Does it matter what we sing? Many today seem to answer this question with a nonchalant “not very much.” In too many churches, congregational singing is seen as little more than a preliminary to the sermon.
Carelessness in Songs
At best, music is considered valuable for setting an appropriate mood for the sermon. At worst, music is a divisive force, as churches divide into opposing camps in today’s “worship wars.”
We show that our songs do not matter when we preach carefully studied sermons – but choose our songs at random. Churches that would never tolerate a pastor who chose his sermon texts on the way to the platform accept a song leader who chooses the songs on the way to the platform.
We show that our songs do not matter when we preach doctrinally sound sermons, but sing songs that do not teach the theology we preach. Churches that would never tolerate false doctrine from a preacher sometimes accept careless doctrine in songs because “we like the tune” or because our favorite gospel group sings the song. In too many churches, the strong meat of the Word is accompanied by the junk food of shallow songs.
Churches that would never tolerate false doctrine from a preacher sometimes accept careless doctrine in songs.
Scripture and Tradition
Does it matter what we sing? Scripture says “Yes.” From Moses’ “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15 to David’s heartfelt Psalms, from Mary’s worshipful “Magnificat” to the great Hallelujah Chorus of Revelation 19, song played a central role in biblical worship. Ephesians 5:19 suggests a relationship between our music and our spiritual condition. Paul shows that one result of being filled with the Spirit is that we will sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Does it matter what we sing? Scripture shouts, “Yes!”
Does it matter what we sing? Church History says “Yes.” In the fourth century, Bishop Ambrose wrote hymns to combat the Arian heresy. Ambrose knew that people remember what they sing better than what they hear preached – so he put his sermons into song. As the people of Milan began to sing Trinitarian hymns, Arius protested that Ambrose was “bewitching the people with his hymns.” When the dust of the conflict had settled, orthodoxy had prevailed – and the hymns of Ambrose had been a valuable weapon in the battle.
The Reformers understood that it matters what we sing. Luther knew that songs make “doctrine palatable” to the worshipper, so he accompanied biblical preaching with biblical hymnody. A Jesuit complained that Luther did more “damage” with his songs than with his sermons.
Certainly, the Wesleys believed that it matters what we sing. Franz Hildebrandt wrote that “it is highly doubtful whether without the Hymns there could have been a Methodist revival.” While this may be an exaggeration, there is little doubt that the hymns of Charles Wesley were as important as the sermons of John Wesley in guiding early Methodists.
The impact of the Wesley hymns extended far beyond the Methodist church itself. Calvinists who rejected the message of the unlimited atonement sang Wesley’s invitation hymn:
COME, sinners, to the gospel feast,
Let every soul be Jesu’s guest;
Ye need not one be left behind,
For God hath bidden all mankind.
How could anyone sing this great hymn of free salvation and continue to believe that God condemned many to reprobation before the foundations of the earth? As they sang Wesley’s hymn, many laymen who had been influenced by Calvinism realized that indeed, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The hymns of Charles Wesley were as important as the sermons of John Wesley in guiding early Methodists.
Anglicans who denied the Witness of the Spirit as the common privilege of the believer sang Wesley’s testimony hymn:
How can a sinner know
His sins on earth forgiven?
How can my gracious Saviour show
My name inscribed in heaven?
What we have felt and seen,
With confidence we tell;
And publish to the sons of men
The signs infallible.
As they sang this hymn of assurance, many who struggled with doubts and fears came to know their “sins on earth forgiven.” And England was swept by revival.
Believers who doubted the possibility of a pure heart sang Wesley’s great hymn on Christian perfection:
O FOR a heart to praise my God,
A heart from sin set free!
A heart that always feels thy blood
So freely spilt for me!
As they sang this description of sanctified heart (“A heart from sin set free”; “A heart resigned, submissive, meek”; and “A humble, lowly, contrite heart”), unsanctified believers joined in Wesley’s prayer:
A heart in every thought renewed,
And full of love divine;
Perfect, and right, and pure, and good,
A copy, Lord, of thine!
Who could doubt that this was God’s will for every believer? Many who would never read John Wesley’s treatises on Christian Perfection experienced the reality of heart purity as God spoke through a hymn.
Does it matter what we sing? Church history, from Ambrose to Wesley, shouts, “Yes!” What we sing will affect, sometimes decisively, what we believe.
Choosing Songs Today
Does it matter what we sing? The church of today must say, “Yes.”
Our hymns matter to our doctrine. What we sing affects what we believe.
The impact of Wesleyan hymns on believers in other denominations is a great testimony to the power of song. It is also a great warning, because many churches today are singing songs that deny the possibility of consistent victory over willful sin. If our doctrine spread to other denominations via 18th and 19th century hymns, how can we be so confident that their doctrine will not influence our young people via 21st century praise songs?
I am not condemning the use of new songs. Instead, I am arguing that we must create these songs from within our own doctrinal tradition. Keith Drury observed that whereas the music of past generations came from the holiness movement, “the music now influencing the theology and experience of our people comes from another movement, the charismatic movement.” This must not be! If we hope to pass our doctrine to the next generation, we must preach our message not only in sermon, but in song. Whether it is new holiness songs written by gifted songwriters from our movement or the great hymns of our tradition, we must sing the doctrines that we seek to maintain: genuine conversion, the witness of the Spirit, and heart holiness.
We must sing the doctrines that we seek to maintain: genuine conversion, the witness of the Spirit, and heart holiness.
Our hymns matter to our experience. Our songs will reflect our experience. One writer explained the absence of Wesley’s hymns in 20th century Methodist churches: the “lowering of the spiritual temperature made it difficult to sing Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns without either hypocrisy or at least a faintly uneasy self-consciousness.”
We are uncomfortable singing hymns that do not match our experience. Revival songs do not suit a church that has forgotten the reality of revival. Holiness hymns are uncomfortable for a church that no longer can testify to the reality of entire sanctification. Songs of victory over sin feel false to a person who repeatedly yields to temptation.
Our hymns matter to our heritage. Our young people have not heard the great evangelists that sparked the holiness revivals; many of the great books that spread the holiness message now lie unused on dusty shelves. But the songs are still there as a testimony to the heritage we count precious.
If we hope to pass on that heritage, we must sing the songs that inspired the holiness revivals. Yes, there will be new songs; there must be new songs. But these songs must build on the heritage we have received. These will be songs that proclaim the doctrines that our Methodist forefathers preached. These will be songs that testify to the reality of God’s saving, sanctifying, and preserving work in the hearts of His children.
Does it matter what we sing? Absolutely! We must cherish songs that reflect the doctrine we believe, the experience to which we testify, and the heritage we have received.