther on Worship. All of these works are indebted to the Swedish Lutheran scholar Yngve Brilioth’s reading of Luther in Eucharistic Faith and Practice, Evangelical and Catholic.62

Though there have not been major studies dedicated to Luther’s reform of worship, several monographs have addressed issues in worship through the lens of Luther’s theology. There have also been many articles and chapters in larger edited works on worship, for example, Helmar Junghans, “Luther on the Reform of Worship,” which analyzes Luther’s concern for the gospel-based content of the liturgy to shape worship life and a community’s faith. Gordon Lathrop’s “Conservation and Critique: Principles in Lutheran Liturgical Renewal as Proposals Toward the Unity of the Churches” focuses on the ecumenical dimension of Luther’s approach to worship. Samuel Torvend’s Luther and the Hungry Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008) explores the ethical dimensions of worship, and Andrea Bieler’s The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread and Resurrection63 further develops that dimension, highlight that intimate bond between Word and sacrament, grounding the sacraments in the materiality of the body and in ordinary things.

There has been a renewed interest, particularly in Germany, in the sacramental theme and especially the relationship between worship and the communication of the promise; on this see in particular Oswald Bayer’s Martin Luther’s Theology.64 Important historical studies have been published over the years, notably the works by Frank Senn and, with regard to Luther’s enormous musical contribution, Robin Leaver’s Luther’s Liturgical Music. Today in Europe there is a revival of thinking around the sacraments. At the University of Leipzig, under the direction of Alexander Deeg (see his Das äußere Wort und seine liturgische Gestalt), the sacramental basis for a theology of the Gottesdienst is being researched and developed. This is in collaboration also with Professor Heinrich Assel (Greifswald), whose important work Geheimnis und Sakrament questions the loss of sacramental practice in the Protestant/Lutheran tradition. Dirk G. Lange’s Trauma Recalled begins the work of outlining a new framework for understanding Luther’s sacramental theology, particularly through the lens of trauma theory and post-structuralist thought. Though not only focused on Luther, Political Worship by Bernd Wannenwetsch explores the close relationship between the nurturing of faith and faith active in love.65

Further Reading

Bieler, Andrea, and Luise Schottroff. The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.Find this resource:

Brilioth, Yngve. Eucharistic Faith and Practice. Translated by A. G. Hebert. London: SPCK, 1965.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin J. Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Junghans, Helmar. “Luther on the Reform of Worship.” In Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert, 207–225. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert, and Timothy J., Wengert, eds. Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.Find this resource:

Lange, Dirk G.Trauma Recalled: Liturgy, Disruption Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.Find this resource:

Lathrop, Gordon W.Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.Find this resource:

Lathrop, Gordon W.Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.Find this resource:

Lathrop, Gordon W.Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.Find this resource:

Lathrop, Gordon W., and Timothy J. Wengert. Christian Assembly. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.Find this resource:

Leaver, Robin A.Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.Find this resource:

Senn, Frank C.Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.Find this resource:

Spinks, Bryan D.Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass. Cambridge, U.K.: Grove, 1982.Find this resource:

Stolt, Birgit. “Lasst uns fröhlich springen!”: Gefühlswelt und Gefühlsnavigierung in Luthers Reformationsarbeit: eine kognitive Emotionalitätsanalyse auf philologischer Basis. Berlin: Weidler, 2012.Find this resource:

Vajta, Vilmos. Luther on Worship: An Interpretation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.Find this resource:


(1.) Berndt Hamm, Der frühe Luther: Etappen reformatorischer Neuorientierung (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 20.

(2.) Luther does not write a “commentary” in the contemporary sense but a treatise of applied theological exegesis; see WA 3 and 4.

(3.) LW 26 and 27; WA 57.

(4.) WA 1:394–521.

(5.) WA 7:194–229.

(6.) LW 31:74ff; WA 1:378ff.

(7.) LW 35.

(8.) LW 36:10ff; WA 6:497–573.

(9.) LW 42:3ff; WA 2:136–142.

(10.) LW 42:83ff; WA 2:175–179.

(11.) Vilmos Vajta, Luther on Worship: An Interpretation (1958; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 12.

(12.) Monastic Vows, LW 44:252; WA 8:573–669.

(13.) Vajta, Luther on Worship, 12.

(14.) Treatise on Good Works, LW 44:30; WA 6:202–276 (complete text).

(15.) Monastic Vows, LW 44:318.

(16.) Treatise on Good Works, LW 44:32.

(17.) Dirk G. Lange, “Introduction to the German Mass,” in The Annotated Luther: Church and Sacraments, vol. 3, ed. Paul W. Robinson (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 131–135.

(18.) BC 68.

(19.) Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), explores these social functions in terms of the early reformers throughout Europe.

(20.) LW 35. See also Timothy J. Wengert, ed., The Annotated Luther: The Roots of the Reform, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

(21.) Dirk G. Lange, Trauma Recalled (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), ch. 5.

(22.) Hamm, Der frühe Luther, 23.

(23.) “Therefore if you take notice, you will easily realize that this feeling is not in you because of your own strength.” LW 27 on Gal. 1:5. The believer does not do anything to have faith other than receiving it.

(24.) Apology of the Augsburg Confession, article 24, BC 256.

(25.) “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion,” LW 42:11.

(26.) BC 254.

(27.) LW 53:9ff; WA 12:35–37.

(28.) LW 53:19.

(29.) LW 53:61.

(30.) BC 38.

(31.) LW 53:11.

(32.) LW 53:11.

(33.) This is the same critique that Luther directed at the Brotherhoods; see LW 35.

(34.) LW 53:11.

(35.) LW 53:61.

(36.) LW 22:519–520, commentary on John 4:9.

(37.) LW 53:19ff; WA 12:205–220.

(38.) LW 53:20.

(39.) Vatja, Luther on Worship, 161ff.

(40.) Frank C. Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 279.

(41.) BC 607.

(42.) LW 53:61ff; WA 19.72–113.

(43.) LW 53:89.

(44.) LW 53:61.

(45.) See Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) #743. The ELW is the current, official worship book of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

(46.) ELW 411.

(47.) ELW 868.

(48.) ELW 196.

(49.) LW 44:65.

(50.) LW 44:66.

(51.) BC 381.

(52.) Senn, Christian Liturgy, 284.

(53.) LW 53:90.

(54.) Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 62.

(55.) LW 53:316.

(56.) LW 53:64.

(57.) LW 53:64.

(58.) Birgit Stolt “Lasst uns fröhlich springen!”: Gefühlswelt und Gefühlsnavigierung in Luthers Reformationsarbeit; Eine kognitive Emotionalitätsanalyse auf philologischer Basis (Berlin: Weidler, 2012).

(59.) BC 5.

(60.) LW 53:62.

(61.) LW 53:90. For Luther, the “proper use” was always for the proclamation of the gospel.

(62.) Gordon W. Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Lathrop, Holy People: A Liturgical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999); Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); Luther D. Reed, Worship: A Study of Corporate Devotion (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1959); Bryan D. Spinks, Luther’s Liturgical Criteria and His Reform of the Canon of the Mass (Cambridge, U.K.: Grove, 1982); and Vajta, Luther on Worship; Yngve Brilioth, Eucharistic Faith and Practice, Evangelical and Catholic, trans. A. G. Hebert (London: SPCK, 1965).

(63.) Helmar Junghans, “Luther on the Reform of Worship,” in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 207–225; Gordon Lathrop, “Conservation and Critique: Principles in Lutheran Liturgical Renewal as Proposals Toward the Unity of the Churches,” in Liturgical Renewal as a Way to Christian Unity, ed. J. F. Puglisi (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 87–100; Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008); and Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread and Resurrection (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).

(64.) Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).

(65.) Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music; Alexander Deeg, Das äußere Wort und seine liturgische Gestalt (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011); Heinrich Assel, Geheimnis und Sakrament: Die Theologie des göttlichen Namens bei Kant, Cohen und Rosenzweig (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001); Lange, Trauma Recalled; and Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship, Oxford Studies in Theological Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)