Luther and Calvin on Scripture and Song in Worship

When the reformers endeavored to reform worship, they strove to turn the church back from the failings so common throughout history. They made the preaching of the word central to the role of the pastor. As Calvin wrote:


They would sing or mutter in the church, exhibit themselves in theatrical vestments, and go through numerous ceremonies, but they would seldom, if ever, teach. According to the precept of Christ, however, no man can claim for himself the office of bishop or pastor who does not feed his flock with the Word of the Lord.1


For worship to be returned to something God-honoring, the word had to be central. And, once the word, rightly taught and understood was returned, the participation of the congregation in worship could also be reinstated. Thus, in the reformation, after centuries of silence, congregations again sang the truths of the word of God. Christians again began to obey the command of God in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”


Martin Luther saw the tremendous value of music both for the joy of the soul and for the training of the Christian mind. He designed worship services that returned singing to the congregation and he understood that singing was a glorious and godly way for people to learn true theology.


Eric Metaxas puts it this way:


Music was not to be banished from our lives as Karlstadt and Müntzer felt it must be, nor was it to be separated into “church music” that could only be sung by priests and monks and “secular music” that was sung by the people outside the churches. All that was good was of God, and to create walls where God has built none was far worse than a mere tragic mistake. So Luther, in creating the worship services for the new Reformation church, sought to bring every kind of good music into God’s service and sought to bring the “priesthood of all believers” into God’s choir in church. Because it is so ubiquitous today, including even in Catholic churches, it is hard to believe that before Luther introduced it, there was no congregational singing in churches. He knew the power of music and wanted to use it for God’s purposes.2


Luther said:


Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. St. Augustine was troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music, which he took to be sinful. He was a choice spirit, and were he living today would agree with us. I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.3

1 John Calvin, On the Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543-44) [book on-line]; accessed 14 October 2017; available from; Internet.

2[1] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter 18.

3 Ibid.