The Vocation of Music in the Divine Service

We Lutherans, who are heirs of Johann Sebastian Bach and so many other great composers of sacred music, certainly understand that various instruments can be used faithfully in the liturgical context to God’s glory.   But what are some important considerations with respect to music in the Divine Service in the way it is used and selected with integrity?

Thesis I – Nothing comes into the Divine Service “as is” from the world’s use.  It must be sanctified.

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.   God calls out of darkness into His marvelous light and we become holy as a gift of God when we are brought to faith in Christ our crucified and risen Lord.   God’s creation is and will be transformed and on the Last Day God will make a new heaven and a new earth.

This end times reality impacts the Divine Service as well when through the preached Word and the administered sacraments heaven comes down to earth for us (Hebrews 12:22-24).   The old Adam is put to death and buried and the new believer in Christ comes forth (Romans 6:5-11).   Yet this is a daily and hourly pattern of repentance and faith in the absolution.   For the steward of the mysteries of God, he must be aware that his shepherding of the liturgical context must take into account this baptismal rhythm of those working with the church music (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).   Out of the heart proceeds all kinds of sins, and yet also the Gospel has its way with the life and heart of the believer from outside of us.

The old Adam must not have the upper hand.  The law of God in the third way He uses it does provide structure and order within the larger life of the church as well.   Our Confessions acknowledge this as well.  The old Adam does not worship the Lamb but himself and his own predilections, sentiment, and power.   Not only does the old Adam not want God in Christ at the center, but he refuses to sit at the receiving end of God’s Gospel gifts as one in need of rescue, cleansing, and forgiveness.   The old Adam will not say “soli Deo gloria” in truth.   The liturgical musician is one who lives in no other way than from the Apostles’ doctrine, fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.   Here catechesis from pastor to musician is essential – whether to choir director, organist, instrumentalist, cantor, or parishioner singing a chorale.   The one who serves in these areas of the church’s liturgical life needs to be formed by sound doctrine and good practice from the start (lex orandi, lex credendi and vice versa).

Thesis II – The theology of the Divine Service, its action and power, will shape the character and type of music that is selected as liturgical music and the way it is delivered.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession defines the mass or liturgy as “a public ministry” and this is said to square well with the showing forth of the body and blood of Christ as well as the proclamation of the Gospel (AC XXIV and Apology XXIV; Luke 22:27).  This means of grace language is declaring that the chief thing about the service is that it is something God does for us.  The liturgy is first and foremost sacramental (gift) rather than sacrificial (return of offering to God or response).   We serve God because He first serves us.  We are called into communion with Jesus within the communion of His people and receive from Him forgiveness, life and salvation.   This is the end of missions!   This is a monergistic, Christocentric,  cruciform activity as opposed to a synergistic or anthropocentric activity.   Jesus is among us in the flesh as the One who serves, continuing to do and teach in our midst.

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.   If used well it may de-emphasize the personality and emphasize the words of the musical piece in liturgy or song.   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.  This may help answer the question of whether something strictly constructed as “praise service” with a “praise band” is sufficiently centered on the monergistic delivery of grace via the Word and Sacraments and is reflective of the liturgical two-way street with its initiating accent on what God does for us.  We liturgy God because He first liturgies us.  So much of what we have today in the variety of themed services like “traditional worship” (or “Classic Grace”) vs. blended worship or contemporary vs. contemporary family friendly worship is so much marketing like the flavors of a hip coffee shop.   What is the main thing in practice?   Are traditional liturgical services in the past and not contemporary or does contemporary mean really “beholden to the zeitgeist”?

Thesis III – When speaking of liturgical music, we “set the music to the text” rather than the other way around.

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.   And this goes on continually in the Church throughout the ages (Matthew 16:18; Jude 3).  Out of the Word of God comes everything that exists therefore the text, the priority of the Word, the Gospel message comes first.   Music is set to the requirements, character, and message of the text as the power of God for salvation present for us.    The music does not (or should not) presume that the biblical text or its right application has no power on its own.   This principle should be kept in mind by the one choosing and delivering the music with the sound text.  What is said of music here presumes that the text is sound theologically (but that is a subject for another time).

Obviously there are a variety of ways to deliver music for any given biblical or liturgical text.  With this said, however one may understand it properly in this way:  while many sermons may come from a particular Gospel pericope, this does not mean that all sermons claimed to be based on said pericope are therefore right, sound, and rightly dividing the word of truth or based on sound exegesis.   There are boundaries and clear principles in what would be considered a right homiletical application of a text, sound exegesis, and so forth.  (Of course one could choose to ignore that matter out of other motives or priorities that reflect a divergence in theology from our standard.)  So there is variety and yet not libertine or indiscriminate variety based merely upon preference, popular styles, pop Christian radio, neighborhood marketing, opinion polls, or alien theologies from other confessions.

Likewise, the musical selection does not disregard the liturgical structure of the service nor the church year nor the teaching of the whole counsel of God.   Neither can the music disregard the real presence of Christ or the humility of sinners before the holy God who saved us only out of pure divine Fatherly goodness and mercy.   Evangelism or recruitment cannot be substituted for justification by grace alone as der Hauptartikel of the Christian faith (the chief article by which the church stands or falls).   In the Psalms the text was often given to the Chief Musician.  The text came first within an occasion and then the music was brought to that to fit the purpose of the text.  As Johann Walther, the composer colleague of Luther, put it aptly, “All music should be so arranged that its notes are in harmony with the text” (Carl Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise, p.27).

Thesis IV – Music is not a mediator between God and man, thus the means of grace cannot be improved upon or made more effective by making the music a reflection of the local culture or enticing the old Adam in a religious way.

God alone is God.  There is no getting around that fact.   Jesus Christ is the one who has made the atoning sacrifice once and for all and there is none other who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the One who comes to us here and now in His Word and Sacraments to deliver the benefits of Good Friday and Easter to us.   Since we are conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5) and likewise are native to death and sin (Ephesians 2:1-2) and we cannot naturally discern the things of the Spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:14), it is not more likely to get converts by religious entertainment than otherwise.   Remember the explanation to the Third Article of the Creed in the Catechism?

Of course, all the arts can be abused.   Neither PowerPoint nor icons, neither baroque music nor soft rock, are mediators between God and men.   The church has a culture all its own as the Word bears fruit in the history of the Church in contrast to our surrounding culture.  And the music used in the liturgical context serves within a circle that is more particular than merely the circle of Christian music for devotions or casual listening.   Despite what may be suitable or satisfactory as music for Christians for relaxation, work, or devotions, music for the unique context of the Divine Service and its purpose comes under a different vocation from anything else and is set apart.   This might indeed help us answer, for example, the question of the location in the sanctuary from which the musicians should deliver the music or if a soloist or cantor is best front and center or not?  Even such music that may be called Christian in the pop culture of American Evangelicalism and the charismatic movement is not necessarily or automatically qualified for liturgical service given the greatly differing theologies and purposes of music between that realm and the confessional Lutheran understanding of liturgy for the Church.

God has called His sheep into His green pastures in the Divine Service.  It is not we who invite God to the gathering.  He initiates the giving of His gifts.  Music is summoned into the liturgical context as an “Amen” to the structure of texts in the liturgy and church year.   To praise God is to praise His marvelous deeds (I Peter 2) not merely to emote or speak in testimonials whether in old Pietism or in new American revivalistic ways.   So the music is to go along with the text rather than to direct us back to our own filthy rags.   In this way the Word of Christ dwells among us richly with the prominence and reverence that is truly meet, right, and salutary.

About Pastor John Frahm III

Rev. John A. Frahm is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Boulder Junction, WI. He has previously served parishes in Colorado and the Midwest. He is a 1998 graduate of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada and was ordained by Dr. Ray Hartwig in 1998. He was editor of the former website Reformation Today, and has published articles in The Bride of Christ, Logia, and The Lutheran Witness magazines and was a charter member of The Augustana Ministerium and helped write study materials for the ACELC. He has also served as a circuit visitor in the LCMS and has taken an interest in civil liberties He has also been a guest on Issues Etc. In college years, he was active in Lutheran campus ministry activities and was the first president of Region 4 of Lutheran Student Fellowship, helping to organize the first LSF national gathering for college students. Pastor Frahm was born in Arlington Heights, Illinois and was raised in southern Minnesota. He is married to Jennifer, a Michigan native. Jennifer currently works as an instructional designer. Pastor Frahm believes our biblical, confessional, and liturgical heritage is an asset to be boldly and forthrightly applied and used for the mission of the church.


The Vocation of Music in the Divine Service — 11 Comments

  1. Sirs:
    Excellent article! Our Pastor Jenson of St. James, Mill Creek WA makes these points frequently. I have mentioned in the past the great Lutheran musical traditions and have been scoffed at. Thankfully in this day I can make inexpensive recordings to make my point! I am also very glad to have reference material such as this article to share.

    Solveig Peck

  2. We all know about the problem of cantata music and how does it fit into the liturgy. Recently I’ve read in Guenther Stiller’s “JS Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig” that the cantata is sermon music, it adorns and emphasizes the texts and themes of the sermon. Stiller points out that many of Bach’s cantatas were meant to be divided in two so that the 1st part could be sung before the hour long sermon and the 2nd part after the sermon.

    I had been so wondering about that. So pastores, be sure you get a copy of your sermon to your kantors soon enough for them to compose the cantata and get the choirboys up to spead by Sunday morning. That Bach, always such an inspiration.

  3. @Joanne #3

    Well, the pastors don’t really need to get a copy of the sermon to the musicians…they just need to preach on the lectionary texts of the day. One more reason to stick to the lectionary! 🙂

  4. Ok, help me out on this one, because I wrestle with these issues frequently. I couldn’t agree more that music can not add to or improve the word or sacraments. However, the word and sacraments cannot be effective to a person who does not hear or partake. Is there something to be said for the usefulness of churches having as good a music program as they are able so as to not drive people from the divine service, and perhaps even entice the Old Adam for more frequent participation? I mean, when the music is just plain bad, it can be tough for people to drag their sorry carcasses out of bed on Sunday morning. But if they know that the sounds of the singing, of itself, will be enlivening, encouraging, and even enthusiastic, then attendance on Sunday becomes much more something that is looked forward to (in the Old Adam, of course).

    I understand the danger of pragmatic appeals to the Old Adam. But unless we want to argue that quality music is irrelevant and superfluous to the work of the church, could it perhaps be beneficial to acknowledge that nobody comes to God with perfect motives and work within that reality? I mean, the music does not have to become an end in itself, but can it be a means to an end if it draws toward, points to, and focuses attention on Word and Sacrament?

  5. @Chris Schelp #4

    Precisely Chris, and that’s just how it worked in Bach’s Leipzig, the sermons were always on the lectionary texts, so Bach knew far in advance what the text and focus of the sermon would be on. If a change took place, Bach was informed in plenty of time. This enabled a well regulated church music.

    Interesting to note: The Leipzig Superintendant (i.e., Lutheran Bishop) was assigned to St. Nicholas Church, so that meant that the needs of St. Nicholas took presidence over the needs of St. Thomas church where we usually think of Bach being active. But in truth he was the Director of all church music in Leipzig and Kantor only of the Thomanerschule.

    Also the current interior of St. Nicholas is in a very classical style with these remarkable Palm trees formed from the interior columns. It’s interesting, but to my eye it looks like a church Wren might have done in London. At any rate, this classification was done in the 1780s, so this is not the interior at St. Nicholas that Bach saw. And, I haven’t yet seen a picture of that yet. But I don’t think there were palm trees for Bach.

  6. @Miguel #5

    Again, Miquel, you are precisely correct. Stiller is adamant that Bach’s professional goal all his life was to create a well regulated church music program within an Orthodox Lutheran church. Stiller does a beautiful job of showing us how well attended the services, the confessional booth, and the altars in Leipzig were during this last episode of Lutheran Orthodoxy. At Bach’s time only Leipzig and Hamburg still supported the hugh music programs that are required in Orthodox Lutheranism.

    Stiller has the statistics to show the advance of both Pietism and Rationalism in the second half of the 18th century in Leipzig, especially being effective starting in the 1780s with fewer services, and less need for music, and much lower attendances, especially at the confession booth, which was soon abolished, and at communion. I mean a difference like from nearly 20,000 annual attending communion, to often only 4 or less attendees a Sunday and those done in the sacristy to shorten the service. But though Bach saw this happen in other places, it did not happen in Leipzig in his time.

    Pietism and Rationalism drove the best in music out of the Lutheran church and then complained about why people didn’t want to hear their educational sermons. I would love to see a service done exactly as it was done at Leipzig in Bach’s time and at the Nicholas Church as it was in say, 1730. I think we would all be amazed. (consecration bell, Latin lyrics, housling cloths, chasables, chanting, … it was all there and this was just the way it had always been since the Reformation)

  7. We have it, images of the 1663 renovation of the interior of the Leipziger Nicholaikirche which lasted till the next and current version of the 1785 renovation.

    These pictures show the version of the Nicholaikirche that Bach worked in, where he sat, and what his organ looked like.

    But now aren’t we curious about the pre 1663 version. That would have more of the German Renaissance to it. Still, it is a googling coup to come up with the Bach version of the Nicholaikirche.

    I’m so happy. Can you imagine the colors in here? Of special note, in 1663 when the Royal Box was made, the Elector Dukes of Saxony were Lutheran and would have been happy to sit in such an august box. However, by 1785, the Saxons were on their 3rd or 4th Catholic Albertine who would not have been interested in a nice seat in the very rationalist Nicholaikirche of the late 17th century.

  8. With the exception of the steeple, which was completed into its final form in 1702, the architectural style of the St. Thomas Church has not changed since the end of the 15th century.

    The renovations during the years 1884 to 1889 did, however, bring along a distinctive change: All architectural features of the Baroque period-especially those dating from Bach’s tenure of office-were completely removed and converted into a new-Gothic style, which can be seen today.

    I have not yet found a decent image of Bach’s St. Thomas interior, but I will.

  9. j.j.
    Stiller, JSB:LLinL; p. 208, “The figured bass is the most perfect foundation of music. It is played with both hands in this way, that the left hand plays the notes prescribed, but the right hand adds consonances and dissonances so that a sweet-sounding harmony may result to the glory of God and for an allowable delight of the heart. And as in the case of all music, so also the purpose and final goal of the figured bass should be nothing else but only the glory of God and the restoration of the heart [Recreation des Gemüths]. Where this is not observed, there you have no real music, only devilish bleating and harping.” (Taken from, JS Bach in his course on the figured bass.)

    Thinking Harmony by Michael Leibson. A link to more information about harmony (the figured bass) than you will ever want to know.

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