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Lutheran Liturgical Reform, Part 1

Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship 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.

Because of the lead time for Lutheran Spokesman submissions, the writing of this February issue article is being started in the morning of Thanksgiving Day. Today, I am very much looking forward to a traditional Thanksgiving meal prepared by an excellent cook—my wife. However, what if the turkey were infused with plastic, the mashed potatoes covered with dirt from the garden, and the cranberries adulterated with epoxy glue?

That sort of mixing of excellent and nourishing (spiritual) food with inedible dreck was what medieval church goers had been subjected to in their worship services. Martin Luther recognized that some elements of the Roman Catholic Mass were unbiblical, and even anti-biblical. He therefore worked to reform church liturgy so that it would conform to biblical theology. In short, Luther wanted to remove the plastic, dirt, and glue; while keeping the turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberries. That is, he wanted to retain the biblical elements of the Mass, while eliminating those that were not biblical.

Luther’s first revision of the Roman Mass (in 1523) was called Formula Missae et Communionis (Formula of Mass and Communion). In it, Luther stated his purpose as being “to purify that which is in use.” Unlike radical reformers such as Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, Luther sought reform, not revolution. He recognized that the Mass should be purified, not destroyed. As time went on and circumstances required, Luther made additional revisions to the Roman Mass which he had not included in his Formula Missae et Communionis.

So, then, what elements of the Roman Mass did Luther address as needing to be eliminated or revised in the worship service?

The Mass as a meritorious work The Roman Catholic Church taught that attending Mass was a good work that Christians performed, which contributed to their earning of salvation. Luther emphasized that salvation is by God’s grace alone, received through faith, and not something that can be earned by meritorious works on our part.

Transubstantiation The Roman Catholic Church taught that in Holy Communion, the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ, and that the elements of bread and wine were no longer present. This differs from the biblical truth that the communicant receives the true body and blood of Christ “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.

The Mass as a re-sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ The Roman Catholic Church taught that in Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ are being re-sacrificed for the remission of sins. This contradicts the biblical truth that when Jesus died on the cross, His perfect life and vicarious death paid once and for all for all sins. To claim that the priest is re-sacrificing the body and blood of Christ to remit sins is not only incorrect, it is blasphemous. In his liturgical reforms and also in his preaching and writing, Luther eliminated and refuted this false teaching.

Withholding the chalice from the laity In the Lord’s Supper of the Roman Catholic Mass, lay people were given the consecrated bread, but not the wine. Luther insisted that—in accordance with Jesus’ words of institution—all communicants should receive both elements when they commune.

Conducting the Mass in Latin Most of the laity did not understand Latin. In his German Mass of 1526, Luther emphasized the importance of actually “hearing the Word of God” rather than merely “hearing Mass.” Except for the kyrie, every part of this service was in German.

Thanks to Martin Luther and the other orthodox Lutheran theologians who followed him, we now feast on the “turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberries” of God’s pure Word—our spiritual food—when we worship. Truly, every Sunday is now a spiritual Thanksgiving Day for us.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.