Just as it was in Luther’s day, music is still a powerful tool the Church can use to convey the importance of Christ’s saving name. Luther’s words have greatly shaped our theology and hymnody over the centuries, and they will likely continue to do so for the next half millennium. In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we’re taking a closer look at some of the most commonly used words in Luther’s hymns according to the English translations in The Hymns of Martin Luther.
Lord, God, and Christ
Three of the most frequently used words in Luther’s hymns are Lord, God, and Christ. This is certainly appropriate, and probably not surprising, knowing Luther! After all, it is the heart of the Gospel that Jesus Christ is indeed the Lord our God, who was made flesh, suffered, died, and rose for our salvation.
Many stanzas of Luther’s hymns actually use all three of these words together. One example is stanza three of “All Glory Be to God Alone” (pp. 14–15):
Lord God, our King on heaven’s throne,
Our Father, the Almighty One.
O Lord, the sole-begotten One,
Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son,
True God from all eternity,
O Lamb of God, to You we flee.
Another example is stanza two of the creedal hymn “We All Believe in One True God” (pp. 74–75):
We all believe in Jesus Christ,
His own Son, our Lord, possessing
An equal Godhead, throne, and might,
Source of ev’ry grace and blessing;
Born of Mary, virgin mother,
By the power of the Spirit,
Word made flesh, our elder brother;
That the lost might life inherit,
Was crucified for all our sin
And raised by God to life again.
In both of these examples, notice how adeptly and precisely Luther uses these names of God to communicate the work of each person of the Trinity. The words Lord, God, and Christ are not used interchangeably or simply to add variety, but to communicate the relationship of the Son to the Father, to show how the saving work of God is accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation.
Mercy is also an important emphasis in Luther’s hymnody. As many times as we plea to the Lord for mercy, He is ready and willing to answer our need. In the words of Luther, “we live alone by mercy.” Our rest lies not in our own good works or the strength of our hands, but solely in the abundant mercy of the Lord who will never abandon us nor waver in His steadfast love.
Luther’s hymn “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” (pp. 24–25) outlines this theme beautifully in the second and fifth stanzas:
Thy love and grace alone avail
To blot out my transgression;
The best and holiest deeds must fail
To break sin’s dread oppression.
Before Thee none can boasting stand,
But all must fear Thy strict demand
And live alone by mercy.
Though great our sins, yet greater still
Is God’s abundant favor;
His hand of mercy never will
Abandon us, nor waver.
Our shepherd good and true is He,
Who will at last His Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.
Luther’s hymns often speak of the holiness of God and His ongoing, sanctifying work through the Holy Spirit. Our Holy Lord has called us, His people, to be made holy through Baptism and the work of the Spirit. This emphasis on holiness is especially evident in the hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” (pp. 20–21), where each stanza emphasizes a different aspect of the Lord’s work and name.
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord,
With all Your graces now outpoured
On each believer’s mind and heart;
Your fervent love to them impart.
Lord, by the brightness of Your light
In holy faith Your Church unite;
From ev’ry land and ev’ry tongue
This to Your praise, O Lord, our God, be sung:
Come, holy Light, guide divine,
Now cause the Word of life to shine.
Teach us to know our God aright
And call Him Father with delight.
From ev’ry error keep us free;
Let none but Christ our master be
That we in living faith abide,
In Him, our Lord, with all our might confide.
Come, holy Fire, comfort true,
Grant us the will Your work to do
And in Your service to abide;
Let trials turn us not aside.
Lord, by Your pow’r prepare each heart,
And to our weakness strength impart
That bravely here we may contend,
Through life and death to You, our Lord, ascend.
The Word of God
The Reformation elevated the importance of God’s Word in the life and faith of the Church. This theme also predominates Luther’s hymns, which speak of the Word’s enduring nature. The hymn “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold” (pp. 46–47), especially in stanzas four and five, highlights both the efficacy of this Word and its power to comfort, even in times of great trial and tribulation:
Therefore saith God, “I must arise,
The poor My help are needing;
To Me ascend My people’s cries,
And I have heard their pleading.
For them My saving Word shall fight
And fearlessly and sharply smite,
The poor with might defending.”
As silver tried by fire is pure
From all adulteration,
So through God’s Word shall men endure
Each trial and temptation.
Its light beams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through ev’ry nation.
May the Word of God continue to shine through every nation this day as we rejoice in our holy and merciful Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God!
The hymn texts are from The Hymns of Martin Luther, edited by Peter C. Reske, copyright © 2016 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.