January 28, 2020

Luther’s First Hymn

By Chaplain Mike

Today in worship we sang one of Martin Luther’s hymns, and I was impressed. So faithful to the Gospel, as one would expect. So warm in devotion, it might have come from the pen of Charles Wesley.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote of Luther and his hymns:

Luther did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as by his translation of the Bible. In Germany the hymns are known by heart by every peasant; they advise, they argue from the hymns, and every soul in the church praises God like a Christian, with words which are natural and yet sacred to his mind.

The earliest hymnbook of the Reformation was published at Wittenberg in 1524, and contained eight hymns, four of them from Luther’s pen. Three were psalm settings, the fourth was the hymn we sang in the service today, “Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gâmein” (Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice). In Luther’s first preface to this collection, he wrote:

Accordingly, to make a good beginning and to encourage others who can do it better, I have myself, with some others, put together a few hymns, in order to bring into full play the blessed Gospel, which by God’s grace hath again risen: that we may boast, as Moses doth in his song (Exodus xv.) that Christ is become our praise and our song, and that, whether we sing or speak, we may not know anything save Christ our Saviour, as St. Paul saith (1 Cor. ii.).

Concordia Publishing has a 4-CD set of Luther’s music called “Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth,” that can be downloaded as an mp3 album very reasonably from Amazon. You can also find many sites around the internet where the texts of Luther’s hymns are reproduced, including here. I personally find Reformation hymns and related works such as those of Bach wonderful helps to my devotional life. Even if you have a tin ear and little appreciation for music, the texts are so profound and rich in theological content that they speak Christ clearly to those who will meditate on them.

Here are the words to the hymn we sang this morning, Luther’s first published hymn (1523-24).

Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice

Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice,
With exultation springing,
And, with united heart and voice,
And holy rapture singing,
Proclaim the wonders God hath done,
How his right arm the victory won
Right dearly it hath cost him!

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;
Yea, deep and deeper still I fell,
Life had become a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me.

My own good works availed me naught,
No merit they attaining;
Free will against God’s judgment fought,
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left naught but death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.

But God beheld my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And, mindful of His mercies great,
He planned my soul’s salvation.
A father’s heart He turned to me,
Sought my redemption fervently:
He gave His dearest Treasure.

He spoke to His belov’d Son:
‘Tis time to have compassion.
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation;
From sin and sorrow set him free,
Slay bitter death for him that he
May live with Thee forever.”

The Son obeyed His Father’s will,
Was born of virgin mother,
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill,
He came to be my Brother.
No garb of pomp or power He wore,
A servant’s form, like mine, He bore,
To lead the devil captive.

To me He spake: “Hold fast to Me,
I am thy Rock and Castle;
Thy Ransom I Myself will be,
For thee I strive and wrestle;
For I am with thee, I am thine,
And evermore thou shalt be Mine:
The Foe shall not divide us.

“The Foe shall shed my precious blood,
Me of My life bereaving.
All this I suffer for thy good;
Be steadfast and believing.
Life shall from death the victory win,
My innocence shall bear thy sin;
So art Thou blest forever.

“Now to my Father I depart,
The Holy Spirit sending
And, heavenly wisdom to impart,
My help to thee extending.
He shall in trouble comfort thee,
Teach thee to know and follow Me,
And in all truth shall guide thee.

“What I have done and taught, teach thou,
My ways forsake thou never;
So shall My kingdom flourish now
And God be praised forever.
Take heed lest men with base alloy
The heavenly treasure should destroy;
This counsel I bequeath thee.”


  1. Buford Hollis says

    Question: Did Luther compose his hymns with the goal of

    a) having them be broadly acceptable all churchgoers,

    b) pushing his own theological agenda, or

    c) same as b, but unconsciously?

    In this one, only verse three really stands out as narrowly Lutheran. Or am I missing stuff?

    I also wonder about the transition between this style of hymnody, and the Catholic liturgy which it replaced. Some PBS special explained that his songs were actually sung more as political anthems (or football club songs?), with a much faster tempo and more enthusiastic elocution than is customary for churches today.

    • At the time he wrote the first hymns, Luther was involved in writing the Bible and working for church renewal, one aspect of which was congregational singing. As he sought to get the Scriptures translated into the vernacular so that people could have it for themselves, so he tried to do the same thing with hymns. The picture on the post is an old postcard depicting Luther leading singing in his own home with family and friends, and he had these kinds of settings in mind as well as in the services of the church. Luther’s theological perspective is certainly prominent for he saw hymns as a main way of teaching theology to ordinary people. I am starting to listen to some of the hymns on the recording I mentioned. “A Mighty Fortress” is certainly more lively and syncopated than our style of singing it.

      • David Cornwell says

        I can still remember in Asbury College chapel services (3 required a week) 900 students singing “A Mighty Fortress.” In fact it was chosen by our class as the “class hymn.”

        “Dear Christians…” is a joy to sing also. Luther’s hymns had substance and power.

    • As CM said, I think Luther’s primary emphasis was on theological education. Lutheran hymns are some of the most theologically deep hymns and with sometimes upwards of 10 verses, they cover a lot of territory! My understanding is that Luther was not trying to create any major “stylistic” break with Catholic worship, but rather sought to use his own high level of musical skill to create understandable songs for the people. He did not wish to confuse secular and sacred and actually rewrote the music to one hymn when he realized that it seemed too close to a secular song of his day. Unmistakably sacred music, written in the vernacular for the purpose of theological education was what his goal was in my understanding.

    • One of the differences between Lutheran and Catholic worship is that hymns were not sung during the Eucharist. Catholics usually sang psalms and scriptural canticals during the Mass.

  2. I think Mike hit the nail on the head with the first quote in the post; they hymns were known by heart by every peasant. At a time when printing was relatively new and most Europeans were illiterate, Reformation hymns were written in order to share a theological education with a mass audience. Most people would not be reading the Bible, even after it was translating into German. There was a time when just about every Protestant church pastor wrote his own hymnal. The songs are steeped in theology so that the average person could learn it and memorize the precepts of church doctrine.

  3. Contrast that with today. We live in the information age, have a wealth of resources at our disposal, and write/sing theologically weak praise and worship songs. We take 2 good lines and repeat them 15 times then cheer for the drum solo. I’m generalizing of course, there is some really good new music being produced if you short through enough “stuff” looking for it. But remember those Total cereal commercials? I wonder how many P&W choruses it would take to equal the theology of one Mighty Fortress is our God.

    • David Cornwell says

      I was just thinking a few days ago that so many churches doing the chorus bit would do better to start writing their own. with some theological guidance from the pastor. The church I attend is very strong musically, with a lot of musical talent. But sometimes I attend one that has music just as you describe, performed on “stage” repeated 15 or so times, then go to the next one and with the worship leader so loud that it is very difficult to hear anyone else singing. Why should they pay for this stuff? Some poetic youth, with guidance, could do much better.

      • indeed. as a worship leader and songwriter, God has been placing a serious burden on my heart for writing music with my worship team. The songs we sing should come from the heart of the local body. Now, surely, I don’t mean stop singing hymns and praise choruses altogether, but somehow I think there is much more to be sung.

  4. Wow. Awesome hymn.

  5. Tigger 23505 says

    Let’s not forget that the sieve of time does a great deal to weed out the dross from any hymn writer’s production. John and Charles Wesley wrote over a thousand hymns, but most of them have not had the same power and reach as And Can It Be That I Should Gain and in truth some credit must also be given to those who compose the music that caries the words.

  6. Excellent post! If you don’t mind a bit of self-promotion (since there’s no other way for me to say it), I included a version of this hymn as the first song on my CD New Creation, which has lots of new settings of neglected but rich hymns like this one. It’s great to see this hymn is still getting some of the attention it deserves.

  7. Dr. Richard Resch, Cantor for Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, has put together an excellent DVD entitled ‘Singing the Faith’ It is an introduction to the history and scope of Lutheran Hymnody. You can see a video clip of it and read more about it here:


    If you love hymns and/or are a student of church history, this is a fantastic documentary.

  8. Another take on using the ‘old’ hymns, at least occasionally – many young people now growing up will never learn these old gems. The calm, peace and comfort these hymns bring to people who have sung them for decades is palpable, especially in times of stress and sorrow.

  9. Very very interesting! I’m surprised that I haven’t heard this one before. I’m a Lutheran PK, and was used to hearing a LOT of hymns in our house as my dad prepared for that week’s sermon/lesson. But I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this one…

  10. Tom Schmidt says

    As a lifelong Lutheran I’ve never ceased to be thankful for growing up with all the Luther (and other Reformation-era) hymns. When sung in the original rhythms (which are irregular and very vital), they have an energy that approaches the best jazz today. We still sing them and love them in our congregation, although greatly enriched by lots of newer hymns from all over the world. But the richness of theology in those 16th- and 17th-century Lutheran hymns can’t be beat! When the world causes me to doubt my faith, it is these hymns that provide the strength to buttress my weakness.