Historic Liturgy: Affirmations Prompted by Putdowns

Recently two friends went out of their way at the same school event to issue putdowns towards liturgical worship in the Lutheran church.

One was raised Lutheran. She is a member of a Lutheran church and attends regularly. She had visited a local congregation of an Evangelical denomination. She told my wife she liked the worship there, whereas in her Lutheran church, “The liturgy is just man-made.”

The other is an Elder in an Evangelical church. Following a glancing reference to my wife’s and my LCMS church, he said, “You might as well say ten Hail Marys.”

These putdowns prompt me to affirm four simple things about the historic liturgy.

  1. Everyone has liturgy.
  2. The historic liturgy is scriptural.
  3. The historic liturgy enacts Law and Gospel.
  4. The historic liturgy moves from God to sinners before it moves from saints to God.
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From these we will be able to see that this is not a matter of style. It is a matter of substance. The Divine Service is about Jesus serving us, delivering forgiveness of sins. That’s what we’re risking when we depart from the history liturgy.


1. Everyone Has Liturgy.

There is no choice between having liturgy or not. Everyone has liturgy. The choice is which liturgy to have.

So-called non-liturgical denominations traditionally had established orders of service. Those orders are their liturgies. The fact that they are not the historic liturgy does not stop them from being liturgies.

In the 1960s, newer forms were developed from which much of what we call “contemporary worship” sprang. While at first, they might seem freewheeling, they are forms. Watch from service to service, and you’ll see patterns. There is a mini-industry of worship leadership for so-called non-liturgical worship. Patterns taught there may be seen not only from week to week in a congregation, but from congregation to congregation across the country.

So the question is not whether to have patterns, forms, orders, or liturgy. Instead, the questions are:

  • Where do the patterns come from?
  • What do the patterns say? What do the patterns do?


2. The Historic Liturgy is Scriptural.

In the historic liturgy, the patterns and forms come from both:

  1. Particular Scripture texts, and
  2. The overall narrative of Scripture.

When I grew up in the American Lutheran Church, the Service Book and Hymnal did not explicitly state in the settings where the elements of the liturgy came from. That was partly because it didn’t need to. Much of it was obvious because, in those days, from our youth up, we memorized many verses of Scripture. We could recognize the source of the historic liturgy as being the Bible without anyone having to point that out.

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That’s why it surprises me when people from Bible-believing churches visit a confessional Lutheran church and don’t seem to recognize Scripture in the liturgy.

The creators of the Lutheran Service Book in today’s Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod wisely print the Scripture references at the right margin of the pages.

The historic liturgy is one sure-fire way to hear God’s Words and speak them back to him. This is basically how communication between God and man happens: we hear God’s Word and speak it back to him.


3. The Historic Liturgy Enacts Law and Gospel.

For all the details, biographies, events, names, dates, places, and precepts in the Bible, it is not a mass of confusion. The Word not only says things. It DOES things. The overall story of the Bible is what the Word does. The Word does essentially two things, which is simple.

Following the Word, the historic liturgy not only says things. It does things. The historic liturgy enacts what the Word does. Since the Word does essentially two things, the historic liturgy does essentially two things, which is simple.

The Word does things to creation in general. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Genesis 1:3. “He spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.” Psalm 33:9.

Jesus’ Word does things. “He awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” Matthew 8:26, Mark 4:39, Luke 8:24. “The centurion replied, ‘ … only say the word, and my servant will be healed.” Matthew 8:8. The man who had a withered hand could not stretch it forth because that’s what withered means. But when Jesus said, “Stretch out your hand,” because of the Word, he could stretch it. Matthew 12:13, Mark 3:5, Luke 6:10. “Jesus rebuked [the unclean spirit], saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.” Mark 1:25-26.

The Word does things to us. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.

God does things to us by speaking two essential Words: the Word of the Law, and the Word of the Gospel.

The Law is the Word of God telling us what we should do, and pronouncing judgment and condemnation when we fail to do it. The Law in oral, written, and sacramental forms kills us. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” Romans 6:3. Christians are, “buried with him in baptism.” Colossians 2:12. “The letter kills.” 2 Corinthians 3:6.

The Gospel is the Word of God telling us how Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, including paying our wages of sin, which is death, and setting us free of the Law’s condemnation. The Gospel resurrects us and makes us alive.

“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4. That verse speaks the Law, then the Gospel, and the Gospel predominates. It shows what the Law and Gospel do to us.

Buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. [Colossian 2:12-14]

Those verses speak the Law, then the Gospel, and the Gospel predominates. They show what the Law and Gospel do to us.

The historic liturgy makes sure that in every service, this essential story of what God does to us by Law and Gospel is retold. In this way, the Word is deployed to again and again do what God wants it to do.

The Invocation begins the Divine Service in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Why? Because that is the Name into which we were baptized, and in Baptism, the Law buried us with Christ, and the Gospel raised us with Christ. Next are Confession and Absolution, which continue the Law-Gospel story. In them, the Law tells us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us,” 1 John 1:8, and the Gospel tells us, “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9.

This pattern of Law and Gospel is repeated throughout the liturgy, with the Gospel predominating.


4. The Historic Liturgy Moves from God to Sinners before It Moves from Saints to God.

The direction of the service must be from God to us first before it can be from us to God. In the hymn, “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice,” we sing: “Come from on high to me; I cannot rise to Thee.”

The shape of the action in the Divine Service begins on high and descends to us. Then in response, we rise to repeat God’s promises back to him, to thank him, and to praise him. This bidirectional action, beginning with God, not us, is repeated throughout the service. So the shape of the service is like a W, not like an M.

God does not need anything, and we have nothing to give God. Sometimes pietistic lyrics say that because we have nothing to give God, we give him our hearts. But the Bible says our hearts are full of sin, and that out of our hearts come all kinds of iniquity. Our hearts are no prize. What God prizes is faith that receives gifts from him.

The difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the latreiva, which receives the benefits offered by God; the righteousness of the Law is the latreiva, which offers to God our merits. By faith God wishes to be worshiped in this way, that we receive from Him those things which He promises and offers. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV.49)

A service having the shape of an M begins with us trying to rise to God and offer him something. That is a Law-based, works-righteous attempt at a worship service. The right service properly is called a Divine Service because in it, God is active serving us again, as when Jesus washed Peter’s feet.

This sounds self-centered at first, but we always must bear two things in mind. First, we pass by sin too lightly when we think we can begin by serving God before He serves us. Second, serving us is what He wants to do, and the rejection of his service to us is like when Peter tried to reject having Jesus wash his feet. “Peter said to Him, ‘You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’” John 13:6. We must not think we can be more worshipful than receiving his gifts, his washing away our sins.



The shape of God’s Word – the shape of Law-Gospel – shapes the historic liturgy. In this way the substance and the form of the service align. Therefore this is not a matter of style. It is a matter of substance.

The liturgy is not a style of worship. The liturgy is the substance of justification being delivered to sinners through the means of Law and Gospel in written, spoken, and sacramental forms. “The crisis over the liturgy is a result of confusion over the forgiveness of sins.”1

The liturgy is … divine service, the Lord’s service to us through the proclamation of His Word and the giving out of His body and blood. … God is the subject not the object of liturgical action. The trajectory is from the Lord to His Church and then from the Church to her Lord. In Luke 22, just after He had established the supper of His body and blood, the Lord says, “I am among you as one who serves” (v. 27). This verse embodies the Lutheran understanding of the liturgy; it is the service that Jesus renders to His church, given by grace and received by faith.2


1. John T. Pless, “Divine Service: Delivering Forgiveness of Sins,” Presented at the South Dakota District Lay/Clergy Conferences, Rapid City, SD, May 6, 1995, Sioux Falls, SD, May 7, 1995, there are no page numbers.
2. Ibid.

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