How Shall We Sing to God?

© David H. Linden
Action International Ministries
Alberta Reformation Fellowship
To my very dear friends
in the English Congregation of
South Calgary Chinese Evangelical Free Church, Calgary, Alberta
With special recognition for the service to Christ there
of Reverend Allan Low

This paper is what I term a parallel paper. It is meant to parallel a sermon. I recently gave a sermon on this topic so with it I provide this written paper because this way I can supply more detail, Scripture references, and footnotes.

The sermon was on October 14, 2001 in a service filled with many young adults. Their taste in music and mine is not the same. That however is not the issue. I had permission to give this address from proper authority in that church before announcing that I would be giving it. I had to admit the great awkwardness of being a guest speaker addressing a subject that is controversial. If some agreed with me strongly and others did not, this could be troublesome. I urged them not to quarrel. They certainly did listen.

Regrettably, I also had to admit at the outset that I could not be sure I was right in all I would say, I cannot tell in this paper where the line falls between proper conclusions from the Word of God and my opinion. Thus I had to warn my hearers that at times it would be an editorial and at other times legitimate proclamation.

Thus I will provide some indisputable facts and some disputable application from them, all with the appeal that our singing and our Bibles should be in agreement. To those who heard the sermon live, I hope you will read on because there is more in this paper than I could say on October 14.

The Externals

It is a joy to read in the Old Testament, especially in Chronicles, how organized they were in David’s time. Music was assigned. Many had work to do. Skill was required. Song to God would be accompanied; the Lord must be well praised. Words would have to be composed and music arranged. There was a clear sense of purpose and a high priority was given to this godly endeavor. David once said he would not offer to the Lord that which cost him nothing, 2 Samuel 24:24. The energies and resources devoted to singing well to the Lord reveal that his attitude applied to this service too.

In the English-speaking world, the 17th century was a time of high culture and tremendous theological articulation; it had music of great quality. Many treasured hymns came into our heritage in the 18th century as well. So too, the time of David, plus Solomon’s early reign were the zenith of national life in a united kingdom prior to the apostasy that came later in Solomon’s time. The Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem. This called for song. Materials were purchased for the temple, and in Solomon’s time it was built. This time period is a window of opportunity to peer into their music.

1. The musicians: The leaders are named: “Heman the musician” 1 Chron. 6:33. Then at his right hand, Asaph and on his left Ethan, vss. 39 & 44. In 1 Chron. 15:19-22 we have the addition of 15 more names, including Kenaniah the head Levite who was “in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it.” The music was their job; it was their assignment in a kingdom that belonged to God; it was their calling.

2. The priests: The musicians did not have the most essential task. It was the priests who offered sacrifices to God. God could be approached in no other way. His priests made atonement for Israel. Israel was not saved by their singing, but by the shedding of blood. Only as forgiven people could they come with their praises. The priests also had the high task of the ministry of the word, bringing it from its written form into the life of Israel as men who must understand it and teach it, Deuteronomy 17:8-13. Receiving that word and coming as redeemed sinners with the required sacrifices God demanded, was the core of Israelite worship. It was God’s anointed priests, not the musicians who handled those offerings. The true worshippers in Israel knew they had broken the good law of their holy Lord. Thus atonement for sin was essentially the core of their religion and ours. This salvation perspective has a consequence: they responded with loud voices and instruments. They thanked the Lord their God, 1 Chronicles 6:48,49. Forgiven sinners always sing.

3. The instruments:

David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals.
1 Chron. 15:16

The 18 musicians referred to earlier are not the entire musical corps, but the leaders of a large unnumbered body who followed them and sang. If this is a choir, see vs. 27, we still do not have the big picture. That comes only when the entire congregation of Israel is also singing.

Three instruments are named here in vs. 16: two are strings and one is brass. Add also trumpets and rams’ horns, vs.28 and tambourines, which means music could come from a membrane like a drum, 1 Chron. 13:8. And finally sistrums, 2 Samuel 6:5.

They dressed well for the day the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the temple. 120 priests sounded trumpets, 2 Chron. 5:12. It was a glorious celebration. Of course we ought not to miss that the items in the ark were the two tables of the law of God, vs.10. Thereby God stressed to His people that He is holy, a feature of God and our worship of Him that we must never detach from what we sing, pray and preach.

It sounds as if I have drawn together Scripture for quite a band, quite a vibrant worship team that will shake the rafters. But I must qualify this picture with four important observations:

1. This was all outdoors. The people did not enter the Temple building. When Jesus taught in the Temple, it was in the outer courts. (He never entered the sanctuary!) Today we have a lot of sound from loud instruments in closed rooms with hard walls and ceilings. That certainly keeps the reverberating sound in. Instruments inside church buildings today and what we read of in the Old Testament make for very different environments. When we are outside the sound dissipates much more. I have been in services where I heard nothing but the instruments! I heard no words and would never know what they were except that they were visible to my eyes on a screen before me. I thought singing was a ministry to our ears!
2. In David’s day they did not have electricity. So they did not have amplification. Some feel they cannot have a worship service without powerful speakers. (I agree if the speakers are men powerful in the Word of the Lord.) With amplification, one little guy hardly able to lift his pick can strum on a string and destroy our ear drums. There is no Biblical model for such overwhelming force.
3. Sometimes the outdoor group worshipping together was very large, as on the great feasts when men came from many lands to come to the Temple. Every male Israelite three times a year journeyed to Jerusalem, Deut. 16:16. Loud instruments would be needed to keep a large group singing together. Maybe this is what is meant by the Songs of Ascents, Psalms 120-134; they were ascending up to Jerusalem in procession as in 1 Chron 15:28. That could mean the head of a column is quite far from the tail end. One parallel to that today would be a parade that has a number of scattered marching bands.
4. There is no example in the Bible where worshippers are merely listening to music. Poor King Saul’s depression and attacks from a demon are hardly a model for us to listen to instruments in church. In Christian singing we hear and sing.

I have pointed this out to argue that we cannot treat our services now as precisely the same as what we read about in the Old Testament. I do not speak against any instrument, and I will suppress my opinions on that matter now.

However, I do have one great criticism of modern church music from the standpoint of sound, and that is that today’s worship teams with drums and electric guitars and keyboards with amplification drown out the singing. That is terrible; we are not running a concert or a dance hall, but worship we hand to God for His pleasure. I have been in services where I could not hear what the singers were singing into their microphones. (For those who do not know me, I have very limited hearing. I can only wonder how loud it must be for those who have normal hearing!!) Furthermore, I deliberately look around to see if the congregation, (or should I say audience?) is singing. Often they are passive or are barely singing. In that kind of setting, worship is being stymied. If the instruments suddenly stopped they might find out that the congregation is hardly singing at all.

And that brings me to my more heartfelt appeal. When the music is drowning out the singing, we do not have true accompaniment. When that happens, the instruments are replacing singing, not assisting it. It is competing rather than serving. The instruments apart from their own beautiful sound should serve to keep the rest of us on key and together in the rhythm so that we sing united to the Lord.

The chief instrument in the worship of God is the human voice. It is the one instrument we have in common. It is capable of great beauty and resonance. The words that come from our intellect can be so affected by our emotions that song is genuinely praise with understanding. No violin or trumpet is moved or indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but the body of the believer is, 1 Corinthians 6:19. Our lips and throats are holy and are to be instruments of righteousness, Romans 6:13. No drum can pound spiritually or be pounded like a heart that beats in adoration the songs of the Lord. So I plead that we should take these mechanical things, whether string, or brass or membrane or wind and make them servants of singing. When these physical objects overwhelm the song of God’s people, it is a travesty in worship. We are to use our voices. “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice,” Psalm 5:3.

The trumpets and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, they raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang, “He is good: His love endures forever.”
2 Chronicles 5:13
The priests took their positions, as did the Levites with the Lord’s musical instruments, which David had made for praising the Lord and which were used when he gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.” Opposite the Levites, the priests blew their trumpets, and all the Israelites were standing.
2 Chronicles 7:6

I call upon those who play instruments to be sure you accompany and assist those who sing. Your place and role is to enhance and help. Yours is not a performance for others to hear but to sing by. The chief thing to be heard in a worship service is what we intend for God to hear from us, our words. If we cannot hear each other sing, the instruments have become masters instead of servants. There were times even in the Old Testament when they laid their instruments down and just gave thanks, as in 2 Chron. 7:1-3.

We do not have the instruments Israel used. We do not have their music, so we do not have their tunes. Some of the words untranslated at the beginning of certain psalms are probably musical terms, and we do not know what they mean. We do have a record of Israel’s serious worship, some idea of the place it had in their life, and something of the personnel and resources devoted to it. The worship of God with singing led by skilful leaders, and accompanied by the best they had in that time was the way the Lord was to be worshipped. King David would have it in no other way.

But there is one thing, and only one thing, we have from their time that we are commanded to use today and that is the words they sang. God has preserved for us the most precious thing. Holy men spoke inspired words to God, words from God, and words to one another. We lack the music scores, and we have no recordings. God has kept for us the words. Music and tunes may come and go; God’s word abides forever. In the New Testament we are commanded to use the psalms in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. The greatest riches of David’s day are ours today, though they sit in Bibles untouched in many a church. (My church uses a Psalter Hymnal; the psalms greatly outnumber the hymns. All the psalms are good and sound; some of our hymns are unworthy of being in the same book. If I could change it, I would ensure that we sang every verse of every Psalm.)

The Middle Ground

Somewhere the words and music must combine. Skilful people arrange words and meter. But that is not all. Music must have a certain mood or tone. I tried to illustrate this in my sermon by singing,

Low in the grave He lay,
Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day,
Jesus my Lord,

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes …

(I was surprised to find that hardly anyone in the service knew the hymn!) I used it because when the tune is linked to words that speak of Christ’s death, it was slower and somber. The words allied with His resurrection are faster, brighter and triumphant. That is an example of composers of music and writers of words using their mutual gifts to make an appropriate union of sound and thought.

I decided that Sunday to use a negative example by putting words with a tune that is appropriate and the same words to another tune that is simply not fitting. Here is my little composition. Note carefully that what each song says is virtually identical. Only the tunes are different.

To the tune of “Galilee” i.e., “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea…”: The second is to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
Jesus saves us; Jesus saves us.
Rescues us from all our sin.
He went to hell upon the cross
To make us all to be like Him.
Jesus saves, Jesus saves;
Rescues us from sin.
Went to hell upon the cross
To make us all like Him.

One of those tunes has the capacity to carry the words in such a way you actually can think about them. Whether that tune is the best is not my point right now. I offer it simply because I think it is not a massive distraction from the message. The other tune is clearly frivolous and distracts from the message. The Jingle Bells tune is one of gaiety that better fits a party or a sleigh ride. I think those who argue that tunes are not an ethical absolute are correct, as long as they mean that there is no prescribed genre or kind of music that may be used in the worship of God. Various cultures will have various tunes, but I hope to win a small concession that within all those varieties, every people and generation can have some good sense that there must be an appropriate combination of tune and message. I hope in the weighty matter of the worship of God that we would grant that the message is supreme and the tune is servant.

Some songs are so “catchy,” so consuming, so absorbing that people are drawn to the tune no matter what the song is saying. This can become a case of the tail wagging the dog. One musician might say to another, “Hey listen to this!” He plays it and he and his buddy agree, “Let’s use that in the church service.” This could be done solely on the basis of the tune. Such a decision could be made without any attention to the message at all. Hopefully we will see that as a shameful violation of their role in leading worship.

Earlier this year I heard a beautiful Chinese tune while walking through an open market in Singapore. The CD cover showed the music was for the Goddess of Mercy. If that tune were baptized and used for Christ, one would need to radically alter the message. Maybe the believers in one culture would reject it because of a connotation that they were aware of, yet it might be available to those who did not have images of the female idol come to mind when they meant to honor the Lord. Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken is the same tune as the national anthem of Germany. I wonder if they sing that hymn to that tune in Germany. It might be a distraction. But here I wallow in opinion if I make a rule as to that hymn and that tune. I will have to abide by the rule that if it distracts, or distorts the message, it is not the gracious handmaiden to the message it is supposed to serve and enhance.

Asaph was a musician in Israel. The Bible tells us he used the cymbals. I bet he did not bring them together with a soft bang. Many would envy his role! But if we view him as a man of crash-boom, there is another side to him that shows his overriding passion. Read his songs; we have some: Psalms 50, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, & 82. I never heard his music, but all of us can see the depth of the lyrics that came from his devoted heart and educated mind. When musicians combine their technical skill together with their grasp of revealed truth, we will have a high caliber of music. I say we need more Asaphs today. His psalms preach truth. He was a student of the Scriptures that preceded him; his understanding of God’s truth shows up in his Psalms. Many musicians today know their music but not their Bibles. But that brings us to the core issue.

The Core Issue: The Words We Sing

Reverence matters. If my reader thinks I am knocking only modern music, may I admit with sorrow that my generation sang, “Do Lord, O, Do Lord, O, Do Remember Me”. We sometimes threw in “Oh Lordy” in places. It was a catchy tune with a folksy flavor weak in respect for the things it referred to. I guess you could call this low-grade campfire music a somewhat flippant combination of heaven and hoopla - hardly that way we Canadians would address Her Majesty the Queen. If you are an American and your president enters a large audience of those who respect him, they might play “Hail to the Chief” which is respectful, but not “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” because it is too familiar. I am trying to get our respect for our Lord expressed more in terms of “God Save our Gracious Queen” or “Hail to the Chief”. “Crown Him with Many Crowns” rises to that sense of awe and adoration. Many a congregation has not sung that example of praise in twenty years. It just cannot be true that all that is spun off today is a higher caliber than the work of all the generations that came before us. It takes a lot of arrogance to dismiss the artistic and theological work of the centuries in favor of the current product.

But I will leave to your conscience to discern whether what you sing is reverential. Many a recent chorus is far more reverent and edifying than what I sang as a teen over 40 years ago. I can imagine a person singing, “I have a home in glory-land that outshines the sun …” especially to a child, but it is a low nutrition song that falls short of the substance of Psalm 23, even though they both speak of the same matter as in “and I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” If we could turn the discussion of what we sing from terms of “right and wrong” to “what is closer to the songs and themes of Scripture” we would have less strife in the process. Our lists of what is good would be different - admittedly we can’t keep our preferences out. The innate quality of psalms and those hymns that have some with meat in them would rise in mutual acceptance if our principle of choosing what we sing were more carefully considered.

Tunes matter but: I have to leave the issue of tunes, except I am forced to admit that a lot of valuable content may not be to a “singable” tune. I think of David writing great content and then writing on it “To the Chief Musician.” (Notice the fine print above psalms Psalm 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, and 20 where the NIV says “for the director of music”) The inspired truth was set in the words. Then it became the job of the musicians to come up with the music to use to make those words “singable” and memorable. May the musicians serve in such a way again.

Content matters. This is really the place to begin. What I speak of now is what we really need to start with. A good hymn must have two qualities, a good message carried by an appropriate tune. Messages of grandeur and glory should also have a carriage of majesty to carry them around. Remember the Bible gives us words to sing and no tunes; it requires (and denies) no instrument. You can sing a capella for your entire life and not sin against God. But the church was commanded to sing the psalms of the Old Testament. We may sing new songs, so I suppose we can write new ones to sing. But we cannot sing to God without a message in our songs fully consistent with every truth found in the Word He has given.

The Insight of Leonard Payton

Dr. Payton is a chief musician in a large church. His essay I recommend.[1] I summarize three things from his chapter: 1) his reading of Colossians 3 and thus 2) the survey he made of the words sung in his own church, and 3) his observation of vagueness.

1. We have much Biblical guidance to the Scriptural nature of our song content if Colossians 3:16 is read this way: “Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you; with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God,” New American Standard Bible. Payton’s theme is hardly radical. It is that the preaching in church and the singing in worship should say the same things. I think he is right. It helps explain why some psalms are actually closer to sermons. It also explains their tremendous variety.
2. His survey was most revealing. Using the three classifications derived from Colossians 3, he took all the words sung in his church to see how they fit in these three categories: (1) teaching, (2) admonishing and (3) praise. He found that of some 400 choruses and hymns, about 30 fell in teaching, and less than 10 in admonishing. The praise column took the majority. The singing was manifestly weak on correction, but the Bible is not! The average sermon is weak on correction too, but according to 2 Tim. 3:16,17, it should not be. If anyone will read 50 psalms in order, he cannot fail to find teaching, praise and correction all mixed in together. He will surely find that the emphasis in what God had Israel sing is different from what we do now. We must repent of our lop-sided emphasis and conform to God’s Word.
3. Vagueness. Payton’s example is Psalm 103. The popular chorus taken from that Psalm says “Bless the Lord” but when it comes to reasons for doing so says only, “He has done great things” and finishes with “Bless His holy Name.” The God-given detail in the Psalm is omitted. Choruses often pick the sweet cherry off the top of the dish and leave the rest uneaten. The point I have observed countless times is that we are left hanging on just what it is God has done. His works are mostly omitted. This is a peculiar tragedy in worship since God is known not only by statements about Him, but also by His mighty acts. “I will tell of your deeds,” Psalm 73:28. If our song content leaves us with bless His Name for whatever it is, and the specifics happen not to matter very much, then we have a violation of Scripture. To sing of Jesus that there’s “just something about that Name,” - whatever it is, is vague talk not characteristic of the Psalms.[2]

A remedy for vagueness, for lack of admonition and for little teaching content is to adhere to a Biblical curriculum in song. Notice how Psalms 78, 105, 106 all hold to history. It is needed to remember the events when Israel marched through the Red Sea on dry land. It is healthy to remember the plagues on the Egyptians. Their defection in the desert is a warning to us, as we see in Psalm 95. We have frequent reminders of God’s creation in 29, and 63. It reviews God ruling the nations and that all sinful acts shall be brought into judgment in 73 & 75. The Psalms take us to the cross in Psalm 22 and present Christ our King as a priest in Psalm 110, whose offering is His body, Psalm 40. Psalm 89 wrestles theologically with how God’s covenant promise can be kept when what was promised to David’s line is so different from what the psalmist in his time observed. So we sing verse 1 alone and miss the meat of the rest of the Psalm. Shall I add in Psalms of repentance 85, 51 32 or words of anguish about trouble and troublemakers? Or the cry to send judgment on the wicked as in Psalm 109?

The music companies controlled by corporations on Wall Street have no great interest in seeing us sing as God has commanded. They just want to sell us more music. Often we do not know how the songwriters live - though we do hear sad tales. They offer little of what they believe. We do not know to whom they are accountable. I do know that there is not a flood of material in new music coming from the music industry that is even similar to what God says we should sing. We live in a time that has sacrificed quality for pizzazz. Music for God’s pleasure must not pander to the current appetites of sinners in the name of relevance. Some sincere believers insist we should sing the psalms as the only inspired words authorized by God in His worship. I do not hold that view, but I certainly think we may, and must, sing those psalms and use them as a measuring rod to see how the other new music measures up.

Worship without a Mediator

I must now give my most painful analysis. Since I have written “The Current Downgrade in the Doctrine of the Atonement”, I will not elaborate at length on it here. Those who wish may review the paper on my website, My point is that prayers, preaching and song in evangelicalism today tend to omit any sense that we must have a Mediator between God and us.

In many churches God is thought of mistakenly and approached foolishly with little mention that He is holy and we are sinful. We tend to think He is out to have us based solely on our willingness to have Him as our God or our Friend. That approach is more like a lover (God) wooing a reluctant woman (us). That kind of thought continues: if we, the pursued, just have enough sense to give in we will be saved and have many joys in this life and the next. Such imagery of a man pursuing a woman is actually used in the Bible,[3] but never to contradict or eradicate the truth that the Holy Lord is offended at us for our sin, has cursed us for them and is determined to have justice meted out on all sinners, unless His way of escape through Christ is taken. The gospel is that God is reconciled to us not by our acquiescence or response, but by our Savior, who fully satisfied all the demands of God concerning us by His obedience and blood. He took our curse being cursed for us, and holds out all His benefits to us on the condition of a simple repentant faith. If we will come to Him we really will have benefits beyond our understanding. A reality check of the real situation between God and us reveals that we need Christ and our approach to the Father cannot be in any other way. The approach is by the blood of the cross. Any omission of this is a failure to grasp the very basics of the relationship we can have with God.

All that I am saying in my sharp criticism is that today’s worship is often ignorant of the gospel. This deficiency is noticeable in the content of our singing. The simple solution is to include singing about the cross, the redeeming blood of our Mediator.

My Little Research Project

Even when we sing of the cross another difficulty emerges that is in great need of attention. I will show this by reference to a hymnbook. I researched a very popular evangelical hymnbook and studied the section on Christ’s Suffering and Death, and His Redemptive Works. This latter category had as subtitles: His Cross, His Cleansing Blood, and His Grace, Love, and Mercy. In all there were about 34 hymns. This is clearly an evangelical selection of hymns. My classification in my search was to find three legitimate themes:

  1. The Godward aspect, i.e. that Christ satisfied God concerning our sin.
  2. The Benefit side, which is manward - forgiveness cleansing.
  3. The Affective side, the emotional effect, its impact on life and service, the response the cross provokes in us.

The Godward emphasis was clearly the weakest of all. About three hymns really raised it to being the major emphasis of the hymn. Charles Wesley’s “Arise My Soul Arise” was one of these. I am not on a diatribe against choruses because one short song I rated very high in content, was the very recent composition “Lamb of Glory” © 1982. It says,

Hear the story from God’s Word that kings and priests and prophets heard;
There would be a sacrifice and blood would flow to pay sin’s price.
On the cross God loved the world while all the powers of hell were hurled;
No one there could understand the One they saw was Christ the Lamb.

Precious Lamb of glory, Love’s most wondrous story,
Heart of God’s redemption of man; Worship the Lamb of glory.

That is a chorus with substance, and one that looks at the cross from a divine perspective. It is not a song all about what we get out of Christ’s work. May we have more like it. A number of hymns I surveyed mentioned the Lamb of God and used the word “sacrifice,” but the terms were often unattached to any statement about the Godward aspect of the atonement.

The Benefits to us was the most common theme. This perspective has to be strong. We cannot help but sing of what our Lord did when by His death He acquired for us life, forgiveness, cleansing, and peace. But we lose grasping the benefits to us if we fail to see what happened between the Father and the Son. Notice the flow of thought in Isaiah 53:10,11. And we should not overlook that this text is one of the four Servant Songs. We should sing such things.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Our praise must include what He has done for us, but we must also know what the sacrifice of Jesus did for God. It is distorted to sing, “We are the reason that He gave His life. We are the reason He suffered and died. To a world that was lost He gave all He could give to show us the reason to live.” This chorus moves from half-truths to full-blown neglect of the Godward motivation Christ had in His sacrifice. By contrast, the apostle put together the truth that Christ “gave himself up for us, as a … sacrifice to God,” Ephesians 5:2. The hymnbooks so full of the “for us” need a revival of “to God.” But this is not just a matter of writing better words. It is a condition aggravated by the number of books on the evangelical market that deny, some vigorously, that Christ died to absorb in our place the wrath of God against us for our sin. When the theology deteriorates, so will the hymnbook.

The Affective side is the one most vulnerable to abuse. The death of Christ truly is example. But a liberal who denies the supernatural entirely may sing of the unselfishness of Jesus, while he rejects the atoning significance. Still, “Dissolve my heart in thankfulness and melt mine eyes to tears,” is good for us even if someone sings it who knows no gospel. It is still a good response. “And pour contempt in all my pride” is absolutely fitting and accurate. But to sing, “To the old rugged cross I will ever be true; its shame and reproach gladly bear,” is a bit much for me. It is hard when singing of the work of Christ to switch themes to sing of how faithful I am - a claim beyond my real life and progress. It is unworthy of comparison with the faithfulness of Christ. Our sinful hearts would like to start telling God how good we are. Knowing why He had to die if He would save us, will make us back down on singing of the wrong faithfulness. Once in a while I would like to stop the music and ask my fellow worshippers, “Hey, Who are we singing about now? Ourselves or the Lord? Who is the hero here?”

My observation is that we sing more of what we get out of the cross than what God did, and I have to report that that particular hymnbook had people singing more of the impact on their life than the satisfaction rendered to God by our Lord’s sacrifice. This is not a good balance. The event of His death runs ahead of its meaning. When God’s purpose in the cross is lighted, we diminish the event itself.

What the hymns reveal - note, not the choruses but the hymns - is that the modern view of the cross is primarily manward, not Godward. We must remember that our Great High Priest turned His back to us that He might go and face God for us. On the cross He offered Himself as a sacrifice to God. He went to the Father to bear His wrath, appease His anger, absorb His wrath, satisfy His justice, and reconcile Him to us by overcoming His holy hostility to us. Christ made such an atonement for us to God that the Father is able because of it, to forgive our sins with a good conscience on His part. Yet a theologian like Stanley Grenz, who is quite influential in my country (Canada), views the atonement as primarily manward and not Godward. I reply to that sad misconception that before Christ could turn and face us to pronounce his blessing, He first had to face God for us and take away from us the “hell” of God’s curse. Christ secured blessing by taking our punishment at God’s hand, so that He could turn His gracious face to us and bless us with forgiveness and acceptance. He declares to us forgiveness and pronounces a benediction on us when He says, “May God’s face shine on you.” That amazing word of truth is actually based on the fact that God’s face was once against Him, so that it could become a face that looks on us in peace. The manward benefit is a wonderful result of the Godward transaction that occurred out of our sight, between the Father and the Son He sent to the cross. Many songs merely reflect the new misunderstanding of the cross. The solution is to forsake misconceptions in both doctrine and song by a return to gospel content in both.

My view of Christian singing is that we must sing to God and one another in His presence what is true, using the words of the Psalms and also hymns that cover the full range of His revelation in the Bible with special emphasis on His gracious saving action in Christ our Mediator. These songs or hymns must be set in culturally suitable music with tunes that convey the message without distraction. Such singing may be accompanied with instruments that assist the congregation’s singing in both pitch and rhythm. If instruments are used they must not replace the human voice, the primary instrument of God’s praise.

I close with a simple brief essay “Music and Worship” with the permission of Dr. Robert Godfrey, the author. This is a copyrighted piece of writing, owned by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I recommend their magazine Modern Reformation and have put their website at the end of the article. The chapter is from Pleasing God in our Worship, published by Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois.

You may photocopy and distribute Godfrey’s essay, (but not publish it) provided you do not charge others for it. If you wish to use it in broad distribution, kindly contact the publishers or the Alliance. I urge you to buy the whole book and make it known.

Music & Worship

Chapter six in Praising God in our Worship
W. Robert Godfrey
Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois

Of all the battles in the worship wars, the battle over music probably has been the most evident and the most emotional. Changes in the style of music have divided, frustrated, and even angered worshippers. Should we sing old hymns or praise choruses? Should the music be classical, traditional, folk, rock, contemporary, country and western, or what? Should we use organs and pianos, or guitars and drums? Is music exclusively for praise in the service or does it have other functions as well? The amount of time given to music in many services has increased greatly. Some services begin with a lengthy time of singing called “praise and worship” as if singing alone were worship and the rest of the service were something else.

What are we to make of these matters?

A change in music - whether to something older or newer - is difficult because most worshippers are not musicians and simply like what is familiar to them. Most worshippers are not motivated by some aesthetic theory, but by the emotional links they have to their familiar music. Because music so powerfully engages and expresses our emotions, it is not surprising that it is an emotional minefield for individuals and congregations.

As with all ways of worship, we must evaluate music in the first place biblically. We must stand back from our own experiences and preferences and ask again, “What pleases God?” We should recognize that not all music and praise pleases him. Think of the worship and praise that Israel offered to God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. They made a golden calf, called it the Lord, and danced around it (Exod. 32:4-6). Such praise was an abomination to God and evoked his wrath! We must carefully seek what the Bible says about how we should praise the Lord and make music to him.

When we think of music in the worship of God, we are really thinking of three issues: 1) the words that we sing, 2) the tunes to which we sing these words, and 3) the instruments we might use to accompany the singing.

The Words We Sing

Of these three issues the first is the most important. The words we take upon our lips to sing to God must be true and pleasing to him. The Cambridge Declaration reminds us that one of the problems we have today is what we sing: “Pastors have neglected their rightful oversight of worship, including the doctrinal content of worship.” How can we be sure that the words that we sing please God? God has given us direction by giving us in the Bible a whole book as a model for what we are to sing. The Book of Psalms (which in Hebrew is entitled the Book of Praises) provides us with songs that God himself has inspired. The Psalms should at least function as the model for what we as Christians sing to God.

The Songs We Use

What do the Psalms teach us about song? First, they remind us of the rich variety of songs that we can and should present to God. The Psalms contain joyful praise and thanksgiving. The Psalms are called the Book of Praises because they not only contain but also culminate in the praise of God (see especially Pss. 146-150). But the Psalms contain more than praise. Some Psalms reflect on creation (for example Pss. 19 and 104); others recount the great saving work of God in Christ (Pss. 2, 22, 24, 110); still others meditate on the perfections of God’s revealed Word (especially Ps. 119). There are songs of lamentation and repentance (Pss. 32, 51, 137) as well as Psalms that express the confusion and frustration that God’s people sometimes experience living in this fallen world (Pss. 44 and 73). John Calvin rightly observed about the Psalter, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here presented as in a mirror.”

In some churches today it seems that only happy, joyful songs are sung. But joy is not the only emotion that Christians experience. Christian worship needs to provide times when sad or reflective emotions are expressed as well as happy ones. A variety of song texts, as we find them in the Psalter, are crucial for that purpose.

Second, the Psalms also model for us the substance of our singing. A few psalms are short and have repetitive elements, but most are full, rich, profound responses to God and his work. Singing praise to God, the psalter reminds us, is not just emotional expression, but a real engagement of the mind. Songs that are very repetitive or shallow and sentimental do not follow the model of the Psalter. The command to love God with all our mind must inform our singing. Mind and emotions together are the model of praise presented to us in the Psalms. And the modern church must work at restoring that union where it has been lost.

Once we recapture a proper sense of the texts we ought to sing, the other two issues about singing are relatively easy to resolve. What tunes shall we sing? We may use any tune that is singable for a congregation and that supports the content of the song. That tune should reflect the mood and substance of the song in the light of the joy and reverence that are appropriate to worship. With these guidelines in mind (and a sensitivity to the congregation’s difficulty with change), the issue of tunes for songs should be resolved smoothly.

What Kind of Instruments?

What kind of music accompaniment is biblical? In Old Testament worship a wide range of instruments was used in the worship of the temple. Yet in the worship of the church it appears that for almost the first thousand years of its history no instruments were used in Christian worship. Today most churches use one or more instruments. But where instruments are used, the instruments should aid the singing of the congregation, not overwhelm it. They should contribute to a deep spirit of reverence and joy, not undermine it.

Nowhere in the New Testament church are instruments clearly used for worship. They certainly have no central or independent role in worship. At most they should support the singing that the congregation is commanded to do. If that is their purpose, rock bands would clearly be inappropriate for Christian worship, but either an organ or a guitar might be used.

Music is a powerful and vital element in the worship life of God’s people. But precisely because it is so significant, we need to give careful thought to it. We must be sure that we are pleasing God and not entertaining ourselves. The temptation to turn worship into entertainment is great because as sinners we are much more inclined to be self-centered than God-centered. We are much more inclined to amuse ourselves than to serve God.

© Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
used with permission

The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals exists to promote biblical and Reformational Christianity. Drawing on the consensus of apostolic Christianity, summarized in the ecumenical creeds and in the sixteenth-century Reformation, we seek to provide teaching materials, to understand the challenges and opportunities of our time and place, and to articulate constructive responses in a challenging ecclesiastical context. Without minimizing differences, the Alliance is united in and defined by its stand on the Scriptures as the sole and sufficient norm for preaching, doctrine, worship and life; grace as the sole and sufficient cause for God’s salvation of the ungodly; Christ as the sole and sufficient Savior who fully merited redemption of sinners; and faith as the sole and sufficient instrument through which God justifies the guilty. Because all these things are from him, to him, through him and for him, God alone should receive glory for his saving work. It is our mission to make these central affirmations more widely known, understood and embraced.


1. Chapter 11 in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, Chicago: Moody Press © 1996, pp. 189-206 Return

2. While composing this paper, I attended a Reformation Conference my church sponsored where Dr. Michael Horton told us that we speak of God in a way we never do in any other relationship. No man would say of a girlfriend, "It is a wonderful relationship that is so wonderful inspiring deep and joyful …" and continue in this grain without ever saying anything about her. That is the kind of vague mush in many a new song. It may have a spirited rhythm, but it is still spiritual mediocrity. Return

3. See for example Jeremiah 2, 3 & 4, where the imagery is of a bride as a faithless wife called upon to repent. Jeremiah includes that the real problem is sin, coupled with Judah's inability to repent. She is in great need of a Redeemer. Similarly we have Ephesians 5:25, which shows that the apostle considered the wife to be the Lord's because of the sacrifice He made so He could have her. Christ does not marry the church in her sin, but washes us from it so we can be His. Apart from His sacrifice He would only pursue us to destroy us for our iniquity. Return