“I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone … the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music.”
Music and language are God’s gifts to His Church, to sing His praise, teach His Faith, and remind believers that their sins are forgiven and they are right with the Father (Ephesians 5:17-19; Colossians 3:16). These gifts of course are given to laity as well as clergy. Indeed, ever since the exodus from Egypt, all of God’s people have been singing of His salvific work (Exodus 15:1-18, 20-21). St. Paul used the hymnody of the early Church as a tool to teach about Jesus (Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20). Similarly, the authors of the Formula of Concord, one of our Lutheran Confessions, used the hymn, All Mankind Fell in Adam’s Fall (LSB 562) to teach about the doctrine of original sin (FC Ep I 8; FC SD I 23). Much of the liturgy of the Church is taken directly from Scripture, and is often sung or chanted. When Ambrose of Milan (339/40-397) sought to counter the threat of heresy, he wrote orthodox hymns and taught the laity to sing them. Similarly, when Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546) sought to restore the Gospel to God’s Church, he wrote orthodox hymns, had others do so as well, and taught the laity to sing them. The Lutheran congregations quickly became known as the “singing churches.” Music is in the blood of every Christian, and a powerful tool for lay evangelism.
In His wisdom, God designed the human brain such that music helps to internalize information in a way that speech alone does not. No wonder that He asks His Church to sing, and to teach through song! It is likely that at least once in every Bible study, the Pastor will teach something that immediately brings a hymn to mind. Additionally, when reading Scripture, many will often stumble on a verse that they recognize from the sung liturgy, from a hymn, from Händel’s Messiah, or from other musical settings. In fact, many are far better able to remember Scripture that has been set to music than that which has not. Remarkably, even in individuals with advanced dementia, musical memories remain. Pastors have often related how their affected parishioners, who are unable to otherwise converse, regularly join with them in the singing of the hymns and the chanted liturgies of the Church.
Every Christian is called to share the Gospel in the context of his/her vocation, and this is frequently done through music, whether consciously or not. Parents teach the Christian Faith to their children, often evangelizing them through the sung liturgy and hymnody of the Church. Additionally, many use musical settings of the Catechism to facilitate learning and memorization. Sunday School teachers frequently do likewise with their young students. Outside of these contexts, few individuals deliberately share the Gospel through music. Yes, occasionally the Christian will invite his/her nonbeliever friend to musical program at church or in the community, which will help open the Faith-sharing conversation. Most often though, these encounters occur outside a specifically musical setting. Yet, the Scripture-rooted liturgy and hymnody of the Church are theologically rich, and continually equip the layperson, “to make a defense to anyone who asks … for a reason for the hope that is in” him/her (1 Peter 3:15). Consider, for example, the Ambrose/Luther Advent hymn, Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332). In this one hymn, the Church sings of:
- Jesus being coeternal and of one substance with the Father, who willingly took on human flesh (John 1:1, 14, 10:30), becoming incarnate by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26-38)
- The Virgin Mary of Scripture (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22-25)
- Jesus’ presence in the womb, fully God and fully man, thus proclaiming the sanctity of life from conception (Luke 1:39-45)
- Jesus’ humbling of Himself, becoming man, dying on the Cross, descending into hell, rising again and ascending back to heaven where He sits at the right hand of the Father (Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Peter 3:18-20)
- Jesus’ defeat of death through His bodily death and resurrection, which gives us the sure and certain hope of resurrection into eternal life in Him (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 21-26, 50-56)
- The power of Jesus’ Passion and death on the Cross, by which our sins are forgiven, and our sickly bodies and souls restored to wholeness in Him (Isaiah 53:5; 1 Peter 2:24)
- Jesus as the Light of the world, and His life as our true Light, which the darkness of this fallen world cannot overcome (John 1:4-5, 8:12)
- The glory of our Triune God, which we will sing into eternity (Revelation 4, 5, 11, 14, 15, 19).
This hymn gives the lay believer a treasure-trove of material with which to engage the unchurched neighbor, and this is just one hymn! The use in many congregations of hymns repeated weekly through the course of a season, serves well to help laity hear them, sing, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, and the solid theology contained within them. The work of the highly skilled accompanying instrumentalist greatly aids in proper reception of the hymn messages. With the words of the hymns permanently ingrained, and the knowledge and understanding of the Christian Faith thus deepened, the layperson is able to speak with confidence. Even in the setting of advanced dementia, the believer can still share the Gospel through song!
Music is a wonderful gift of God, through which He calls and gathers sinners into His Church to receive His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation. To Him alone be the glory!
End note:Quoted in Robin Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, Principles and Implications (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) p. 70