Is a Faulty Understanding of Sanctification at the Root of the Worship Wars?

The theses below are from the new book following up this one, The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel.  Read more here.

The theses below are from the new book following up this one, The Unchanging Forms of the Gospel. Read more on the book pictured here.

NOTE: The following is being put forth by Nathan Rinne, on behalf of Pastor Holger Sonntag and Pastor Paul Strawn (the founders of Lutheran Press), for the purpose of encouraging theological reflection and discussion. 

These theses are not to be understood as the position of all those posting at the Just and Sinner site.

The following is a summary, by Pastor Paul Strawn and Pastor Holger Sonntag, of the main points of their arguments regarding Christian worship.  These were presented at the 27th Annual Lutheran Free Conference: “The Character of Christian Worship: It May Not Be What You Think”, which took place on Saturday, October 25th, 2014 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, MN.  The same content, in the form of theses, can be found in their new book, “Christians Worship: Apology of the Unchanging Forms of the Gospel” (see * below to order).

The links below are the accompanying audio from the conference mentioned above (they are not the best quality – it seems to me that the quality gets better as it goes on) where they presented and discussed the following arguments/theses (hear the opening remarks from Pastor Sonntag here). 

Please note that clicking on these links will open up the audio immediately (you can also go to this page, on the blog of Pastor Bruce A. Timm, in order to see all of the original links to the audio).

I. What Really is Christian Worship?

1.1 – Why do Christians Worship? (conference audio part 1 and part 2)

Christian worship – that is, worship after man’s fall into sin and after the giving of the promise of the Savior in Gen. 3:15 – is fundamentally rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. For every Christian activity, in order to be truly pleasing to God despite man’s sinfulness, must flow from faith in this gospel. Such faith is created by this gospel itself. In that this faith rightly acknowledges God as truthful and Savior, and thus lets God be God, it is the highest worship (First Commandment). Genuine faith is active in love of God and neighbor. Praying to God as well as praising and thanking God in worship, as well as studying and following his Word, are the chief works of love of God after faith itself (Second and Third Commandments). Serving the neighbor in one’s vocations according to the remaining Ten Commandments is, because it is a fruit of faith in the gospel, also part of the Christian’s worship and thanksgiving to God.

1.2 – How do Christians Worship? (conference audio)

In the age of the New Testament, the gospel has been instituted by Christ in the specific forms, rites, and ceremonies of the NT’s specific ceremonial law, namely, the means of grace: the word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The pastoral office has been established by Christ to administer the gospel in these forms also in the public worship service. Administering and partaking of the gospel according to these forms are acts of love which, when proceeding from genuine faith in the gospel, are also acts of worship pleasing to God. When considered as God’s saving work for us, the means of grace take on a “sacramental” meaning. When considered as our serving actions for God and neighbor, the means of grace take on a “sacrificial” meaning. Due to the alone-saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, the only legitimate function for sacrifice in the Christian worship service is to express the Christians’ praise and thanksgiving for their being saved by Christ.

1.3 – Does Christian Worship have a Unique Character? (conference audio)       

The forms, rites, and ceremonies of the gospel have a specific God-given character in that they are not only unchanging but also humble and simple in nature. For they offer God’s almighty grace and power under the simple, humble, weak forms of human words, water, as well as bread and wine. When considered by the old Adam without God’s word, this humility and weakness is despised as utter foolishness. When considered by the new man according to God’s word, this simplicity and weakness is recognized as God’s wisdom and power. The pastoral office shares in this humble form in that it faithfully and simply proclaims the word of the cross in its divinely instituted forms, the means of grace.

II. What Does Christian Worship Have to do with Christ?

2.1 – How is Christian Worship Like Christ? (conference audio

The humble nature of the gospel and the pastoral office reflects the humility of Christ’s life on earth. While he always possessed all the attributes of his divine nature, he only rarely used them openly. For the most part, he kept them hidden under his servant form. His humble external form as well as the humble external form of the gospel serve the key purpose of his mission: to bring his forgiveness to sinners terrified and humbled by the law. For such sinners need to be approached in a humble, gentle manner lest they be terrified further.

2.2 – How is Christian Worship Related to Christian Freedom in Christ? (conference audio)        

After the end of the comprehensive ceremonial law of the OT, Christians are free to add humanly devised ceremonies (“adiaphora”) to the ceremonies of the gospel Christ has established already. Lest these ceremonies contradict the ceremonies of the gospel itself, they must conform to the gospel in both content and form. This means, they need to proclaim the gospel and be humble and simple in nature. By doing so, they agree with the Christian faith (doctrine) and further faith in Christ as the highest worship. By doing so, they also agree with the simplicity of worship in paradise before man’s fall into sin.

2.3 – How is Christian Worship Related to Love? (conference audio)       

However, these ceremonies also need to be in agreement with Christian love, the chief fruit of faith and the fulfillment of the law, as one of their chief purposes is to serve the neighbor. These ceremonies will be in agreement with Christian love when they are created and observed jointly by churches sharing the same confession. In that such is the way of humility and service, ceremonies created and observed in this way conform to the humble form of the gospel also by the very way they are created and observed. In that such humility is also in keeping with Christ’s humble life of service on earth, they are part and parcel of the Christians’ humble way of life and service that puts the needs of the neighbor first. In this way love restrains the freedom that is indeed ours by faith in the gospel.

III. What does Christian Worship have to do with Christians?

To order, email at

To order, email at

3.1 – As Lords and Servants, Old Adam and New Man? (conference audio)          

For the Christian is not only by faith a free lord over all things in his relationship to God; he is also by love a most dutiful servant in relation to his neighbor. Such an approach to worship does full justice to the fact that the Christian is both saint and sinner, both new man and old Adam. For the fact that the Christian is not fully renewed in this life makes love, patience and humility necessary, also and especially when it comes to the joint creation and observing of orders of worship. The fact that the Christian is beginning to be renewed in this life by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace makes incipient love, patience, and humility a reality, also and especially when it comes to the joint creation and observing of orders of worship.

3.2 – Being Justified by Faith (conference audio)                              

The doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone does not result in antinomianism because it does not militate against such humble works of love and service, but only against the belief that such works contribute to man’s justification before God. The doctrine of justification, therefore, does not negate the necessity of Christian love for keeping Christian doctrine pure, which exists due to the Christians’ ongoing sinfulness. It therefore does not negate the necessity of love for keeping the church united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. For where the purity of doctrine has been lost, there the unity of the church in the truth has been lost. In heaven, when the Christian will be fully renewed, worship will still be corporate and uniform. For then the Spirit will have fully consumed old Adam’s desire to be an individual and do his own thing.

3.3 – In our Relationship with other Congregations, Synods and Churches? (conference audio)

In that ceremonies of worship traditionally have been observed jointly by those sharing the same confession, ceremonies of both human and divine origin play a role as boundary markers of those communities. Differences and changes in ceremonies therefore always give the impression of a changed and hence different confession. This is why changes in (humanly devised) ceremonies must be theologically warranted lest the wrong impression of theological agreement is given where no such agreement exists.


To see this topic discussed in more detail, you can check out the posts I have been doing on my own blog.  Today’s post, part VI of VIII, is basically the same as what I have posted here.


*To order a copy of Christian Worship: Apology of the Unchanging Forms of the Gospel e-mail at