By Heather Judd
This article is part III of a three-part series on Lutheran hymns that address the “unholy trinity” of sin, death, and the devil. Although it seems counter-intuitive, hymnody that addresses these evils actually makes a stronger confession of Christian faith than songs that merely focus on praising God. By singing about the unholy three, Lutherans deny the theology of glory and find comfort in the theology of the cross, proclaiming that even while we are beset by these enemies, Christ has conquered them and our holiness, life, and salvation are secure in Him.
Lutherans sing hymns about sin.
In their song, Lutherans point the finger of God’s judgment at themselves and name themselves as sinners through and through, paralyzed—indeed dead—with the poison of sin.
There was no spot in me by sin untainted;
Sick with sin’s poison, all my heart had fainted;
My heavy guilt to hell had well-nigh brought me,
Such woe it wrought me.
(LSB 439:6 – Johann Heermann)
Through all our pow’rs corruption creeps
And us in dreadful bondage keeps;
In guilt we draw our infant breath
And reap its fruits of woe and death.
(LSB 562:2 – Lazarus Spengler)
From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart—
So deep is our corruption.
(LSB 555:4 – Paul Speratus)
Such hymns leave no quarter for praise of our own piety or emotional love-songs to God that overlook the dreadful nature of our condition. If Lutherans attempted to convert typical Protestant praise choruses to be doctrinally sound, they would end up far less catchy. How about: “I couldn’t sing of your love forever… because I am captive to sin and daily rebel against your grace”? Or try out: “Our God is a righteous God; He judges sin with death.”
Such lyrics are rightly repulsive, and in fact demonstrate why the praise chorus is not a reliable vehicle for Lutheran doctrine. Strings of praise without an understanding of our own sinful standing before God belie our true condition and our true need for Christ. Yet, by the same token, it would be a horrible choice to sing snippets of text merely about our sin and God’s judgment.
Lutheran doctrine always tells the story of redemption through Christ. Without a blindingly honest appraisal of our sinful hearts, we do not understand our need for Christ; however, without the proclamation of Christ’s atonement for our sin, we become overwhelmed with guilt and despair. Simply put, Christianity has no meaning or purpose without sin. Thus, Lutheran hymns also always tell the story of redemption through Christ. Some, such as Luther’s great justification hymn “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” lay out the entire narrative of sin and salvation:
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell;
My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.
But God had seen my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And mindful of His mercies great,
He planned for my salvation.
He turned to me a father’s heart;
He did not choose the easy part
But gave His dearest treasure.
(LSB 556:2, 4 – Martin Luther)
Other hymns weave the threads of sin and salvation into different contexts, but what is always true is that Lutheran hymns cannot separate sin and salvation. We must understand our disease before we can welcome the cure.
Sin’s dreadful doom upon us lies;
Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.
O come, lead us with mighty hand
From exile to our promised land.
(LSB 355:6 – Friedrich von Spee)
This is also why our hymns make confession of sin before God. We sing our sins because it is a comfort and necessity to confess them. By confessing our sinfulness, we relieve our consciences and are restored to God as His true children. So we confess in song:
Lord, to You I make confession:
I have sinned and gone astray,
I have multiplied transgression,
Chosen for myself my way…
(LSB 608:1 – Johann Franck)
I, a sinner, come to Thee
With a penitent confession.
Savior, mercy show to me,
Grant for all my sins remission.
Let these words my soul relieve:
Jesus sinners doth receive.
(LSB 609:4 – Erdmann Neumeister)
But Lutherans do not sing so persistently about their sin because they wish to heap guilt upon themselves. It is rather because they wish to praise their Redeemer for rescue from sin that they declare so tirelessly their own transgressions. Christ is the content of all Christian teaching, and He came to save sinners, not the righteous. Therefore, we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God, freely confessing our sin because we know He desires for us not death but life:
“As surely as I live,” God said,
“I would not see the sinner dead.
I want him turned from error’s ways,
Repentant, living endless days.”
(LSB 614:1 – Nicolaus Herman)
Christ’s victory over sin through His death and resurrection has robbed it of its power to enslave us, and we repeat this promise of emancipation to Him in joyful song:
Easter triumph, Easter joy!
This alone can sin destroy;
From sin’s pow’r, Lord, set us free,
Newborn souls in You to be.
(LSB 633:7 – Latin, c. 5th-10th cent.)
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile foes that mar my course…
I bind to me those holy pow’rs.
(LSB 604:4 – attr. St. Patrick)
Ultimately, then, Lutherans sing about sin because they already possess the remedy against it. Through Baptism, we have put on Christ and His righteousness even as in His death He took our sin upon Himself. This is the great exchange that is the beating heart of Christianity: Christ took my sin and gave me His righteousness. So, in boldness and ecstasy, we sing:
Sin, disturb my soul no longer:
I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger:
Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me
Since my Baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood,
Sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?
(LSB 594:2 – Erdmann Neumeister)
…Sin that once did blind me,
Get thee far behind me,
Come not forth again.
Past thy hour,
O pride and pow’r;
Sinful life, thy bonds I sever,
Leave thee now forever.
(LSB 743:5 – Johann Franck)
Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming. The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up, and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call. When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.