Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. *reprinted from Beacon Lights, February, March, and April, 1983.

The Importance of Music in the Church

The importance of music in the church is indicated when the apostle of Christ writes, in Colossians 3:16, that by our singing we teach and admonish one another. Probably this is not a familiar thought to us; perhaps we are not conscious of this when we sing. We are well aware, of course, that we all should teach each other, and admonish each other, as the opportunity or need arises (although our practice leaves much to be desired). But we are doing this by our singing, in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

Music has great power to teach—to drive what is sung deeply into the soul and to fasten the words that are sung in the memory. Secular education has recognized this and has always used music in teaching. The devil also knows this power of music, and he has always used it effectively to teach the lie. I have found this to be true, to my sorrow. Years ago, in order, I thought, to be able better to contend against it, I listened to the music of the Christ-denying rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar. To this day, I find myself humming, and sometimes singing the haunting but demonic, piece of Magdalene, “I don’t know how to love Him.” But Christ has redeemed God’s creature, music, and God the Holy Spirit uses the singing of the congregation, or of a group of saints, to teach and admonish the people of God with the Word of Christ.

If we stop and think about this, we will find it so in our own experience. You come to church on a Sunday morning depressed, so “down” that you do not even sing yourself. Then, the congregation sings:

O my soul, why art thou grieving?

What disquiets and dismays?

Hope in God; His help receving,

I shall yet my Savior praise.

Psalm 43

As the church sings, you feel your own soul addressed; your lips begin to move; you are taught effectively to hope in God. Or, I come to Men’s Society bitter, really against God, for some disappointment. The group sings number 210 in The Psalter, fromPsalm 77:

I asked in fear and bitterness,

Will God forsake me in distress?

Shall I His promise faithless find?

Has God forgotten to be kind?

Has He in anger hopelessly

Removed His love and grace from me?

To these fearful, bitter questions comes the calm answer:

These doubts and fears that troubled me

Were born of my infirmity;

Tho’ I am weak, God is most high,

And on His goodness I rely;

Of all His wonders I will tell,

And on His deeds my tho’ts shall dwell.

I am admonished, mightily, so that then and there I am converted and renewed to live in trust in the goodness of God.

This happens through the singing of the people of God. It makes a difference that I do not merely read, or think about, these words, but that the body of believers and their children sing them; with one heart and one voice.

If we teach and admonish one another in our singing, it is implied that the words of our songs are sound, that they are the truth of the gospel, that they are the “Word of Christ.” The words are the all-important thing, not the melody and rhythm. Nowadays, songs are brought into the worship services of churches because the tune is lively, even though the words are frivolous or doctrinally corrupt. This is wrong. The tune is secondary; it must serve the words. John Calvin warned against melody and rhythm that are not befitting the solemnity of the words with which the church praises God:

As for the music, it should not be light and flighty like secular music but should have weight and majesty, agreeable to its subject and fit for singing in church (cited in T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography).

Our concern about the words of the church’s songs is not imaginary. False doctrine can be sung into the church, as well as preached into the church. As a matter of historical fact, Protestant churches have been corrupted by the gradual introduction into their worship of hymns that increasingly have the congregations sing their own religious experience, rather than the faith of the church. This is the heresy, fatal to the congregation, of subjectivism—making man and his religious feelings the center of worship, instead of God and His work in Jesus Christ. The result is that the church no longer looks out with the eye of faith upon the all-glorious God as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, so that her worship in song is “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” but she now looks in upon herself, at her own religious navel, so that her worship in song is “In full and glad surrender I give myself to Thee” and “Take my life, and let it be.”

Arminian hymns that condition salvation upon the free will of the sinner have helped to drive the gospel of salvation by free sovereign grace out of the churches of the Reformation. Even the better hymnals include “Jesus is Tenderly Calling,” “Some to the Savior, Make No Delay,” and “Softly and Tenderly.” This is an additional reason why Reformed churches have opposed the introduction of hymns into their worship: many hymns teach another gospel of man’s saving himself by his will, and the introducing of hymns opens the way for these unsound hymns.

The truth that we teach one another by singing has application to the music that we listen to in everyday life. The music we hear is teaching and admonishing us; we are learning from it., Lyrics that promote a godless life-style—rebellion, irresponsibility, drugs, sexual promiscuity, worship of Satan, and the like—teach. If you listen, you are deliberately allowing the word of the devil to dwell in you. Then you must not be surprised that you begin to approve these things and even to practice them. For God’s sake, let the Word of Christ dwell in you through the music you listen to; give the word of the devil no place in your soul by his music.

In the worship of the church, since the main thing is the words, the organ accompaniment must be just that: an accompaniment of, and an aid to, congregational singing. The organ may never become the preeminent feature of the music of worship. The congregation (and visitors) may never assemble to hear the accomplished organist. Congregational singing may never becomes enslaved to the great organ. And in the organ-playing when the church is not singing—prelude, offertory, and postlude—the music must be conducive to Reformed worship. Certainly the worshiping church must not be disturbed by excerpts from popular, secular pieces, nor by a tune that inevitably puts them in mind of words that contradict the Word of Christ, e.g., “Throw Out the Lifeline.” Since an organ does help congregational singing, it has a rightful place in the church; and those able to play serve the church, with their gift, in an important way.*

That we teach, and are taught, by the singing at church implies also that we sing with understanding. We must think through words and thoughts of our songs. Psalm 47:7demands, “sing ye praises with understanding.” In I Corinthians 14:15, the apostle says, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” Here is a common fault of ours, that we do not pay careful attention to the words we are singing: we utter the words in a mindless way. This shows that we are not singing from the heart, but it also hinders the work of teaching—the Holy Spirit does not bless the singing of the saints automatically.

A second indication, in Colossians 3:16, of the importance of music in the church is the teaching—the main thought of, the text—that it is by singing that the Word of Christ dwells among us richly. It is the will of God for the congregation, that the Word dwell in her richly. It is not enough that the Word barely be present. And the members are called to be active in this rich indwelling: “Let the word . . . dwell in you richly.” How do we do this? How does it happen that the Word dwells richlyamong us?

It is significant that the related passage in Ephesians 5speaks of being filled with the Holy Spirit in connection with the singing of the people of God: “And be not drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (w. 18, 19). The congregation is filled with the Holy Spirit when the Word dwells in her richly. The same is true of the believer personally, But how does this happen? How are we to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

This does not take place through mysterious, private, spiritual exercises, nor by the devotions of small groups of super-saints, nor even by extraordinary activities of the congregation, but it happens throughsinging—through singing the Word of Christ. The apostle aims at growth in the Christian life and experience—being filled with the Spirit and being indwelt richly by the Word. He plainly lays out the way: singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

How important, then, that we sing!

The Manner of our Singing

But we must sing in the proper manner. This is singing with the heart. The source of the music is not the voicebox, but the heart. As the mouth pours forth the psalm, or hymn, or spiritual song, the heart is in the music. This warns against lip-service in singing—a real danger, and a serious sin. God abominates and condemns all external service hi which people praise Him with the lips, but their hearts are far from Him. God hates congregational singing, beautiful as it may sound, that does not resound in regenerated hearts. We are to put our hearts into our music, i.e., know the sorrow over sin that we sing in Psalm 51desire the redemption that we celebrate in Psalm 107intend the praise of Jehovah in Psalm 150; and mean the blessedness of a life of obedience to the Law in Psalm 119. To sing in worship is not easy, any more than it is easy to pray.Singing with the heart will show itself in enthusiastic singing. Now, mere -noise does not impress God. Besides, the Scriptures do not say, “Bellow,” or “Bawl,” but, “Sing.” Nevertheless, the heart will make singing both lively and loud. I have heard churches sing, whose singing must have caused the angels present at the worship to weep. So lifeless! So feeble! There are members, including young people, who barely move their lips for singing, and hardly utter a peep. So enthusiastic! So bored!

Take a psalm and shout,

Let His praise ring out,

Lift your voice and sing,

our Psalter admonishes us (418:2). Oh, how fervent will be the singing of the great congregation in glory: “… as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder” (Rev. 14:2). “Glory to our King,” number 418 in The Psalter continues, “He is Lord of earth, Magnify His worth.” It belongs to the manner of our singing that tie sing to God. Consciously the congregation at worship, or the group of saints, directs the music to God. Although we teach and admonish one another, we do not sing for each other, ultimately, but for God. A warning is in order at this point also. Fascinated by beautiful sound, we easily find ourselves singing for people. It is not impossible that, enthralled by his powerful bass, or by her lofty soprano, as the case may be, the individual singer sings for himself, or for herself. We must sing to the Lord! Not only must a congregation sing to the Lord God, but a choral society must also sing to the Lord—not to the audience, but to the Lord. All of our singing, ultimately, is to be praise. God’s church is a God-glorifying church. She praises God in the preaching; she praises God in prayer; she praises God in the singing. And it is exactly the outstanding characteristic of the Psalms that they are God-centered and God-glorifying. They are the Word of Christ, to be sure; but Christ is the revelation of God, that “unto Him (may) be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Eph. 3:21).

The Possibility of Such Singing

The possibility of music in the church is grace. This is not the loveliness of our singing, but the free favor of God in Jesus Christ to sinners, forgiving their sins for the sake of the cross and renewing their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

It takes grace to sing. No one can sing, or want to sing, except the man whose heart is reborn by the grace of Christ. No people will sing, save the people who hear the joyful sound of the gospel of grace.

Let there be music in the church!

God grant the church His grace.


* Cf. the article, “Congregational Singing and Organs,” in the Standard Bearer, Vol. 52, pp. 851, 852.