Oh, Come, Let us Worship and Bow Down

a look at Lutheran Liturgical practice Peter M. Berg

When it comes to worship “God must lay the first stone,” thus Doctor Luther. Whether it is a tree planted in the middle of a paradisiacal garden or a tree planted on an accursed hill, God must lay the first stone, he must do the planting, the initiative belongs to him. That becomes patently clear when we recall that the first “liturgical” movement of Adam and Eve after the Fall was to hide. Their movement was not God-ward but away from him. God must coax them out of the shadows, slay an innocent victim, so that he might dress his fallen children who had in vain tried to cover themselves with their fig leaf excuses. Ever since the Fall man has always gotten it wrong when it comes to worship. He would prefer to dance in front of a golden calf rather than behold a bloodied lamb. Through the Holy Liturgy God continues to coax us out of the shadows. This first coaxing was a promise of a Savior who would crush the Tempter’s head. That promise is at the center of all true worship.


The crushing of the Tempter’s head would be the work of the woman’s Seed, the Word planted in a virginal womb. “Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.” As Jehovah promised “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Is 1:18) The manner in which God would redeem his people would involve incarnation and scarlet death, and this incarnation and death would shape everything in worship. Who the Savior was and the way in which he would redeem his people would form the way of their approach back to God. 1


The Who and the Way


Again: the way of Old Testament worship would be shaped by the Who and the Way.  It was shaped by the One who would be worshipped and who would encounter his people, and by the Way in which he would redeem them.


The worship of the Old Testament people was divinely prescribed. Its center was sacrifice (the Way), with an altar as a visible, tangible focal point. It involved the honor and dignity of God (the Who). At the altar the Who and the Way were joined together, both as type and reality, with the Blood Atonement read back into time. The Who dictated the way of the Way. There is no separation between Who and Way and the way of worship, as if the Who and the Way were the lone non-negotiables, with the way of worship merely being one way among many other ways. The way of worship, shaped by the Way of redemption, was mandated by the Who. There was no other way. Left to themselves God’s people will always smelt a calf. God will not give his glory to another, and his glory is his self-giving, the way of grace, the way of liturgy.


Since the way of worship was divine it brought with it divine blessings, having a profound effect upon the life of the nation of Israel. In the way of the Israelite cultus liturgy and life were bound together since liturgy is the sanctification of life. When an Israelite man bathed himself or when he brought a sacrifice for slaughter he was profoundly reminded that he was not his own man, but rather a marked man bought at a horrific price. Through the way of worship time was also sanctified. The week was made holy by the Sabbath and the year was sanctified by the three great festivals. The way of worship was above all messianic, that is Christocentric, not anthropocentric. Therefore, the worship of God’s people would be formed by Christ and his cross. Only he could sanctify both men and time. Israel’s worship, given by God, would be cruciform in nature. Altars, sacrifices, priestly sacrificers, sacrificial movements, official vestments, knives, sacred fire, etc. were all natural, even necessary, expressions of the Who and the Way. Liturgy, whether of the Old Testament or New Testament, is liturgical or ceremonial because it is first of all Christological and sacramental. To put it another way, it is incarnational, naturally requiring liturgy and ceremony (words, movement, and concrete things). God’s worship dictates are not arbitrary, but flow naturally out of his essence and saving work.


Yet for all the awesome dignity of the Temple cultus, for all its beauty, and for all its divine character, it was still temporary and incomplete (and intentionally so). This brings us to the era of the New Testament. Types and promises were at an end, now had come the time of fulfillment. Type and promise give way to reality and divine presence.


New Testament Directives for Worship


It is often said that the New Testament does not prescribe any form of worship. For all too many in the church today this is carte blanche for doing one’s own thing. The above statement is so woefully inadequate and misleading that it has no place in this discussion. For one thing Jewish Christians who were steeped in the cult of the Temple and in the protocols of the synagogue needed little instruction on what it meant to worship. The Old Testament order had reached its fulfillment in Christ and yet it continued to serve as a paradigm for the new church. No order of a divine service is given to us in the Book of Acts simply because the early Christians continued as they had, with the obvious liturgical changes that would give witness to the Fulfillment of the Ages, with the celebration of the Supper being most prominent. In spite of the absence of the kind of detailed instructions given in Exodus and Leviticus the New Testament does have much to say about worship. As an example one could cite the description given of the church at worship in the second chapter of Acts. Here we see the fledgling church going about worship, on the one hand attached to the Temple, and on the other demonstrating its freedom from the restrictions of the Mosaic code which had now reached its fulfillment in Christ. We read in Acts 2:42, “And they continued steadfastly in the didache of the apostles and in the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Here is the ordinary of our Mass in embryonic form: Preaching, Eucharist, liturgical prayers.


Again, the New Testament has much to say about worship. This is especially true in the context of Gentile mission work. While the worship of the Jews was decidedly God-ward, Greek idolatry focused on man engaging him in a most sensuous way (anthropomorphism at its worst). Gentile Christians not accustomed to the cult of the Temple would need guidance and correctives as their patterns of worship evolved. This is the case at Corinth which occasioned Paul’s intervention. This congregation was Paul’s unruly child. He had to deal with factionalism, a case of incest, the role of women in the church, a nascent form of Gnosticism, and disorderliness in worship. In regard to the last point Paul had to deal specifically with the disorderly use of speaking in tongues. Paul had to remind the Corinthians that the ultimate purpose of these showy gifts was a judgment upon unbelief. Humility, rather than religious exhibitionism, was to be the attitude of the worshipful heart. Worship is principally about God’s gift to man, not man’s gift to God. Chaos in the worship assembly will only convince the unbelieving inquirer that the Corinthian believers were out of their minds. On the other hand orderliness will permit the Word of God to be heard, “and thus the secrets of his heart are revealed, and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.” (1 Co 14:25) Note how naturally liturgical praise and action (the way of worship) flow out of the Word (the Who).  The situation at Corinth was Mt. Sinai and the golden calf redux . Once again God must lay the first stone. 




In the same chapter of 1 Corinthians we come upon the most famous New Testament paradigm for worship. In the last verse of the chapter we read, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The word rendered “decently” means “with dignity and decorum.” Our word decorum comes from the Latin which means “with grace, comeliness, and beauty.” The word “order” comes from a word from which we derive our technical word “taxonomy” (the study or practice of classification). Simply put, worship is to be dignified and orderly. After all, our God is a God of order. He called all things into being in six ordered days. We are beholden to him since we are a part of that order. He is to be feared. Though grace triumphs, this side of the Jordan we never leave the burning bush or Sinai. Throughout the scriptures we read of better men than we taking off their shoes and falling face down before this God. Today’s ecclesiastical comedians, who weekly wander from their pulpits with their “cute” self-deprecating humor, are wholly out of place before this Wholly Other. They have no decorum.


Paul gives another reason for decorum in worship. He writes, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (14:33)  Silly sermon props, humorous anecdotes which feature the preacher, dumb-downed sermons, sloppy liturgics, emotive music which has little to do with the Incarnate Christ, testimonials which tell how much the speaker loves Jesus, congregants who do not have churchly manners, homemade and mediocre orders of service, etc., etc., all serve to disrupt and distract. Crappy liturgics and anthropomorphism distract, and where there is no order or decorum there is no peace (v 33). Whether it is the disorder of a disorderly life (sin), the cacophony of our noisy and busy lives (and narthexes), or a worship service in which people are constantly jumping up and down and speaking their own testimonial without regard to others, all serve to disrupt peace. Where peace is disrupted faith flounders. Order, you see, is about faith. 


Jesus alone is the answer to this disorder. He ordered the Law of God in his holy life and died for our disorderliness, bringing us peace through his Gospel. He brings meaning to our seemingly meaningless lives, and though the fast pace does not always change we are given strength to continue on. In regard to worship, his directives in both testaments bring a sense of order to what the church does with resultant decorum and peace.


Worship in the Early Church


Although the New Testament church was not under the Mosaic code, it still saw wisdom in patterning its worship after that of the Old Testament church, but without slavish duplication. Early Christian worship was held in homes, involved Scripture readings, exposition, liturgical prayers, the offering of the gifts of bread and wine, and the Eucharist. There are hints about the patterns of early liturgies, but they remain tentative. Some of the prayers and liturgical responses were those which were used by the Jews. Liturgically things come and go. However, by the 5th and 6th centuries the worship of the early church is very familiar to us. However, though the liturgy evolves it shows its true catholicity by never completely separating from the past. Things in early New Testament worship which have Old Testament precedents were: a church year, liturgical prayers, a series of readings (pericope), the altar, lights, priestly vestments, and the use of incense and oil.


Above all, the Who of worship and the Way of salvation helped to form and inform what the church did. To put it another way, the Gospel sought her own forms. Right doctrine results in appropriate forms or rites. Orthodoxy is, after all, correct praise. Again, God lays the first stone. He will not leave the patterns of worship to the whims of fallen people, even his own people. His Gospel will seek her own forms. Our western rite is glorious proof of this, in spite of occasional midcourse corrections. The place of the rite in the Church of the Augsburg Confession was crucial. The rite must be right, it must be orthodox. Luther’s recension of the Canon is an example of this attention to the details of the rite. An interesting twist on this principle is the infamous “black rubric” in the Book of Common Prayer. It offers the disclaimer that kneeling to receive the Sacrament in no way is to be taken as an act of veneration, since Christ is “not there, but in heaven.” This disclaimer is a not so subtle admission by the author that ceremonies, in addition to the words of the rite, are confession and teach truths. In view of this we wonder what is being confessed on “non-communion” Sundays in all too many Lutheran churches. To date the answers are very disappointing. To those who give them we quote the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, “Lucy, you got a lotta ‘splaining to do!”




Worship not only involves the words of God and of his people, but also physical action and the plastic arts. Given the make up of our being (soul and body), and the incarnational/sacramental theology of the Bible, ceremony involving physical actions and things fashioned for the glory of God are simply natural expressions of who we are and what God has done for us.


Unfortunately, iconoclasm and aversion to ceremony found in most of Protestantism have found their way into much of Lutheranism, with a bizarre suspicion of noble things. In contrast consider the attitude about ceremony of the early Lutheran confessors: “As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite (used here in sense of ceremony) itself enters through the eyes to move the heart.” (Apology, XIII)  Luther says in his The Adoration of the Sacrament, “(Worship) is not a function of the mouth but of the whole body. It is to bow the head, bend the body, fall on the knees, prostrate one’s self, and so forth, and to do such things as a sign and acknowledgement of an authority and power.” (AE Vol. 36, p292) One wonders what those who stubbornly resist ceremony think when they sing in the Venite, “Oh, come, let us worship and bow down…” Today’s prideful resistance to genuflection is completely absent in the reaction of Isaiah and John when they found themselves in the presence of the Holy. The Lord who commanded holocaust offerings and plumes of incense would have little patience with those who complain about Holy Smoke. 2 It is worth noting that Lutheran rubrical books do not appear immediately. Lutheran pastors were simply expected to follow the rubrics of the Roman Mass unless directed otherwise.


Unfortunately, when liturgically astute pastors attempt to reclaim some of the noble ceremonies of the past, they sometimes encounter fierce resistance, and they are not helped by brother pastors who recite the Protestant mantra, “In our glorious Gospel freedom we don’t have to!” Those who mindlessly chant these words must be reminded that our freedom in the Gospel does not mean doing stupid things or resisting noble things. Above all it doesn’t mean being niggardly with the sacraments of Holy Communion and Holy Absolution. 


Fr. John Fenton gives this excellent description of the symbiotic relationship of the spiritual and physical in worship:


The preaching and sacraments, which implant the Lord and His saving benefits into our flesh, at the same time proclaim that the body is made to be saved, redeemed to be recreated, and sanctified to be the home of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit implanted the Word incarnationally into Mary, and implants Him sacramentally into believers, the redemption of our flesh, our union in God – in short, our way of salvation – takes place not noetically (just in the mind) and spiritually, but corporeally and palpably. This corporeality and palpability….both assume and require ceremonies that are liturgically corporeal and liturgically palpable. (Way of Salvation, Way of Liturgy” Bride of Christ, July 2002)


Thus bowing the head or genuflecting demonstrates the attitude of a pauper receiving a gift. Signing one’s self with the cross is a sign of one’s baptism. The elevation of the consecrated elements is a testimony to the Real Presence. All of this is much more than nice aesthetics or symbolism, rather this is the acknowledgement of the presence of the divine in our midst. We are in the presence of God. Like Mary and Thomas we touch the divine/human Son of God. He pours his presence into our bodies as well as into our souls. The soul is moved to faith, the body to action, both in liturgical ceremony and also in service to neighbor.


Examples of the use of appropriate ceremony and the plastic arts briefly follow:  The procession of the clergy with crucifer / The restoration of the historic mass vestments (cf. Ex 28:2f) /  The restoration of the crucifix (together with the altar the ultimate epiphany of the glory of God) / Making the sign of the cross at appropriate times during the mass (cf. Luther’s rubric to do so at the praying of the Morning and Evening prayers, conspicuously missing in the WELS edition of the Catechism) / The use of an ornate Gospel book to indicate that the Gospel is the culmination of the Old Testament and the revelation of Christ / The bowing of the head at the name of Jesus (C.F.W. Walther once said, “May we never lose this practice.”) / A full genuflection at the words in the Creed, “And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” to indicate humble reverence for Christ’s incarnation / The use of incense / The elevation of the host and cup with the genuflection of the celebrant and the adoration of the people. Of course these ceremonia would embellish the Eucharistic rite in an officially approved hymnal to which all pastors would voluntarily pledge to use for the sake of the people and the unity of the church.




Practices such as these, not to mention our incarnational/sacramental theology, will help to distinguish the Lutheran church from other Protestants, for whom worship is often the “information hour” during which the people sit passively receiving instructions on how to live better lives, or are entertained by a dynamic speaker with a praise band, or hear testimonials about how God is working good things in someone’s life (which are the ersatz sacraments of non-sacramental churches). However, worship is not merely a thing of the mind or emotions (noetic or emotive), but rather is a spiritual/ physical encounter with the living God, who is revealed in his enfleshed Son, and who gives out his life-giving words and the very body and blood of his Son for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, thus redeeming and reclaiming the whole man.


Anyone who has witnessed the moving ceremony of the changing of the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C. knows the power and instructive value of ceremony. The Church also knows of a tomb, but no body lies there, and the identity of its former occupant is known throughout the earth. Therefore, we will not remain for long in our tombs, for we will be raised up one day to join with “angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven (to) laud and magnify” the glorious name of the Savior. Therefore, there is no room for shoddiness, cuteness, or the trivial in the Holy of holies. There is no room for Protestant iconoclasm, Reformed pallidness, and sacramental poverty in the Temple of God. “Finally, bothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil 4:8.)   §


The Reverend Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.




1 Much of this presentation is a summary of two excellent articles which appeared in the liturgical journal The Bride of Christ. They are Way of Salvation, Way of Liturgy by John Fenton (July 2002) and a two-part article by Lee Maxwell entitled Vere Dignum et Justum Est: Deed Become Creed, December 1999 and March 2000.

2 In the next issue of the Motley Magpie this author will deal with the matter of adiaphora.