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Musical Worship—A Sacrifice of Praise

Are there guidelines or principles that will enhance our music and therefore our worship?

By Joseph Nicholson

Christianity has been a musical religion throughout its history. In every corner of the globe and in every era, music has been an integral part of the Christian faith. This is not to say, though, that there have not been varying opinions about music. For centuries considerable controversy in the church has centered on music. Complaints about music were often based on concerns that nonchurch musical styles and idioms were infiltrating the church and corrupting godly worship. At other times, dissension had its roots in simple resistance to change—a reluctance to accept new instruments, new musical styles, or anything not already thoroughly rooted in tradition.

Disagreements, tensions, and divided opinions about church music continue.1 Although a certain amount of diversity of viewpoint is advantageous, it is desirable to reach at least a general consensus concerning the basic purposes of music in our churches. But how are we to know what music pleases God? Why does music for the church differ from country to country—even from congregation to congregation within the same country? Should there be more uniformity of music among our Christian brothers and sisters around the world? Are there guidelines or principles that will enhance our music and therefore our worship? If so, what principles are universal and which are based in culture? What is the theological basis for our philosophy of music?

The Bible has a great deal to say about music. It is mentioned in at least 44 of its 66 books. Musical terms such as music, sing, and musical instruments (many specifically identified) are mentioned hundreds of times. One entire book, the Psalms, is given over to music. In its original form, the Psalms was a book of songs. We do not know how many passages in the prophetic books were originally sung, but many prophecies are written in poetic style, and some were sung.

Luke contains the best-known hymns of the New Testament: The Magnificat (1:46–55), The Benedictus (1:68–79), Gloria in Excelsis Deo (2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32). All of these are related to the birth of Christ and may have been used by the Early Church in worship.

The Bible begins with what is sometimes called the hymn of creation in the poetry of Genesis 1 and climaxes in the great songs of worship in Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3; and possibly 19:4–8.

The Word of God makes it clear that those who follow the Lord are a singing people; Christians naturally sing. Scripture explains why Christians should sing, how they should sing, and even what they should sing.

Should Christians sing?

Someone said that God created music; the composer only arranges it. God is a great music lover. Job 38:7 refers to the time “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (KJV).* Isaiah 55:12 speaks of the hills singing and trees clapping their hands. Jesus himself sang a hymn at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).

God desires our song. His Word urges us to worship with music. Psalm 100:2 says, “Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing” (KJV). Psalm 107:21,22 challenges the people of God: “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.” Psalm 149:5 admonishes, “Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud” (KJV).

Joy and singing do not always come easily. During the Babylonian captivity the Jews missed an opportunity to use music to witness about their God. The captors wanted to hear them sing a song of Zion (Psalm 137). Instead, they wallowed in self-pity, hung their harps on the willow trees, and wept. Deep hurts and memories of better days took their song and their joy. We are better for it if we sing God’s praises, whether we feel like it or not.

Inspired writers of the New Testament often quoted from the Old Testament. In Romans 15:9–11, the apostle Paul, instructing both Jews and Gentiles, referred to several Old Testament songs (2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1). Scripture clearly shows that God wants His people to confess His name, rejoice, and sing praises to Him.

Why should Christians sing?

James 5:13 challenges us: “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” Music is the natural expression of joy. An old song has this testimony: “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.” Yet we also sing to lament—express grief, woe, or concern. Or we may sing to testify or encourage others. What is the purpose of our song? Not to draw attention to ourselves, but to deliver a message.

Effective messages can be given without music, yet music adds a new dimension to the spoken word. Supplement a poem with a melody or harmony and the words take on added emotion, meaning, and power.

Two dimensions of church music illustrate its unique capacity in comparison with all forms of ministry. Music can affect the mind. Music can also add meaning to its message by affecting the hearer through the emotions. The result is that people can be challenged, inspired, and moved to action. This is one reason invitation hymns have been used in evangelism and during altar calls.2 Music compels, enhances, and strengthens verbal appeals.

Why should we sing? Here are five basic reasons:

1. Christians should sing to express prayer and praise to God.

This is a vertical orientation—upward to the Lord, directed to God. In the early years of this new millennium, praise choruses seem to dominate evangelical worship. Included in this category are: “My Life Is in You, Lord”; “He Is Exalted, the King Is Exalted on High”; “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High”; “You Are Awesome in This Place, Mighty God”; “I Stand, I Stand in Awe of You”; and “Thou Art Worthy” (based on Revelation 4:11; 5:9). The familiar, old Italian hymn, “Come, Thou Almighty King,” is another example:

Come, Thou almighty King,
Help us Thy Name to sing, help us to praise!
Father all glorious, over all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days!

Come, Thou incarnate Word,
Gird on Thy mighty sword, our prayer attend!
Come, and Thy people bless, and give Thy Word success,
Spirit of holiness, on us descend!

Come, holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear in this glad hour.
Thou Who almighty art, now rule in every heart,
And never from us depart, Spirit of power!

To Thee, great One in Three,
Eternal praises be, hence, evermore.
Thy sovereign majesty, may we in glory see,
And to eternity love and adore!

2. Christians should sing to teach Scripture, church doctrine, and theological truth.

A large share of our understanding of Jesus, the nature of God, Scripture, and other important matters come from songs. Somewhat lengthy scriptural passages are often set to music, helping us memorize them. When my children were young, they learned songs naming the books of the Bible, the 12 disciples, and a variety of biblical facts they remember to this day.

Colossians 3:16 is frequently quoted by Christian musicians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” The unveiled emphasis that we can use music in teaching is often overlooked.

Experience shows that when learning occurs in association with music, we retain what we have learned much longer. Music is an efficient tool in the teaching-learning process. Every piece of music teaches something. We must be discriminating in the choice of music for our homes, schools, and churches. Be sure it is meaningful, lasting, and biblical.

Our choices of music, especially for the young, can have a dynamic impact on them. Children can and do relate to music. They love to sing. Recently, several leaders of children’s church told me that of all the songs offered today, children still want to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

The hymn, “Come, Thou Almighty King,” is not only a prayer song but also a good teaching hymn. It teaches about the Godhead—the Trinity. Stanza one is addressed to God the Father: the “almighty King,” “Father,” and “Ancient of Days.” The second stanza speaks to God the Son, the “incarnate Word.” Stanza three is addressed to God the Holy Spirit: the “holy Comforter,” the “sacred witness,” and the “Spirit of power.” The final stanza is to the Trinity, the “great One in Three.” The chorus “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” also emphasizes the doctrines of Christ’s incarnation, His death on the Cross, and His resurrection.

There are many songs—new and old—that are filled with biblical truth and Scripture. Space will not allow a long listing. The few titles listed here are commonly sung by people of many denominations and in a variety of languages. The song, “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” has a great variety of Christological titles: “Lamb,” “Son of God,” “Lord of life.” The hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and the chorus, “The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases” (both based on Lamentations 3:23), speak to the unchanging faithfulness of God. “It Is Well With My Soul” has an excellent sequence that leads to worship:

Peace like a river . . .
Sea billows roll . . .
Satan buffeting . . .
Christ shed His own blood . . .
It is well with my soul.

Songwriters demonstrate how music can be used to teach Scripture and church doctrine. Songs can give instruction about our Christian faith and hope. The right music can help children and adults learn about God and His nature, about biblical truths, and eternal values.

3. Christians should sing to testify of God’s greatness.

This is a horizontal consideration—not upward to God, but outward to people. Many people have been initially brought to Christ because of a Holy Spirit-anointed testimony of God’s love and grace sung with sincerity. Music such as “Power in the Blood” has supported missions efforts around the world and local-church evangelism everywhere.

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win? There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

The following, written by Wendell Loveless, is an example of a testimony song:

I was straying when Christ found me in a night so dark and cold;
Tenderly His arm went round me and He led me to His fold.

With His nail-scarred hands He bro’t me to the shelter of His love;
Of His grace and will He taught me, and of heav’nly rest above.
Tho’ the night be dark around me, I am safe, for He is near;
Never shall my foes confound me, while the Savior’s voice I hear.

Another example is “Moment by Moment” by Daniel Whittle:

Moment by moment I’m kept in His love;
Moment by moment I’ve life from above;
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine;
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am Thine.

The chorus, “I Have a Hope,” is a more recent example of a testimony song. Many other songs testify of God’s faithfulness to His children.

4. Christians should sing to engage in corporate worship.

Singing is among the few ways the entire church can worship together. Hebrews 2:12 declares that “in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” All the people joining together can mutually express praise, petition, or testimony as a unified body. How beautiful and strengthening it is when we as Christians can worship the Lord together and sing: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing”; or “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God”; or “We fall down, we lay our crowns at the feet of Jesus.”

Some Christian songs are clearly better suited for solos, small groups, or choirs than for congregational singing, but almost any praise song can certainly be appropriately used for worship. One characteristic of songs especially fitting for corporate worship is the use of the pronouns we, us, and our. “When We All Get to Heaven”; “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”; “We Have an Anchor”; and “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” are examples.

The central object of our worship is Christ, our Lord and Savior. There is, however, great value in personal expressions of worship—an individual, distinct, and unique expression of our love and praise to God. However, when too much of our hymnody focuses on I, me, and my, questions can be raised about the focus of a song’s text. Use of the third person pronoun allows for a personal expression for a unified body of believers who are participating together in worship.

5. Christians should sing to motivate the Body to commitment.

Music sometimes is intended to inspire Christian singers and listeners, motivating them to action or commitment. Examples of this kind of music are “Take My Life and Let It Be”; “The Potter’s Hand”; “Be Strong and Take Courage”; and “Win Them One by One.”

Music has an important function for Christians. Who can measure what is being accomplished through Christian music played in homes and on the radio? And how much shaping of character is being done while songs play themselves over and over through people’s minds as they drive to and from their jobs or go about their work? How many times does the Spirit of God encourage and strengthen Christians by bringing the words of a song to them during a crisis? The songs we sing and the music we listen to have a deep influence on our character.

I am a strong supporter of praise and worship music, but it seems that in many churches today, the entire repertoire of church singing is limited to praise and worship songs. This is a mistake. If the musical diet served up regularly to the congregation fails to include, in addition to praise, the important concerns of teaching, testimony, corporate unity, and motivation, then it is time for a careful assessment of church worship repertoire.

How should Christians sing?

In Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19,20, it is implied that our singing should involve using the deep down, inner self—the seat of our emotions. Christians should sing with all their heart, a heart filled with a thankful spirit.

How should we sing? Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (1 Corinthians 14:15, RSV). This verse is in the context of 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul is addressing the problem of unknown tongues, which are not understood. In this context, singing “with the Spirit” is singing in tongues. Singing with the mind or “the understanding” (KJV) is singing in the vernacular. How should we sing? With grace in our hearts, with the Spirit, and with the mind.

Finally, Christians should sing skillfully. This point seems most applicable to soloists or musicians with special responsibilities. Expertise comes only through planning and consistent practice. “Oh,” but you say, “the Bible doesn’t teach that.” I believe it does, not just by implication, but rather explicitly.

David became a virtuoso harpist and singer through hours of practice as a young shepherd boy. His success as a musician (singer, player, and composer) was primarily the result of his musical skill (and his contrite spirit before God).

The Old Testament describes well-organized and highly trained programs of music used for the Lord’s work. First Chronicles 25:5–7 describes the musicians as “trained and skilled in music for the Lord.” First Chronicles 15:22 tells us that the head Levite in charge of the singing was given that responsibility “because he was skillful at it.” In Psalm 33:3, simple and direct language promotes musicians who play skillfully.

The New Testament encourages excellence in music. That which lacks clarity, precision, and skill is referred to disparagingly. Paul writes about that in 1 Corinthians 14:7,8, in anticipation of his analogy of unintelligible words. God is pleased with music skillfully and artistically performed.

Does this mean that those who are not musically skilled should not worship? Not at all. We all have varying degrees of musical talent. The Lord is pleased with an attitude that desires to plan, prepare, and present the best to Him whether ministering the Word, singing, or giving a simple witness. The Bible makes it clear that everyone should be an active participant in worship (Psalm 100:1; 150:6). The Lord is more interested in the heart attitude than the art attitude.

What should Christians sing?

The texts and tunes of some songs are better than others. A common mistake people make in reference to church music is to judge it good if they find it enjoyable. If the tune is pleasant, it is easy to accept a superficial message without making a thoughtful evaluation. The best in church music is characterized not only by beauty, emotion, and originality, but by much more. It is a work of art and craftsmanship with an inspiring Christian message.

The text should be one of the major considerations in evaluating a Christian song. Evaluation is appropriately based on three criteria:

1. The message must be Christian and biblical. Fables or legends having no foundation in Scripture should be avoided.3 Christmas and Easter songs of a popular nature are often objectionable. The birth of Christ, and His death and resurrection are tremendous biblical events. Nothing is gained by associating them with fanciful tales of people, animals, or toys that proclaim religious messages or perform supernatural acts.

2. The thought must be expressed clearly and directly. The spiritual message should be obvious enough to be understood at first hearing and yet sufficiently profound for profitable reflection and meditation.

3. The language should be fresh, expressive, and eloquent. The ideal text makes a kind of music of its own. It is timeless without being archaic; it is relevant to the present generation; and it speaks for people at any level of society. A good text avoids excessive repetition, trivialities, and clichés.

Repetition within a poem or song can have significant value, not only for reinforcing a point but also for providing a mechanism for formal structure. Repetition can establish a theme, contribute to unity, and serve as the foundation for artistic form. The problem with repetition is that it can become too much of a good thing. Exaggerating the problem even further are songs with too much repetition repeated over and over. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus cautioned against using nonessential words when praying. Some popular worship songs unnecessarily repeat words and entire sentences multiple times. Songs excessively repeated are reminiscent of Hebrews 10:1, which teaches that “the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year” cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship.” Can something similar be said about the needless repetition of worship choruses? Songs that are repeated endlessly cannot perfect those who come to God in worship. We cannot drum up God’s presence through unnecessary repetition.

It can be somewhat difficult to weigh the relative values of song texts. An even greater challenge is to assess the quality of a text’s musical counterpart objectively and accurately. Music without words has abstract qualities, which make it far more subjective and less exact than its text. Yet, we must recognize that some songs are better musically than others—easier to sing, having melody, harmony, and rhythm that is fresh, appropriate to the mood and style of the text, and not replete with redundancies.

I do not suggest that good church music must be written by famous composers in recent times (or in ancient times), or in slow tempos. It is a mistake to stereotype music into such narrow categories. Inspiring, lasting church music can come from any country; it may be new or old, fast or slow. The important consideration is the song’s message and how that message is communicated by the music and understood by the listeners.

Some widely sung Christian songs never mention God or Jesus. Pronouns like he or you have no identifying antecedent. The words of the text sound like a secular, romantic song that could be sung to a lover. Christians sometimes enjoy these songs because they mentally interject thoughts of God (even though there is no explicit focus on God). We need to sing songs that have a clear Christian message—those that are Jesus-centered, salvation-centered, and Holy Spirit-centered.

The sacrifice of praise

The “sacrifice of praise” mentioned in Hebrews 13:15 is a phrase found in some contemporary songs such as “We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise.” Throughout the Bible we see that sacrifice, worship, and praise go together. These terms are often misunderstood or too narrowly defined.

A sacrifice is a personal offering to God that results in some cost, sometimes considerable cost. King David understood the importance of personal cost. When in repentance he prepared to build an altar and offer sacrifices to God, Araunah the Jebusite was willing to provide for his king all that was needed. He offered to give not only his threshing floor as a site for the sacrifice, but he also volunteered his own oxen, wood, and wheat for the grain offering (1 Chronicles 21:18–24). But King David replied, “No, I insist on paying the full price” (verse 24). Our sacrifice is not a sacrifice unless it costs us something. Our sacrifice of praise must be backed up by a sacrifice of Christlike living.

The Old Testament required animal sacrifices. But the new covenant supersedes and transcends the old. Under the new covenant, Christ, our high priest, “offered one sacrifice for sins for ever” (Hebrews 10:12). Today we have direct access to the throne of grace. Romans 12:1 urges believers to offer to God our bodies as “living sacrifices.” A sacrifice of praise is a living sacrifice, a life lived for Christ. The Lord is pleased when we surrender all to Him (Psalm 40:6–8; 50:9,13–15,23; 96:9; Philippians 4:18; Hebrews 13:16; 1 Peter 2:5; 4:8–10).

In both the Old and New Testaments, worship and praise are more than lip service; more than standing in a congregation with hands upraised and uttering words of exaltation. Psalm 9:1 associates praise with telling others about the marvelous things God does. God despised burnt offerings and sacrifices offered by the unfaithful. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). In Micah 6, the question is posed: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” The clear answer follows. More than the choicest of burnt offerings, the Lord desires that we “act justly . . . love mercy and . . . walk humbly” with God (Micah 6:6–8).

Isaiah 1:11-17 presents a convincing case for righteous living over rituals, ceremonies, or meaningless offerings. The Lord hates hypocrisy, shallowness, and disobedience. He says, “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (verses 16,17). Empty words or insincere rituals are repulsive are repulsive in the eyes of God. He speaks through the prophet Amos: “Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (5:22,23).

David understood that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). The sacrifice of praise passage in Hebrews 13 is immediately followed with “and do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (verse 16).

Singing and making music are indeed valid practices for all Christians everywhere. Certainly we should sing. There are reasons why we should sing, and the Bible provides direction as to why, how, and what we should sing. It is easy for us to offer God cheap worship—sacrifices that cost us nothing. Yet God wants our all. If we live in love and obedience to the Lord, our songs—the fruit of our lips—will be a pleasing sacrifice of praise.

Joseph Nicholson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, Evangel University, Springfield, Missouri.

* Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless noted.


Endnotes

  1. The November 12, 2000, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel contained an article by Dean Merrill entitled “Music Wars.” The writer draws an analogy between disagreements about music and guerrilla skirmishes.

  2. While it is not universally true, the general abandonment of the hymnbook and the current widespread practice of singing choruses only seems to have affected the choices of music for altar calls. Evangelistic meetings in decades past consistently employed invitation hymns: “Just as I Am, Without One Plea”; “Jesus, I Come”; “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling”; “There’s Room at the Cross for You”; “Look to the Lamb of God”; and others. Contemporary worship practice all too often uses music in a somewhat generic fashion with praise songs utilized throughout the service, whether or not the focus is on congregational worship, divine healing, or invitation (altar calls).

  3. One popular Christmas carol includes the line, “Man and beast before Him bow.” Others refer to animals speaking or performing supernatural feats in honor of the Christchild. Songs about Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, parades, or hats should not be considered Christian music.

 

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