A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING (TWENTY-Third IN A SERIES)
Although there was some congregational singing before Martin Luther’s time, there is no disagreement that during the Reformation in Germany, the laity were transformed into the “singing church.” New hymnals were published as fast as printers could set up their Gutenberg presses. New hymn texts were written at a rapid pace as the treasure of the Gospel, God’s grace in Christ Jesus, was revealed to those who had long been in darkness.
Two things made Lutheran hymns different from anything that had come before. First, these hymns taught the people what was in the Bible. Second, they actually proclaimed the saving Gospel of Jesus, so the grace of God was at work in those who sang them.
The grace of God was one of the fundamental themes of the Reformation. Ephesians 2:8 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (NIV84) Because of this, Sola Gratia (Latin for “by grace alone”) became a watchword. It is not because of any good deeds or worthiness in us that Christ came down from heaven, was made man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. It was because, like His Father, He simply chose to show love to the world. Our disobedience against God (there is none who is righteous) put us on a path to judgment and an eternity of torment in hell, separated from all that is good. But God said, “I am just not going to let that happen!” How do we explain it? How do we explain why God made this decision to send His Son Jesus to take our sins on Himself and suffer the torment we all deserved? We simply use the word grace. God in His grace—in undeserved love and mercy—did this. Sola gratia.
In 1519, Paul Speratus (1484-1551) was the preacher at the cathedral of Würzburg in Bavaria. His preaching, however, disturbed the archbishop (it was too “Lutheran”), and he left a year later. In 1523 he was imprisoned for three months at Olmütz on account of his Reformation teaching. It may have been during this time that he wrote his most famous hymn, a hymn that was included in the very first Lutheran hymnal of 1524.
In beautiful and memorable words, Speratus tells the story of God’s grace. v. 1, Salvation unto us has come / By God’s free grace and favor; / Good works cannot avert our doom, / They help and save us never. v. 3, It was a false, misleading dream . . . That sinners could themselves redeem / And by their works gain heaven. v. 6, Since Christ has full atonement made / And brought to us salvation, / Each Christian therefore may be glad / And build on this foundation. / Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead, / Your death is now my life indeed, / For You have paid my ransom.
The text has been in print continuously for five hundred years and takes its rightful place among the three greatest hymns of the Reformation (alongside A Mighty Fortress and Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice). J. S. Bach gave it joyful voice in his cantata for the 6th Sunday after Trinity
(BWV 9) as well as in a solo organ work (BWV 638), and this author has every expectation that when our Savior comes again in glory He will still find it being sung by the faithful. The last verse is the doxology of the redeemed:
All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God who saved us by His grace;
All glory to His merit.
O triune God in heav’n above,
You have revealed Your saving love;
Your blessèd name we hallow.
David Schaller is pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sister Lakes, Michigan. He also prepares the ‘Bread of Life’ devotions for the Lutheran Spokesman.