What You Need to Know about Hymns and What Hymns To Know

One distinctive that marks the Lutheran confession from all others is the love of congregational singing. We owe this to Martin Luther and his friends. Luther himself recognized the role of music in the life of church, composing hymn texts and tunes that we still use today. Luther wrote:

“Indeed I plainly judge, and do not hesitate to affirm, that except for theology there is no art that could be put on the same level with music, since except for theology [music] alone produces what otherwise only theology can do, namely, a calm and joyful disposition. Manifest proof [of this is the fact] that the devil, the creator of saddening cares and disquieting worries, takes flight at the sound of music almost as he takes flight at the word of theology. This is the reason why the prophets did not make use of any art except music; when setting forth their theology they did it not as geometry, not as arithmetic, not as astronomy, but as music, so that they held theology and music most tightly connected, and proclaimed truth through Psalms and songs.”

From the example of the prophets, we learn that music in the church is properly used for proclamation of the true teaching. Why? Because like the Word of Absolution, music can provide a calm and joyful disposition. Luther even boldly suggests that the sound of music when coupled with theology scares the devil away and lifts the conscience.

Music represents the core of our liturgical life together. Our regular liturgies teach the vocabulary and melody of the people of God. If I intone “Glory be to God on high…” you know to sing in response “and on earth, peace goodwill toward men.” From years of singing the Gloria in Excelsis, this Word of God dwells richly in you and lifts your conscience with the knowledge of salvation.

The efficacy of this song is in the Word spoken. Yet, the particular melody amplifies the Word. Perhaps you have caught yourself singing a hymn or a part of the liturgy as you go about your work or leisure? I know I have. The Word of God is carried from the Divine Service by this melody into our daily lives, bringing Jesus into even the most menial of tasks.

There is no doubt of the importance of hymnody in the Christian faith and life, for catechesis and confession, prayer and proclamation. A core body of significant hymns (kernlieder), sung with deliberate repetition at intervals throughout the church year, and from one year to the next, is a most salutary way of instilling these sung poetic confessions of the Word of God into the hearts and minds of God’s people.

The question we must ask is: What music is fitting for the Christian church? The answer to this question is consistent with our approach to the readings, preaching, the liturgy, and the other rites of  the church. While specific readings, particular liturgy, or specific church practices are not commanded or forbidden, this does not mean we should treat them as a matter of taste or flippantly.

As hymns are not inspired by God but are rather our poetic reflections upon God’s Word, there is a wide variance in their faithfulness. Not every hymn is suitable to be sung in a Lutheran church. Not every hymn is suitable for a particular church day or festival. Not every hymn sings with a tune appropriate to the text. Not every hymn is created equal.

This is not a matter of personal taste. Nor is the choice of hymns for the Divine Service something that is secondary. Hymns are chiefly for proclamation of God’s Word. They to affect the spirit of the singer primarily by what they say and only secondarily by how their musical character. Some of the hymns popular in our churches and homes are inappropriate for the churches of the Lutheran confession. Some hymns reflect upon God’s Word wrongly, distorting it to suit the hymnwriter’s or translator’s own fancy.  Other hymns are too generic or weak in their description of the Holy Trinity and salvation in Jesus to be part of our regular use. Others have very narrow themes that are relevant only to specific occasions.

Essential to my role as pastor of Grace is the proclamation of the Word in the place, whether in liturgy, lectionary, preaching, or hymnody. You may have noticed that we have sung many hymns with regularity over the two years since my installation. This core body of significant hymns (kernlieder, in German) are sung with deliberate repetition at intervals throughout the church year, and from one year to the next.

Taking the Lutheran Service Book as the pool of hymns from which to draw, hymns were considered for historic significance, as well as some of the more promising recent hymns, in arriving at a total of sixty core hymns. Most of these hymns have been available in our previous English hymnals, including The Lutheran Hymnal (red TLH) and Lutheran Worship (blue LW), as well restorations from previous hymnals.

Part of the process included a survey of pastors, musicians, adults, youth and children, family and friends, in an effort to discover those hymns that have proven to be most affective in the hearts and minds of those who sing them. The Word of God is the real power of any Christian hymn, but there is also a subjective, artistic element that contributes to the way a hymn engages the singer.

By regular use, the regularly attending congregation will grow in its appreciation and enthusiasm for hymns that were once unfamiliar and more difficult. The sturdier hymns, exemplified by the Lutheran chorales and the medieval chants have both a substance and a staying power that make them a good investment. Much like you can repeat the Gloria in Excelsis by heart, this core hymnody is a most salutary way of instilling sung poetic confessions of the Word of God into the hearts and minds of God’s people.

The end result of my efforts is the following list of sixty hymns altogether, distributed in four tiers of importance. The first tier is sung at least six times each year; the second tier, at least five times; the third tier, at least four times; and the fourth tier, at least three times. Any of these hymns may be used more often. And of course, these are not the only hymns that are going to be sung in the course of the year. The aim is that these hymns are used with at least this much repetition, year-in, year-out, so that members of my congregation will gradually learn them by heart and retain them.

In addition, our church order (Lutheran Service Book) prescribes a hymn for each Sunday and festival of the church year. For your reference, see the attached PDF for these hymns: LSB Hymn of the Day List (Please refer to those marked “one-year”)

It is an ongoing process of fine-tuning and adjustment over the long haul. There are such a huge number of factors that come into play, including the weekly Hymn of the Day, the catechetical hymn of the week, the observance of feasts and festivals throughout the year, Advent and Lenten Vespers, etc. By regular use, the congregation will grow in its appreciation and enthusiasm for hymns that were once unfamiliar and more difficult. The sturdier hymns, exemplified by the Lutheran chorales and the medieval chants, such as many of the following are, have both a substance and a staying power that make them a good investment.

First Tier (about six times per year)

Lutheran Service Book (LSB) – The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) – Lutheran Worship (LW). Newly composed or translated hymns to LSB are indicated.

Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332/TLH 95)
O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright (LSB 395/TLH 343)
A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth (LSB 438/TLH 142)
Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying (LSB 516/TLH 609)
Salvation unto Us Has Come (LSB 555/TLH 377)
Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice (LSB 556/TLH 387)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (LSB 656/TLH 262)
Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart (LSB 708/TLH 429)

Second Tier (about five times per year)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten (LSB 384/TLH 98)
To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord (LSB 406/LW 223)
My Song Is Love Unknown (LSB 430/LW 91)
Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands (LSB 458/TLH 195)
Triune God, Be Thou Our Stay (LSB 505/LW 170)
O Love, How Deep (LSB 544/LW 275)
Lord Jesus Christ, with Us Abide (LSB 585/TLH 292)
O Lord, We Praise Thee (LSB 617/TLH 313)
At the Lamb’s High Feast We Sing (LSB 633/LW 126)
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word (LSB 655/TLH 261)
Lord of Our Life (LSB 659/LW 301)
Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me (LSB 683/TLH 349)
I Walk in Danger All the Way (LSB 716/TLH 413)
To God the Holy Spirit Let Us Pray (LSB 768/LW 155)
Praise the Almighty (LSB 797/TLH 26)
May God Bestow on Us His Grace (LSB 823/TLH 500)

Third Tier (about four times per year)

O Lord, How Shall I Meet You (LSB 334/TLH 58)
Jesus, Grant That Balm and Healing (LSB 421/TLH 144)
Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle (LSB 454/LW 117)
Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord (LSB 497/TLH 224)
In the Shattered Bliss of Eden (LSB 572 newly composed)
Thy Strong Word (LSB 578/LW 328)
These Are the Holy Ten Commands (LSB 581 newly translated)
God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It (LSB 594 newly translated)
All Christians Who Have Been Baptized (LSB 596 newly translated)
All Who Believe and Are Baptized (LSB 601/LW 225)
From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee (LSB 607/TLH 329)
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (LSB 621/LW 241)
Wide Open Stand the Gates (LSB 639 newly translated)
Sing with All the Saints in Glory (LSB 671 newly composed)
O God, My Faithful God (LSB 696/TLH 395)
From God Can Nothing Move Me (LSB 713/TLH 393)
Evening and Morning (LSB 726/LW 419)
Rejoice, My Heart, Be Glad and Sing (LSB 737/TLH 535)
Jesus, Priceless Treasure (LSB 743/TLH 347)
In the Very Midst of Life (LSB 755/TLH 590)
Our Father, Who from Heaven Above (LSB 766/TLH 458)
Sing Praise to God, the Highest Good (LSB 819/LW 452)
O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth (LSB 834/LW 319)
We All Believe in One True God (LSB 954/TLH 251)
Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old (LSB 960/TLH 249)

Fourth Tier (about three times per year)

All My Heart Again Rejoices (LSB 360/TLH 77)
Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain (LSB 487/TLH 204)
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest (LSB 498/TLH 233)
Father Most Holy (LSB 504/TLH 240)
Christ Sits at God’s Right Hand (LSB 564 newly composed)
Now, My Tongue, the Mystery Telling (LSB 630 newly translated)
Behold a Host, Arrayed in White (LSB 676/TLH 656)
For All the Saints (LSB 677/LW 191)
Entrust Your Days and Burdens (LSB 754/LW 427)
Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me (LSB 756/TLH 523)
Kyrie! God, Father (LSB 942/TLH 6)

Many thanks to Rev. Rick Stuckwisch for his work in compiling these lists. You can listen to him explain the reasoning in greater detail on Issues Etc.