A Theology of Singing

Why do we sing in the church service? What do we sing? How do we sing? In this brief post, I’ll attempt to answer these questions as we consider a theology of singing. 

Why do we sing? 

In Psalm 139, David said, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:13-14).” Peter, writing to the churches in Asia Minor, said, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).” 

To sing is part of God’s design. We were created to sing. As the Gettys say, “we are a singing people because it is how God has created us. It’s what we do.” As Christians, we must understand that more than our vocal cords are utilized. In our singing, our hearts and minds are once again engaged in considering our Creator and His majesty, which should lead us to rejoice in His beauty and greatness. 

But not only are we created to sing; we are commanded to sing. Did you know that? Singing is a biblical command. In Psalm 149, the psalmist says, “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly (Ps. 149:1)!” In Psalm 100, we read, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth (Ps. 100:1)!” We may take this command and store it in our minds as a command to be obeyed individually. Still, the Bible tells us that we are not just to sing individually, but we are commanded to sing corporately

Did you catch what the psalmist said in Psalm 149? The writer said, “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly (v.1)!” The assembly of the godly refers to being in the company of other believers, primarily in the Lord’s Day worship (Sunday morning). The singing is not simply an aspect of the “worship service;” it’s a vital piece. 

We were created to sing, commanded to sing, and we should be compelled to sing. The Gettys write, “We are a singing people because the gospel of the Lord Jesus compels us to sing… saved people are singing people.” The Bible shows that our motivation to sing doesn’t come from our comfort levels, musical preferences, and voices; the gospel drives our motivation. Again, the Gettys are helpful. They say, “worship comes as a response to revelation… we sing because we are free.” 

Now, what about those who feel as if they can’t sing (or at the very least sing loudly) because their voice isn’t pleasing? I’m glad you asked. If you’ll allow my southern background to come out a little, I can’t carry a tune in a bushel basket. But that doesn’t stop me from singing. Why? Because God created me to sing, and He has given me, in His providence, everything I need to sing as well as He has designed me. God is concerned with whether we sing or not, but He doesn’t care how well we sing. 

What do we sing? 

To the Colossians, Paul writes, “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 (Col. 3:16, emphasis added).” In the Lord’s Day gathering, we are commanded to sing songs rooted in the truth of God’s Word. 

From what we read in the Colossians passage above, we see that the church should be singing Biblical truth. Therefore, singing is part of the ministry of God’s Word. As Matt Merker writes, “we should also sing hymns of heart-stirring beauty. Our singing should drive us to rejoice in the beauty of our God and Savior. 

Should we sing old songs or new songs? Can we sing contemporary or more traditional songs (hymns)? Bryan Chappell once wrote, “Only the most arrogant congregation would say that God has taught nothing to its forefathers from which it can learn. And only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”

Sadly, many churches have been and are divided on the issue of musical style. We may think of this as “worship wars.” However, I agree with what Pastor Mark Dever said when he said, “the kind of worship wars I want is older people in the church fighting for music that the younger people will like and younger people in the church fighting for hymns to be sung to encourage the saints as they go on in age.”

The musical style is important, but it’s not the leading principle. What is being sung is far more critical than how it’s sung. I believe Ligon Duncan once said that people are more likely to remember a song than a sermon. In our church, we want to sing songs that the feeble saint can recall as they labor on their sickbed. Truth matters. What we sing matters. 

Jesus said in John’s gospel that we are to worship in “spirit and in truth (John 4:24).” We’ll get to the spirit aspect in a moment, but let’s focus on the truth of our worship for now. John MacArthur once wrote, “true worship is a response of adoration and praise prompted by truth that God has revealed.” He says, “if we are to worship in truth and the Word of God is truth, we must worship out of an understanding of the Word of God.” Therefore, our songs must be grounded in biblical revelation, not emotionalism—theology matters. 

How do we Worship? 

Again, as Jesus said, we are to worship in spirit (John 4:24). What does this mean? The spirit here refers to the inner person. Thus, our worship should come from within. There is genuine worship, and there is false worship. Some may look righteous on the outside yet are spiritually separated from God on the inside. As Jesus said, “This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me (Mark 7:6).” 

The Puritan Stephen Charnock once wrote,

without the heart, it is no worship; it is a stage play; an acting a part without being that person really which is acted by us: a hypocrite, in the notion of the word, is a stage-player…. We may be truly said to worship God, though we [lack] perfection; but we cannot be said to worship him, if we [lack] sincerity. Our worship must be sincere. 

We are to sing with love in our hearts. The Apostle Paul writes,

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:18-20). 

God is the primary audience of our singing. However, we see from this verse that there is another audience in mind: one another (v.19). Singing is part of each person’s ministry to the whole body. Merker wrote, “when you join the church, you join the choir.” Our singing is edifying to our brothers and sisters. It’s encouraging when I hear a weary saint lifting her voice to our excellent and sovereign God. It’s encouraging to me when I hear the persecuted rejoicing in worship. It’s encouraging to me to listen to the battle-worn saint crying out to their redeemer. As I walk through the fiery trials of life, it’s encouraging to hear my brothers and sisters singing, as it reminds me that I’m not alone. 

Praise God for the blessing of worship. 

Soli Deo Gloria,

Josh Chambers

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