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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Contemporary Worship as Arminianism’s Latest Installment


This article appeared in the Trinity 2011 print edition of Gottesdienst.  As promised in the most recent edition, it is being posted here for perusal, in response to a request in the Letters section.

These days the debate over faith—that is, what produces faith in the heart—is making itself known in the worship wars, with a vengeance. What we are witnessing in the first part of the twenty-first century are, I believe, the logical result of being on the wrong side of this debate. When one does bad theology, the prescribed end is bad worship. The old saying is true: lex orandi, lex credendi. You show by the way you worship what you believe. And this has always been true. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone: it expresses itself in worship. By faith Noah built an altar. So did Abram. By faith Abraham prepared to offer Isaac. By faith Israel insisted that he be buried in Canaan. By faith Moses took off his shoes, for the place where he stood was holy ground. By faith David desired to build a house for God. And so on. Faith works. And the works of faith are the evidence of faith. So also, faith worships: worship is work, since worship is not only God’s service to us, but also our returning of thanks and praise. So therefore like all the works of faith, the worship of faith is the evidence of faith. And there’s a corollary of this too: the way you worship can belie what you say you believe, if you don’t really believe it. As Jesus put it, Ye shall know them by their fruits (St. Matt. 7:20).

So here’s my thesis: the appearance of contemporary worship in Lutheran churches means that what is believed, taught, and confessed in those places is not really Lutheran theology at all, but something else.

Let’s look first at the difference between faith as we know it and faith as other Protestants know it. It’s not the same, although at first it looks the same. Protestants of all stripes have for generations been following Luther’s lead by insisting that faith alone is that which receives the grace of God for salvation, the medium leptikon, as the dogmaticians like to call it. A cursory glance at Wikipedia will demonstrate this quickly enough: “Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ” (www.wikipedia.com, s.v. “Presbyterianism,” my emphasis). “The Methodist presentation of sanctification includes the understanding that justification before God comes through faith.” “Baptists . . . subscribe to a theology of believer’s baptism (as opposed to infant baptism), salvation through faith alone, Scripture alone as the rule of faith and practice, and the autonomy of the local church” (ibid., s.v. “Methodism”).

But for these groups, as opposed to Lutheran theology, there has always been an asterisk. Faith alone saves, but for the Baptists, faith is at least in part a product of the will; for the Methodists, as Arminians, similarly free will contributes to saving faith. And for the Calvinists, although faith is said to be worked by grace alone, it is also sprinkled with a heavy dose of the need to acknowledge divine sovereignty.

What Lutheran theology brings to the table is a robust insistence, on the one hand, that faith alone, with a corresponding insistence upon grace alone, is what truly glorifies God alone. In dogmatic terms, sola fide and sola gratia, taken together, lead to soli Deo Gloria.

And if we fail to steer clear of the sirens of Arminianism, we might find ourselves on the rocky shoals of the liturgical shipwreck that is contemporary worship. Let’s put it this way: if you like contemporary worship, it means your theological ship did not steer. It isn’t a matter of taste. It’s a matter of faith. This is another way of saying the Divine Liturgy is not a matter of adiaphora, something we at Gottesdienst have been widely known and criticized for saying.

The Arminian Peril

If we should fall victim to the allurements of Arminian decision theology, and begin to believe that our own free will had something to do with our salvation, we might be overly inclined to seek ways to stir up the will while at worship, so that the will might make a worthwhile contribution to the equation. American history is full of this kind of thing, as you are probably well aware: from the tent meetings of the nineteenth century to Aimee Semple McPherson to The 700 Club. And now we have the next installment in the drumbeats of so-called “Christian music.” Not hymns, but songs: the Christian music genre which arose over a generation ago, led by a band consisting of such instruments as acoustic guitar, bass guitar, drum set, electronic keyboard, and a vocalist.

Contemporary worship is truly Arminian, because it means to excite the natural will, as Baptist spirituals have been seeking to do for a long time. The drum set epitomizes it, I believe, because it relates to what is innate and seeks to elevate it.

The drums amplify the beat, and the beat makes you want to dance, to get more fully in touch, as it were, with your animal instincts; to arouse your natural will.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with bodily participation in worship. After all, we encourage bowing, kneeling, the sign of the cross, etc. As God is incarnate, so our worship of Him ought to be reflected in our bodies. But this is different. There is a clear line which needs to be drawn between the bodily movements consciously made to honor God and the mere exercise of natural bodily movements as a reaction to a beat. The former is worship; the latter is not, and in fact can be inimical to worship, because it is a distraction. If my mind is drawn to the beat, then it is being drawn away from the heart of worship, which is Christ. So it is that a rhythm section belongs in a nightclub, a coffee shop, or a dance hall, but not in church.

Unless, that is, your church is laden with Arminian tendencies. For Arminius, the grace of God is said to restore man’s free will, enabling him to choose or refuse the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ. God’s universal prevenient grace works upon all alike to influence them for good, but only those who freely choose to cooperate with grace through faith and repentance are given new spiritual power. As John Wesley said it, man is in fact totally corrupted by original sin, but God’s prevenient grace lets free will operate.

Thus the natural will—free will—is critical to the conversion of the heart to faith. For even if it is said to contribute only a small token of what is needed for the attainment of saving faith, that small token is what makes the difference between one who in the end believes and one who does not. So natural will is at the center of the equation; and hence the kindling of the will is of crucial importance to worship in the Arminian way.

So the drums and the beat, the keyboard and the vocalist—but especially the drums—are discovered as good things, helpful things. They are the match that ignites the will.

There is, of course, a certain grain of truth to the idea that the will must be kindled in worship. But what truly Christian worship seeks to do is to kindle the will of the new man, as St. Paul says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:23 KJV). There are two wills: the old and the new; the natural and the spiritual. St. Paul’s explanation of this is clear, as he cites the Prophet Isaiah: “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:9-14 KJV). The trouble with the natural will is that it is unable to receive the Spirit of God, or want anything to do with it. Not only so, but, again as St. Paul says, “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom. 7:21-23).

Since this is so, the matter of kindling the will in worship must be treated with care. There are two wills in the Christian. There is evil present alongside the regenerate mind. There is sin in our members. In worship, then, we must have an acute awareness of this: We do not want to excite the natural will, but the spiritual will.

Contemporary worship fails, because this is precisely what is wrong with it. By appealing to the baser instincts of man, it seeks to arouse the natural will. It arouses the wrong will.

But this is not to say we disparage all kinds of music that have a beat. The arousal of the natural will in natural matters is not at issue here: various forms of entertainment as entertainment are not the problem. It’s when we seek to blend them with spiritual things that confusion results. The natural will cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God. There is a disconnect. There must be a disconnect. Where there is not, it is because of a failure to understand  the radically gracious nature of faith. Arminianism is notorious for this failure, and therefore the effect of Arminianism on contemporary worship is palpable.

The Previous Manifestation of Arminianism among Us

Arminianism is also evident in the kind of evangelism efforts that were seen in our own church body not too long ago. In fact I think the worship wars are in a way the next incarnation of the same thing we saw mostly in the realm of evangelism a generation ago. What was awry in the Synod’s thinking about missions back then has now morphed into contemporary worship, which is just Arminianism’s latest episode. But you don’t have to go back a full generation to see the sirens’ former appearance. Even the previous synodical administration was fond of putting the onus of conversion on the evangelism efforts of the church. President Kieschnik used to be fond of the finger-snapping routine you might have seen: he’d start snapping his fingers, and then he’d say, “Every time I snap my fingers, another soul goes to hell,” which might make us wryly wonder why he doesn’t just stop snapping his fingers. His purpose—and the purpose of the Missouri Synod in convention for many conventions—was to fulfill the Great Commission. That is, we fulfill the Great Commission. We do this, we cooperate, we participate in making the grace of God a reality. A generation ago the chief manifestation of Arminianism in our midst was this odious evangelism overkill and fervor, a missionary zeal that was a bit tricky to argue with, since it’s true that the Church has a mission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

But it’s not true that God is leaving the matter of anyone’s eternal salvation up to us. The grace of God is a sola kind of grace. That goes for conversion, and that also goes for missions. Nothing can be crafted in a way that suggests otherwise. Faith is sola gratia, and so also missionaries go forth sola gratia, by the grace of God alone. Of course we are all for the spreading of the Gospel, but we dare not forget that this is God’s work. The Holy Ghost is the active one, just as at Pentecost. They were all sitting in one place, and He came rushing in like a mighty wind. So it is today; it is no different. The Holy Ghost is as mighty as the tsunami that swept across the shorelines of Japan: nothing can stop it. Go ahead and try (I speak as a fool here: I’m not actually suggesting you become slothful). Say you failed in every way to spread the Gospel in your neighborhood. Say you were as lazy as you could be, sat on your hands all day, and did nothing, nothing at all. The Holy Ghost will still get His work done. He always does: the Word shall not return void. The mission work of the Church is the activity of the Holy Ghost, and it is blasphemy to suggest that we can fulfill what only He can do.

If we consider the Great Commission in context, we can see that it is not what your evangelism committee thought it was. First, the emphasis even in the commission itself was not on “go”—which does not even appear as a verb in the Greek, but as a participle (“going”), lessening the import of the word—but on “all nations”: the Gentiles were now at last also in view, whereas they were forbidden territory beforehand. Second, what really spread the Gospel, according to the Acts of the Apostles, were some events over which no man had control: Pentecost, an Old Testament feast, had brought proselytes from all nations to Jerusalem, and they just went back home believing. Meanwhile the Church, still clustered around Jerusalem, did not spring into evangelistic action, but was finally scattered by the first martyrdom, of St. Stephen. St. Paul’s missionary journeys were then to “establish” churches in the various Gentile places where communities of Christians were already beginning to form. Third, the commission was given to the apostles, and so they went forth preaching everywhere. But the rest of the people of the Church did not suddenly decide to go door to door with evangelism tracts. They showed forth the grace of God in their lives, to be sure, but not because they went around “witnessing” in the style of personal testimonies or Kennedy Evangelism programs. During the 1970s, the Missouri Synod imported the Kennedy program through a man named Leroy Biesenthal, who was the Synod’s evangelism director at the time. The Biesenthal program was said to “Lutheranize” the Kennedy program, since Kennedy was a Presbyterian, but the changes were scarcely noticeable. I remember thinking, during those days of the Evangelism Explosion as they called it, that if you saw two strangers approaching your front door, you knew they were either Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Mormons, or Missouri Synod Lutherans. I suppose we might add some Presbyterians or Methodists to that list, but I think they were mostly too wimpy to get that bold about their campaign. And for that matter, so were most Lutherans. Fortunately. Maybe they knew somehow that this wasn’t quite what the Catechism had taught them about faith and grace.

The Latest

So let’s bring this matter up to date. Today’s contemporary worship patterns have simply taken those efforts and brought them into the worship setting. This is the next generation, the next chapter in the Arminian playbook. Consider Rick Warren’s answer to the question, “How can we make the transition from a traditional worship service to a more contemporary one?”:

First, be sure that your congregation wants to grow in this way. How do you know they want this? My heart goes out to church members who are being alienated from their congregations because of music style or preference. Where are they supposed to go to church? Before your congregation can grow and work to fulfill the Great Commission, it must align itself with a philosophy and lifestyle of ministry. Once you’re on the same philosophical page, how worship is done won’t matter as much because your goals, not traditions, will be the focus. Then you can take the next step: determining the methods for growing and changing. (“Tips for churches transitioning from traditional to contemporary worship,” Issue #259: 5/17/2006 in Rick Warren’s Toolbox, at www.pastors.com)

It’s no question that contemporary worship is a change. What Warren makes clear is that it is the mark of a change in thinking. It’s carrying the overheated evangelism fervor into the church. It’s seeking to fire up the church to excite the wills of the people. It seeks to fire up the wills of Christians present, and to enkindle the wills of seekers. Arminian evangelism is at the core of contemporary worship’s goals, and they think their own earnest participation will make the difference in someone’s eternal soul. This is why their drums are beating. This is why they have imported elements of the popular music of baby boomers. They know just how popular it is, and they are supposing—falsely—that its popularity is now being translated into a kind of attractiveness for the Gospel. And they can suppose this because they think that free will has the capacity to decide for Jesus in the first place.

If we truly believe that faith is not dependent in any way on the natural will, then we should not worship in a way that suggests we want the natural will to take part. The new creation, formed by the Word of God, corresponds to a liturgical worship in which the words of faith are most prominent: words of Scripture, to which the music is handmaid, not master. Sacred music, whether it be Gregorian chant or a Bach chorale, is unanimous in seeking to quiet the natural will rather than to excite it. It desires to still the heart rather than accelerate its beating. Nor is it driven by the beating of drums but by the Gospel itself.

The formal and sublime nature of the Divine Service itself cries out, saying, our worship is ever mindful of the exclusively grace-filled nature of faith, and feels no need to panic about anything whatsoever, all finger snapping upon the damned notwithstanding; and it is also quite content with rote repetition. Take that. We want to repeat, again and again, that the precious words of the Gospel, and only these, are our life. We want to cry repeatedly for mercy, for we know that God is merciful toward them that fear Him; and has become incarnate, that He may win salvation for all by His innocent suffering and death, and distribute it freely to those who trust in His own saving name. What response could be a more appropriate way to express our gratitude to our gracious God than to adorn His gifts with the best kind of ceremony we know how to use? Processions, candles, chant, and devout dedication to the Divine Liturgy—by all of these we say to ourselves and to all the world that we are bound, with a voice of thanksgiving and praise, to the means of salvation which God has graciously appointed for us.

This lecture by Father Eckardt was presented at one of our Gottesdienst conferences, in Kansas City (Christ Lutheran Church, Platte Woods, March 18, 2011).