“And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (St. Luke 4:8)
“For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” (SC, II. The Creed, Art. I)
One of the problems faced by Lutherans of the “confessional renaissance” variety (neoconfessionalists, post-Seminex confessionalists, cage-stage convert confessionalists and fellow caged travelers— one struggles to find apt terminology) is that of how to square our darling phrases with the sound pattern of words found in the Lutheran Confessions. Perhaps this is a truism, little more than a description of the grand problem of all Christian theology: how do we faithfully receive, steward, and pass on “the faith once for all traditioned to the saints”? How do we ensure that we are faithfully confessing? It’s a bit too etymologically cute to say that “to confess” means “to say the same”… but let’s be cute: how do we ensure that we are, in fact, “saying the same” (and thus believing the same) as our fathers in the faith? We twenty-first century Lutherans seem to struggle with this more than previous generations. I blame memes.  
Worship is Our Duty
One darling that we should really kill is this notion that worship is not a “duty” but a “joy” and a “privilege.” Put another way: worship is not something that we “have to do” but something that we “get to do.” The problem comes in with the conjunction “but,” which creates a false antithesis. “A lion is not a carnivore but a vertebrate.” “Bob is not a Christian but a husband.” (NB: a false antithesis may or may not coincide with a category error.) The suggestion that duty and joy are antithetical to one another is simply false. Worship is, in fact, our duty, and as such we take joy in it. Indeed, it is much more than a duty: it is our raison d’être, our reason for being. But it is not less than a duty.
This trope of worship not being a duty gets trotted out all over and in various forms. I don’t have a verbatim example on hand, but it goes something like this: “Think of it this way: after all that God has done for you in Christ, why wouldn’t you want to thank and praise Him? How could you not? You literally cannot help it.”
However well-intentioned, that right there is Lutheran psychobabble. No, thanks. I prefer to get my guilt-trips honestly, i.e., for failing to do my duty, not for failing to feel a certain way. The first I can amend; the second I cannot. Let me answer the rhetorical questions in order, showing why they are lame:
1. Why wouldn’t I want to thank and praise God? Because my desires are not wholly conformed to God’s will. Because the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of me, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles [and an onerously rigid daily routine*], until the body of sin is entirely put off, and I am perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when I will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; these belong to this mortal and imperfect life.1
2. How could I not? Very easily, sad to say. This is why the routinization of prayer is good. Yes, the daily office flows out of and back into the Divine Service, but you have to paddle. You have to develop habits. You have to bundle kids into the car on Sunday, sit kids (and yourself) down on weekdays, etc., and sacrifice— yes, sacrifice— some time. Very often I have to force myself to do the things that I ought to do, because I do not want to do them. Yes, I ought to want to pray and read Scripture with my wife and children. But very often, I don’t want to. Hopefully I do it anyway, even if I never get to the point of consistently wanting to. Right?
3. You literally cannot help it. Not a question, but I’m still going to respond: Oh ho, yes I can.
Such thinking is the theological analog to weird boomer “never spank your kids” parenting psychology. According to such fuzzy lights, everything has to be a reward, and fun, and we’re actually just so crazy about you, junior, which is why you get to do all of these things! In its worser forms this entails gross funseeking— making sure that everything one does is “fun” so as not to give the lie to one’s insistence (to oneself and one’s children) that life is, in fact, a bowl of cherries.2 However, in the slightly transmogrified version of this error which appears among Confessional™ Lutherans, one finds an insistence that things which have never before in human history derived their value from being “fun” or diverting are, in fact, “fun” and diverting, e.g.: “Wow! Isn’t the liturgy fun?! Isn’t this awesome that we get to worship God?! Whoa! What a privilege!”3
Right. Something smells smarmy and patronizing here. Seems a pretty short transit to <*insert anodyne wrapping of the Gospel in terms of “God must think you’re pretty great, buckaroo!”*>, and boom (pun intended), we’ll have come full circle. Just watch. It’ll happen. In fact it’s happening. I’ve seen it, and so have you: the Chuck-E-Cheesification of confessionalism and traditional piety. You’ll know them by their baby-voices and finger-guns from the pulpit, among other things. This is how the Lutheran confessional and liturgical renaissance dies. Not with a bang, but a chortle.
When the feeling of fun and being rewarded peters out— and no matter what you’re attempting to root it in, it will— the fun-seekers go elsewhere in order to find it. No one ever told them that orthodox worship was their duty, just that they should be enjoying it and feeling like they were privileged to be “getting to do it.” It’s all about getting gifts, see. Let the good Gift-Giver gift you good gifts. Goodness. Gift.
Could we put “gift-talk” on ice for awhile, please? Dr. Nagel may have made adroit use of it, but 90% of its current usage is borderline insufferable. At this rate Generation-Z won’t be able to understand Lutheran theology at all except through metaphors about getting prezzies.
Granted, a lot of this is an overreaction to the turgid legalism which imagines that obedience to the Law of Going to Church is “what makes you a good Christian” ex opere operato. But it’s just that— an overreaction. Because of our latent antinomianism, we dare not say that worship requires something of us, but it obviously does. Indeed, what are we to make of Melanchthon in the Apology saying that the mass is, in fact, a sacrifice?
[W]e indeed readily suffer the Mass to be understood as a daily sacrifice, provided that the entire Mass be understood, i.e., the ceremony with the preaching of the Gospel, faith, invocation, and thanksgiving. For these joined together are a daily sacrifice of the New Testament, because the ceremony [of the Mass, or the Lord’s Supper] was instituted on account of these things; neither is it to be separated from these. Paul says accordingly, 1 Cor. 11:26: “As often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till He come.” (Apol XXIV, “Of the Mass,” 35)
A sacrifice, even a eucharistic one, does require something of the one who makes it. Why are we allergic to this?
“I’m, like, not even tired…”
Even if we could worship God solely out of love, it would will be our duty. But we can’t worship God solely out of love. Perfect love casts out fear, yes, but in us love is not perfect. We should not pretend that it is. In us it is small and impure. We worship God out of love and fear. We fear Him because we know that outside of the ark of His Church, which He sealed with the sap of His own blood, there is nothing but the maelstrom of His righteous wrath against our sin. We walk in danger all the way— danger of false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice (read: danger of falling away). We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We fear God because we are sinful, yes, but also simply because He is God and we are not.4 Fear does not exhaust our motivation for worshiping Him, no, but it is not absent from it.
There’s a relationship between the “worship isn’t a duty” erratum and the “‘divine service’ means God serving us in Word and Sacrament” shibboleth, nicely dispatched by Dr. Kurt Marquart (who evidently didn’t have the benefit of learning theology from Facebook memes); Dr. Marquart writes:
But is not true worship merely passive and receptive? In a word, no. We need to deconstruct, here, the linguistic myth that the German word “Gottesdienst” means “God serving us in Word and Sacrament.” In fact the word means nothing of the sort. This is pure wishful thinking. The German word “Gottesdienst” simply means “worship”; the genitive is objective, not subjective. Take the Large Catechism’s comment on the First Commandment: “There has never been a nation so wicked that it did not establish and maintain some sort of Gottesdienst, worship.” This cannot possibly refer to “God serving us in Word and Sacrament”! Here are some further quotations from the great reformer— my translations, from the St. Louis edition: “Worship (Gottesdienst) means doing what God through His Word has commanded everyone in his estate and office.” “A person can have joy in his heart and a good conscience with all his effort and labor, because he knows that his work and labor is a divine worship (Gottesdienst), which is well-pleasing to God.” “The noblest divine service (Gottesdienst) is preaching and hearing God’s Word, yet God is served also by the works of the second table.” “To divine worship (Gottesdienst) there belong also the works of the second table, which, however, are not directly referred to God.” “There is hardly a greater sin than the laborious and invented divine worship (Gottesdienst) which happens with howling and growling in all churches and monasteries.”
As I set out to write this post, I had more in mind “worship” in the narrow sense of liturgy and doxology, but when one considers the fact that St. Paul enjoins believers to be “living sacrifices” in all of their godly vocations and calls this “worship,” the case for worship as duty is only strengthened. Just before the foregoing excerpt, Marquart has this to say:
But can we conclude that doing one’s humble duties as father, mother, child, soldier, farmer, factory-worker, and the like actually constitutes worship?
Yes! Provided it is done in faith. For everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). To be sure, faith in Christ is the very highest worship, and the very essence of it, but the fruits of faith (our good works) are also the true worship of God. They are, in fact, “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable act of service,” λογικὴν λατρείαν– reasonable worship (Romans 12:1). Therefore the Apology confesses in Article 24, “Of the Mass,”
Now the rest are Eucharistic sacrifices, which are called sacrifices of praise, namely, the preaching of the Gospel, faith, prayer, thanksgiving, confession, the afflictions of the saints, and indeed all the good works of the saints. These are the sacrifices of the New Testament, as Peter teaches: ‘a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices.’ In summary, the worship of the New Testament is spiritual, that is, it is the righteousness of faith in the heart, and the fruits of faith.
To speak in the language of the Table of Duties, worship is the honor we owe to God according to our vocation as Christians— the older Catechism puts it in exactly these terms: “for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.” According to our vocation as children, we owe honor to our parents. According to our vocation as subjects, we owe honor to our rulers. According to our vocation as hearers of the Word, we owe honor to our pastors. Do we have to honor them, or do we get to honor them? Yes.
All such rendering of honor is subsumed under the category of “worship” inasmuch as it is a good work, yet it is profitable to consider worship in its unalloyed form, as well. Worship in this pure sense is adoration and doxology, which we do in fact render to God, and to God alone. Yes, this worship is false if it is an attempt to appease God which springs from man’s unregenerate opinion of the law. Such worship is faithless and is thus not worship at all.5 The fundagelicals (and the Romanists, and others) do err in precisely this way, mis-emphasizing the way in which “worship is something we do for God”— that is obvious. But we should not therefore insist on the contrary and say that worship is not something we do for God. We should confess the truth of Scripture according to the norm of the Lutheran Confessions, not simply cherry-pick and counter-signal our favorite errors.6
“I delight to do Thy will, O my God: yea, Thy law is within my heart.”
It is good if you enjoy going to divine service and praying the daily office, etc. It is true that worship is freely rendered, spontaneous, even. In and through worship, God conforms our will to His and fortifies us in mystical union with Him, mortifying our sinful flesh and building us more into the image of His Son.7 The more we participate in worship, the more we become less conscious of it as a demand. It can, God grant it, become more and more of a joy. But it is never less of a duty. It remains our duty, our purpose, our great end. It is an error to reduce it to something which is only voluntary, as though we are free agents just deciding to do something. God has initiated worship, not only in the sense that He acts first by forgiving our sin and freely giving Himself to us in the Sacrament, but also in the sense that He has instituted it: of His very nature He has ordained that His creatures, made and remade in the likeness of His Son, should in the same Spirit of sonship cry out to Him in worship and praise. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations,” saith the Lord of hosts, “and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations” (Malachi 1:11). God’s call (vocatio) is both the reason for and cause of our worship. He has called us— into being, into our natural and social vocations, to faith in Christ, into the Church, etc. For all this it is our blessed duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Note on the video: I had the honor of serving as thurifer again at this year’s St. Mark’s Conference at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Baltimore, MD, which was my family’s home church for a year. Here is a clip from Solemn Vespers on the Eve of St. Mark’s Day. For videos of this year’s conference presentations and services, see here.
- Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VI: “On Triggering Antinomians,” 24; *not in the Confessions.
- This is why boomers brought Schwärmerei worship, short-term vacationary trips, and Komfort Dogs into the LCMS.
- It is “awesome,” yes. But the modern misuse of the word would just as soon apply it to waterslides and video-games as to the Divine majesty. As far as I’m concerned this word is as good as dead for at least a generation.
- I do not believe that perfect love ever casts out fear in this second sense. This sober fear of God, which is the beginning of wisdom, plays a part in all creatures’ rendering to God His due— even that of the angels, who are not sinful.
- Faith is, in fact, the highest worship, as the Confessions themselves say in numerous places. Faith and its effects are only logically separable. Faith is logically prior to, and cannot be generated by, works. The fruits of faith, including adoration of God, cannot exist without faith. Yet neither can faith exist without its fruits.
- Maybe the preposition “for” is problematic here, if not entirely wrong. We need something more like “vis-á-vis.”
- Dr. Gifford Grobien says this, too— much more profoundly and over the course of 309 pages— here: “Christian Worship as the Root of Righteousness and Ethical Formation.” For a précis of his dissertation, see here.