Learning About Worship From Luther [Repost]

Martin Luther had some concerns about worship. He wasn't happy with what corporate worship had become in his day, and so for him the Reformation needed to include a reform of worship, not just of doctrine. You see the two go hand in hand. What we believe has an effect on how we worship, and the way we worship will, in the long run, have an effect on what we believe.

Luther was combating works-righteousness - the idea that you could contribute to your salvation by your good works. Luther saw in the Scriptures that 'the just shall live by faith' (Rom 1:17), that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, 'not by works lest any man should boast' (Eph 2:8-9). And so Luther responded by preaching the Gospel of justification by faith alone as a result of Christ's saving work alone.

But that wasn't enough. It was one thing to preach the Gospel, but if the way the church worshipped continued to reinforce the old false teaching of works-righteousness, then the people would be getting contradictory messages. Worship needed to be reformed too.

In order to reform worship, Luther needed to think about it (Luther realized that practice must always be founded on good theology). And as Luther thought, he made an important distinction, using two Latin words: beneficium and sacrificium. Simply put, beneficium is about what God does for us, and sacrificium is about what we do for God. For Luther, worship had to be one or the other.

Sacrificium was the old pre-Reformation worship. It was about man's action. In short if you worshipped in this way, you were doing something for God to gain His favour. In fact, such worship was one of the chief works the people did in seeking to merit salvation before the Reformation.

Beneficium was the new Reformation way of worship. It was all about God's action in sending His Son to bear our sin and in revealing His great salvation through His Word. Worship as beneficium is a gracious gift of God to us. This sort of worship is all about God and what He has done, which leads us simply to confess and glorify Him in thanksgiving.

Now, what's all this Reformation-era Latin got to do with us today. Well, although we might not find the words beneficium and sacrificium as useful as Luther did, the concepts are very relevant to us today. You see, in sacrificium, man's activity comes first and leads to God's activity. In beneficium, on the other hand, God's activity comes first (the Cross), which simply leads man to thank and glorify Him.

Another important distinction of Martin Luther's comes into play here. Luther distinguished between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. (For a very brief overview see this old post.) We can apply that here to worship. Sacrificium is a theology of glory way of worship; man offers something to God and thus reaches up to God's glory as reward. Beneficium is a theology of the cross way of worship; man doesn't deserve anything, but God in Christ reaches down to Him at the Cross, does everything necessary for his salvation at the Cross, and in return man can simply respond with thanksgiving for the Cross. Beneficium is all about what God has done for us at the Cross.

I think we can learn today from Luther's concepts of sacrificium, beneficium, theology of glory and theology of the cross. I've noticed the idea of sacrificium creeping back quite a lot into worship through the words sung (I've noticed this in French songs and French translations of English songs, so I don't know for sure if it's there to the same extent in English as well [I did live in Belgium when I originally wrote this!]). There just seems to be this notion that we worship God and therefore He does something. It's the idea of worship as a work which merits God's favour. Of course it's expressed in a very different way to the pre-Reformation worship, but it boils down to the same idea: man's activity comes first and somehow merits God's blessing. I've done a bit of looking on the internet at some 'philosophies of worship' (in English) and seen the same idea: we worship (our action) and as a result God touches us. Worship seems to have been transformed into a meritorious work!

The Biblical concept of worship is a response to God, to who He is and what He has done in Christ to save us. True worship flows from the Cross. It is our thankful response to God. It is all about what He has done, not what we do. In true worship God's activity comes first, at the Cross and through the Word, and our adoration is the only appropriate response to what He has done for us.

True worship is not sacrificium; it's not about us doing something in order to be touched or blessed by God. That concept of worship places us at the centre: it's about what we do and how we benefit. True worship is beneficium; it's all about what God has done in Christ. Christ is central, not our actions or how we benefit from them. True worship is all about Him!

As James Torrance has said, 'There is only one offering which is truly acceptable to God, and it is not ours.'