Liturgy: Ordering our Worship & Lives Around God’s Actions
October 12, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part four of a multi-part series.
Luther was led to challenge the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences because of his growing conviction that sin was moral decay and death within us and that the only condition by which we can be saved is faith in Jesus Christ. These two areas were a major shift from the medieval church that emphasized our need (and capability) to deal with our sin through the sacraments (and indulgences).
Naturally, these shifts in theological conviction had practical implications for the life of the church. We considered the place of the Word last week. The Word of God is powerful, through the Holy Spirit, to awaken us to our sinfulness and lead us to Christ as our hope for salvation. Luther advocated for the Word to be central in the life of the church and Christians. In the medieval church, where “the liturgy was in Latin, and the sacrament of the Mass had been central,” Luther found that the Word had been silenced, preaching had all but vanished, leaving room for “all kinds of nonsensical fables and hymns [to creep] into public worship” (p. 100-101). Luther also challenged the notion that “the worship service itself has come to be regarded as a work offered to God” (p. 102).
Since we are eternally in debt for our sin and can only hope for salvation by faith in Jesus, Luther reshaped the liturgy for a worship gathering. No longer was the Mass central (as a means of earning grace), but preaching became central. Worship was no longer our work offered to God, but God’s action toward, in, and for us through the power of the Word. The worship service was to be a re-presentation of the gospel.
For Luther, confession was a vital component of that worship liturgy. The Roman Catholic church held confession to be a sacrament, a means for us to work for more of God’s grace. Some Reformers sought to remove confession from liturgies, fearing that it only carried on the Catholic misunderstanding. Luther countered that confession, with gospel words of absolution, was a means for God to encourage the weak and penitent sinner. Luther writes, applying the principle to both private and corporate confession, “If anyone is wrestling with his sins and wants to be rid of them and desires a sure word on the matter, let him go and confess to another in secret, and accept what he says to him as if God himself had spoken it through the mouth of this person” (quoted in Trueman, p. 106).
So confession, with the gospel words of absolution, is a part of a worship liturgy that orients us around the actions of God. Closely connected to the need for confession in liturgy was catechesis. This follows Luther’s high view of the Word. “In Luther’s theology, knowledge of the Word of God and regular exposure to it are absolutely basic to the Christian life” (p. 102).
Carl Trueman helps explain how confession and catechesis melded together for Luther’s liturgy: “The Christian life is characterized by Christians’ realizing that they are damned in themselves before God because of their self-righteousness, and thus repenting before him and turning to grasp Christ by faith. Every single element of this is doctrinal, requiring knowledge of who God is, what we were created to be, and how we can stand before him as righteous after the fall. Yet every element is also existential. The law terrifies; the gospel brings comfort. Law and gospel are objective truths, but they lay claim to human beings at the deepest level of their existence” (p. 112).
As we grow in our knowledge of God and his ways, our confession grows deeper. As we grow in our confession of our sin and inadequacy, our hope in Christ grows. As our hope in Christ grows, we are all the more comforted, encouraged, and sanctified by the effectual work of Christ. This was the liturgy of worship for Luther.