The Relationship Between Sung Worship And God-Breathed Scripture
A working definition of “worship”
“Worship” can be defined loosely as “bowing down before”, “showing respect to”, “holding as worthy”. It’s to hold something above oneself, and to be devoted to that thing.
The role of sung worship
Whilst it would be reductive to exclusively equate singing and worship (as if singing in church were the “worship part” of our lives and everything else were somehow “not worship!”), corporate sung worship is undoubtedly central to our worship of our creator. The key text I want to explore is:
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. - Colossians 3:16.
In this passage, Paul, the inspired Apostle, holds together the singing of spiritual songs with “teaching and admonishing”. We can conclude from this that WHAT we sing is important; the rich indwelling of the Word of Christ should animate sung worship. Put another way, the songs we sing are part of the church’s corporate teaching function. We should not divorce the teaching and worship ministries; they are inseparable.
Truth must be grounded solidly in God’s eternal Word, which Peter quotes from Isaiah 40 to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“All flesh is like grass, and all its glory like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was proclaimed to you. (1 Peter 1:24-25)
The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Apostle Paul, tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; also Acts 4:25 for a similar concept). We can see a connection to Colossians 3:16 here - the Word of Christ/God, teaching and rebuking/admonishing are all mentioned in both passages. Scripture and sung worship seem therefore to be connected intimately in Paul’s teaching.
It follows from this connection between scripture and sung worship that to be authentically “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” we can sing songs drawn from scripture. One refrain that is frequently sung in the church I attend is “Holy, Holy, Holy are you God” and variations upon that. This refrain has Scriptural origins in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.
This is a wonderful form of worship - as in, it’s very “correct” I suppose! It’s taking God’s inspired, inerrant Word, and declaring it not only to Him in worship, but also to one another in teaching. So, we could say that the primary function of worship is recognising God’s worth ourselves, and the secondary form is to encourage others to see God more accurately (teaching/rebuking/admonishing/correcting). For example, “Lifting Jesus high”, as many songs sing, is not something we are doing per se - God cannot get any more God! - rather, it is something we are recognising. We don’t make Him Lord, we recognise who He is as God in the flesh.
With this in mind, we can dig in to 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, where Paul says:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgement by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
In the sense of “prophecy” as “forth-telling”, as in, speaking accurately the Oracles of God, any accurate proclamation of the Gospel is inherently prophetic. Therefore, accurately singing God-breathed truth seems to me to be prophetic in nature. Peter’s proclamation of the Gospel in Acts caused its hearers to be “cut to the heart” - that is, to come under the Holy Spirit’s conviction about the truth. (see Acts 2:36-38).
The Whole Counsel of God
Paul exhorts us to sing the Psalms in both Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Alongside as engaging the full spectrum of human emotion, the Psalmists very frequently structures psalms around what God has done. This includes God’s saving AND judging acts. To pick one example amongst many, Psalm 105 reminds its hearers of “the covenant (God) made with Abraham, the oath He swore to Isaac”. The Psalmist recounts the tale of famine, capitivity and exodus, ending with “Praise the Lord!” in verse 45. Elsewhere in the Psalms, God’s righteous wrath against sin and resulting action in judgement is celebrated.
Placing this framing of God’s historical actions alongside our singing about His character, we form a more well-rounded vision of the God we are worshipping. We should seek to worship God as He is, in as much fullness as we possibly can, encompassing both His speech/actions and character. In worship, we can and should engage with those attributes of God our particular cultures find uncomfortable. Over time, we come to be worshipping God Himself more than any cartoonish projection of Him that we may start out with!
The Holy Spirit’s ministry related to prophetic singing
In John chapter 16, Jesus describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit with these words:
But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.
Note that according to Jesus, the Holy Spirit’s emphasis is on 3 things: sin, righteousness and judgement (commonly known as the threefold ministry of the Holy Spirit). This seems to me to correspond to the passage above from 1 Corinthians, “if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgement by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!””. Note how this is a perfect corollorary to how Jesus describes the operation of the Holy Spirit: conviction of one’s own sinfulness, awareness of judgement to come, and conviction of God’s righteousness.
Therefore, if we are accurately congregationally singing God’s perfect truth - the Gospel - in our sung worship, then the following can happen:
- We are open to being sanctified by the Holy Spirit as we proclaim truth, deepen our understanding of it, and engage with it emotionally
- We proclaim Spirit-breathed words around our brothers and sisters in Christ, therefore edifying them prophetically
- The Gospel is proclaimed and unbelievers may be brought to repentance
- We honour God by humbling ourselves and declaring the truth of His Word
Manipulation or submission?
We cannot force the Holy Spirit’s hand in any of these matters; instead we should be obedient to what He has revealed through the Scriptures, and humbly rest on the promises of God - what God explicitly promises to do in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is not our genie at our beck and call, but God Himself, and His aforementioned threefold ministry is a serious thing; sin, righteousness and judgement are weighty topics that we must handle with great care and humility. We should never be found attempting to manipulate the Holy Spirit; rather, we should submit to Him as He points to Jesus, who said of the Spirit “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” Through the dear Holy Spirit we hear the voice of our beautiful Shepherd, and we gain a clearer sight of Him who is our great Captain.
As Peter reminds us, _”Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,” 1 Peter 5:6_. How can we humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God without listening to what He has spoken in scripture? Dare we set aside the scripture when Jesus Himself said “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (Luke 11:28)? The One who resisted Satan by saying “It is written” (Luke 4)? Therefore, what better way to submit to the Holy Spirit than to avail ourselves of what He has spoken in Holy Scripture!
Worship should undoubtedly be joyful; “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.“ - notice the “thankfulness in your hearts to God”. But the foundation of that joy should be what God has done and who God is, not only a purely emotive experience barely distinguishable from watching a movie or attending a concert. A.W. Tozer wrote, somewhat arrestingly: “Some who can get all worked up over a song imagine that this is the Spirit, but this does not necessarily follow.”.
One troubling passage in Matthew 7 sees Jesus warning us with some absolutely spine-chilling words:
Not everyone who psays to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
This warning seems targeted at charismatics! Look what the damned souls say to Jesus:
- We did mighty works
- We prophesied
- We cast out demons
The damned point to what they see as their SPIRITUAL accomplishments. I am a charismatic myself, so I feel shaken every time I meditate upon this passage, but then I remember the beautiful words that follow:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
Instead of “then”, the NIV has the somewhat more obvious “THEREFORE”. Jesus seems to be saying something like “look, the people that REALLY know me, those that are truly elect, are going to put into practise my teaching, they are going to hold my Word as the plumbline of their entire lives”. Contrast this with Luke’s telling of this story, where an exasperated Jesus says “why do you call me Lord, Lord, yet do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). That THEN/THEREFORE carries a LOT of water! So, it seems that the people that treasure up Christ’s words are the true believers. Note that Paul said the “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” in our key text in Colossians - the call to worship is also call to hear and obey Christ’s Word. To fail to let Christ’s Word dwell within us is to negate our worship. That’s scary, and it SHOULD be.
Against dead orthodoxy
Of course, having the correct outward form and all our doctrine in our sung worship nailed on does not ensure our worship is pleasing to God. Jesus quotes scripture, saying:
“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8)
So, to truly make something worship, we should put our hearts into it, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit and reliant upon Him.
It’s not that great doctrine ensures by itself pleasing worship to Father - rather, the ABSENCE of correct doctrine means the worship is unlikely to be pleasing to God. We should not be smug about having great doctrine, nor sneering about those who operate on a simple level. Instead, we should be keenly studying God’s Word to “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:10).
Congregational singing is an amazing opportunity to submit ourselves to God, to build up one another in our most Holy faith, and to proclaim the Gospel. We may be confident we are in the truth by rightly singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” which I take to mean songs that are bathed in Holy Spirit truth. As all Scripture is God-breathed, we should mine the immeasurable, inexhaustible treasures of scripture, honouring God by proclaiming His Word, and putting our full hearts and minds into it. When we do this, we are in a proper position of submission before God, and the Holy Spirit may graciously work to bring conviction of sin and judgement, and to turn hearts towards righteousness.
Many thanks to Dr Rob Knowles for reviewing a first draft of this article!
I’m not a professional theologian, nor have I undergone formal theological training. I encourage the reader to “test all things, and hold on to the good” and there’s one sure, inerrant plumb line we can use to do that - God’s word! I encourage you to search the Scriptures for yourself to see if what I say is true.