Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship that we do? In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our worship service, beginning with the history of Christian worship itself.
The word liturgy means “service.” In our worship services, liturgy refers to the order in which we do things such as singing hymns, reading Scripture, hearing a sermon, or praying. Liturgies may change depending on the purpose of the service. For instance, an evening service during Advent or Lent will usually have a different liturgy than a Sunday morning service, and a festival service such as Christmas Day or Easter Day will include special seasonal features.
God does not direct us to use a certain liturgy in our churches. Each congregation has the freedom to choose what it wishes as long as things are done “decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:40) Part of doing things “decently and in order” means that any liturgy should be Scripturally sound (no false teaching).
In the days of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, Christians such as Martin Luther were concerned that there were parts of the customary liturgy (also called the Mass) which were not in agreement with Scriptural teaching. Although the Roman liturgy could trace its roots back to the earliest Christian services, various additions and adaptations over the centuries had caused current practice to stray from the truth.
In particular, Luther was concerned about the liturgy used in the Lord’s Supper. The Roman church had transformed the Supper from Christ’s body and blood given to us for the forgiveness of sin into a sacrifice made by the priest in order to atone for sin. The body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament was explained as being offered (or sacrificed) to God, as if Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough to pay for sin and the people needed to offer up their Savior again and again in order to earn God’s favor. This went straight to the heart of the chief doctrine of Scripture and of the Reformation: salvation by faith in Christ’s sacrifice once for all.
Luther was not really interested in changing the liturgies commonly used in congregational worship. He was extremely reluctant to suggest how a congregation should worship. He resisted many requests from others that he write a liturgy for churches to use. Finally, however, he conceded and authored the Formula missae et communionis (1523) and the Deutsche Messe und Ordnung Gottes Diensts (1526). In these liturgies he corrected the principal abuse of the Roman Mass by removing the lengthy “eucharistic prayers” which referred to the Lord’s Supper as a re-sacrificing of the body and blood of Christ. The rest of the liturgy he left mainly untouched, offering suggestions but preferring that pastors and congregations work it out themselves.
It’s easy for us to spot the same false teachings that Luther saw in the eucharistic prayers. They are alive and well in Catholic liturgies today. Here is a brief example from modern times: “Remember, Lord, your servants . . . and all gathered here, whose faith and devotion are known to you. For them, we offer you this sacrifice of praise or they offer it for themselves and all who are dear to them, for the redemption of their souls, in hope of health and well-being, and paying their homage to you, the eternal God, living and true” (www.liturgies.net).
Jesus gives His body and blood to us in the Holy Supper as proof that our sins are forgiven. This is not a meal in which we offer anything to God. May Christ and His grace ever remain at the center of all our worship services!
David Schaller is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.