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Language of the Liturgy

Part 1: Basic Grammar

grammar |grăm·er|: The system of rules that defines the structure of a language.

The liturgy of the church names God for who He is and for what He has done for us. It not only uses the language of the Scriptures, but it also faithfully confesses the faith of the Scriptures. Over the next few posts, I invite you to join me in looking at what the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions have to say about the subject of worship through the lens of language. Since God is triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and has made us His creatures as persons for relation, worship at its most simple level is the personal communication of truth through language. And because it is God’s truth and language, that is to say, His effective Word, it actually takes hold and accomplishes that for which He sends it (Is 55:11). Like all language, it too has grammar and syntax—rules to help provide order and meaning.

Some churches pretend they are anti-liturgical, but this is not true. Whatever a church does in a Sunday worship service is their liturgy.

While all churches use some form of liturgy or pattern of worship, the Lutheran Church approaches it from a vantage that is quite distinct from other traditions. As we move through the liturgy we will also reflect on the God that serves us through the liturgy. What I hope to demonstrate is that how a church comprehends and conducts its worship is a reflection of what it actually believes, teaches and confesses (Lex orandi, lex credendi).

The Parts of Liturgical Speech

Look up the term “worship” in any dictionary and you will find it equates worship with religious reverence, adoration, or homage paid to a divine being. The trouble with this common definition is that it places the primary emphasis on what we do as worshippers. While it is certainly true that God is worthy of worship and adoration, we’ll see that our actions are secondary, as everything in the liturgy comes from God and acknowledges Him as the good gift giver. Like a basic sentence, the liturgy has structure (parts of speech). It has a subject, verb, and direct object.

The Subject of the Service: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

In an active sentence, the subject is the person or thing that performs the action of the verb. In the liturgy, God is the subject doing the primary actions. For this reason, the Lutheran church uses the German term, Gottesdienst, which means, “God’s service” or the “Divine Service” for her liturgy. The Divine Service begins with the invocation of God’s Holy name. We call upon not just any God, but acknowledge the One true God of Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Norman Nagel states, “This trinitarian invocation reminds us of the Name into which we were baptized. We do not come before God on our own merits, but for Christ’s sake adopts us into his family. His is the initiative; the action is from him to us. If he had not given us his name we would still be making up our own gods” (Lutheran Worship: History and Practice, 262).

The Verb of the Service: Forgiveness of Sins

A verb is a word that expresses the action of the sentence. While the liturgy involves many actions and movements, the primary action is the forgiveness of sins. Note how the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains this chief aspect of worship:

So the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive gifts from God. On the contrary, the worship of the Law is to offer and present our gifts to God. However, we can offer nothing to God unless we have first been reconciled and born again. This passage, too, brings the greatest comfort, as the chief worship of the Gospel is to desire to receive the forgiveness of sins, grace, and righteousness (Ap V, 130).

God is so benevolent with his grace that he distributes it several times and in multiple ways throughout the service through our eyes, ears, and mouths via absolution, preaching, and the Lord’s Supper.

The Tenses of the Service: Past, Present, and Future

The tense of a verb indicates the time when the action expressed by the verb takes place: past, present, or future. The liturgy is unique in that while everything is taking place in the present, there is a constant reflection on the past (what God has done for us, especially on the cross), but also an eschatological anticipation of what is to come (future). We see this especially in Holy Communion:

  • Past (This do in remembrance of me)

  • Present (for the forgiveness of sins)

  • Future (we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again).

The Direct Object of the Service: Believers

A direct object receives the action of the verb in a sentence. In the liturgy, it is the baptized gathered in the name and presence of God who receive forgiveness by faith. Luther Reed captures this reality quite poetically:

Faith presupposes revelation. It is not mere aspiration, pious wish, or beautiful ideal. It rests upon something objective. Christianity is essentially a revealed religion. Faith is an adventure, but an adventure with a map in hand, compass in heart, and a voice to guide. God lives and loves and speaks first of all. Because he is, we are; because he first loved us, we love him; because he has spoken, we believe. (Lutheran Liturgy, 5)

Now on the surface, all of this, like a basic sentence, may seem rather simple and inconsequential. But when contrasted with the most common forms of worship that predominate the evangelical landscape, you may find in practice that Sunday actually becomes the most liberating day of the week as Jesus invites you into his gathered assembly to speak Words of comfort, feeds you with His very body and blood, restoring your spirit, strengthening your faith, and sending you out to your various vocations with a peace that truly does pass all understanding.

Stay tuned: Next post we will consider the dialogue of the liturgy.

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