Christian Worship: “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”
We sing. As Christians, it’s something we do. It’s what we’ve done in the past, it’s what we do today, and it’s what we’ll do forevermore. Yet, the simple act of singing in the church is more than just words crafted together, or lyrics set to music—though it is these things. Ultimately, we offer praise to God in worship by it.
Today, some sing with instrumentation, and others without. Some sing from screens, and others from books. Yet, despite what our singing has become in the church, the first question we must ask is, “What does Scripture have to say about it? And what implications does this have on our own worship—from what we sing to how we sing it?”
Developing a Theology
The apostle Paul makes several remarks regarding our singing, which will help us answer these questions. Two of the most important passages are found in Ephesians and Colossians. So, why do we sing?
(1) Singing “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs” Is Doxological.
“[B]e filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18b-19).
The apostle Paul indicates that we sing in order to give God glory. Indeed, worship by song indicates God’s Spirit indwelling Spirit. By it, we offer praise to God and encouragement to others. Finally, it is the product of a faithful, Christian walk.
First, our song services arise from the Spirit-filled life. Note that “be filled with the Spirit” is the main clause of the command, while those that follow are merely dependent. This is significant because the Spirit’s indwelling of the believer will necessarily produce singing. Previously, Paul had established that we are “sealed in [Christ] with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13), and that this same Spirit seals us “for the day of redemption” (4:30). Here, we learn that the Spirit produces song in our lives.
Second, such worship exalts God and encourages other believers. In our singing, first and foremost, we give God praise—“to the Lord,” states Paul (Eph. 5:19). This is primary, or as Geoffrey Wainwright puts it, God is Christian worship’s “ultimate Focus” . Additionally, we encourage “one another” (5:19). Indeed, God is the object of our worship that binds us to fellow believers. Therefore, worship is not about “what we get out of it.” It is then fundamentally a corporate (rather than a personal) activity in which our ultimate goal is the praise of God and the proclamation of His Word. This has implication on the songs that are sung, the instrumentation and volume that is used, and even the physical arrangement of the accompaniment . And that which distracts should be discarded.
Third, singing is a product of the Christian’s faithful walk. To make this point though, he first foundationally discusses the following: Our spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph. 1:3-14); the reconciliation between God and man (2:1-10), and therefore between individuals (1:11-22); and the mystery of the Gentiles’ salvation (3:1-13). In light of these truths, Paul illustrates the faithful walk of a Christian: This includes singing . Again, Christian song is part and parcel with a Christian’s walk.
Simply put, song is a product of the Spirit’s indwelling. Hence, in our own worship, we should ask, “Does this song faithfully represent the Spirit’s indwelling? Does it encourage fellow believers in Christ? And is it faithfully indicative of my Christian walk?” Yet, in addition to it being a response, singing is also a tool for the teaching of right doctrine.
(2) Singing “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs” Is Pedagogical.
“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” (Col. 3:16).
We’ve just seen that musical worship is fundamentally about offering praise unto God. One of the ways in which this is done is illustrated by this Colossians text. Though the differences between this text and the Ephesians text are subtle, they are significant. In Ephesians, singing is a result of the indwelling Spirit. In Colossians, it is a result of the indwelling of Christ’s words.
Again, this distinction is significant. Recall that Paul is writing to the Colossians to remind them of the importance of right doctrine. After his opening statement of thanksgiving and prayer (Col. 1:3-12), Paul includes a statement of Christology (1:13-20). And after reviewing his own ministry among them (1:24-2:5), Paul warns them about accepting the false and empty doctrine of his detractors (2:6-23).
It is only after establishing the importance of sound doctrine that Paul exhorts the Colossians to put on the new self (Col. 3:1-17), which includes singing. However, whereas it is doxological in Ephesians, it is pedagogical in Colossians. Note this qualification: “[W]ith all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another” (3:16, italics mine). In other words, singing teaches. It instructs. And because forgetting is often all-too-easy, repetition through song serves to secure the timeless truths and doctrines of Scripture in believers. Early church father Athanasius made a similar point when, commenting upon the Psalms, suggested that they “command” as well as “teach” . Or as contemporary author Jonathan Leeman puts it, “Singing is how the congregation owns and affirms the Word for itself.” In Scripture, “[S]inging is one God-ordained way for the members of a congregation to respond to God’s revelation” . Summarily, so should our musical worship!
Therefore, song is the product of the Spirit’s and the Word’s indwelling. Hence, in our own worship, we should also ask, “Does this song give praise to God—in its words, structure, tempo, and theology? Further, what does this song teach? If it conveys no real doctrinal content, should we sing it in the first place? If so, does it teach right doctrine?” Having explored these principles, what might it look like practically?
A Case Study: “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty,” by Joachim Neander
Read the hymn Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty (1680), based largely on Psalm 103:1-6 and 150. Composed by Joachim Neander (1650-1680), his thesis is simple, yet powerful: “Praise ye the Lord.” For example, in the first stanza, second line, Neander gives two reasons for praising the Lord: (1) health and (2) salvation. First, Neander praises God for health. Throughout the hymn, Neander similarly praises God as the giver of health, worker of miracles, and granter of relief. Such statements are historically significant: While serving as the assistant preacher at St. Martini’s Church in Breman, Neander contracted tuberculosis—the illness would soon claim his life. Yet it was during this period of his life that Neander composed this hymn. Despite his illness, Neander trusted in God.
Second, Neander praises God for salvation. By “salvation,” he appeals to the Incarnation. Though the hymn’s Christology is subtle, it is nevertheless present and powerful. Again, such statements are historically significant: While serving as headmaster at the Reformed school in Dusseldorf (1674-79), the elders falsely charged him with heresy. Yet Neander looked not for man’s approval, but God’s. Summarily, regardless of Neander’s circumstances, whether suffering from a life-threatening disease or being accused of heresy, he praised God as giver of health and salvation. Hence, this hymn represents a person who relies on a sure theology through difficult circumstances.
Although I have analyzed just one line of this celebrated, seven-stanza hymn, already we note its powerful theology. The lyrics are not cheap, nor conjured. They are full, and they are personal—flowing from real life. Yet, they are doxological and pedagogical too: They are spirit-filled. They exalt God, first and foremost. They also encourage believers in the faith and result from a faithful, Christian walk. Finally, they teach right doctrine, and they teach it well.
Although singing is doxological and pedagogical, it must remain authentic. That is, it must be more than mere words. In the Book of Amos, the LORD commanded Israel concerning their disingenuous worship, “Take away from Me the noise of your songs / I will not even listen to the sound of your harps” (Amos 5:23; see also Amos 5:21-24; Isa. 1:10-17) .
Additionally, our whole being should be engaged in singing. It is an exercise of what F. Leroy Forlines calls our “total personality”—referring to the intellect, the emotions, and the will . Paul writes, for example, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). Again commenting upon the psalms, Athanasius surmises that they contain the emotions of our very souls . Therefore, may our singing never become robotic or mechanistic.
In conclusion, we sing. We have, we do, and we always will. Yet, part of our duty as Christians is to make sure that we do it Scripturally: “Does it respond to God with reverence? Is it Spirit-filled? Is it fundamentally corporate or individual? Does it teach and enforce sound doctrine? Additionally, does it boast of a robust spirituality, like Neander’s composition, or a shallow one?” Let us encourage and teach one another in our Spirit-filled singing, but above all else and in so doing, let us exalt our God.
 Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (New York: Oxford, 1980), 59. Similarly Dr. Vernon M. Whaley suggests that we must “recognize the person of our worship” (Whaley, Contact, “God’s Mandate for Worship” (April 1996), 11).
 In Baptist tradition, musical worship is not the central point of the church service. The preaching of God’s Word is. Therefore, it should not draw attention to itself. It should draw attention to the proclamation of God’s Word. The centrality of the Word even has implication on the preacher: For example, the preacher stands behind a pulpit, often above and central to the congregation, precisely because he symbolically represents the proclamation of God’s Word.
 This basic principle is illustrated throughout Scripture. Recall, for example, the song that Moses and the sons of Israel sing after the LORD delivers them the Egyptian army (Ex. 15:1-21). Recall also the psalmists and the prophets, who respond to God in song for His blessings, covenant faithfulness, deliverance, glory, justice, mercy, provision, and sure victory—to name a few. We are to sing (cf. Ps. 68:32; 96:1-2; 98:1; Isa. 42:10; Jer. 20:13).
 Robert C. Gregg (trans.), Athanasius: The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 108, 09. Along these same lines, Joseph Grizzle reminds us that “[d]octrinal integrity must never be compromised” (Grizzle, Contact, “Worship—What Is It?” (July 1992), 8).
 Jonathan Leeman, Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2011), 156.
 Singer and songwriter Jon Foreman provocatively echoes God’s sentiment in his song, “Instead of a Show”: “I hate all your show and pretense / The hypocrisy of your praise / The hypocrisy of your festivals / I hate all your show / Away with your noisy worship / Away with your noisy hymns / I stomp on My ears when you’re singing ‘em / I hate all your show.”
 F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth: Answering Life’s Inescapable Questions (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2001), ix.
 Athanasius, 108.