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Luther Reforms the Liturgy —1526—


In observation of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation,
we are presenting a brief survey of the life of Martin Luther. The series continues
with major events in the life of the Reformer that took place after 1517.

Luther was a fearless reformer who plunged ahead heedless of personal cost when he saw the Gospel under attack. For him, the Gospel was truly a great treasure that needed to be restored to its native clarity, allowed to shine in its natural glory, and shared with all. The tarnish of human additions had to be removed, since they could only dim the glory. The desire to achieve this goal made Luther a very practical reformer. Always the question before his eyes was, “How will what I write and do help the common man to see the Gospel more clearly?”

How then did Luther approach that very practical concern, the forms of worship, the liturgy? On the one hand, he didn’t feel any urgency to introduce changes. Several other pastors introduced new forms to their congregations before Luther did. And Luther had to be prodded to develop a formal worship service before he finally did so. Even then, the changes he made were at first small. He was careful not to disturb the devotion of the congregation.

On the other hand, there were things that disturbed him. In his view, “the Word had been silenced, non-biblical elements had been introduced, and the service itself had become a meritorious work.” People were led to think that going to church was their gift to God, an act of obedience that brought merit to themselves. The truth was that God wished to bless them through the worship, forgive them, speak comfortably to them, hear and answer their prayers, and present Himself to them in the sacrament.

Therefore, the changes to the liturgy that Luther introduced served the purpose of providing clear presentation of biblical truth to the congregation. The Lord’s Supper was cleansed of a number of parts that taught that it was a re-sacrifice of Jesus offered by the priest for the people, that the bread and wine were changed into Christ’s body and blood by the words of institution as spoken by the priest, and that Christ’s body was now visibly present on the altar to be venerated and worshiped. The words of institution alone were left in that part of the service. Communion in both kinds (both bread and wine) was restored to the people. Singing a hymn during the distribution was introduced. Communion was to be celebrated only when communicants were present. If this seems obvious to us, it is only because private masses and masses for the dead have long been eliminated from Lutheran practice.

The other major changes were intended to increase the congregation’s participation in the service. First of all, the order of service was written in the German language, so the people could understand what was going on. This was not as simple to do as it sounds, and it caused Luther much difficulty because most of the service was chanted at that time—even the Gospel and Epistle Readings. Luther worked with two professional musicians to devise a chant that would work well for the German language.

Then, he introduced congregational singing. At this time almost all the singing done in church was done by choirs of monks, trained in singing. Now Luther wrote hymns and encouraged others to do the same. Some of these were hymn versions of parts of the service, such as “Isaiah Mighty Seer in Days of Old” (TLH 249) for the Sanctus. Others were versifications of psalms. Still others were not based on any one portion of Scripture but taught the truths of Scripture.

Luther, rightly believing that all Christians are priests before God, broke down the distinction between priest and layman in the worship service and invited the congregation to fully participate in worship and not merely to observe.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.