When All Else Fails, Preach A Hymn (But Not Any Hymn)

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Hymns were a means by which people were brought into direct contact with the Gospel that brought justifying faith. Set to music, they could readily memorize it, take it home with them, and rehearse its messages around the hearth and at work.

Most preachers have, at one time or another, incorporated a hymn stanza into a sermon. Hymns, after all, are devotional poetry set to music. Poetic language can be more serviceable to make a point or convey a sentiment due to its ability to broaden the range of words. Hymns, like poems, have a certain elasticity to them which resonates with the human spirit. They might even be characterized as “artistic words” offering language a depth dimension more human, more spiritual than propositional statements. This is why hymns and poems routinely find their way into the craft of preaching — they aid in warming the soul to propositional truth.

But is it appropriate to preach a hymn, that is, to use a hymn as sermonic text?

To be sure, nineteenth and twentieth century pietism and sentimentalism have done little to commend hymns as a repository for Biblical truth. Aside from being, in large part, schmaltzy, they can be too intentionally subjective and emotive, steering the spiritual aspect into the domain of “enthusiasm” (“god-in-you”-ism). When the subject who sings the hymn becomes the object within the hymns, then the content fails to rightly convey God’s Law and the Gospel, indeed, God’s story nor our story. Christ and Him crucified must be heralded, even in Christian hymnody. However, some hymnody is in fact so Biblical, so theologically sound and Christocentric (merely serving as an organized paraphrase of the very words of Scripture), that the Law and the Gospel resonate clearly, making for appropriate sermonic material set to distinctive music.

A good example can be found in the Lutheran Service Book hymn No. 539, “Christ Is the World’s Redeemer”. Attributed to the sixth-century Irish Abbott and missionary to Scotland, Saint Columba, and set to the Irish tune Moville,[1] it systematically arranges texts from Acts 2:21-36; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 12:2; and Revelation 7:8-17. Accompanied by music which rises and falls with the redemptive-historical accomplishments of Christ, the hymn is a tour de force of the Reformation sola, solus Christus.[2] Stanzas two and three read:

Christ has the hosts surrounded / With clouds of martyrs bright,
Who wave their palms in triumph / And fire us for the fight.
Then Christ the cross ascended / To save a world undone
And, suff’ring for the sinful / Our full redemption won.

Down through the realms of darkness / He strode in victory.
And at the hour appointed / He rose triumphantly.
And now, to heav’n ascended, / He sits upon the throne
Whence He had ne’er departed, / His Father’s and His own.

Two things are noteworthy here: First, the rich and uncompromising Biblical and Christocentric content in the form of narrative — it tells the story of human sin and messianic salvation. This hymn clearly possesses theological substance, such that one would expect to be heralded by a missionary or evangelist. These stanzas bring us to the proclamatory high point — the atonement for sin by crucifixion and the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Second, if we could this moment hear it, we would note how the C Minor or modal key of Moville conveys a mood of gravitas for its subject matter. The content could not be more important. The context never more holy. The hymn therefore is set to stirring, haunting music that is not easily forgotten. This hymn preaches because its content is the unadulterated central message of Scripture. This hymn preaches because it embodies Law and Gospel and exalts Christ as its subject and the object of our worship. That is the standard for preaching a hymn text.

This hymn preaches because its content is the unadulterated central message of Scripture.

In Christopher Boyd Brown’s book, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation,[3] he explains not only how thoroughly effective hymnody was in catechizing evangelical faith in sixteenth-century Germany, but also how routinely hymns were employed as sermon texts to proclaim the whole counsel of God.[4] This is because their content was every bit as Biblical and Christocentric as Saint Columba’s or, interestingly, as the pre-New Testament hymns Saint Paul incorporated into this letters.

Following the 1529 visitations, during which Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johannes Bugenhagen canvased the villages of Saxony to ascertain what priests and parishioners knew of the Christian faith, Luther penned three items to remedy the widespread, generational ignorance of Christianity they encountered — the Small Catechism, a prayer book, and the first Wittenberg hymnal intended for general use, with many of its hymns written by the Reformer himself.[5] Having taken care to compose a complete cycle of hymns for six chief parts of his Catechism, Luther wrote: “For we would have the Christian doctrine diligently set forth by all means, by preaching, reading, singing, etc., and always taught to the young and simple folk, so that it may ever be preserved in its purity, and handed down to our descendants.”[6]

Just as the Scripture was the content of the Catechism, so too the hymn is but catechetical singing. Since the content, message, and intent was the same—Scripture’s Law and Gospel—there was no difference for Luther between preaching a catechetical sermon and preaching a catechetical hymn. Both were mere distillations of Scripture: the one dogmatic, the other poetic. Consequently, explains Brown,

“Luther’s hymns might also be heard from the pulpit itself as the text for sermons. The most substantial example of this homiletic genre is even by Cyriacus Spangenberg, who published four volumes of sermons on all of Luther’s hymns… But sermons based on the hymns were widespread, constituting a distinct and significant genre of Lutheran preaching. By such means the Lutheran pastors not only drew attention to the words of the hymns bit also encouraged the laity to reflect on their meaning.”[7]

Hymns were a means by which people were brought into direct contact with the Gospel that brought justifying faith. Set to music, they could readily memorize it, take it home with them, and rehearse its messages around the hearth and at work. Insofar as it was the case that hymns were consciously composed as New Testament psalms, hymns participated in the divine power which the earliest Reformers attributed to the Word of God. This view, of course, was as ancient as the Scriptures themselves — full of divinely inspired canticles such as Zechariah’s Song and the Magnificat, but no less Saint Paul where he incorporates pre-New Testament hymns into his epistolary and thereby canonizing them according to the will and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (e.g. Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-18). The phenomenon of hymn-based sermons (Liedpredigten), “arose out of the same conviction of substantial identity of the hymns with the scriptural Word.”[8]

Hymns were a means by which people were brought into direct contact with the Gospel that brought justifying faith

When hymns were of this Biblical content and theological quality, they could not only be appreciated as sermonic-material but also bring the same effects — convicting with the Law, engendering or stirring faith, and bringing divine comfort and pardon. The association of the Lutheran hymns with both teaching and comfort went to the core of the conservative Reformation’s understanding of the Gospel. “Hymnal after Lutheran hymnal,” writes Christopher Boyd Brown, “advertised itself as being filled with both Lehr [doctrine] and Trost [comfort]—two sides of the same Gospel coin.”[9] Here, then, we have the reasons why a preacher not only then but also today might select a hymn as a sermon text — to proclaim the Gospel as God’s revealed truth about Christ and to bring comfort to sinners. Both reasons are purposed by the preacher to elicit faith. The genius in employing a hymn text which met the Biblical and Christocentric criteria was how it allowed one’s auditors to hear the Gospel in church, then sing the Gospel at home, calling for faith in the assembly and then sustaining it in the family.

We close our consideration with another example of a worthy hymn which meets the Biblical and Christocentric standard and self-consciously bears the instruments of the Reformation — sola gratia, sola fide, and sola Christus — Paul Speratus’ 1525 hymn, Es its daw Heil uns knommen her:

Salvation unto us has come
By God’s pure grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone:
For all our sins he has atoned;
He is our mediator.

Moving to the sixth stanza, Spertus continues:

The Christian does good works indeed,
Else were he unbelieving;
Good works from faith alone proceed,
From faith their worthy receiving.
But faith alone can justify;
Works serve the neighbor and supply
The sign that faith is present.[10]

Here we find a marvelous juxtaposition of grace and Law, faith and good works, that was preached from the pulpit in Joachimsthal by the Reverend Johann Mathesius in the sixteenth century but which is perfectly suitable for contemporary preachers who struggle not only discerning a text to preach but how to preach its contents. If all else fails and for whatever reason today’s preacher finds himself unprepared, Speratus, along with a great cloud of very able theologian-musicians ranging from Saint Columba to Martin Luther to Carl Schalk, stand by with sermon content and clarity in their hymns that could be preached from evangelical pulpits in churches and even sung from the lips of believers in their homes to the good of their souls

[1] A traditional Irish melody of unknown origin found in The Complete Collection of Ancient Irish Music by George Petrie.

[2] Saint Columba’s Gospel lyrics were so fitting for the Reformation that Martin Luther included it in his earliest hymn selections for congregational singing, where it has consistently remained in the Lutheran Church ever since.

[3] Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[4] Brown notes a hundred years after the dawn of the Reformation, the German Jesuit Adam Contzen lamenting that, from his perspective, “Martin Luther had destroyed more souls with his hymns than with all his writing and preaching” (Singing the Gospel, 1).

[5] Luther wrote or translated some forty hymn texts.

[6] Cited in Brown, Singing the Gospel, 11.

[7] Brown, Singing the Gospel, 11.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] The Lutheran Hymnal No. 377.