In the winter of 1959, Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse wrote a piece entitled, “Liturgy and Confession: a Brotherly Warning Against the ‘High Church’ Danger.” In the context of the twentieth century, Sasse identified an effort to unite Christians through a return to the liturgy of the early church. During this period, substantial liturgical reforms were undertaken among Lutherans in particular, and this meant a wholesale reconsideration of the Lutheran liturgical heritage, the reforms of the mass by Luther, and the theology of worship. In the twentieth century, Lutherans were sometimes caught praying the Roman “Hail Mary” and the eucharistic prayers asking God to receive the church’s sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. They were heard calling down the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements with an Eastern Orthodox epiclesis. Sometimes they would offer prayers for the dead as in the Roman mass. Lutheran pastors were seen donning more elaborate vestments and adding a greater solemnity and reverence with gestures and actions originating in Anglicanism. Sasse questions the motivation behind this massive surge in re-forming the liturgy. Is it reason enough for our practice today that the early church said particular words, made particular gestures, or prayed certain prayers? Is it reason enough for our practice today that many or even most Christians share a particular form of worship? Is it reason enough for forsaking Luther and the Lutheran tradition in order to achieve greater outward unity?

Sasse’s answer, I think, ought to be a guiding light for us as we consider how we worship today. Sasse argues that the task of the church is to “confess,” to “speak back to God what he has said.” As such, confession takes three forms: the confession of sins, the confession of faith, and the confession of praise. All three find their home in the church and one cannot be found without the others. Because God has addressed his church with the word, the church is bound to speak back to God and she does this by acknowledging her sin, confessing God’s mercy, and singing her Lord’s praise.

The church has long recognized the relationship between these three with the aphorism, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – which can be understood as “right prayer expresses itself in right belief.” But Sasse claims with Pope Pius XII that the inverse is and must also be true, “Lex credendi, lex orandi” or “right belief expresses itself in right prayer.” In other words, the relationship between faith and prayer or belief and worship is mutual. Faith produces prayer and prayer expresses faith.

Because of this relationship, when it comes to the way we worship, Sasse argues that if we are going to reshape or reform our liturgy or worship practice, a reformation in what we believe is also necessary. It is not enough to simply look into history and discover the practices of early churches and repristinate them for the modern world. Historical inquiry only acknowledges half the equation: how the early church prayed or how people pray today. We also have to ask what was believed and what is confessed by the church through any particular worship practice.

An illuminating example of this is the confession of Luther in the Smalcald Articles, which forms a sort of theological last will and testament for Luther. Of special note is Article II, concerning the office and work of Christ, where Luther lays out the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. This teaching he calls the article upon which “stands all that we teach and practice” and if there is any concession on justification, “everything is lost…” (SA II.1.5). Immediately following this, Luther writes against the mass as the “greatest and most terrible abomination…” (SA II.2.1) because it contradicts the chief article concerning the work of Christ. The Roman form of worship (prayer) cannot be tolerated because it stands against the article on justification (belief). It makes the worship service about man’s sacrifice to God instead of God’s gift to mankind. The language that Luther consistently uses is that it makes the Divine Service a sacrifice (sacrificium) instead of a gift or sacrament (sacramentum). In this we see that justification and worship are one flesh and what God has joined, the papacy has sundered.

This sundering of the relationship between justification and worship tends to be the single greatest error when we gather to discuss or reform worship. For Luther, worship is not chiefly about us but “for us.” It is the space and time where God is calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying his people through the gospel (SC II.3). Worship is for receiving the goods of the gospel, for reading, hearing, and chewing on the word of God. It is to “put aside the work you do // so that God may work in you” (LSB 581, stanza 4). The article on justification is not simply the most important article, it is the basis and boundary of the church’s theological reflection, its faith and practice. It ought to norm not only what we confess, but how we worship. In light of this, the questions of history, modernity, tradition, unity, relevance, and catholicity are all secondary to the question of the gospel. Is Christ being delivered, is Christ the center, are his gifts being received, and is he alone being glorified?

Many modern liturgical reforms – whether they seek to make worship more modern or more ancient – fail to seriously consider these questions. Between reverence and relevance, traditional and contemporary, awe and entertainment, the ability to rightly judge worship has largely been lost. Sasse concludes by noting that Luther was such a great reformer of the liturgy because he possessed the measure on which it could be judged, namely, “the holy Gospel, the saving message of the justification of the sinner by faith alone… on this article depends not only our salvation, but also the church and the liturgy of the true church.” As such, for Sasse all our work in the liturgy ought to begin and end with the prayer of Luther, “Lord keep us steadfast in your Word.”