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Reforming worship: Lessons from Luther and Cranmer

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Posted by Andrew Atherstone, 26 Jul 2018

Andrew Atherstone's article from Churchman 132-2 demonstrates the priorities of Luther and Cranmer for Reformation worship.

Reformation theologians like Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer were deeply engaged with the public worship of the Church. This article distils three priorities from their liturgical essays, demonstrating their desire for Reformation worship that (1) demonstrates the gospel of grace, (2) engages the heart of the believer, and (3) declares the Word of God.

One of the greatest legacies of the sixteenth-century Reformation of the Church was the reformation of its public worship.1 This article examines the liturgical rationales of two of the heavyweight theologians of that era, Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer. It does not investigate the content of their liturgies, which other authors have analysed at length elsewhere, but instead draws lessons from the miscellaneous liturgical essays in which they expounded some of their priorities and principles – in particular, Luther’s four liturgical contributions between 1523 and 1526, and Cranmer’s two opinion pieces, Concerning the Service of the Church and Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained, which were attached to the 1549 English Prayer Book.

One of Luther’s earliest and most important Reformation tracts is The Freedom of a Christian, published in November 1520, an exposition of the classic evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). Luther explains that “faith alone, without works, justifies, frees, and saves,” and that the righteousness of Christ is imputed by grace to the sinner.2 Yet he begins the tract with a famous paradox:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Here we reach the heart of Christian discipleship from a Reformation perspective. Legalism and works-righteousness has no place in the Church, because the Christian is counted right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone: “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved,” declares Luther, “since through faith he is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely.” And yet at the same time, antinomian license also has no place in the Church, because true faith brings forth good works, just as a healthy tree bears good fruit. Therefore the Christian uses their freedom not to sin but to serve. The gospel, according to Luther, says no to legalism and license, but yes to grace and Christian liberty.

Grace permeates the Reformation liturgies in both their shape and content, supremely at the Lord’s Supper.

You can read the rest of this article in Churchman 132-2, available to purchase as a single issue, or by subscribing.

Andrew Atherstone is Tutor in Church History at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Chair of the Churchman Editorial Board.

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