Are We Following Luther or Arminius? by Joseph Herl

(My choir director pointed out this article written by a friend of mine (a prior choir director) at practice before church this morning .. I thought it so well written that I asked permission to post it for the edification of BJS members and readers, Norm Fisher, BJS Technical Director)

I am increasingly of the opinion that American Lutherans are Arminians at heart. According to Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian active around 1600, salvation works like this: Way back in the mists of eternity, God looked ahead to see which of His fallen creatures would, if they had free will, turn to Him and be saved. Based on this foreknowledge, God then marked, or predestined, these people for salvation through Christ. The teaching was current in various guises even before Arminius, and some 16th century Lutherans thought it sounded pretty good. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s closest colleague, came close to asserting it. Luther, on the other hand, wouldn’t touch it. He said that if our salvation depended on anything we do or might do, even deciding to believe in Christ, then it is no longer a free gift of God, but rather something we earn. Faith then becomes a good work, something we do to merit God’s favor. It is Luther’s view and not that of Arminius that became enshrined in the Lutheran Confessions.

But Luther’s view has not held up well in today’s church. The pitch goes something like this:

Evangelism guru: “Would you give up your life to save your grandson from drowning?”
Grandpa: “You bet.”
Evangelism guru: “Then would you give up your music to save your grandson from going to hell?”
Grandpa: “Well, I … uh …”

The assumption here is that God is not fully responsible for a person’s salvation. If He were, then He would find a way to save the grandson regardless of what style of music Grandpa’s church employed. If the kind of music really makes a difference in who is ultimately saved, then salvation depends on our actions, and what we do or fail to do can affect not only our own salvation, but someone else’s as well. That is flat-out Arminianism, and it is a terrible burden on the Church.

It is not the first time the Missouri Synod has been confronted with this. It happened in the 19th century when revivalists such as Charles Grandison Finney were trying to light a fire under people so they would turn from their sluggish depravity and obey God. Finney believed that if the Church just did things in the right way, in a way calculated to excite people, then the natural and inevitable result would be that people would turn to God in great numbers. For Finney, the mark of the Church’s success was how many people came to know Christ. While Finney was best known for his “anxious bench,” later revivalists such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday would make extensive use of music to draw people in and convince them to accept Christ. In 1890 Missouri Synod president H.C. Schwan took aim squarely at the revivalists when he wrote that the danger in moving to English as the language of worship was the American spirit, “that shallow, slick, indifferent, business-tainted spirit in which also spiritual matters are handled in this country; that sentiment which … seeks salvation in sweet sensations and in a much busied workery of all kinds.”

We see something similar a century earlier in German Lutheranism. In the 16th and 17th centuries, church music was considered good if it glorified God and carried an appropriate text. But in the 18th century, writers began to assign a more significant role to it: “to edify the audience, to arouse them to devotion, in order to awaken in them a quiet and holy fear toward the Divine Essence,” in the words of Johann Adolph Scheibe, chapel master to the King of Denmark. Writer after writer presented similar ideas; namely, that the purpose of church music is to manipulate emotions in order to move people closer to God. As with the revivalists, the more people it brings to Christ, then the better the music.

In truth, music does not bring people to Christ. God does. God may use music as His vehicle; but we must not think that music, by itself, has the power to save souls, nor that individuals moved by music are able to choose to be saved. That is all God’s doing, working through His appointed means of grace. I am reminded of the U. S. senator who visited Mother Teresa’s clinic and home for the dying in Calcutta. On seeing all the illness and poverty there, the senator asked her how she could possibly cope, how her work could possibly be successful. She replied, “I am not called to be successful; I am called to be faithful.”

We too are called to be faithful. Do we select our music in church to be successful in moving people, in reaching them for Christ, in convincing them to become Christians? If so, welcome to Arminianism and the Law. Or do we choose music that glorifies God and conveys as well as possible through its texts and associations the fullness of Christian teaching? If so, welcome to Luther and the Gospel.

Dr. Joseph Herl
Associate Professor of Music
Concordia University, Nebraska
Joseph.Herl at

Joseph Herl has written Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict; also available in paperback.

Reprinted from ISSUES in Christian Education, Volume 42, No. 2, Fall 2008, a publication of Concordia University, Seward, Nebraska.

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