The Herald Weekly Vol XVI : 41


Life Worship and Direct Worship

There is a worship that involves the whole person, every minute of the day for his entire life – whatever he does, he is to glorify God. This can be termed as life worship. This is seen in many passages of the Bible – chiefly, 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” A person may do anything that is not sinful to the glory of God. He may eat, drink, watch TV, work, play sports, go to war, and listen to popular music to the glory of God.

But God also commands a worship that is specific – using words and songs to glorify him. This can be called direct worship. This is the worship given to God by his people in their public gathering. This kind of worship is governed by a principle called the Regulative Principle of Worship; that the Christian must worship God in Spirit and in Truth – and whatever is not commanded in worship is forbidden. God is to be worshiped with praises that please him and not with idols. Everything is to be authorized by the Scriptures.

A good example of this was the Puritans. They were well-known for their strictness in direct worship but lavish in their life. Their practice reflected their theology. They removed the paintings and the statues from churches, banned musical instruments, and only used the Psalms to worship. But the very same Puritans would place these works of art and musical instruments in their homes to enjoy. They believed that God created all life to be enjoyed to his glory. While they were austere and solemn in their worship – and they wore their formal black to worship – in life, they were trendy. In fact, they were criticized for wearing fashionable clothing. John Owen was well-known for his purple brocade outfits and tall powdered wigs. Our theology should affect our practice. They were very Biblical but contemporary.

Praise in Direct Worship

Why the Puritans removed musical instruments and sang only Psalms is not the purpose of our study. But they did so because of their convictions. They believed that God was to be worshiped not according to their preferences, but according to Scripture. There are Scriptural principles guiding us to worship God. We are to worship in Spirit and in Truth.

But because it is in truth, direct worship is verbal – the saints in heaven and the angels spoke and sang their worship. Hence, instrumental “worship” without words is not worship. We worship God through singing – but the songs used must be scriptural to glorify God and edify believers. The music used must also be fitting to worship God. Music used in the world for entertainment – and even listened to or played to the glory of God – may not be fitting for worship. In the Old Testament worship, the music that was used in life worship – like timbrels were not used in the temple – which had its own authorized instruments.

Direct worship is also congregational. The idea of having someone worship for you is unbiblical.

While the Old Testament formal worship of God had Levitical choirs, there is no longer a need for choirs today to worship on behalf of the people because all Christians are priests of God. If there are choirs, they serve a very different purpose today – to teach and exhort people the Word of God. They most certainly do not give an offering of praise to God. Because direct worship is so important to God, what we sing and how we sing in worship are important. The words matter, the music matters, and our participation matters.

The Words Matter

Colossians 3:16 speaks about worshiping God with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The church must sing the psalms. But the church should not only sing the Psalms. It must sing hymns that speak explicitly of Christ, which is what the church in heaven sings now (Revelation 5:9). Therefore, whatever songs then, of any age, which are faithful in doctrine, may be employed. Since the Psalter is God’s inspired hymnbook, all human composed hymns must meet certain standards.

Firstly, it ought to be Psalm-like – since we worship an intelligent God, who loves to hear his words sung to him, the words of our worship must be biblical and cerebral. Hymns should be doctrinally clear and not ambiguous. Secondly, they must be edifying. While praise is meant for God, it serves a second purpose of instruction (Col 3:16). The praises of God’s people are means by which God conforms us to his will. Thirdly, the hymns must be a balance of objectivity and subjectivity. Objective hymns focus on the truths of the Bible. Subjective hymns deal with how the worshiper feels. It is not only important to have doctrinally correct hymns, but hymns that deal with the whole breadth of human emotions. While churches are burdened to teach their people how to think biblically, few teach them how to feel biblically. Sadly much of the human emotions found in the hymns have been sanitized, and much that passes for subjectivity is sentimentality. The Psalms embrace the very emotions most hymns try to avoid.

It is without a doubt that many contemporary songs fail the test in their content, their theology, and their biblical objectivity and subjectivity. But so do many old hymns. A test of how biblical a song is, is not its age. Granted, there are many contemporary Christian praises which are terrible – but there are many which are far superior than some old hymns. Martin Luther wrote his hymns because the Old Catholic ones were in Latin – unbiblical and not understood by the people – so he wrote words and tunes that could be sung understandably.

The Music Matters

While we are told much about the words of worship, being the Psalms and scriptural hymns, we are not told much about what genre of music should be used. Admittedly there is no such thing as a sacred genre of music. If there were, God would have told us. Psalmists, hymnodists, and their musicians down the ages have always composed their songs to the genre of their times. While there has always been the intention to make their songs different than the music sung in the world, it was always of the same contemporary genre. We see this even in our own hymnals – hymns from the 18th century sound different from hymns of the 19th century. There was more syncopation and folksy rhythm in the revival hymns.

So new or contemporary is not bad. But even though the music may have been from the genres of the time, they were not exactly the same as the music of the world. They were modified. Martin Luther did use contemporary musical material for some of his hymns, but he would alter the rhythm, smoothing it out, making it more stately or noble. Similarly, the tunes that were used for Calvin’s Psalter, written by Louis Bourgeois, were so contemporary that Queen Elizabeth I derisively called them the Genevan “jigs.” But even though they were written in the contemporary genre, Calvin said, “Touching the melody, it has seemed best that it be moderated in the manner we have adopted to carry the weight and majesty appropriate to the subject, and even to be proper for singing in the Church.” So, the music used was contemporary, but modified. Why? Calvin said, “And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as Augustine says) and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.”

And this is what most hymn writers have done down the ages. They have used the contemporary genre, but modified it for the use of the church. This was because they believed that church music should be sacred. In life, you can listen to popular music to the glory of God; but church music should be different from the world. While a Christian may enjoy popular music, it probably isn’t the best music to be used in church. And while a Christian may love opera, it also isn’t the best music to be used in church. The purpose of church music is not to be beautiful – it is meant to support the words.

Old hymns and new hymns must always be evaluated by their theology, their message, their objectivity and subjectivity, and that the music employed – while contemporary in genre – should be distinct from that of the world. To the traditionalists – many old hymns fail the test and many new hymns pass with flying colors. To the reactionaries – many new hymns fail the test and many old hymns make the mark.

Therefore, a good way to regulate what the church sings is to get a good hymnal, preferably from a Reformed heritage – which has been edited by theologians for content. Therein, you find trusted and biblical hymns from ages past, and the incorporation of new theologically sound hymns, that have stood the test.

Our Participation Matters

Worship takes work and participation. No one understands the words of “Come Thou Fount” – like “here I raise mine Ebenezer” without understanding the Bible. That takes work. And no one can worship without putting in the heart. Spirit and Truth! Much of contemporary worship is meant to work up the heart alone and not the mind. While this is a sweeping statement, much evidence can be seen in the sentimental music and worship sessions in many Christian churches today. But it is not only contemporary. This is something very old. Speaking about the grand music of the cathedrals, Theodore Beza, said, “As far as the instruments are concerned, we do not condemn music…But we see, as has happened under the papacy, that the organ does not communicate, and all that is heard is how lovely the voices together, without any understanding, through which not the heart and spirit but only the ears are entertained…But what is played on the organ or sung with many voices the common people do not understand; rather, the spirit is centered only in the attractiveness of the song, which alone strikes the ear and entertains the same.”

And this is often the problem with contemporary music trends – which, actually, are not very contemporary after all, but medieval. But traditionalists forget that it happens also in traditional churches. While contemporary songs are eschewed, and hymns promoted; the songs the choirs sing can be so fantastical in their arrangement, that they may as well be sung in Latin! But church music should be simple because worship is simple. Terry Johnson has written, “Everything about our worship is to be simple. Nothing is to be clever. Nothing is to draw attention to the learning, the wisdom, the sophistication, the beauty, [or] the complexity of the medium.” Therefore, simple music, intelligent and biblical words, and heartfelt singing by all the people in the congregation done with preparation and understanding is pleasing to God.


In life, we can do all things to the glory of God. In church, we cannot. We can only do what God allows in worship – and that alone glorifies God. And this has nothing to do with traditional or contemporary. Whether or not a hymn is old or contemporary is not the litmus test. Whether the musical genre employed is old or new is not the point. Contemporary trends are not all that contemporary – and they can be good or bad. Blind traditionalism can also be bad for the church.

There are many questions that will remain unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered. One issue is that of association. Many contemporary songs – while biblical – may be written by unseparated Christians or charismatic Christians. Fundamentalists get all heated up when it comes to this. But at the same time, many hymns with Scriptural words have been written by people of questionable background. “Faith of Our Fathers” is sung often enough during Reformation Day, but it was written by an Anglican Priest who supported the Oxford Movement. To him, the “faith of our fathers” was the faith of his Catholic fathers! Many hymn tunes were also composed by profane persons – like Mozart. If we were to weed out every hymn with questionable association – then we would only sing the Psalms – because every hymn composer was a sinful human being. Consistency may be comfortable and easy – but the New Testament church is called to be mature and discerning.

So, enjoy music to the glory of God – whatever it is you like – provided it is not sinful – enjoy. Praise God with the psalms and hymns. Whether hymns are old or contemporary, be sure they are biblical. And while there is nothing wrong with the introduction of contemporary biblical hymns to the church, it should be done wisely and discreetly. But we remember one thing – on this side of eternity, there will be no perfection – even in our praises – because they come from sinful hearts. But God is pleased to accept what we bring to him, because of Christ.

Rev Mark Chan
Life B-P Church Weekly.

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