Earlier this year, I preached a message on the purpose of church music. Right now, that is by far the most downloaded audio message on our Sermon Audio page. I thought I would turn it into two blog posts so that people can read these important truths, and not just hear them in a sermon. It is helpful to see truth written down, and it can be spread more easily than in an audio format. (The inspiration for this sermon was Chapter 3 of Scott Aniol’s helpful book Sound Worship.)
I was the music director at a church in Mississauga, Ontario, for a good number of years. I was able to lead singing many times, and from that position I could see the faces of the people singing in their pews – like I can here! Also, our choir sang a couple of songs in our church where the congregation got to join in on the last stanza, so I would turn around from directing the choir and face the congregation to help them sing. It was a powerful and emotional moment when we all got to sing the last stanza of “When I Survey” together! But I noticed something shocking when I turned around at that moment and we sang: there were people who didn’t sing at all! Did they not think they had good voices? Did they not have a heart to sing? Were they just unmoved by the powerful truths we were singing?
Let me ask you: Is that OK? Do you think that maybe people who are bad singers shouldn’t sing in church? Is singing – is you singing – in church optional? Should we leave the singing for those who have good voices? Your answer to that – and whether or not you sing in church – reveals what you think of the purpose of church music.
We need to find out what the Bible says about singing in worship. But what is worship? Worship, simply defined, is acknowledgement of the worth of God – His love, holiness, and majesty – offered up from the heart. Here is my definition of worship: “Worship is God’s people gathering to respond together to God in a way that pleases Him.” In short, we gather together to give glory to God.
And this worship, not merely service and activity, is central to our lives as God’s people. God gave detailed instructions to Old Testament Israel regarding the building of the tabernacle, the place of His dwelling and the centre of Israel’s corporate worship. He filled the Old Testament with accounts of Abraham, the nation of Israel, Joshua, Gideon and others, worshipping their Lord. He gave us an inspired hymnbook – the Psalms – to be used in praising Him together. He commanded Israel – and us – to worship God, and no other God (Ex. 34:14).
But we must not assume that just because we are Christians, our worship is automatically pleasing to God.
In John 4, the Lord Jesus graciously leads a sinful woman of Samaria to faith in Himself. During the conversation, the woman brings up the topic of worship. The Lord used this opportunity to teach her – and us – important truths about worship. According to John 4:24, there are two requirements for biblical worship.
John 4:21-24 says, “Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
In this blog post, I want you to understand the purpose of church music in worship. That is the first big idea about worship that we must understand. Next Thursday, I’ll share a second big idea about music in worship.
In John 4:24, the Lord Jesus teaches that there are two components of biblical worship. Let’s look at both of them.
The first is truth.
As Bible believers, we are very concerned about truth in our church services, are we not? And we should be! We must worship God according to truth, and as the Lord Jesus said, “thy word is truth.” Our preaching, our teaching, our doctrine must line up with God’s Word – and that includes the lyrics of our music!
Someone said that people don’t go home humming the message, but the songs; therefore, we must make sure they are humming sound doctrine!
But we must also be concerned about the second component of biblical worship.
The second is spirit.
This is the component that we’ll examine for the rest of this blog post. Let’s look together at six important truths about the spirit.
The spirit is the immaterial part of man.
The word “spirit” can refer to the Holy Spirit in our Bibles. It can also refer to the immaterial nature of man. You see, man is fundamentally a two-part being: the physical or material, and the spiritual or immaterial – our body, and our soul and spirit.
I think that “spirit” in John 4:24 likely refers to our spirit – the invisible, spiritual component of our beings.
But it is still true that our spirits must first be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before we can worship God; those who are lost are the enemies of God, and cannot understand the things of God, because they are discerned only through the indwelling Holy Spirit (I Cor. 2:14); in contrast, believers are the ones who “worship God in the spirit” (Phil. 3:1). Also, those who are saved are to have purified spirits; Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his second epistle to them, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (II Cor. 7:1).
Our spirits must be engaged in the worship of God.
But what does it mean to worship God “in spirit”? Well, as spirit is contrasted with body, this means that God wants us to engage the inward part of our nature in worshipping Him. The outward actions of kneeling, standing, sitting, or raising hands are not what constitutes true worship, although they can all be involved. After all, it is the heart that God is primarily concerned with. God told Israel in Joel 2:13, “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God.” The Lord Jesus quoted from the book of Isaiah, saying to the Jews, “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me,” and “in vain do they worship me” (Matt. 15:8, 9).
We engage our spirits in the worship of God through our affections.
So how do we engage our hearts in the worship of God? I believe that our hearts are primarily engaged in worship in the area of our affections. “Affections” are basically emotions, and emotion is the third of the three aspects of personality – intellect, will, and emotion.
I believe that our affections are more crucial to worship than our will and than our intellect. I’ll say that again: our affections are more crucial to worship than our will and than our intellect. This is because our affections lead our will, and our affections kindle our intellect. Our will doesn’t choose to do things for no reason; no, our will chooses to do what we desire to do. And our intellect doesn’t just think about anything under the sun; it tends to dwell on things we desire and enjoy. And both our wills and intellects are to be used in righteousness; but they cannot if our affections are wrong. There is the heart of our lives. Therefore, our affections are central to living righteously before God.
You see, in the Bible, “[w]e are commanded to feel, not just to think or decide. We are called to experience dozens of emotions, not just to perform acts of willpower” (Desiring God, by John Piper, loc. 5187). Our hearts – our affections – must be involved in our worship of God, not just our minds or our wills.
But more than mere “emotion” is involved in this. You see, it is possible to approach God with our intellect without truly worshipping Him; we can express theological truths with our mouths, while our hearts are far from him (Matt. 15:8). We can approach God with our will without truly worshipping God; we can use our will and choose to come to church and choose to sing hymns without having our hearts involved at all. And it is possible to approach God with wonderful emotions stirred up by powerful music and have our spiritual nature completely uninvolved.
Biblical affections are stirred up by truth.
This is where the word “spirit” in our text must refer not only to the human spirit but to the human spirit as united with God’s Spirit.
You see, there is such a thing as purely physical emotion. My wife and I were at my parents’ home for Thanksgiving dinner last year, and for year before that. Almost the whole family – brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, and nephews – gather together for Thanksgiving. I remember back when one of my nieces was 3 years old. I asked her at that Thanksgiving, “Are you ticklish?” and when she (of course) said, “No,” I began to tickle her. Then she squirmed and laughed! Laughter is an expression of emotion, but in this case, it is purely physical – there is nothing spiritual or even intellectual about it!
A couple of years ago I went for the umpteenth time to Canada’s Wonderland just north of Toronto. There I rode on several rollercoasters, including one called “Flight Deck.” This ride imitates the experience of flying a fighter jet, with the barrel rolls, sudden turns, amazing speed – overall an intense experience. While on that ride, my heart is pounding, and I am filled with exhilaration. An exhilarating thrill is an emotion, but again, it is purely physical – there is nothing intellectual and certainly nothing spiritual about it!
So the mere experience of emotion in worship is not what we are looking for. Look at John 4:24 again. We are to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” “Spirit” and “truth” go together. They cannot be separated.
Let me explain what I mean with a third example of emotion. I was a teenager, attending the evening service at my church. I was discouraged and downhearted because of some news I had gotten. It wasn’t earth-shattering news, but news that ruined my happiness that Sunday. One of the hymns the congregation sang was “It’s Just Like His Great Love.” I was at the organ that night, and as I started playing and the church started singing, the words of the first verse hit me like never before. “A friend I have called Jesus, whose love is strong and true, / And never fails, howe’er ‘tis tried, no matter what I do.” I suddenly realized that although I was discouraged, Jesus was truly my faithful friend, who loved me no matter what, who was in control. My heart was deeply moved with emotion, and my eyes filled with tears. That was an emotional moment – but one very different from being tickled or riding a roller coaster.
It was different because what stirred up my emotions was truth.
Biblical affections are commanded by God.
Now, is such an experience as this good? Should we seek to experience emotions in church? Yes, I believe we should. We should seek to experience biblical affections – not mere emotion – in church.
Psalm 100:1-2 says, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.”
Wow! We are commanded to sing with joy – an emotion! – and to serve God with gladness – an emotion! Therefore, biblical affections are commanded by God! If we are commanded to have these biblical affections, should we not seek them?
Now, how are we to experience these biblical affections? Through preaching and singing biblical truth – sound doctrine – about God!
When you think about it, truth about God should always have an emotional impact! His truth is gracious and awe-inspiring, and we should respond to truth about God with praise. Look at verses 4-5 of Psalm 100: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving,and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.”
Now, if we are to experience the biblical affections of thankfulness, joy, and gladness, we need to hear truth at church. We need preaching and hymns that express such truths as, “The Lord is good”; “His love lasts forever”; “His Word is true and faithful” – such truths should fill our hearts with joy!
But we need more than truth – we need music. I know that sounds shocking, but I will defend this statement from the Bible.
Biblical affections are stirred up by music.
You see, singing is not optional in church – it is commanded! You can have a good, biblical church that has no choir; you can have a wonderful church that has no soloists; but you cannot have a biblical church without congregational singing.
In Ephesians 5, Paul is writing to the Ephesian church, and he is pleading with them to live holy lives in this section of the epistle. He wrote in verses 17-20, “Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here, singing to God is seen as an essential part of the Christian life. But I haven’t yet proved to you that we need to sing in church. For that, let’s turn to the sister passage to Ephesians 5:19 in Colossians 3:16: “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.”
Here the direction of music is “one another.” Here is a clear Scriptural precept for congregational singing!
The importance of our affections in music is, I believe, one reason why God commands us to use music in church. Truth stirs up our affections, which are fed and expressed in music. Music is an emotional language, and is therefore a vehicle for our affections. We need music – congregational singing of doctrinally sound hymns – in our churches.
Here’s a summary of the first big idea I want you to understand: God wants us to worship Him with biblical affections that are stirred up by truth and music.
Tune in next Thursday for the second part of this message!