Who’s talking in church?

At our housewarming party last weekend, I was talking to some friends of ours, J and R. They are a conservative evangelical couple of retirement age, parents of a late friend of ours from university, whose sheer goodness and strength of faith – in a word, their holiness – are both an inspiration and a rebuke, making me feel slightly ashamed that we are no longer within that same conservative evangelical tradition ourselves.

At one point, J asked me what the differences are between the Lutheran approach to worship and that in a typical conservative evangelical church. I blathered for a few moments about liturgy, weekly communion, sermon length and so on, but as the conversation wore on I found the answer to the question becoming clearer.

And it’s this: Lutheran worship is about being addressed by Christ himself, through the pastor. In baptism, it is Jesus who baptises us. In absolution, it is Jesus who says, “I forgive you your sins”. In preaching, it is Jesus who proclaims the law and gospel to us. In the Lord’s Supper… well, let’s come to that.

In conservative evangelical worship, by contrast, the job of the preacher is to tell us about Jesus, but our interaction with Jesus himself is in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, not through Jesus addressing us by an external word. This has an impact on preaching, which tends to be more focused on “teaching the Bible” rather than “proclaiming Jesus”.

(Indeed, the influence of the charismatic movement has, if anything, increased the didactic emphasis in conservative evangelical preaching. The personal encounter with Jesus is associated more with “worship” – that is, the singing of songs – than with preaching. It is not putting it too strongly in many churches to say: we learn about Jesus in the sermon, and we encounter Jesus during “worship”.)

Above all, the difference can be seen in the Lord’s Supper. If you believe that, when the pastor says the words of institution, he is simply repeating what Jesus said at the Last Supper, then – whether you are the “highest” of Calvinists or the “lowest” of sub-Zwinglians in your understanding of the Supper – you are unlikely to accept the assertion that the mere recital of those words can turn the bread into Jesus’ body or the wine into his blood. The Lutheran view will sound like a belief in “magic words”.

However, for Lutherans, when the pastor says those words, it is not simply the pastor repeating what Jesus said about that bread and that wine, way back then. Rather, it is Jesus who is saying those words here and now, in respect of this bread and this wine, right here in front of us.

And when Jesus speaks, reality listens. When he says “I baptise you”, you’re baptised; when he says “I forgive you”, you’re forgiven; and when he says “this is my body”, it is.

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17 Responses to Who’s talking in church?

  1. Excellent Post John!
    It can be a hard question to answer though can’t it, there are so many differences to touch on. But you nailed it on the head. This is the main one. I doubt your evangelical friends really bought it, but you answered them properly.
    This too is why our sermons follow the Law Gospel distinction. Christ commanded us pastors to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. (Luke 24) It isn’t too much of a stretch to reduce that to Law/Gospel. The Mechanics of the sermon might not follow that strict outline though. The thing about it is, this is what Jesus wants to preach to us, so this is what us pastors preach.
    John the baptist tells us that he who comes after him will baptize us with fire and the Holy Spirit, and so Jesus does. He is the actor there.
    Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name, not as our imaginary friend, but as the one who is speaking directly to us, through his word, written, preached and given to us in the sacraments.

  2. The Scylding says:

    This is an absolute gem of a post! Thanks!

  3. Steve Hayes says:

    I think I can identify with that.

    When my daughter was about 10 we were invited to a service where a work colleague’s husband was instituted as youth minister in a Dutch Reformed Church. There was a prominent central pulpit, where everything happened. The dominee even said “Amen” to his own prayers, because no one else did. The congregation stood for hymns, but that was all. It lasted exactly an hour.

    When we got outside my daughter said, “That wasn’t worship. Where was the worship?”

    And she was right. It was all instruction, very didactic. We were told about God, but we didn’t meet him. We didn’t worship him. We are not Lutheran, we are Orthodox, but I think the same considerations apply.

  4. Phil Walker says:

    “whether you are the “highest” of Calvinists or the “lowest” of sub-Zwinglians in your understanding of the Supper you are unlikely to accept the assertion that the mere recital of those words can turn the bread into Jesus’ body or the wine into his blood.”


    1. Isn’t that a slightly loose statement of Lutheran doctrine? I thought you believed that both are present.

    2. Okay, so even the highest Calvinist won’t accept that the Words turn bread into body and wine into blood; nor would we accept that the Words somehow cause Christ’s body and blood to be physically present on the table in a way that they weren’t a few minutes ago [is that a fair description?]. But that’s because we don’t accept that that happens whatever you do, and not because of the Words.

    3. At least at a given “altitude”, Calvinists would, I think, observe that the saying of the Words makes the sacrament what we believe it to be: the renewal before our eyes of the covenant cut on Calvary. Words are a necessary part of a sacrament, and God didn’t give them to us for us to go round making our own up. *cough* Ditto actions. *cough* 😉

    4. The cut-off as to whether the Words do anything more than make us remember something does exist, but I think it exists at a lower level than the Lutheran-Calvinist cut-off. Even Zwinglians may find some use for them beyond the merely commemorative.

    I think most conservative evangelicals would say that in the sermon we hear from God. They don’t behave like they believe that, for sure; but they’d still say they believe it. The culture is almost impossible to break; I’ve had opportunities to “declare God’s righteousness in the congregation”, and I know for a fact that our minister gets the best response when the sermon is declarative rather than imperative (ditto the hymns and songs). But the connections just aren’t made, probably because people haven’t been brought up or taught that this is what we should look for.

  5. Well Phil,
    As a Lutheran I read what John wrote, and the though that he was advocating Transubstantiation never crossed my mind. Often times we Lutherans don’t get so hung up in the parsing. I knew what he meant, that with the words of institution spoken by Christ, there is a higher reality to the bread and wine than is seen with the eyes, now the bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus, which he gave into death, and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
    For us Lutherans not believing what the words plainly say about the bread and wine, is not to believe Christ. To believe these words is to believe Jesus Christ, plain and simple. There is no reason to doubt this man Jesus, he has done the impossible many times before, walking on water, rising from the dead etc. So if he wants to make bread and wine into his body and blood, then so be it. There is no reason he can’t do that. He is God, and he is the one speaking.

  6. John H says:


    1. I was aware I was pushing the language a bit, but equally I don’t think that saying “A becomes B” necessarily implies it ceases to be A. In any event, like the early Luther (see the Babylonian Captivity) I am relatively indifferent to whether the bread remains bread or not. I believe it does, but that’s far less important than the fact that it (also) becomes the body of Christ. (For that reason, I have far less quarrel with transubstantiation than with Zwinglianism.)

    2-4. I agree that Calvinists (or even Zwinglians) are not necessarily saying the words merely in a “commemorative” way. My point though was that they would see it as “the pastor saying what Jesus said” rather than as “Jesus saying it again through the pastor”.

    As for hearing from God in the sermon, and the different responses for “declarative” and “imperative” sermons: I entirely agree this is a matter of what people have been taught to expect rather than what is actually going on. When the gospel is preached from your church’s pulpit, Christ is speaking through the preacher – whether he (or the congregation) think of it in those terms or not.

    Similarly, as far as I’m concerned you have the Lord’s body and blood sitting on your communion table after the words of institution, again whether you realise it or not. 🙂

  7. Phil Walker says:

    “My point though was that they would see it as “the pastor saying what Jesus said” rather than as “Jesus saying it again through the pastor”.”

    H’m, I perhaps ought to do a vox pop sometime. But goodness, you can almost see how conservative evangelicals ought to answer the question just by framing it: is this the minister repeating what Jesus said thousands of years ago, or is it what Jesus says to us today? I think—hope—they’d say it’s both.

  8. John H says:

    Phil: agreed, but I don’t think they would be quite so direct in saying, “It is actually Jesus who is saying this now”.

    As another illustration of this: when conservative evangelicals talk about the Word of God, they principally have the Bible in mind. When Lutherans talk about the Word of God, they principally have preaching (and absolution and the sacraments) in mind. This causes a certain amount of misunderstanding in venues such as the BHT. 🙂

  9. Phil Walker says:

    when conservative evangelicals talk about the Word of God, they principally have the Bible in mind. When Lutherans talk about the Word of God, they principally have preaching (and absolution and the sacraments) in mind.

    As a teenager, there were a few years running in which I read John 1 at one of the Christmas services, so I tend to think first of Jesus. Do I get spiritual Brownie points? 😉

  10. Kobra says:

    Reformed worship is all about giving God something–praise and “worship.” I, as a Lutheran, go to church to sit on my hands, open my mouth, and receive the forgiveness of sin through the body and blood of Christ. That’s the big difference. I don’t go to church to give God anything. I go to church to receive from Him everything. I ain’t no Little Drummer Boy.

  11. Phil Walker says:

    I’m not convinced it’s “all” about giving God something for the Reformed; I’m not even sure that’s completely true for Baptists. However, the confusion when I’ve tried to explain to people at my (Baptist) church that corporate worship is about what God does for us rather than what we do for him is certainly palpable; and it’s also true that we get given to sing songs with lines like “Longing just to bring/Something that’s of worth/That will bless your heart”. Yuckyuckyuckyuckyuck.

  12. Andrew says:

    Excellent way of articulating the differences between Lutheran and Reformed or other evangelical preaching and worship. I was first introduced to this distinction only recently, in an excellent essay by Phillip Cary titled “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise.” (Perhaps I even found it from your blog.)

    I do think that there is a key distinction in the translation of Romans 10:14. In the NASB, it says, “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” However, the ESV, NIV, and others translate 14b as “How can they believe in him OF whom they have not heard?” In the latter we hear truth proclaimed ABOUT Jesus; in the former, we actually hear Jesus HIMSELF through his heralds.

    Not knowing enough about the underlying Greek or any manuscript variants, I must stay mute on this for now; but the implications are tremendous. I don’t exactly see strong scriptural evidence for the Lutheran position, e.g., when the pastor says, “I baptize you …” it is actually Christ himself acting and speaking. (Perhaps the key is in Acts 1, where the apostles’ activity is said to be a Spiritual continuation of Jesus’ earlier ministry, Jesus himself doing it.) So for now I agree best with the Reformed view, but I can sympathize with Lutherans on this and a lot of things.

  13. Andrew says:


    I would disagree with you when you say that “Reformed worship is all about giving God something–praise and ‘worship.'” Calvin never understood it that way, and a growing number of Reformed pastors are much closer to Lutherans in their support of the Divine Service (Gottesdienst). Hear this from Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Seminary and a pastor in the United Reformed Churches of North America:

    “Christ, both Lord and Savior of his church, appointed an official ministry (including officers) so that he could continue to serve his covenant people and extend his kingdom of grace to the ends of the earth by his Spirit. . . . It is not our devotion, praise, piety, or service that comes first, but God’s service to us. This is why we must assemble at a place where the gospel is truly preached, the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution, and there is a visible form of Christ’s heavenly reign through officers he has called and sent.”

    Also, “The public ministry provided on the Lord’s Day is primarily God’s ministry to us. We are not individuals who come together simply for fresh marching orders for transforming ourselves and our culture, but sinners who come to die and to be made alive in Christ–no longer defined by our individual choices and preferences …, but by our incorporation into Christ and his body.”
    (Modern Reformation, July/August 2008, p. 17)

  14. Pieter says:

    “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

    When I take the bread, “Thank You, Lord, that your body was broken because of my sins,”

    And when I drink the wine, “Thank you Lord, that Your blood was shed in my stead for the forgiveness of all my sins. It is finished, and I praise Your name for it!”

    What more? Why this hair splitting, this technical dissection of what takes place?

    As a believer, Christ is in me and I in Him. Allways. Halleluya! Amen! Nothing more.

    [Reposted by admin following site migration.]

  15. Pieter says:

    I do not believe that the bread I partake of is/or becomes the body of Christ.
    There is no indication in the Holy Scriptures that this is the case. Same with the wine.

    The emphasis is on “Do this in REMEMBRANCE of Me.” Therefore only sheer gratitude for such grace bestowed on me, a rotten sinner, saved by grace. The bread only reminds me of Christ crucified in my place, and the wine, of His blood shed on my behalf, through which my sins are covered up and forgiven. I remember, and rejoice. Thank you.
    No further comment from me.

    [Reposted by admin following site migration. NB: admin’s own comment in reply to Pieter’s first comment got lost in the move.]

  16. Von says:

    It seems to me that there is an explanation in the phrase:
    “Rightly dividing the Word of Truth”

    Every sermon, every hymn, every action needs to be seen through the grid:
    1) The pastor, or teacher, or elder, or father is speaking or acting… they are ‘rightly dividing’ (or, of course, they are *not* rightly dividing).
    2) What they are ‘rightly dividing’ is ‘The Word of Truth’.

    So the truth is a ‘both/and’ instead of an ‘either/or’. If we forget that it is the Word of Truth then we err. But if we forget that it is a human attempting to ‘rightly divide’… then we leave ourselves open to heresy and error. A theology that says or implies that anything that someone who stands in front of the church and says is always the Word of the Lord… is fraught with catastrophy. A theology that denies that anything that comes from the pulpit is the Word of God… is simply not Christian.

  17. Rick says:


    I think you are the Little Drummer Boy. So you’d better play your best for him. Or no miracle for you.

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