Luther’s Legacy in Song
Martin Luther believed that music was second only to Scripture in its ability to elevate the soul. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul, W. Robert Godfrey, Steven Lawson, and Stephen Nichols discuss some of Luther’s most famous and heartfelt hymns.
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R.C. Sproul: Sacred music was an integral part of Luther’s background as a monk. Once he came out of the monastery, he still had a profound appreciation for the importance of church music. In fact, he said second only to the Bible, the Word of God, is the importance of music because music has the singular ability to elevate the soul.
Steven Lawson: Well, in Luther’s day, the worship service had become dead because the spiritual leaders were spiritually dead, the people were spiritually dead, and there was a dead profession of faith in the church. When Luther burst onto the scene, he brought the life of the truth of the gospel with him. Such theology revolutionized the doxology in the church. People now are alive unto God under the preaching of the Word of God. Their hearts began to overflow with anthems of praise for God. It is high doctrine that always promotes high devotion to God. Luther was responsible for this. Luther himself began to write hymns, and they were expressions of his great love for Scripture and love for God. So for example, when the Black Plague swept through Europe, he chose to stay in Wittenberg and to minister to the people who were suffering. In the midst of that crisis, he wrote that great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It was the direct result of meditating upon Psalm 46. God had become a stronghold and a refuge for him in his hour of greatest need.
R.C. Sproul: When things would be difficult at the University of Wittenberg, Melanchthon, Luther’s closest lieutenant, tried to rally the discouraged professors and would say, “Gentlemen, let’s sing the 46th,” meaning “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That song, of course, has come down to our day.
W. Robert Godfrey: One of the convictions of Luther is that singing would be a great way for people to know God’s truth. For that reason, he wrote hymns, and the Lutheran tradition encouraged the use of hymns, the development of hymns.
Stephen Nichols: My favorite hymn of Luther’s is a hymn called “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.” In that hymn, Luther actually plays off of a medieval saying. If they had bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, this would have been a bumper sticker. The saying was this: “In the midst of life—media vita in morte sumus—in the midst of life we are in death.” It’s a terrible worldview. Talk about the effect of the Middle Ages on the people. Doesn’t that show the hopelessness that was there on the eve of the Reformation, that they’re saying in the midst of life we die? Here’s what Luther does in that hymn—and it shows how clever he is, and it also shows what a great theologian he is—in that hymn, Luther turns it around. He says, “No, the truth is in the midst of death we live.”