Why the Reformational Insight is So Important for Worship

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought2 Comments

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be taking a doctoral course at Knox Seminary on the theology of Martin Luther. Needless to say, I’ve been neck-deep in the writings of this Reformational bulldog. Right now, I’m reading through J. I. Packer’s translation of Luther’s The Bondage of the Will. The book’s back cover reads, “The Bondage of the Will is fundamental to an understanding of the primary doctrines of the Reformation. In these pages, Luther gives extensive treatment to what he saw as the heart of the gospel. Free will was no academic question to Luther: the whole of the gospel of the grace of God, he believed, was bound up with it and stood or fell according to the way one understood it.”

There it is, right there. One can be tempted to think that a treatise on “free will” will camp out in the realms where our Calvinist v. Arminian debates typically take place…the age old question of Divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But for Luther (and Calvin, I might add), an understanding of the will drills down to the fundamental bedrock of the way the gospel works in a person’s life. Luther’s biblical insight, which turned out to be THE fundamental insight of the Reformation is that “our will can do no good of itself” (p. 81). It is impotent, corrupt, and in need of Something from the outside to come inside and change it. This insight is EXTREMELY important for how we think of worship, how we pray, how we write songs, how we lead, how we approach God. But, before we get there, one more thing…

Worship and the Victorious Christian Life

We evangelicals have been trained to think (contrary to the Reformation), that this issue of the bondage of the will is merely a getting-in-the-door thing. In other words, we are consciously or subconsciously taught that non-Christians have bound wills and once God saves us our wills are freed up now to make the right choices. So now, we can appeal to one another’s “renewed” wills in the pursuit of the Christian life. In other words, I can preach to my fellow Christians a do-more-try-harder Christianity because their renewed wills now have what it takes to respond favorably. We need to be clear. This is NOT a Reformational idea. In fact, it’s precisely the kind of spirituality the Reformation found contrary to the gospel.

For the Reformers, the “victorious Christian life” is missing one crucial piece of the puzzle–what Paul calls in various places the “old self” (Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9), the “sinful nature” (Rom 7:18, 25), and some uses of the “flesh” (Rom 7:5; 8:3-13). In theological terms, this victorious life has an “over-realized eschatology,” meaning, what God will bring to completion in the End (a completely renewed life) is thought to be too fully present now. God has indeed replaced a heart of stone with a heart of flesh, and He has indeed put a new Spirit in us to move us to follow His decrees (Ezek 36:26-27), but this end-game anthropology isn’t complete. All this newness is still at war with the devil, the world, and the flesh. The life of Christian victory doesn’t take into account that we live in an already/not yet tension of partial renewal with the promise of more to come. And this misstep has rather deadly consequences for the Christian life and for worship.

Just “Worship Harder”

If I believe that a barrage of appeals to the will of a Christian will be enough to move a Christian to do the things requested, I’ve stepped out of a Reformational understanding of how Christianity works. Let’s get real specific, real fast. Can not much of our worship these days be identified as heavy doses of attempting to coax people’s wills to “worship harder” and make emboldened, grandiose commitments to God? 

Let’s talk about song lyrics. Frankly, I’m growing weary of all the recycled “I/me”-lyric debate out there. I think it misses the point. People’s criticisms of worship being too I- and me-focused have become way too knee-jerk to be helpful. If the mere presence of first personal pronouns in a worship song is a criterion for immediate dismissal, we’d have to cut out a large chunk of the Psalms. It must be deeper than whether a worship song addresses me or addresses God. The real problem comes when “I” am making claims about what I am doing for God–“I’m laying it all down for You”; “I’m giving it all to You”; “I’m living for Your name.” It’s not that these statements in worship are wrong. It’s that we have way too much of them. And the Reformers would point out that our worship songs’ heavy use of this kind of language betrays and underpinned theology that gives far too much credit to the will and far too little to the flesh.

We might call this kind of language “responsorial” language…what we say in response to the wooing, coaxing, heart-changing power of the Gospel. But that’s all it is: response. It is not the Gospel. But, make no mistake, for this kind of response to be engendered, it needs the Gospel, again and again. If our worship songs want to actually produce the kind of commitment they often script, then we need swing the weight of the content way more over to the Gospel side so that we can release the gas pedal from our very works-based approach to lyric writing.

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In short, one of the fundamental Reformational insights is the inability and bondage of the will, while many times our worship today presumes quite the opposite–that our wills are actually more free than they are, that the flesh is not a formidable enemy, that the Gospel has actually completed its work in us so that we can just “get on with it.” We must, time and again, come back to this key biblical insight as kind of “drunk tank” for the Old Adam, who gets quite inebriated when he hears all this “you can do it” talk. Old Adam gets sober when he is told, again and again, “You can’t, but Christ did.”

It’s time that our worship sober up. Our bound wills are forever in need of the love of Christ which compels (2 Cor 5:14). Any other compulsion is ultimately ineffective.

2 Comments on “Why the Reformational Insight is So Important for Worship”

  1. Hi Zac. Interesting post. Caused me to wonder how might songwriters create "responsorial" lyrics so that the Gospel and a response to the gospel are both included in a given song? And are there any examples already out there?

  2. Thanks, Dan. I think there are songs out there. We wrote one, called, "Because You Love," that we haven't recorded yet…our church sings it. But…I don't know that it's necessary that one song must do all the work. The wonderful responsorial songs already out there just need to be set in the proper liturgical context, I think. We don't necessarily have to have one song bear the burden of heavy lifting. Just a thought!

    Blessings on your ministry!

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