Worship in Spirit as Free from Ritual – A Letter from the Michigan District President, by Pr. Rossow

President David P. E. Maier invited the pastors of his district to their 2011 theological conferences on worship with a letter that includes an interesting theology of worship. I will let you chew on it and provide your comments below.

I commend President Maier for starting out by quoting confessional hymn writer Stephen Starke and for other helpful thoughts such as the distinction between sacrificial and sacramental, but beyond that it appears to me that there is a subtle and constant undercurrent that falsely equates “worship in spirit” (John 4:1ff) with an anti-ritual bent. Maybe I am reading it wrong but if not, we can now add this to the theology of contextualization coming out of the St. Louis Seminary as another attempt to justify the worship innovations of the late 20th century.

When Jesus says true worship is in “spirit and truth,” the “spirit” part of that refers to the Holy Spirit. You may be able to offer more theologically subtle explanations below in the comments but let me open the bidding by stating that “worship in spirit” means worship in, by and for the Holy Spirit which would bring us back to Pastor Wilken’s riddle from the other day. True worship is scriptural since the Holy Spirit inspired the doctrine of Holy Writ.

Here is the text of the letter. Let me know what you think.

Come, Let Us Worship the Lord Our Maker

An Introduction and Invitation to the Michigan District Theological Conferences on Worship in early 2011

In the first stanza of a hymn recently penned by Rev. Steven P. Starke of Michigan, we read these words:

O sing of Christ, whose birth made known
The kindness of the Lord,
Eternal Word made flesh and bone
So we could be restored.
Upon our frail humanity
God’s finger chose to trace
The fullness of His deity,
The icon of His grace.1 (LSB, #362)

Having come to know the Word made flesh by God’s grace through faith, we joyously sing, prais­ing our God for His great kindness in giving us a Savior from sin. We read the Christmas accounts in the Gospels, marveling at the angelic announcement to the shepherds and their response of wonder, joy, and proclamation. (Lk. 2:8-20) We celebrate God’s leading of the Magi by star which enabled them to see God, worship the Word made flesh, and present Him with gifts. (Matt. 2:1-12)

These familiar pictures of the bestowal of God’s grace to the shepherds and Magi, and their response, illustrate what Paul Z. Strodach defines as worship. Strodach states: “Worship is seeking and apprehend­ing the Presence of God.” It is “the bond of meet­ing”2 with God Himself. This may seem a simple view of worship, especially since in recent years worship has become a topic of diligent study and, at times, a point of conten­tion. I firmly believe, however, especially when we turn to the Holy Scriptures and the Lu­theran Confessions, that definitions and pictures of worship are graciously simple and descriptive rather than being detailed and prescriptive.

The Sacramental and the Sacrificial

The joy of the shepherds and the worship of the magi remind me of another incident, a remarkable three-day event detailed in Matthew 15:29-39. In verses 30 and 31 we are told in brief, partial sum­mary what transpired: “Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.”

Considering the fact that most of these people were Gentiles, how can it be said that “they glorified the God of Israel?” They didn’t have a build­ing in which to do this. They didn’t have a published hymn book to pass out and use. They didn’t have any set, inherited liturgical forms to follow. Without using the word “worship,” that is what occurred. For these healed people to glorify “the God of Israel” was to offer praise for, to be thankful for, to acknowledge the attributes of the 5 Michigan District www.michigandistrict.org

God that they now knew, and to recognize the healings and other blessings they had received as prompted by and stemming from His attributes: His love, mercy, care, kindness, compassion, omniscience, omnipotence, and the like.

If one looks closely at this passage, the two sides of biblically enjoined worship can be clearly seen:

(1) the “sacramental” – that is what God gives during worship to His people in His grace and love, because of the saving merits of Jesus, through His Word, and the Sacra­ments; and

(2) the “sacrificial” – that is our Holy Spirit induced (cf. Phil. 2:13, 14) response to the received convicting, saving, strengthening, and equipping gifts of God.3

These people, having been served by Jesus, ex­perienced His healing in their lives, undoubtedly listened to His words, and received what He gave, could not but respond in the joyful way in which they did: “and they glorified the God of Israel.”

In Spirit and Truth

I am also reminded of Jesus’ encounter with another Gentile, the Samaritan woman, in John 4. Jesus comments to this woman in verses 23-24: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Jesus here explains to the adulterous woman what true worship will be, and what the param­eters for all true worship will be, once Jewish ritualism disappears. He describes how true worship centers in the worshipper’s own re­generate “spirit” (Rom. 1:9) propelled by God’s Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14, 16, 26). But this is not enough. Many put all their heart and soul into a worship “experience” and yet may be worship­ping what is false. “Emotionally charged” wor­ship cannot automatically be equated with right worship. To the subjective feature of worship – “in spirit” – Jesus adds the important objective counter part – “in truth.” “Truth” means real­ity; and there is no greater reality than God’s own revealed truth, the inspired Word. (John 17:17)

The worshipper’s own “spirit” and God’s own revealed “truth” together form the sphere in which all true worship necessarily takes place.4 These are the essentials. R. C. H. Lenski gives a particularly succinct and excellent summary regarding Jesus’ words about worship to this Samaritan woman:

“Omit the spirit, and though you have the truth, the worship becomes formalism, mere ritual observance. Omit the truth, and though the whole soul is thrown into the worship, it becomes an abomination. Thus ‘spirit and truth’ form a unit, two halves that belong together in every act of worship.”5

For the Samaritan woman to worship “in spirit and truth” meant that she did not have to wait to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. She didn’t have to offer a sacrifice or follow a prescribed order to worship rightly. She could then and there perform the very highest act of worship, that is, to receive and accept by grace through faith the Father’s pardon – the forgiveness of her sins – and then return to Him her spirit’s thank­ful praise. Instead of condemning ceremonies and ordered forms of worship, Jesus demonstrates that it is not in ritualism or things done by rote (cf. Is. 29:13) but “in spirit and truth” that the true wor­ship, which the Father desires, is rendered.

Remembering Our Rich Heritage

The Formula of Concord says: “… we be­lieve, teach, and confess unanimously that the ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God, but which have been introduced solely for the sake of good order and the general welfare, are in and of themselves no divine worship or even a part of it. ‘In vain do they worship me, teach­ing as a doctrine the precepts of men’ (Matt. 15:19).”6 Even Luther urged that “a preacher must watch and diligently instruct the people lest they take such uniform practices as divinely appointed and absolutely binding laws.”7

With the God-given directive of reaching the lost and discipling the saved (Matt. 28:18-20) in every generation’s contemporary context, wor­ship orders and ceremonies, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16) will undoubtedly change. The Michigan In Touch December 2010 / January 2011 6

task is to preserve the indispensable “sacramental” (the gifts God gives) and the “sacrificial” (our faith-inspired response) aspects of worship, ever alongside the “in spirit and truth” principle. Our task, today, is to remember our rich heritage that we have in liturgy and hymnody and to continue to build our worship and faith life with it and on it.

The Solid Declaration gives elucidating coun­sel when it states: “We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies ac­cording to its circumstances, as long as it does so without frivolity and offense but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church.”8

God is Really Among You

As God’s people, we are to reach out to a dying world in love as did our gracious God at Christmas. This is even to be true in our worship services. In 1 Corinthians 14, where we are given a glimpse of an early Christian worship service, the Apostle Paul, in correcting the worship practices of the Corinthians, states the principle that their worship should be done so that when “an unbeliever or someone who does not understand” (a visitor; cf. 1 Cor. 14:16) comes in, “he will fall down and worship God, ex­claiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor. 14:24, 25) Here, then, is displayed the concepts of cultural sensitivity, relevancy, and love, especially for unbe­lievers and new Christians.

The Commission of Theology and Church Rela­tions (CTCR) in its document entitled “Racism and the Church – Overcoming the Idolatry,” shares some insightful thoughts regarding cultural sensitiv­ity, love, and change:

“When a Christian congregation includes new members of differing backgrounds, it will do all in its power to make them feel that they are truly wel­come as members of that family … When a congre­gation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit genu­inely welcomes new members, changes will take place. These changes will reflect the full range of cul­tures represented in the Christian family. Openness to change in such things as the order of worship, the hymnody, the expressions of love and friendship, as well as the recreational life of the congregation, will reveal the congregation’s eagerness to embrace all people in the love of Christ. Changes grounded in the truth of God’s Word and motivated by love for His people will enhance every aspect of the life and work of the congregation.”9 (Emphasis mine.)

Theological Conferences of Worship

In light of the above, I want to share with you that in August of 2009, the District Presidents of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod received a letter of invitation to, and explanation for, a Model Theologi­cal Conference on Worship. The letter was from Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, Executive Director for the Com­mission on Theology and Church Relations, and Dr. David Johnson, Executive Director on the Commis­sion for Worship. An excerpt from that letter follows:

For some years, worship has been a topic of debate, dissension, and some ill will in our Synod. We are all too familiar with “worship wars.” While it may be tempting to resign ourselves to a polarized status quo, we all know that such division is not pleasing to the Lord whom we serve and that we sorely need – under God’s blessing – renewed unity in this vital area of our life of faith.

The 2007 convention resolved “that the Commis­sion on Worship and the Commission on Theology and Church Relations organize a model theological conference … in order to ‘build greater understand­ing of our theology of worship and foster further discussion of worship practices that are consistent with that theology,’” (2007 Res. 2-01).

That Model Theological Conference took place in early January of 2010. Such conferences in our Synod have been called “Model” so that they can be ‘modeled,’ that is, duplicated in some fashion, within the Districts of our Synod.

The Michigan District will be hosting Come, Let Us Worship the Lord Our Maker – the title for our Theological Conferences on Worship. These confer­ences will be held on three different Saturdays to facilitate attendance by church lay leaders, as well as by professional church workers, at three different lo­cations within Michigan. The dates and locations are:

  • January 29, 2011 Holy Cross, Jenison
  • February 12, 2011 Our Shepherd, Birmingham
  • February 26, 2011 Holy Cross, Saginaw

Each Conference will begin at 9:00 a.m. and end at 5:00 p.m. Each will have the same Agenda and the same keynote speakers (presentation titles are found in parentheses):

  • Dr. David Johnson, former Executive Director of Synod’s Commission on Worship (Towards A Theology of Worship: The State of Worship in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod).
  • Dr. James Waddell, one of our Michigan District pastors who spoke at Synod’s Model Theological Conference (Towards A Theology of Worship: A Bibli­cal and Confessional Understanding and Approach).
  • Rev. Larry Vogel, Assistant Director for the Commission of Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) (Towards A Theology of Worship: Contextual Worship: Glorifying God, Proclaiming Christ).

Each conference will also provide ample opportunity for meaningful dialog, questions and answers, table talk, fellowship, and of course … worship.

In closing, let us meditate together on the words of another Christmas hymn penned by Martin Luther, We Praise You, Jesus, at Your Birth (LSB, #382).

In poverty He came to earth
Showing mercy by His birth;
He make us rich in heav’nly ways
As we, like angels, sing His praise.

All this for us our God has done
Granting love through His own son.
Therefore, all Christendom, rejoice
And sing His praise with endless voice.

Merry Christmas to you all! In the Name of Jesus, may you have a most blessed New Year as well! I look forward to seeing you at one of our Michigan District Come, Let Us Worship the Lord our Maker Theological Conferences on Worship.

Grateful for the opportunity of worship,

Rev. David P. E. Maier


  1. Lutheran Service Book: Pew Edition; (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, MO, 2006) p.362
  2. Paul Z. Strodach, A Manual on Worship; (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenbberg Press,1946), p. xix.
  3. A wonderful example of this “sacramental” (what God gives), and “sacrificial” (our response) aspect of worship can be seen in Martin Luther’s great Christmas hymn(s) From Heaven Above to Earth I Come / Welcome to Earth, O Noble Guest. In Lutheran Worship (LW, #37 and #38) the hymns are literally set up as Part I – The Angel’s Message and Part II – Our Response. Lutheran Service Book (LSB, #358) combines the verses from both hymns into one with this annotation: “The first five stanzas declare the joyful words of the angel proclaiming the wondrous news of Jesus’ birth. The remaining stanzas declare the response of the shepherds and the meaning of the Savior’s birth for all the world.”
  4. “… in spirit and truth” ( ), John 4:24, is one concept as the one preposition “in” ( ) governs both nouns.
  5. R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p.323.
  6. The Book of Concord, ed. and trans. by T. G. Tappert (Philadelphia, PA: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art X, Church Usages, 3, p.493; Cf. Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XXIV, The Mass, 33, pp. 255-256; The Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVII, 40-44, pp.69-70.
  7. “A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians Concerning Public Worship and Concord, 1525,” Luther’s Works, Vol. LIII: Liturgy and Hymns, ed. By Ulrich S. Leupold (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1965), p. 48.
  8. The Book of Concord: Kolb Edition. The Solid Declaration, Article X, paragraph 9, p. 637.
  9. Racism and the Church – Overcoming the Idolatry”, A Report of The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (February, 1994), pp. 53-54.
  10. Lutheran Service Book, op.cit., p. 382

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.