A Lutheran Understanding of Sound Christ-Centered Hymnody in the Divine Service Context

by Rev. John A. Frahm III

The Lutheran Church was historically known as “the singing church.”   The Lutheran Church is the church of such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Michael Praetorius, Hans Leo Hassler, and many others.   There is a particular form of hymn that is uniquely identified with the heritage of the Lutheran Church, known as the “chorale.”   Pre-Reformation hymns that Lutherans carried over were often known as “plainsong” based upon more melodic version of ancient chants.   Many of these canticles and chorales were turned into beautiful cantatas and other works by these classic Lutheran composers and joined to rich hymn texts which preached the Word of God. 

However, in America, many of the hymns some think of as “old Lutheran” hymns are really those associated not with our Lutheran heritage but with American tent-meeting revivalism and those of “gospel” radio programs from the early twentieth century.  These hymns reflect not Lutheran understandings of the Bible but primarily Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal or Presbyterian –- modern practices likewise.


The Latin phrase “Lex orandi, lex credendi” means the principle of prayer or worship is the principle of what is believed.   Or put more smoothly, how you worship and what you say shapes what you believe (and we would say, vice versa).   What you believe should shape how you worship.   Being a Christian is learning that fact for a lifetime.

Another way to say this in straightforward Lutheran terms is: doctrine determines practice.   Your confession of the faith determines what you sing, how you worship, and the proper administration of the Word and Sacraments.   Sound biblical doctrine is how the content of hymns and liturgy are evaluated.   The Scriptures and our Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord) are how we evaluate our practices.   Faith bears fruit in life.   Because of this Lutherans want hymns that preach the Word of God accurately and faithfully and are Christ-centered and not “me-centered.”   They are to teach not just express the sentiment of the one singing or composing the hymn.   For this reason old Lutheran hymnals often provided biblical citations to show the Scriptural basis for the hymn applications.   For Lutherans a hymn is a “sung sermon” delivered among the congregation members to one another and the pastor.   Other churches do not necessarily see them this way.

This means that for Lutherans there is a specific relationship between the hymns and the Scripture readings for the day in the Church Year.   In fact in the long tradition of the Lutheran Church there are specific hymns provided for the “Hymn of the Day” before the sermon.   A good hymn applies a biblical text properly to you.  A good hymn isn’t about your self-expression but comforting you with the good news of salvation in Christ.  A good hymn recognizes the continuity of Christians through the centuries.   And being a Christian is life-long learning.   Faith needs rich hymn texts that teach rightly.  Weak hymns undermine the faith.


Music is powerful but this power can be both negative and positive, and not simply from the perspective of taste or preference.   Music can manipulate the emotions and senses greatly regardless of context or purpose.   But in the Divine Service music cannot simply be a matter of choice or personal preference.   Neither is it a matter of a tune just being “easy” to sing.   Some of the most sturdy and lasting tunes often take some practice to learn at first.   (Repetition is very valuable in that regard).   Be patient when learning a new hymn rather than rejecting the hymn outright immediately because it is “too hard.”   Some of the best tunes take some repetition to learn.  Be diligent to learn patiently.

Our old sinful nature (“the old Adam”) does not worship God but himself.  Music for the specific context of a church service (the Divine Service) needs to fit that purpose but also be in agreement with our Lutheran confession of the faith.   Sometimes we are exposed to things when we are growing up that are inconsistent with our confession of the faith.  Sometimes we learn there are treasures in the attic we were not shown in our childhood.  It is like seeing the fine china used at your grandparents house for the first time.   The fitting response is not to object to it, but to rejoice in it – though it is new to you, but not new.

The music is there in much the same way that the pastor is there for the liturgy.   It is there for the sake and purpose of the Word and Sacraments.   The music vests the voices of pastor, congregation, and choir.   Music in this way serves as John the Baptist did in relation to Jesus – preparing the way, pointing the way to Jesus.   And this also is important as pointers or symbols are not the thing themselves.   But they have importance in directing us to what is most important and real.   The Word is greater than the music.  Music humbly submits to be a John the Baptist of sorts.   The music reflects that we are in the world but not of the world.  The music and text should reflect our confession of faith.


 The first table of the law commands us to have no other gods and to not misuse the holy name of God.   In liturgical music, God’s Word, rightly divided, comes first as setting the priority and purpose of the Services of God’s House.   In other words, hymns aren’t religious entertainment but to reverently and joyfully teach the whole counsel of God throughout the seasons of the Church Year, in the holy presence of God in the Divine Service.   We come as sinners who live from the forgiveness purchased by our crucified, risen, and glorified Lord who is present there with us.   The hymns should reflect this truth.  Good church music recognizes the continuity of Christians and the church down through the centuries as well as the presence of the heavenly hosts among us, the communion of saints.  For Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church.  We confess the unchanging faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Acts 2:42; Jude 3).   The church has a culture of its own that extends not only across the world but across time in centuries and millennia.  Our way of worship is received not created anew from a blank slate each week.   The eternal message of Christ is the most relevant thing there is.   Solid hymns teach us this if we are humble to learn more.

The church in this world is countercultural.   We don’t expect to blend in and should not try.   Our citizenship is in heaven and our way of worship will reflect that if we let the Word shape us..  Entertainment with a religious veneer doesn’t convert people Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 2:14). The text of a hymn for the Divine Service should be evaluated for more than whether it is easy, emotionally moving or vaguely “uplifting” and mentions God in a generic way.   It should be Christ-centered, rightly apply Law and Gospel, and express clear biblical truth for the congregation.   The text must be doctrinally sound as well as poetic.   It is about Gospel comfort not our mood.  The music or tune of a hymn should fit the text in a fitting way for its liturgical context before the presence of God for the delivery of the Word of God and sacraments.   We set the music to the text which is Scripturally sound and reflects a mindfulness of the church gathered before the Lord’s presence to be fed, instructed, forgiven, sanctified, with prayer and thankfulness.   It should say more about the Lord and what He has done rather than about me.   The tune should reflect the message of the text and setting of the Service rather than manipulate the emotions regardless of the text.   What a Christian might find helpful or uplifting outside of church might not yet be suitable for the Divine Service.  But all of this is so that we might be built up in faith in Christ and His Word.