Speak the term “lex orandi” among Lutheran pastors and most minds run
to the text of the divine service. But a significant part of the
Lutheran “lex orandi” is thereby left out. In fact, the most
influential part of the Lutheran “lex orandi” is thereby forgotten.
I speak of the hymns of the Lutheran Church. For century upon
century, next to the text of the Small Catechism, the texts most
profoundly affecting the faith of the average Lutheran were the texts
of the hymns – for these were not only sung at Church, but in the
home and in the school and meditated upon privately as a form of
With the transition into English from German in this country, our
“lex orandi” underwent a profound, and I believe, debilitating change
that has weakened the Lutheran “lex orandi” almost beyond recognition
even in those places where it was not completely wiped out. I refer
to the result of infusing a large number of generic Protestant hymns
into our hymnals. In my own parish, a highly conservative and
profoundly German-heritage parish, I do not doubt that the favorite
top ten hymns from our hymnal (The Lutheran Hymnal) would be the
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Just as I am
Nearer My God to Thee
Onward Christian Soldiers
I’m But A Stranger Here
Crown Him with Many Crowns
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
Jesus Christ Is Risen Today
I know if I handed this list to the majority of my members, they’d be
nodding their heads by and large, but a few might add a hymn or two
that I left off, maybe Love Divine or Be Still My Soul! And I have
little doubt that the same could be repeated in Lutheran parish after
Lutheran parish across our land.
I am not at this point arguing the merit or lack of merit of these
types of hymns; but I am noting that they are NOT the body of the
hymns that make up the Lutheran “lex orandi” from a historical
perspective. Those hymns seem to have been shoved to a lower tier;
there are those who still know them and can sing them, but they’re
not “the old favorites.” In other words, they’ve been replaced in
the hearts and minds of our people. What have we lost through this
An understanding of the heavenly Father’s love!
The traditional hymns of the Lutheran doctrinal corpus bore clear
witness to the Father’s love for the world, love shown in our
creation to be sure, but above all in His sending of His Son to be
the Savior of the world.
You cannot end up with that gross caricature of redemption – that the
Father is really angry with you, but he decides to send His Son into
the flesh so that He can hit on Him and expend His anger against Him
and that way He won’t have to hit you – if you attend to the words of
“Dear Christians One and All” This hymn is the most comprehensive
description of the plan of salvation in the Lutheran “lex orandi.”
Consider these words:
But God beheld my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And, mindful, of His mercies great,
He planned my soul’s salvation.
A father’s heart He turned to me,
Sought my redemption fervently:
He gave His dearest Treasure.
He spoke to His beloved Son:
‘Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free,
Slay bitter death for him that he
May live with Thee forever. (TLH #387:4,5)
Here the Son of God is sent forth by the Father out of love and
pity. He’s sent forth to bring man salvation from sin and set him
free from sorrow. He’s sent forth to battle death and kill it, for
the purpose that man might come to live eternally with Him. The next
stanza of the hymn confesses that He does all that He does “to lead
the devil captive.” In this hymn it is the Foe who sheds the blood
of Christ! And Christ suffers this precisely so that “Life shall
from death the victory win!”
Another key hymn in the Lutheran “lex orandi” is “Christ Jesus
Lay.” (TLH #195) Again, if we ask how our salvation is depicted in
this hymn we end up with the exact same understanding we heard in
“Dear Christians.” Consider:
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When Life and Death contended;
The victory remained with Life,
The reign of Death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That Death is swallowed up by Death,
His sting is lost forever. Hallelujah!
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree –
So strong His love to save us! –
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, death passes o’er,
And Satan cannot harm us. (TLH #195:3,4)
By His death Christ “swallows up” Death! Robs it of its sting!
Satan is defeated and life reigns! This is what the traditional
Lutheran “lex orandi” prays and rejoices in.
A further distortion that arises when we depart from the Lutheran
“lex orandi” is that God is angry with us UNTIL the cross. That His
anger is expended upon the One hanging on the cross and so we are set
free from that anger only by His sufferings and death. But the great
Lutheran hymns of Christmas reveal that this is a gross
mischaracterization of Lutheran doctrine. We see this, perhaps, most
clearly in the classic hymn of Paul Gerhardt, “All My Heart”:
Forth today the Conqueror goeth,
Who the foe, Sin and woe,
Death and hell, o’erthroweth.
God is man, man to deliver.
His dear Son
Now is one
With our blood forever.
Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
His most cherished Treasure?
To redeem us, He hath given
His own Son
From the Throne
Of His might in heaven.
If our blessed Lord and Maker
Hated men, would He then
Be of flesh partaker?
If He in our woe delighted,
Would He bear
All the care
Of our race benighted?
Come, then, banish all your sadness,
One and all,
Great and small;
Come with songs of gladness.
Love Him who with love is glowing;
Hail the Star
Near and far
Light and joy bestowing. (TLH 77:2,3, 5, 7)
Is it not abundantly clear that this hymn sees in the very
incarnation of the Eternal Son of God an act of love already so
enormous that it literally drives out fear and sadness? Further,
does it not clearly confess the point of the incarnation is that God
has come into the flesh to do battle with the enemies, the real
enemies of the human race: sin, woe, death, and hell, and of course
the devil who rules in all of these?
Another greatly loved children’s hymn of Christmas in the Lutheran
“lex orandi” is “Praise God the Lord, Ye Sons of Men.” (TLH #105).
Here again, ponder the depth of meaning in proclaiming on Christmas Day:
He opens up again the door
Of Paradise today;
The angel guards the gate no more
To God our thanks we pay. (TLH 105:8)
It is the incarnation of the Son of God that has opened wide the door
of Paradise! It flings it wide by revealing in the most definitive
manner the great love of the Father in sending His Son to share our
humanity by nature precisely so that we might come to share His
divinity by grace. “A great exchange indeed.” (TLH 105:6)
Finally, I’d invite some thought on the great Lutheran hymn: “O
Darkest Woe!” Aside from containing a stunning confession of the
personal union (which sadly did not make it into English in TLH: “O
great dread! God Himself is dead!”), consider how this hymn puts
forth precisely that it was to destroy DEATH that the Son of God died:
O sinful man!
It was the ban
Of death on thee that brought Him
Down to suffer for thy sins
And such woe hath wrought Him. (TLH #167:3)
This is just a quick and cursory survey of the hymns of Lutheranism
that once formed her “lex orandi” and that most Lutheran children
learned to sing by heart at a young age. The substitution of alien
hymnody for this heritage is, I would contend, the greatest culprit
in the loss of Lutheran doctrine among Lutheran people. Lex orandi,
lex credendi. What is pray is what is believed. If your prayer life
consists in “What a Friend” and its fellows, you’ll have a different
set of beliefs ultimately than those who could sing from the heart:
All glory be to God alone
Forevermore the Highest One
Who doth our sinful race befriend
And life and peace to us extend.
Among mankind may His good will
All hearts with deep thanksgiving fill. (TLH #238:1)