What Shall We Sing? (1)

If Christian worship is to be regulated by scripture, the word of God, then what we sing in public gatherings to worship must also be regulated by the word of God. Worship, of course, is the Christian life. The Reformers were very serious about worship, it’s elements. We in this generation have regressed. The Old Testament types and the New Testament realities are certainly distinct but they are unquestionably related. The regulative principle demands the content of worship. Only what has been commanded, appointed by God forbids all else. Being in the presence of the enthroned Christ regulates worship. It did for Moses when he saw him on Mount Sinai in the past and did for the apostle John when he beheld him who alone is worthy to receive worship (Revelation 4:1-11). And is he not the same Christ today, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). But we deem ourselves so self-important that we dare to worship him just as we please? Our preferences are not to be confused with his precepts. Does not modern worship reflect what must be the church’s saddest historical condition, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Anarchy, apostasy is seen in the world, and in the church, and highlighted emphatically in what is called worship today. Uniformity is gone. Folk experiment, what will work, what gets us more people, not what will please God. And they search in vain for theological justification for it, even redefining the principles that govern worship. Calvin said:

“I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless but also abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to his worship, if at variance with his command. The word is clear, “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (1Samuel 15:22). “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). Every addition to his word is a lie. Mere will worship (Colossians 2:23), is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.”

  1. The Squaring of Some Objections:

The first recorded inspired song we have in the Bible is found in Exodus (Exodus 15:21), and the last in Revelation (Revelation 15:3). Surely forging a link and revealing a vital role in the inspired song. Also, it is a known historical fact the renewal of the early church practice in singing inspired praise came about at the time of the Reformation. The question is has God given us a manual of praise? Of a certainty reform is necessary, no right-minded Christian could argue. By inspired, I mean, content, detail, truth, authority from the written word of God (2Timothy 3:16). So what are the objections?

Minority Opinion: Could the majority possibly be wrong? The majority in Israel wanted a king? They were wrong (1Samuel 8:1ff). The profit Jeremiah cut a lone figure and voice in Israel. He said they were for captivity, the majority said they were not. They were wrong. The majority in light of history have often been wrong. Again, Luther, one German monk against the entirety of then Christendom. He was right, they were wrong. And ever since Rome has waged war against us, when we, Protestants, being in the minority, tyrannising us because we sided not so much with Luther, but Scripture. That man is justified before God by faith, alone, apart from works (Romans 4:3). In a better time and day Psalm singing was the norm in the church. The majority’s praise in today’s modern worship is neither inspired nor is it congregational. It is generally material for one or more persons to sing to others, totally unsuitable for congregational singing. It is entertainment. We are there or supposed to be, to sing together, as one, to God.

Hymn Writers: Can they too be wrong? Many it is argued have produced that which is good and sound. The question is, where is the warrant for the use of such material in formal, public worship? It is argued that even the best fall short of divinely inspired material. Hymn singing, it blesses! What is blessing? Blessing is the favour of God. How can he favour that which he has not sanctioned? There were times in the church when only Psalms were sung, God’s people were blessed then. There are many and varied reasons for the lack of blessing. I would argue the primary one is lack of obedience, full-orbed obedience I mean. Where can the favour, blessing of the Lord rest where there is no holiness?

It’s Unimportant: A secondary issue. Worship surely amongst God’s redeemed is of great importance? In both its broadest and narrowest sense. What are the church’s priorities? 1. The worship of God. 2. The edification of the saints. 3. Mission. If the first is not right the others become ineffective. “And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (Revelation 14:6-7). So then, is the content of worship a matter of indifference? I speak as one who is a missionary, but the priority that attends mission in some quarters, over worship, is unwarranted. So too is praise that excludes the word of God.

Imprecatory Psalms: Is it wrong to sing Psalms that invoke the judgment of God? If so, then it is also wrong to read them. Is God unjust? What of the natural disasters that hit both Japan and Haiti a few years back? Are not these acts of divine judgment, and are they not taking place every day, to a lesser or greater degree. Does not the word of God constantly warn us of such, and command us to flee his righteous judgment into the arms of Jesus? But what of such items in the context of worship. Are not the items of praise to be chosen appropriately by the minister in accord with the word that is to be preached? But again it comes back to the question of the heart, and what songs meet with the Lord’s approval, have his sanction and seal? Again the regulative principle, what is commanded and what is not commanded, is forbidden. How many modern hymns and choruses praise God for his acts of judgment, his holy wrath?

New Testament Freedom: There is in the New Testament both continuity and discontinuity. But there are no grounds for unprescribed elements in worship. There is an upbraiding of the Jews for their vain worship, “But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), which had no warrant from God’s word. The elements of worship in the New Testament need divine sanction also, however, they must need be spiritual (John 4:24). But then that applied in the Old Testament too. In truth, in accordance with the truth that is, consistent with divine revelation. “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 1:21-25). There is no abrogation of the regulating principle to be found in the New Testament.

Answers Needed: 1. Where are the new songs New Testament? 2. If the Regulative Principle is in effect the second commandment, then does singing hymns break it? 3. Is obedience to the regulative principle just mere dogmatism, Phariseeism? 4. Was not inspired items recorded in the Old Testament just four certain events? 5. If something is not forbidden is there then no warrant for doing it? All good questions, but does not the sufficiency of Scripture answer them all?

  1. The Sufficiency of Scripture:

A commitment to a high view of Scripture, the Reformation’s attitude that is to God’s holy word is ever the need of the day. Or in the words of the Westminister divines: The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (The Westminster Confession of Faith 10:1). This, of course, includes the book of Psalms in which we have a divine warrant to sing, a sanction no other material has. That there is uninspired material that has and can be used for private, national, or temporary use, is granted, but this is not the issue here. In the Psalter, what we have are songs of praise supernaturally inspired and designed by God himself, for permanent use in all the churches, in all ages. Does not God require perfection (Deuteronomy 18:13). Well, what we have in the Psalter is not only perfection but sufficiency.

Divine Perfection: As with the moral law:
The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Therefore, there are no defects, no corrections, and no supplementation necessary. The Psalter bears the unique Hebrew title Sepher Tehillim” i.e. the book of praises, which declares it to be the divine intent that they should be used to sing his praises. Content, that is, designed by God himself. Praise material suitable and adequate for the church’s worship till the end of the age. It is intended that the Psalms be sung: Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works” (1Chronicles 16:9), and, “Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped” (2Chronicles 29:30). 

Entire Church: In all ages, beginning to end. As with the rest of holy scripture, the Psalter is not just for a former age.
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4). These inspired praises were meant for Christian believers. They were used exclusively by the Lord himself, and by his apostles. The Lord has provided everything necessary for his church, and requiring that we should sing his praises, he has furnished us with a book of praises to do so. And what he has provided is both suitable and complete, lacking nothing.

The Composer: The word of God, as with all else is mediated to us through Christ. It all comes from the fountain of God’s grace. “This word of God was not sent, nor delivered by the will of man, but that holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost, as the apostle Peter saith” (The Belgic Confession, Article Three). Neither are God’s children reborn by the will of man, but, “were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). God is very jealous, he will not have any aspect of his work attributed to us. It all stems from his sovereign, free, and particular grace. Both, his word, and our salvation. It is by Christ’s mediation the word of God, including the Psalms comes to us, and who also is the composer of them, it is his word, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). The words of Scripture are the words of Christ, one must never separate the words of scripture from the Christ of Scripture. It is for this reason that red-letter Bibles are nonsense because all the Bible’s words are Christ’s words. It is self-same attesting word speaking in and through all scripture, including the Psalter. He is even the precentor when we sing together in church, “saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Hebrews 2:12). So would the perfect Son of God sing anything that is that uninspired, imperfect, and furthermore, would he require us to do so? If union with Christ and communion with him is to hear him in worship, then we have in the divine Psalter exactly what is required. We have fellowship with our Lord. Why would we want to look elsewhere? It is enough.

Treasure Trove: Of Christ and his salvation: And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44); “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Romans 4:6-8). What need have we to compose any other? The early church sang nothing other, and this continued for many years after. If the singing of the Psalms is an ordinance of the Lord, his blessing and divine presence will attend our worship, “but thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Psalm 22:3). If we can expect God to be present with us, surely that is treasure enough in itself, but if he is not, what do we have but utter poverty. It is only in the Psalms that we are able to grasp the inmost thoughts of Christ.

New Songs: Eschatology is not just about the last, the final things like when the roll is called up yonder. We are living now in eschatological times, the last days stretching from the ascension of Christ to the end, to the final judgment. The Psalms are a great corrective to our thinking in this realm, they hold before us constantly as we read and sing them, what God has already done in history. What God is doing now in history, and what he will yet do, the greatest yet to be. He equips us for the present and the future, he encourages our expectations and longing for him as he admonishes us to sing a new song. Israel sang such in their Psalter. Just as we do to today in singing from God’s book of praises. Why? Because their hearts were full of new things, as are those of God’s people in the last days, as we walk with him in covenant faithfulness, in the way of repentance and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, we experience constant renewal and times of refreshing from his presence (Acts 3:19).

New Covenant: That the Psalms are seen as new songs is of much significance in the light of Christ’s redemptive work. The New Covenant or Testament church sings them as new because their hearts are full of new things. To sing a new song is not an invitation to craft new and uninspired material. The church in every age is to be encouraged with God’s doings and nowhere else are we reminded of them as in the Psalter. And as we are reminded of his deliverances of his people through the ages and promises deliverance for ourselves, the church is brought more and more to a fuller and firmer trust in her God, rather than in herself. And to see her destiny, her glory with Christ. “The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them (scriptures) at large” (The Belgic Confession). “The right worship of God is salvation’s purpose. Only by the right worship of God does the instituted church realise salvation’s purpose. Only in the way of the right worship of God does the believer enjoy his salvation and carry out the purpose of God in saving him, that is, salvation’s goal. What constitutes this right worship of God is fully revealed in scripture.” (D Engelsma). Furthermore, “The right worship of God is, first, the elements of the formal worship of God by the congregation on the Lord’s Day…Scripture governs the public worship of God by the instituted church. Not only may nothing be introduced into the worship of the church that conflicts with the biblical prescriptions for worship, for example, the lusty singing of lively Arminian hymns instead of the God-glorifying Psalms. But nothing may be added to the elements of worship by imaginative worship committees, for example, band concerts and choir performances.” (D Engelsma).

(James R Hamilton, March 2019)

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