Martin Luther’s Worship Reforms


At the heart of Martin Luther’s reformation of the Church were his reforms in worship. In celebration of Reformation Day, let us consider his influence.

Roman Worship Innovations

Although the specific dogmas we associate with Roman Catholicism today were not officially canonized until the Counsel of Trent in 1554-1563, many of the Roman Church’s heresy was already developed by the early 1500s. For example, the doctrine of purgatory came in 593, prayer to Mary, saints, and angels in 600, kissing the pope’s foot in 709, the canonization of dead saints in 995, the celibacy of the priesthood in 1079, the rosary in 1090, transubstantiation and confessing sins to a priest in 1215, and the seven sacraments in 1439. Thus was the ecclesiastical culture into which Martin Luther was born.

Of particular concern was how the Liturgy of the Upper Room, otherwise known as the Mass, had developed. By Luther’s time the Eucharist was considered the ongoing sacrifice of Christ. ((T. P. Weber, “Mass,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 697.)) The moment the priest pronounces the words “This is my body … the cup of my blood,” Jesus Christ is actually present in the bread and wine, according to Catholic teaching. ((Robert Joseph Fox, The Catholic Faith (Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 1983), 205.)) This is referred to as “a Real Presence, a real substantial presence of the God-Man in sacramental form with His true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Jesus Christ is most profoundly, directly and intimately present.” ((Ibid., 205–6.)) This is termed the doctrine of transubstantiation, meaning the elements change in essence to Jesus Christ. From the moment of consecration onward, the wafer and wine, separately or together, are “the Lamb of God” to be adored and received for eternal life. Partaking of the Eucharist results in: ((Ibid., 212–13.)) (1) forgiveness from venial sins; (2) strengthening against temptation (extinguishing the power of evil desire); and (3) promise of eternal glory and a glorious resurrection. Vatican II encouraged frequent or daily participation since it “increases union with Christ, nourishes the spiritual life more abundantly, strengthens the soul in virtue and gives the communicant a stronger pledge of eternal happiness.” ((Ibid., 213.))

Beyond the Eucharist, however, Roman worship had moved from the “work of the people” (liturgy) to the work of the clergy. The language of the Mass was entirely in Latin, the elements of the Table were withheld from the “laity,” and even music was performed only by approved singers.

Martin Luther’s Preparation

Martin Luther was born to a poor German family, and from a very early age he developed a love for music.

“As with most music students of his time, Luther had a grounding in both singing and the lute and was recognized as a skilled lute-player with a pleasant tenor voice.” ((Helen Pietsch, “On Luther’s Understanding of Music” in Lutheran Theological Journal, December 1992. 160.))

Luther’s father wanted him to be lawyer, but through a series of unusual events, Luther eventually entered a friary and began to study theology. In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1508 began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg.

Between 1513 and 1517, Luther slowly began to rediscover the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. He soon realized that the “righteousness of God” he read in Romans was not just the righteousness the God demanded of a sinful people, but also the righteousness that he credited to those who believe in him. This began Luther’s reformational thinking.

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Whether or not he actually posted them on the door of the church at Wittenberg is disputed.

Martin Luther’s Worship Reforms

The Mass

Among the many other reforms Luther made, he spilled a considerable amount of ink writing about worship—specifically the Lord’s Table. His first important work on the subject was The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). In it, he detailed the three-fold captivity of the Table:

  1. Withholding of the cup from the laity
  2. The doctrine of transubstantiation
  3. The idea of sacrifice in the mass

Luther built on his arguments from Babylon in his 1521 work, The Misuse of the Mass. In this work Luther argued that the false teachings concerning the Mass were based on false conception of the priesthood. He then argued that no Scripture supports the idea that the Mass is a continual sacrifice. Finally, he attacks the papacy itself.

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These fierce attacks against the Roman Mass did not, however, imply that Luther believed every part of the sacred service to be heretical. On the contrary, Luther insisted, “It would be good to keep the whole liturgy with its music, omitting only the canon.” ((Luther, Vol. 54: Luther’s Works, 361.)) Luther did not object to the forms of the liturgy per se, but only those particular parts (most especially the Eucharist prayer and all that it symbolized) that conflicted with biblical teaching.

Luther’s first attempt to correct these errors while maintaining what he could was in the formation of the Formulae Missae (1523), a revision of the Latin Mass. ((Frederick C. Ahrens, “Introduction to The Misuse of the Mass” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 36, 5.)) Although this satisfied him in terms of removing what was heresy, he nevertheless wished for further improvements. He said in the Preface to the new Mass:

I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass, immediately after the gradual and also after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating? . . . But poets are wanting among us, or not yet known, who could compose evangelical and spiritual songs, as Paul calls them (Col. 3:16), worthy to be used in the church of God. . . . I mention this to encourage any German poets to compose evangelical hymns for us. ((Robert A. M. Ross, “Bin Feste Burg: Luther’s Hymn and Bach’s Cantata,” Journal of Church Music 25, no. 8 (October 1983): 7.))

For Luther, it was no enough to simply remove the heresy; he wanted a Mass in the language of the people, and because of the uniqueness of inflections and syllabic stress between languages, this means changing not only the texts, but also the music itself:

But I would very much like to have a true German character. For to translate the Latin text and retain the Latin tone or notes has my sanction, though it doesn’t sound polished or well done. Both the text and notes, accent, melody, and manner of rendering ought to grow out of the true mother tongue and its inflection, otherwise all of it becomes an imitation, in the manner of the apes. ((Luther, Vol. 40: Luther’s Works, 141.))

This desire led Luther to develop a distinctly German Mass:

Three years [after the Formula Missae], in collaboration with Konrad Rupff and Johann Walther, he introduced the German Mass (Deutsche Messe), which with the exception of the Kyrie Eleison in Greek, was spoken and sung entirely in German.  In the German Mass, Luther substituted German hymns or psalms for many sections of the Latin Mass, including the Introit, and also introduced a German creed in a hymnic form in place of the Nicene Creed.  The German Mass perhaps best exemplified Luther’s emphasis on the importance of congregational singing. The phrase ‘then the whole congregation sings’ repeatedly occurs throughout its forty-nine pages, with over half of the pages of the manuscript filled with musical notations, while the vernacular language encouraged congregational involvement. ((Justin R. Stutz, “The Reformers and Church Music:A Biblical Analysis of Their Philosophies,” Faith and Mission Volume 22 (Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005): 5.))

Church Music

With regard to the music of worship itself, Luther’s most notable reform was to put the singing back into the mouths of the people. The process by which he accomplished this goal follows similarly the path by which he reformed the Mass. First, Luther removed any heretical texts from current hymns. Commenting on the songs of the Roman Church, Luther said,

They do indeed possess many admirable, fine musical compositions and songs, especially in the cathedral and parish churches. But they have adorned them with many foul, idolatrous texts. Therefore we have removed these idolatrous, dead, and nonsensical texts, have divested them of the fine music, and have used this for the living, holy Word of God, to sing, to praise, to glorify therewith, so that this fine ornament of music might be put to proper use and serve its dear Creator and His Christians, that He might be praised and glorified and that we might be bettered and strengthened in the faith through His holy Word, driven into the heart with sweet song. ((Edwald M. Plass, gen. ed., What Luther Says, Vol. 2 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1959), 981.))

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Yet this was not enough for Luther. Very soon he insisted that the people sing in their own vernacular language, an argument he rooted in the Bible itself:

Thus it was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener’s soul, while in other living beings and [sounding] bodies music remains a language without words. After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words. ((Luther, Vol. 53, Luther’s Works, Liturgy and Hymns, 320.))

This motivation sparked a time of great hymn production following Luther’s lead. Hundreds of hymn texts were translated into German or written anew. Texts came from several different sources: ((From Carl Schalk, Key Words in Church Music: Definition Essays on Concepts, Practices, and Movements of Thought in Church Music, Rev. and enl. ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2004), 200-201.))

  • The Psalter
    • “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” – Psalm 46
    • “From Depths of Woe” – Psalm 130
  • Paraphrases of Other Scripture
    • “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” – Isaiah 6:1-4
    • “In Peace and Joy I Now Depart”
    • “Our Father, Thou in Heaven Above”
  • Latin Sequences, Office Hymns, and Antiphons
    • “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” – Veni, Sancte Spiritus
    • “Now Praise We Christ, the Holy One” – A solis ortus cardine
  • German Leisen (religious German folksongs)
    • “We Now Implore God the Holy Ghost”
    • “God the Father, Be our Stay”
  • Original Texts
    • “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice”

And as mentioned earlier, new German texts require new German tunes that match syllabic stress and vocal inflection. In some cases Luther was able to simple rework an older tune, and in others, new tunes were necessary. ((Archibald W. Wilson, “The Melodies of Luther’s Hymns,” The Musical Times 55, no. 857 (July 1914): 448.))

Like his texts, Luther’s tunes came from a variety of sources: ((From Schalk, 70-71.))

  • Gregorian Chant
    • ALL EHR’ UND LOB SOLL GOTTES SEIN (“All Glory Be to God Alone” – Gloria tempore paschali
    • KYRIE, GOTT VATER IN EWIGKEIT (“Kyrie, God Father in Heaven Above”) – Kyrie fons bonitatis
    • EIN FEST BERG (“A Mighty Fortress”) was “woven out of Gregorian reminiscences.” ((Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach (1908), trans by Ernest Newman, 2 vols (Neptune City, NJ: Paganiniana, 1980), 1:16.))
  • Latin Office Hymns
  • German Leisen (religious German folksongs)
    • NUN BITTEN WIR DEN HEILIGEN GEIST (“Now Let Us Pray to God the Holy Ghost”)
    • WIR GLAUBEN ALL AN EINEN GOTT (“We All Believe in One True God”)
  • Secular Folk Tunes
    • O WELT, ICH MUSS DICH LASSEN (“O World, I Now Must Leave Thee”) – “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” He eventually changed the tune because he “was embarrassed to hear the tune of his Christmas hymn sung in inns and dance halls.” ((Paul Nettl, Luther and Music (New York: Russell & Russell, 1967), 48.))
    • VON HIMMEL HOCH DA DOMM ICH HER (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) – “Ich komm aus fremden Landen her”
    • “Such a free use and adaptation of secular melodies for sacred purposes was made possible in part because the distinction between sacred and secular musical styles as we think of it today was for most practical purposes nonexistent.” ((Carl Schalk, “German Hymnody,” in Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 21.))
  • Original Tunes Modeled in the Character of German Folk Tunes

Some explanation may be in order concerning this last “source.” Although the sacred and folk music of the day sounded very similar in many ways, Luther was also careful to avoid what he called “carnal” music—music that stimulated the base passions. He argued that good music could actually “wean [young people] way from carnal and lascivious songs, and interest them in what is good and wholesome.” ((Forell, Luther and Culture, 167.))

Even so, since  the forms of most folk music were derived from sacred forms, they sounded very similar. Consider the following diverse scholars’ comments on this matter:

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“Those who taught and those who studied [musc] were associated with the work of the church, and many melodies written for secular texts were produced by the same men who wrote melodies for church use.” ((Edwin Liemohn, The Choral (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1963), 12-13.))

“In Luther’s time, the dichotomy between secular/sacred and popular/classical music was not as wide as it is today.” ((David W. Music, “Getting Luther out of the Barroom” in The Hymn, July 1994, 51.))

“Stylistically there is very little difference between a German popular song in the sixteenth century, a sacred Protestant chorale and a Leise.” ((Rebecca Wagner Oettinger, Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 21.))

“The fluid boundary between the sacred and secular spheres made popular music welcome in the Christian churches of Germany, either as part of the liturgy or in paraliturgical religious activities. Religious song was also at home in the non-sacred world, sung as devotion or as entertainment in the same homes and streets where secular pieces predominated.” ((Ibid.))

“All types of [folk] music were monophonic . . . composed of four to eight lines of poetry, and based on simple musical structures such as the German Bar form (AAB).” ((Ibid.))

The character of even secular tunes in Luther’s day was “marked by devotional earnestness and great dignity. . . . The emotional element in music was yet developed, and even the love song of Luther’s time was a serious and weighty affair.” ((Peter Christian Lutkin, Music in the Church (New York: AMS, 1970), 14.))

“In view of this, it was not important, at least in the first half of the 16th century, whether the text generally associated with the music was sacred or secular. In contrast to the humanistic thought affecting the educated classes ever more strongly in the course of the 16th century, Protestantism preserved the medieval classification of the world, with secular art subjected to an intellectual discipline characterized by piety and churchliness. Under these conditions the disparity between sacred and secular music could at first hardly become a problem.” ((Blume, 29.))

In summery, then, Luther’s genius was that he combined the most accessible of high art with the best of folk art to create the Lutheran chorale. Luther wrote his first hymn in 1523, and the following year he and Walther produced twenty-one hymns. ((Clark, 3.))

Luther’s efforts produced scores of influential German hymnals. In 1524 the earliest known collections of hymns were published, beginning with Achtliederbuch, which contained eight hymns, four of which were written by Luther. ((Ibid.)) Two other important hymnals were published in 1524, Enchiridion, oder Handbuchlein (“Little Handbook”), and Geystliche Gesangk Buchleyn (“Little Book of Sacred Songs”). ((Ibid.)) The first of these contained twenty-five hymns, eighteen penned by Luther, and the second contained thirty-eight hymns, twenty-four by Luther. ((Ibid.)) Luther personally supervised the publication of both the second and third collections, as well as others in 1526,1528,1529,1539, and 1545. ((Ross, 7.)) His best-known hymn, Einfeste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”), first appeared in the 1529 collection, and the 1545 publication included all but two of his thirty-seven hymns. ((Clark, 6.))

Luther’s Governing Worship Principle

In reforming the Church’s worship, Luther followed an overarching principle that can really be broken into three:

  1. All liturgical elements that were contrary to the teachings of the Scripture were deleted.
  2. All those elements that were commanded by God were retained.
  3. Those things that were neither commanded nor forbidden were considered adiaphora (“things indifferent”).

This principle that set the Scripture as normative for Christian worship significantly changed the perspective from that of Rome. Yet perhaps Luther did not go far enough. Since Luther did not insist that worship be absolutely regulated by the Word of God, but only that it follow the Scriptures as a normative rule, he retained in Lutheran worship many of the Roman innovations that he considered “indifferent”—not forbidden, and therefore acceptable. Therefore, Lutheran worship to this day, in contrast to Reformed worship in the train of John Calvin, retains various Romish accoutrements such as clerical garb, sacramental union, incense, elaborate ceremonies, etc.


Martin Luther stands, not only as a leader in recovering essential soteriological doctrines, but also as a reformer of the Church’s worship. As we worship tomorrow, let us thank the Lord for men like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, and for what they did to recover worship regulated by the Word of God.