Puritan Gems

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Elements Of Reformed Worship #6

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:16-17)

So what kind of music is fitting for Biblical Worship? Does style matter? Should we use modern songs, old hymns, or a mixture of both?

I am of the private opinion that any church interested in music that is pleasing to God should always have a Psaltery available. The Psalms are superior to other songs in terms of worship, because they are divinely inspired worship songs. How better to worship God other than with songs that He has inspired? It is a shame to see so many churches eliminating the Psalms from their worship.

However, the Bible does not demand exclusive Psalms, and there is a vast richness of great songs that declare the glory of God.

Regarding musical instruments, Scripture allows them to be played in worship (Psalm 150:1-6), and skillfully (Psalm 33:3). Many of the Puritan mindset would disagree, adopting what appears to me to be a "dispensationalist" mindset when it comes to worship (ie. "The New Testament doesn't mention instruments".) Neither however, does it forbid them.

Having said that, it should be God who is glorified in our songs, not musicians or singers. The lyrics of many modern songs demand very little in the area of engaging our minds for worship, ranging from the theologically illiterate "I Have Decided To Follow Jesus" (Compare to Moses' Song "The Lord... Has Become My Salvation" - Exodus 15:2), to the empty repetitions of songs like "Celebrate Jesus". The emptiness of the repetitive lyrics in these songs must often be filled by Van Halen-like guitar solos, robbing God of the glory due to Him alone.

Those who would defend the "rock concert" atmosphere of modern worship often point to it's effectiveness in drawing unbelievers to church. However, the purpose of worship is not to entertain unbelievers, for what good does it do to simply get them to church for entertainment purposes? The purpose of worship is to worship, and it does matter how this is done.

Others would suggest that we just don't like the "style" of their worship. However, style being an aesthetic issue, my main objection to many modern "worship" songs is that so few of them actually worship God (Note: There are some good modern songs). A great many songs today are either songs about worship (ie, "I will praise Him", "we will worship Him") that never actually get around to worshipping, or else they are human centered songs about "how Jesus makes me feel". Consider these lyrics from a popular "Christian" song that I heard in a church I visited some time ago:

I waited for you today
But you didn't show
No no no
I needed you today
So where did you go?
You told me to call
Said you'd be there
And though I haven't seen You
Are you still there?

I cried out with no reply
And I can't feel You by my side
So I'll hold tight to what I know
You're here, and I'm never alone

And though I cannot see You
And I can't explain why
Such a deep, deep reassurance
You've placed in my life
We cannot separate
'Cause You're part of me
And though You're invisible
I'll trust the unseen

I cried out with no reply
And I can't feel You by my side
So I'll hold tight to what I know
You're here, and I'm never alone

We cannot separate
'Cause You're part of me
And though You're invisible
I'll trust the unseen

I cried out with no reply
And I can't feel You by my side
So I'll hold tight to what I know
You're here, and I'm never alone

The lady who performed the song was very talented, but as she finished singing, I had one obvious question. Who is she singing to? Since the song was sung in a church, I'm assuming that this was a Christian song. Otherwise, I would have never guessed. This song could just as easily have been sung in a nightclub about her boyfriend.

Contrast these with the lyrics to Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", fast becoming my favorite hymn.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

It's not "style" that separates these two genres of music, but rather substance. May the church once again seek to please God in its worship music rather than using it as a church growth gimmick.

Recommended Reading: With Reverence and Awe: Returning to the Basics of Reformed Worship by Hart and Muether


Christian Praise said...

Although I have to agree that "A Mighty Fortress is our God" is a much better choice compared to the first worship chorus as you mentioned, I think that we have to be careful not to rely too heavily on the old hymns. The wording of this hymn in particular is very difficult for modern people to understand. They won't know what they are singing about...what's a bulwark...what does "shall fell him" mean...I know what they mean, but many people will not know what this archaic language is. What we need is to pray for God to raise up songwriters who will focus on the message of the cross and salvation, righteousness, etc. Far too many people are getting caught up in singing about themselves and their relationship to God rather than the great works that God has done. We need to forget about ourselves and spread the message through our songs of Gods omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in our lives and the lives of the world who are lost and need a Savior.

Puritan Lad said...

Right On CP. I'm all for updating words into modern language as much as possible. There are a few good modern songs, but unfortunately far too many are as you described, about ourselves.

I simply used these two to make my point, but I could have easily chosen a newer hymn with easier language.

Earl said...

I agree with Christian Praise about the archaic words. And I also agree that God-centered and Christ-honoring words are important, but I do not agree that the scriptures eliminates songs that concern "us" and our relationship to God. The Bible says "speaking to yourselves in Psalms Hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5; 19). The second part of the verse "singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord", does not eliminate or do away with the first part of the verse "speaking unto yourselves". Speaking to yourself is not primarily a Christo-centric or God-centered activity. It concerns "Me" just as much, or maybe even more, than it concerns Him. When I am doing that, I can still be singing and making melody in my heart to the Lord. So to arbitrarily say that everything self-centered or man-centered should be eliminated is not quite true. It sounds nice, and it pretends to be pious to sing only God-centered songs in church, but the fact is that it is not the whole truth. If we read the Psalms, which are held out as the perfect Biblical model for church singing, we have to deal with Psalm 51 and many other songs which from David's perspective were "songs about me". Create in "me" a clean heart. Take not Thy Holy Spirit from "me". Cast "me" not away from your presence. Restore unto "me" the joy of my salvation.

I fail to see how we can throw out man-centered aspects of worship, when the Bible does not do this. We are real people, with real struggles, singing to a real God, about all sorts of real things that concern us. And none of us have wings to fly above our own humanity when we are in church. Don't misunderstand, I love God honoring lyrics with depth of meaning. I think they should be included in our song selections. But I see nothing unbiblical, or immoral about real people singing songs about their real struggles and relationship to God. I think it is good to "speak to yourselves" in singing, just like Paul says.

I'm afraid that in our reformed churches we have become pious gas bags, and have robbed the relevance out of singing. That in my opinion, is just as wrong as condemning someone as a theological illiterate who sings: "I have decided to follow Jesus". Please tell me why a person is a theological illiterate if he sings "I have decided to follow Jesus"? I happen to think that song states a Biblical and Theological truth from a healthy man-centered way of speaking to yourself in spiritual songs. It may not fit in with our pious gas bag reformational traditions, but so what? It expresses Paul's sentiments perfectly "speaking to yourselves". I'd like someone to show me why we should condemn this wonderfully simple Christian song? "But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ"2Cor. 11:3. Simplicity in singing is good. I think it's wrong to call someone an illiterate just because they are not a pious gas bag.

Puritan Lad said...


What do you think of the lyrics to the first song I listed? I know that it is an extreme example, but it'll make my point more obvious.

Christianity isn't "I have decided to follow Jesus" (praise be to be), but rather, as Moses sang, "The Lord has become my salvation" (Praise be to Him). That is the difference.

Yes, there are human aspects to worship, but all of our worshio should be Christ centered.

Earl said...

Is "Speaking to yourself" Christ-centered? (Eph.5:19) Is "teaching and admonishing one another" Christ-centered? (Col.3: 16). Both these man-centered activities are to be conveyed by our church music. Both passages are talking about singing songs in church. What passage says that we are not supposed to be man-centered at least some of the time in our singing? Since singing in church is done by men and not angels, I suggest we start clipping our imaginary wings, and start singing to "ourselves" and "to one another" like Paul says.

earl said...

Puritan Lad,
I just re-read your post. You said: "Yes, there are human aspects to worship, but all of our worship should be Christ centered".

I agree, "all our worship should be Christ-centered". I agree, it must never be "praise be to me". Rather it must always be "praise be to Him". That is indeed what worship should be, and it is in actuality the only thing that worship can be.

So if this is true, as I am sure you will agree, since you wrote the words that I quoted, then you need to address the fact that not all singing in church is "worship". At least some of the songs need to be man-centered. When Paul says that songs in church are a form of "speaking to ourselves" (Eph. 5:19, and a form of "teaching and admonishing one another"(Col. 3: 16). Then these forms of music are clearly not intended for "worship".

Our job is always to handle the word of God truthfully, Biblically, spiritually, morally and realistically. So, what would be nice to see, while you are discussing music in church, is a lesson on the singing and music which is not intended as "worship"...the non-worshipful kind of music that is still supposed to be a part of our singing as well. It is intended for edification instead. It is directed to men and not to God. It is Scriptural and Biblical, but it is not "worship". Perhaps you could say something about this type of church music also, instead of just emphasizing the "worship" type of music. Some questions you might want to cover would be: How we should implement it? What sort of man-centered words it should contain? How it can be both beneficial to man and pleasing to God at the same time? How many or how often of the man-centered songs be sung? Then you might want to give some examples of these types of songs. I know that you won't be using "I have decided to follow Jesus", because you consider it illiterate, but may I suggest:

A pilgrim was "I" and a wandring
In the cold night of sin "I" did roam
When Jesus the kind shepherd found "me"
And now "I" am on "my" way home.

Or how about?

And He walks with "me"
And He talks with "me",
And He tells "me" "I" am His own
And the joy "we" share as "we" tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Or maybe?

What can wash away "my" Sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make "me" whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

I'm sure that you can find a whole bunch of man-centered non-worship songs to include in your lesson. I think this would present the truth more as it really is, rather than emphasizing only "worship" songs. Let's learn to use and sing the good man-centered songs also. Using Pauls words to only teach "worship" songs is really a mis-use of his doctrine. A half truth is a whole lie.