Martin Luther wrote many beautiful and scriptural hymns. By God’s grace, Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands could be the best of them all. In one sentence, Luther summarizes the entire, “Exodus,” which Jesus accomplished for us men and for our salvation (Luke 9:31). Jesus died for our offenses, but now He brings life to us from the right hand of God. Luther’s German is direct when speaking about what Christ’s Resurrection has done: “He has risen again, and brought us life,” (Er ist wieder erstanden, und hat uns brach das Leben). The entire hymn summarizes the events of Holy Week, indeed the events of history and of every human life as a battle between life and death. In stanza two Luther writes, “No son of man could conquer death, such ruin sin had brought us. No innocence was found on earth, and therefore death had brought us into bondage from of old and ever grew more strong and bold and held us as its captive, Alleluia!”
Luther seriously mediates on the reality that the wages of sin is death, (Romans 6:23) and that death reigned from Adam to Moses (Romans 5:14). Death came face to face with life at the crucifixion. They fought head on. “It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended. The victory remained with life, The reign of sin is ended. Holy Scripture plainly saith that death is swallowed up by death, its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!” (stanza four).
This hymn is a glorious but tiny portion of the Lutheran musical tradition. Some of most famous composers of the Baroque period were Lutherans (including George Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach). Lutherans have this boast: We are the singing church. None of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century embraced music and hymnody to the extent that the Lutheran church did. And yet our Lutheran congregations, who have Bach, Luther, Gerhardt, and others in their pedigree face this problem: Many do not sing in church.
In a consumer age where Spotify, auto-tune, and perfectly mixed songs on the radio fill our ears, our own joyful noises to the Lord could never compete, or so we think. We are convinced that we are bad singers, and so we are tempted to leave hymnals closed during the Divine Service, especially if they are unfamiliar or perceived as difficult. This is to say nothing about singing hymns at home as a part of family devotions. Because non-Lutheran hymns have easier tunes or are more familiar, they are often favored to 16th and 17th century hymns. While the church is free to make use of hymnody from every generation that confesses the truth of the Christian faith, we ought to be seriously careful that we don’t lose the treasures in our Lutheran chorales.
Lutheran hymns (even the ones we perceive as most difficult) were not intended for performance by elite choirs. They were the precious way that lay people could express their faith. The hymns were meant not only for the church, but as the daily bread of the ordinary Christian. The hymnal, along with the Bible and the catechism, was a book to be used by families at home. The great Lutheran hymns formed piety for a lifetime in this way.
Singing 10 stanzas of a German Lutheran Chorale should make you ready to die, but maybe not in the way you are thinking! It means that with hymns such as, “Lord Thee I Love with all my heart,” on your lips and mind, you can face death with Christian hope in what Jesus has done for you.
“Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep my body safe in peaceful sleep until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me, that these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God Thy glorious face, My savior and my fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend, and I will praise Thee without end,” (LSB 708, stanza 3).
This hymn, present in our rite for the commendation of the dying, prepares us to commend ourselves to God even as we fall asleep in the Lord. It shares the confidence in death of the Nunc Dimittis in the Divine Service. This has been the case from the early days of the Lutheran Church. In his book, “Singing the Gospel,” Christopher Brown notes,
“Equipped by a lifetime of family devotions including the hymns and associated passages of Scripture, the Lutheran laymen might be such a capable theologian that even when a Lutheran pastor was present, he found his ministrations (at the death bed) superfluous.”
Lutheran hymns prepare a Christian to live and die, confident that Jesus has overcome death, “in a strange and dreadful strife.” We must not leave singing up to those who we think are better than us. We cannot give up on hymns too quickly when they seem difficult. These hymns have inculcated Christian faith and piety for centuries. They make us ready for death. They make us ready for eternal life with Christ. With their emphasis on sin and grace, the completed work of Christ, and how He distributes it to us in the Word and Sacraments, they allow us to say with St. Paul, “O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).
 BROWN, C. B. Singing the gospel: Lutheran hymns and the success of the Reformation. (Harvard University Press, 2009), 111.