Steadfast in Song — Introduction

There are lots of reasons to sing.  Our culture has become so degenerate that there are very few places where people sing together anymore.  I’ve heard it said that the only time men sing today is if they’re trying to impress a girl or if they’re drunk at a Karaoke bar.

It’s been like that before.  Paul says in Ephesians 5, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.”

Paul’s culture moved towards Christianity.  Ours is moving away from it.  We see Christian churches emulating the music of a culture which knows hardly anything of singing together.  But the reason we Christians sing what we sing in Church is twofold, and the song of the Christmas angels teaches us this.  “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”  What gives God glory gives sinners peace.”  We sing to God, and we sing for our neighbor.  Now we ourselves obviously benefit from our singing, but this doesn’t mean that we sing for ourselves primarily.  It is a joy to praise God and serve our neighbor.

The praise of God is a sacrifice (Hebrews 13:15).  The sacrifices God commanded in the Old Testament never benefited God.  They benefited people.  The priests would get food from the sacrifice, friends would eat of the sacrifice, and the faithful were taught about the coming Christ from the sacrifice.

Our sacrifices of praise teach our neighbor.  This is how Paul views singing.  He says in Colossians 3 words similar to what he says in Ephesians 5, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

We teach when we sing!  Our sacrifices are full of doctrine, instruction, teaching!  Our singing isn’t an elated experience to conjure up out of people.  Our songs aren’t sung to evince some euphoric ecstasy from those who hear them.  Our hymns are teaching and they are a sacrifice given to God, for our neighbor.  They are an act of love.  God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and so he doesn’t need to hear our praises.  He loves to hear our praises when they benefit our neighbor, and when we, as Christ’s holy people, are comforted and drawn closer together.

Paul Gerhardt

I remember once walking to the communion rail at St. John Lutheran Church in Topeka, KS.  I was fretting over some individual sin and getting really confused about it as I approached the altar.  But as I was standing in line I heard the congregation sing with clarity and beauty these stanzas from Paul Gerhardt’s wonderful baptism hymn,

You were before your day of birth,
Indeed, from your conception,
Condemned and lost with all the earth,
None good, without exception.
For like your parents’ flesh and blood,
Turned inward from the highest good,
You constantly denied Him.


What a depressing verse!  But it was an admonishment I needed.  I needed to know that I was a sinner by nature, and that everybody else was here for the same reason as I was.  It wasn’t about me trying to get rid of one individual sin.  It was about me being a sinner in need of a Savior of sinners.  Then I remembered the words of the catechism, “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'”  And I went and received the sacrament worthily, believing that it was for me.

Never underestimate the power of song.  We don’t despair of God’s blessings.  Our culture despises children, but does that stop us from thanking God for them?  So even though our culture despises the blessings of hymnody God gave to his church, God doesn’t.  He knows how precious it is.  He gave it to help us, and it does.  God grant that our sacrifices might be pleasing to God through faith working in love for our neighbor.

I like to encourage hymn-writing, and I enjoy it myself. If you’re interested, here is a link to my most recent one:

Associate Editor’s Note:  With this posting we welcome Pastor Mark Preus to the regular crew of contributors here at BJS.  Pastor Preus is the son of Pastor Rolf Preus and Dort Preus and also the brother of Andrew who all write here as well.  Pastor Preus will be writing in a category of “Steadfast in Song” and will contribute to our articles on worship, hymnody and all things liturgical.  Here is some more about Pastor Mark Preus:

Mark Preus is pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Wylie, TX.  He is a 2008 graduate of CTS in Ft. Wayne.  He and his wife Becky have five children with another on the way.  He learned to love hymns singing them with his mom and dad around the dinner table and before going to bed.  He has been writing and translating hymns since his college days at University Lutheran Chapel at the University of MN.  He sporadically maintains a blog called Lutheran Hymn Revival.

About Pastor Mark Preus

Mark Preus is pastor of St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church and Campus Center in Laramie, WY. He graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne with an M.Div. in 2008 and then obtained an M.A. in Classics at the University of KS in 2010. He was ordained at Faith Lutheran Church, Wylie, TX in August of 2010. He has been married to Becky since 2005. God has graciously given them two daughters and five sons. Pr. Preus loves to read and write poetry, especially Lutheran hymns, and talk theology with anybody who has an ear to listen. He also likes coffee too much and tobacco too much, as well as microbrew beer. He can also prove with reasonable certainty that Paul Gerhardt wrote most of his hymns while smoking and drinking beer.

You can find more of Pr. Preus's writings at his blog.


Steadfast in Song — Introduction — 22 Comments

  1. Had an interesting conversation over dinner with some friends; some years back. The topic was gospel music. Both were non-church-going-raised-generic-Christians. I mentioned the old and lovely Lutheran musical tradition and was soundly poo-pooed. I bought them next day CDs of Bach and Handel. End of argument.

  2. The Gerhardt verse seems problematic for several reasons:

    1. “condemned”

    Rather than believing that he was born condemned to hell, does not the Christian trust that he was born already loved by God and predestined for heaven?

    (a) “[God] loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses….” (Eph. 2:4-5, ESV)

    (b) “[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world … to the praise of his glorious grace ….” (Eph. 1:4-6, ESV)

    (c) “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Ro. 5:8, ESV)

    (d) “[As] many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48 ESV)

    (e) The Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod (1932) says that believers in Christ “have already from eternity been endowed by God with faith, justification, sanctification, and preservation in faith ….”

    2. “…with all the earth”

    (a) Since God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world,” in what way is our destiny linked to that of the earth?

    (b) There were undoubtedly millions of believers on the earth when I was born. So how can it be said that “all the earth” was lost then?

    (c) The Te Deum declares, “All the earth now worships you.” How can that be reconciled with the claim that all the earth is condemned and lost?

    3. “You constantly denied him.”

    A claim that all believers “constantly denied” God before baptism seems contrary to the following:

    (a) Scripture is clear that the Holy Spirit may engender faith at a very early age, even in the womb.

    (b) The Bible says, “[O LORD], you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind.” (1 Kings 8:39, ESV)

    (c) Among adults are people who are clearly not constantly denying God but rather exploring the Christian faith, evidently prompted by the Holy Spirit before they are baptized.

    ——- An alternative ——–

    I was before my day of birth
    — indeed before conception,
    before God made and formed the earth —
    predestined for adoption.
    Though born into a fallen race,
    I came an object of God’s grace,
    A path to heaven set for me.

    And in that path baptism lay:
    God’s mercy demonstrated,
    the promise of the Spirit’s ray,
    a life with Christ united.
    With that divine identity
    came fellowship and unity
    Among those so anointed.

  3. Carl,

    The Gospel doesn’t make the Law disappear. You’re a filthy, rotten sinner. The Law condemns you, along with all the earth, because you have constantly denied God. And the Law is God’s eternal, unchangeable will.

    Mrs. Peters

  4. How beautiful that verse by Gerhardt is, compared to the shallow, trite lyrics that pass for much of “contemporary worship” today!

    If your church sings the hymns, thank God for it. As an ex-Arminian, I’ve seen the path that cowo takes, and it’s sad to see.

  5. Good post Pastor Preus. Just an interesting observation from last Sunday in my home congregation. Our congregation doesn’t have AC in the sanctuary so it was warm, but not unbearable. The last hymn was ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save.’ We’ve sung it many times so the hymn was very familiar to all. In the pew in front of us sat a three generation family. The grandmother always sings and on one side of her was her son and daughter-in-law and on the other side was a young adult grandchild. The grandmother noticed that her daughter-in-law hadn’t opened the hymnal so she offered to share. The daughter-in-law declined. Then the grandmother turned to her right and offered the same to the grandchild because she didn’t have her hymnal opened either. The granddaughter declined also. I love to sing so I don’t understand this behavior. Maybe it was the heat, I don’t know. People just refuse to sing. They can’t even make the effort to open the hymnal!

  6. @Carl H #3

    Good discussion, brother. The issue you raise is about man’s condition (whether there is original sin or not), and how justification operates on the person. Likewise, predestination also applies as a part of the puzzle in how justification operates.

    You asked, “1. “condemned” – Rather than believing that he was born condemned to hell, does not the Christian trust that he was born already loved by God and predestined for heaven?” (Eph. 2:4-5; Eph. 1:4-6; Rom. 5:8; Acts 13:48).

    1A: Two of the passages you cite show that man is dead in his sins and trespasses before God shows love and mercy (Eph. 2:4-5; Rom. 5:8). The other two say that God out of love and mercy chooses and predestines people to salvation (Eph. 1:4-6; Acts 13:48). Obviously, Scripture doesn’t contradict itself. These passages suggest that man is both dead (and therefore separated from God’s life-giving grace from the Holy Spirit) and predestined at the same time.

    One thing that helps is the context. Eph. 2:3 clearly indicates that man by nature is a child of wrath. Whose wrath? God’s wrath at sin. This is why he is dead in sins and trespasses. And therefore, being in sins and trespasses, is set free by justification. But consider how justification operates. God’s secret will of predestination is not mentioned first. Christ’s death for sinners is, and the Holy Spirit’s work of creating saving faith by God’s rich grace. Paul wants to ground the Ephesians in the doctrine of justification here, though he did also allude to predestination earlier in chap. 1. What is interesting is that this indicates that even though the Ephesians of chap. 1 are called the chosen of God (and in Acts, the ones appointed to eternal life), yet at the same time, they are also called children of God’s wrath (by nature) in Eph. chap. 2. It is a paradox, then. Both statements are true. But they are true in different ways. Predestination sees it from God’s perspective, that in His great love, He individually chose these specific people out to be His. From our perspective, we also know and wrestle against our sinful natures. Christ crucified for us is the lynchpin that connects these two paradoxical statements.

    Notice also the context for Rom. 5:8 – In vs. 6, Christ died for “the ungodly”. But Christ also died for all, even those who were not born yet. This means, that even those who were not born yet are still ungodly. If they are not ungodly, then Christ could not have died for them. But the only way for those who were not born yet to be ungodly, as well as the infants at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, is because they are born with original sin.

    Predestination also shows up in Romans. Here it shows up after Paul thoroughly treats the Law, original sin, justification, baptism, and sanctification. Then Paul treats predestination/election. Romans was written to people Paul had never met, as a catechesis for the Christian faith. With this in mind, it is evident that Paul wants to ground the people whose catechetical level he does not know in the doctrines of man’s need for salvation, and his justifcation in Christ (which then plays out in his sanctified life through baptism). Only then does Paul approach the sticky wicket question of predestination. And even then, Paul grounds the discussion in faith in Christ and not some arbitrary will of God distant and separated from Christ. That’s why in Rom. 11, Paul argues against Jews who might think they have been predestined and can’t be lost, when in fact they have been cut off the olive tree and the Gentiles through faith in Christ have been grafted in.

    Hope this helps. I need to get going.

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Beemer, NE

  7. @Diane #6
    I think that the last time I sang that in church I was still attending a Lutheran church, and the pastor from the Seafarer’s Mission came for a visit.

    The expression of an orthodox, Trinitarian faith is so beautifully crafted in its verses as they move from God the Father to the Son and the Holy Ghost ending in a unifying verse addressed to the Holy Trinity. Although it’s not, strictly speaking, a Lutheran hymn, it certainly holds together like some of the better Lutheran hymns.

  8. Pastor Preus,

    I’m not sure that its a mater of our culture moving away from Christianity, but a batter of out culture moving away from community. I think the community sing is going the way of the dodo as people are more and more sucked in to their own soundtrack on their walkmen or i-pods. But whatever the cause the days of sitting in the tavern belting out Die Gedanken Sind Frei, or in the student union singing Gaudeamus igitur are certainly gone.

    Public singing (unless done by the annoying person sitting next to you on the subway) is becoming more and more performative, hence the popularity of the talent show on TV, or the karaoke bar. Even the popularity of a program like Glee makes choral singing into a performance rather than a community action.

    As for your concern that the Church is emulating the world in its musical taste, I’m not sure that your concern is all that warranted. Remember that many of Luther’s hymns were written to tavern of volk songs. Granted the style of singing was communal and that may make a difference, but it does seem like a baptizing of the secular for divine purpose.

    I love a good gospel tune, a find Christian folk song from almost any tradition (I’m listening to some right now) but I’m no fan of them, or contemporary Christian music, performed in Church. I’m no fan of praise bands. I think that sort of sentimentalism has no place in the liturgy, and I’m not the only one. The Episcopal church recently did a study, as they consider revising their hymnal, of just what the youth are looking for when it comes to hymnody, and I’m sure many people were shocked. Here’s a link to a post about their findings:

    Thank you for the post. I certainly do agree with you that out Lutheran tradition of hymnody is worthy of preserving. Just what Lutheran hymns do and how they do it is so very important.

    There are some places left (although they are on the performitive side of the line) that our hymn traditions can still be found. There is an ELCA group, a band that does contemporary arrangements of traditional hymns: Koiné. Here’s a link to their site:
    They do get a bit earnest at times and use translations that I don’t love but…

    There is also a Presbyterian group putting out some interesting work involving traditional hymns in a contemporary alt-folk vernacular. Here’s a link:

    I realize that this doesn’t get people singing together, but it may be a way to get some interest in singing these songs again.

  9. Do our seminaries teach and train our pastors in Lutheran hymnody? In chanting the liturgy? It takes knowledge, training of the voice, and taste to get it right, and yes, all of this can be taught, even taste. Do our pastors get voice lessons at the sems? I wouldn’t let a man out until he could sing a complete liturgy in an acceptable voice (even the worst voices can find their best range with voice lessons). Pastors should understand that singing and chanting are a central part of their jobs.

    I’m working on a goal for us. Every Lutheran must learn 10 Luther hymns by heart and be able to sing at least 4 of them in JS Bach 4 part harmonizations. For pastors I’d add a pleasant and bold chanting of the whole liturgy, not just little bits of it. It could be that for the pastors to speak so much of the liturgy in response to the chanting of the congregation is teaching something we don’t want to teach. Not chanting the important parts of the liturgy is certainly teaching that singing is less acceptable than speaking.

    Howz about in every parish a men’s chorale accompanied by a brass choir? It would be gorgeous. Every Sunday they would perform one Lutheran hymn in a 4 part Bach harmonization, with the congregation singing every other verse along with the brass choir.

    Now for my most courageous idea, has anyone thought that the glockenspiel would be the best way to teach a group the melody of an unfamiliar hymn. They are so chrystal clear and bright. The male glockenspieler would process in right behind the male torch bearers and turn and face the congregation on the solea till the hymn is finished, then adjourning to the choirloft and the brass choir.

    And in this way we will discover JS Bach to be our most effective evangelizer. You can’t just tell people to be Ablaze, you have to set them ablaze, and my excellerant of choice is Bach.

  10. I also have a cynical suggestion for the organization of our next hymnal. The sectarian hymns should all be removed to the very back of the hymnal and placed into groupings that clearly state what sect they originate from. As in: Please turn to page 963, where we will now sing the Methodist hymn, Glory Glory Gloriola Glory. (preReformation hymns of Latin and Greek derivation should go with the Lutheran hymns in the front.)

    In this way we won’t have so many Lutherans mistaking sectarian hymns for Lutheran hymns. It’s so imbarrassing when member do that. But the current organization of the hymnal allows them to think it, does it not?

    At Bach’s time, Lutheran hymnals were printed with over 1,000 hymns in them. Surely we could find enough Lutheran hymns to fill up our hymnals.

  11. @Joanne #10

    I think your ideas about requiring memorization of Luther hymns and teaching 4 part choral harmonies are laudable WRT Lutheran schools, Sunday school, VBS and Catechesis. I doubt you’d get much traction with them in regard to adult congregants. Additionally, and I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh, (if you’re a trained music educator I know you’ve probably been taught not to believe this), but there many people who simply don’t have any singing talent, and would feel persecuted or exposed to ridicule if they were made to participate against their will. Kind of like the awkward geeky kids in gym class (related from personal gym class experience). Many of the people I know who either can’t, or think they can’t, carry a tune will join in the hymnody, if they feel they can blend in with the congregation at large.

    WRT teaching Pastors vocal techniques and proper chanting methodology, those too are good suggestions, but frankly, as a trained vocal musician, I have to opine that there are some people who simply haven’t been blessed with musical talent, or the ability to learn to sing well enough to lead a congregation through chanting. They shouldn’t be kept from the Office of the Holy Ministry because chanting the liturgy is required of them, or because they perceive that it is. I wish there were more Pastors that would adopt the old style of speaking their part and having the congregation chant theirs in response. They don’t have to view it as a personal challenge, or their own personal cross to bear, but with which they torture their congregation every week. I grew up in the Lutheran Church, and I don’t think I ever heard a Pastor chanting the Liturgy prior to 1982. It is terribly disorienting hen a Pastor tries to chant when he simply hasn’t been blessed with the talent to do it.

    Please don’t think I’m a music snob. I’m not. There are few things I find more joyful than to hear someone in our congregation singing boldly, even if they do it off key. I simply think, as a pew sitting congregant, if you are a pastor, you don’t have to be eloquent or mellifluous, just do your best to preach the Law and the Gospel, and try not to detract or distract from the word.

    Lord have mercy,
    Eric Ramer

  12. @Eric Ramer #12
    …but there many people who simply don’t have any singing talent,…

    Funny thing, when I was a kid, nobody told us we “couldn’t sing” so we all did.
    Our parents did, too, out of little hymnals without musical notation, which didn’t matter because they’d learned all the hymns. Our fathers sat on one side of the church and (since they weren’t hearing themselves among the women), sang to raise the rafters.

    We don’t need people to teach us that we “can’t sing”;
    we need people to teach us to do it! It isn’t grand opera; it’s worship.

    A lot of people who I would say “can’t sing” or play are making money doing it these days.

  13. @Erich #9
    Remember that many of Luther’s hymns were written to tavern of volk songs.

    This bit of false information has as many lives as that poor boiled frog!

    Once again, (in harmony, if you like): “Bar tunes” are melodies set to a definite tempo, with vertical ‘bars’ on the staff to indicate each measure. They did not come out of the “Bierstube”!

    I did read somewhere that Luther tried putting one Christmas hymn to the tune of a popular Christmas song, thought better of it and gave it a different tune. [The musicians probably know which one it was.]

  14. @helen #14
    Helen, I think it might be ‘From Heaven Above to Earth I Come’ #358 in LSB. A good resource for the history of our Lutheran musical heritage is the DVD titled, ‘Singing the Faith’ put out by The Good Shepherd Institute of Pastoral Theology and Sacred Music, CTS, Fort Wayne. Daniel Zager, a musicologist from the Eastman School of Music, talks about the Lutheran urban legend of bar tunes in this DVD and sets the record straight. I believe you are correct in your second paragraph about Luther changing his mind about using a folk tune for his Christmas hymn.

  15. Joanne, yes, they do. When I attended the seminary we had to do a complete liturgy, chanted, and video tape ourselves, which we then sat with the professor, one-on-one, and he watched and commented.

    The only remark my professor made about my chanting was, “Well, it’s good enough for lay people.”

    I’ve been pondering that remark ever since.

    : )

  16. @helen #13
    Thanks Helen. I agree, we don’t need people telling others that they can’t sing. If that’s where you think I’m coming from, then I’m saddened that I was unable to articulate my point more clearly. Please let me try again.

    There are many people among our fellow congregants that have physiological problems that prevent them from hearing or producing vocal music well enough for them to be comfortable for them to do it outside the collective congregation. There are others who simply don’t believe that they can, and out of sheer lack of confidence, won’t. I’ve never seen a Pastor or a choir director or a children’s music leader to ask anyone not to participate because they weren’t good enough. Sadly, I have seen parents, other choir members and fellow congregants do so, quite boldly and cruelly. I think asking adult church members to participate, under pressure (even if it is only by asking them to participate) would make many of them uncomfortable and might cause them to leave.

    WTR seminarians and Pastors, They too often carry this same baggage. The cost of seminary is daunting under the best of circumstances, as is the course load. Requiring Sem. students to take on more expense and instruction time for things that, while salutary, aren’t completely necessary for them to fulfill the Office they seek. I once knew a Pastor who was completely tone-deaf. He couldn’t hear, let alone reproduce pitch. He was a fine pastor, in that he faithfully administered the sacraments and properly preach God’s word. He didn’t chant the liturgy, and he always turned off the microphone during the hymns. He still sang them with gusto. I’m sure he probably had parishioners who asked him not to, but I never saw it, nor do I think the congregation would have tolerated it openly.

    The congregation I currently belong to has been blessed with a Pastor with a strong singing voice who chants the liturgy. Several times throughout the year we’ll have a visiting Pastor fill in. Almost invariably, when they hear that we chant the liturgy, they think that it is required of them to do likewise. Often, for what ever reason, the Pastor will lack the experience or confidence to chant well. Their halting and tentative style combined with their lack of familiarity with the liturgist’s music will result in the congregation being equally tentative and uncomfortable. It’s terribly distracting and unnecessary. Pastors should (IMO) be taught to do what they do well, and to do it boldly and in so doing, allow the congregation to do the same. THAT’S all I’m sayin’… If ya think aboudit… 🙂

    Eric Ramer

  17. @Eric Ramer #17
    Pastors should (IMO) be taught to do what they do well, and to do it boldly and in so doing, allow the congregation to do the same.

    We had Richard Resch from CTS down here for a CE class on liturgy and music.
    He did say he had recommended the spoken service to one seminarian but usually they could learn chanting, even if it wasn’t familiar. It’s disheartening to hear but CG has been around long enough so that men are coming to seminary who have never participated in a liturgical service!

  18. @helen #14


    Thank you for the correction in regard to tavern songs.

    I went off and did a bit more of research. I found a site that gave me this information:

    “Of the melodies to Luther’s 37 chorales, 15 were composed by Luther himself, 13 came from Latin hymns of Latin service music, 4 were derived from German religious folk songs, 2 had originally been religious pilgrims’ songs, 2 are of unknown origin, and one came directly from a secular folk song.” (Data compiled from Squire, pp. 446-447; Leupold, ed., Liturgy and Hymns; and Strodach, ed., Works of Martin Luther, VI)

    There are still some volk songs here, but of a religious nature; perhaps of the Tennessee Ernie Ford of the time? There are also the songs of unknown origin and the one that is flat out a secular tune.

    I’m no lover of praise bands, or overly sentimental rock style music in the liturgy. I certainly don’t want a light show with a thumping base and “liturgical fan dancers,” but neither am I a pietist. My personal tastes aside (They run to the more Renaissance.) I don’t think the style of music is as important as the text being set, and the dignity with which it is offered to the Glory of God.

    I’ll say no more.

  19. Just a funny side note. My son and his buddies like to sing crazy songs together like “Song after the Credits” and other silly kid songs they find online. My kids sit in the car and I can’t get them to stop singing Weird Al’s “Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” So, people will sing if you let them. It is contagious and fun. Also, people like some familiarity. If you want kids (or adults) to enthusiastically sing hymns they don’t know, that is just foolish. You have to let them sing by repeating the songs enough to know them. CPH Sunday school lessons come with CD’s for the kids to take home and sing hymns, verses, songs and catechism. We play it in the car and in the kitchen at breakfast. They are happy to sing along in the service because they learned the hymns from the CD. They have favorites I play from that CD at bedtime. That is also how they learned Luther’s morning and evening prayer.

  20. Martin Luther was too busy inventing the Christmas Tree to run around stealing tunes from the local bars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.