Grace in the Arts: An Evangelical Musical Genius: “J.S.B.: S.D.G.” -- By: Arthur L. Farstad

Journal: Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Volume: JOTGES 09:1 (Spring 1996)
Article: Grace in the Arts: An Evangelical Musical Genius: “J.S.B.: S.D.G.”
Author: Arthur L. Farstad

Grace in the Arts:
An Evangelical Musical Genius:
“J.S.B.: S.D.G.”

Arthur L. Farstad

Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
Dallas, TX

I. Prelude


The initials “J.S.B.” are some of the greatest in all musical history, and certainly in the top two or three in great Christian music. The J is for Johann, German for John. The S is for Sebastian (pronounced ze-BAH-styahn), the name of a Roman soldier who became a martyr by being “darted” to death by his company for being a Christian.1 The B is for Bach, German for creek or brook.

Were it not for Bach’s ancestor’s loyalty to the Reformation, it is likely that such a scripturally oriented musician would never have lived. Some time before 1597, a baker named Veit Bach left Hungary for his native Germany to protect his Lutheran heritage against the re-establishment of Roman Catholicism in his area. He again became a baker, and, more important, the forefather of a host of German musicians by the name of Bach, including the greatest, Johann Sebastian.


In the Latin Bible at Romans 16:27 and Jude 25 we find the words “Soli Deo Gloria”—“to the only God be glory.” This was to become J.S.B.’s motto. He would sign his works—whether sacred, such as “The St. Matthew Passion,” or “secular,” such as the light-hearted “Coffee Cantata,” with these letters: S.D.G.

Actually, to Bach there was no difference between sacred and secular. All works, he maintained, should be to the glory of God.

Libretto by Luther

It has been well said that Bach is one of the greatest interpreters of Luther. Both came from the same part of Germany. Both loved music. Both loved and fathered large families (Bach: 20 children by two excellent wives—his first wife died). Both loved orthodox Protestant doctrine. Later in life, Bach clung to Lutheran orthodoxy when it was becoming less fashionable. He also had a strong “pietistic” flavor to his Evangelical Lutheranism: he stressed a warm, personal faith in God through his Savior.

Music Rooted in Luther

The types of music approved and practiced by the Lutheran congregations of Bach’s time are deeply rooted in the great Reformer himself. Wohlfarth’s words are worth quoting at some length:

The Protestant cantorship was a creation of Martin Luther and his musical collaborator, Johann Walter, ...

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