by Colin Howland, Music Director and Organist
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
So wrote Martin Luther 499 years ago as the 62nd of his 95 theses. Over against the papal teaching that the Church had been entrusted with a “treasury of the merits of Christ,” which could be dispensed to individuals via the sacraments and Papal indulgence, Luther sought to promote the riches of the good news of the glory and love of God. The salvation revealed through the Scriptures alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone is rooted in the love of God alone: Sola Gratia.
The goal of this year’s Reformation Hymn Festival service is to praise God for his great love to us in Christ Jesus. To that end, this year we are delighted to welcome to our pulpit Dr. Jeffrey Jue, who will be preaching from Ephesians 2:1–10, “By Grace Alone.” Dr. Jue is Provost and Executive Vice President at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he is also an associate professor of church history.
The Reformers looked to the Bible and the teaching of the early Church Fathers to ground their theology, but they also looked there to reform the worship service. This led to a much greater participation by the congregation, especially when it came to singing. They were eager for the whole congregation to lift up the Lord’s name in song, especially using the words of the Psalms. John Calvin himself spearheaded an effort to put the entire Psalter to music suitable for congregations to sing. The production of the Genevan Psalter led to a proliferation of Psalters throughout Europe and the English speaking world.
The English hymnist Isaac Watts (1674–1748) represents something of a bridge between the worship of Reformation times and our own day. Watts himself determined to write a new edition of the Psalter. He was dissatisfied with the awkward poetry of the earlier English Psalters and the manner in which the Psalms were taught in church. This process was called “lining out,” and involved a song leader singing a line of the song repeated by the congregation. This could take a long time if an entire Psalm was to be sung! In the Watts Psalter, every Psalm is set to a familiar meter so that the entire book of Psalms may be sung with as few as four well–known hymn melodies! He also took pains to make each line of each stanza a complete thought to aid the memory.
Watts went even further. He recognized that in worship God speaks to us through his Word and that we in turn speak back to him. He was eager to join these two concepts together in his Psalm settings and hymns. He did this by making the truths of God’s Word personal to the Christian believer. Doctrinal statements in Scripture become affirmations of faith in the heart of the believer. To this end he felt it was important for the Christian to see the Christological fulfillment of the Psalms. Where applicable, he makes direct mention of Christ in his Psalm paraphrases. In others he is more subtle, but the Christian has no doubt as to whom he is referring! A perfect example is his setting of Psalm 98 which we sing every Christmas time:
Joy to the World! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing.
Isaac Watts wanted the worship of Christians to be vitally Christ centered. He wanted to harmonize biblical truth with our own Christian experience. He wanted us to see God at work today, to know the relevance of the Scriptures in our own time. He championed the same thing as Luther did, extolling the “holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.