Friday, May 15, 2009

Spiritual Songs

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn*

“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, KJV)

Admittedly, the issue to be addressed is as “touchy” as it is “feely.”

Music is “feely” because people “feel” it. In his book Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain wrote of the ecstasy music generates. He states:

Ecstasy melts the boundaries of our being . . . engulfs us in feelings that are “oceanic.”

A defining trait of ecstasy is its immediacy . . . Ecstasy happens to our selves. It is a momentary transformation of the knower . . .

Music seems to be the most immediate of all the arts, and so the most ecstatic . . . Nonetheless, once we are engulfed in music, we must exert effort to resist its influence. It really is as if some “other” has entered not just our bodies, but our intentions, taking us over.[1]

Music is “touchy” because all of us have preferences. Some styles of music we like. Others, we dislike. So we associate with people who possess similar tastes. Over the last decades “worship wars” have erupted in local churches over the “touchy” tastes of music, whether they are traditional or contemporary. Congregations divide, even split over tastes. Seemingly, some Christians would rather fight than switch. So to avoid the strife, it’s common for local churches to offer both a contemporary and traditional service, the difference being the style of music that is offered. As one artist states that, “This force . . . is powerful stuff.”[2]

Romancing the Soul

In a recent internet article on music titled Secular or Sacred? John Johnson states that, “when it comes to music, it’s all spiritual.”[3] Then to buttress his statement, he observes,

Music falls into one of those mysterious in-between places—the kind the ancients believed was prone to magic. Like the mythological space between night and day, darkness and light, or the present and the future, music inhabits a place somewhere between our mind, emotions, and soul—and it colors all of them.[4]

While not using the word mystical, Johnson does describe music as mysterious, magical, and mythical. Yet in stating that music’s power is “beyond language and laws,” he implies it to be mystical.[5]

Mysterious, Magical, Mythical, and Mystical

Psychologist William James (1842-1910) pointed out that music is beyond language. Though mystics often employ self-contradicting phrases—like “shoreless lake,” “mute language,” “whispering silence,” and “dazzling obscurity”—to explain their unexplainable experiences, James noted that unlike conceptual speech, music is exempt from such contradictory phrases. Why is this so? Because, he believed music “is the element through which we are best spoken to by mystic truth.” Then he added, “Many mystical scriptures are indeed little more than musical compositions.”[6]

Music communicates, but its “language” is neither conceptual nor verbal, but experiential. As one bumper sticker put it, “When words fail, music speaks.” As a child, Johnson related, “Before I could articulate my thoughts through speech, I could express my heart through song.”[7] So he wisely concludes, “Music’s power comes from its inherently spiritual nature, and when you find a tool that powerful, you should be careful how you use it.”[8] So how in Christian worship should this powerful tool be employed? Does the Bible have anything to say about music’s role in church worship?

In the Old Testament, as evidenced in the book of Psalms, music plays a prominent role in the life and worship of Israel. In the New Testament believers are enjoined to teach and admonish one another in “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). In Paul’s letters, some observations about music are necessary.

Tests for Tunes

First, music is about “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord (Emphasis Mine, Ephesians 5:19b). Again, we are to sing “with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God(Emphasis Mine, Colossians 3:16b). Music is not for our entertainment. But Rick Muchow confessed of Saddleback’s services, “At Saddleback our decibel level ranges from 98 to 108 decibels (every three decibels doubles the volume level). Saddleback seekers don’t just want to hear the music—they want to feel the music.”[9] This statement reveals the purpose of the music. They want to feel it. The decibel level is about the music’s sensory impact upon the listeners, an intent that is obviously man, not God-centered. It’s about them, not Him. But worship music shouldn’t be for our pleasure, but for God’s glory, and for this purpose any ole music will not do, for as the prophet told Israel, “Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols” (Amos 5:23). So what kind of music pleases Him?

This brings us to a second observation. Since God is a spirit, “spiritual songs” are those which please Him. Worship should be conducted using “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs(Emphasis Mine, Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). We note Paul’s use of the adjective “spiritual.” That he uses the qualifier indicates that all songs are not spiritual. So what makes songs “spiritual”?

Spiritual Songs

Vine states that, “‘spiritual songs’ are songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit.”[10] At the beginning of his thoughtful and stimulating writing on music, Johnson states, “We should stop trying to define a dividing line, because when it comes to music, it’s all spiritual.”[11] In deference to Johnson, and as evident from Paul’s use of the qualifier “spiritual,” we are forced to conclude that not all songs are spiritual. They may be mysterious, magical, mythical, and even mystical, but that does not qualify them as spiritual. Spiritual songs are those which first glorify Christ and then promote unity in the local Body of Christ.

Christ Songs

Third, “spiritual songs” are about Christ. Of the Spirit, Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me . . .” (John 15:26). Music that is truly of the Spirit will be Christocentric. If songs do not draw attention to the Lord Jesus Christ, but primarily to the sound or feel of them, or perhaps to the performing artist, then it must be questioned whether they are spiritual. Authentic spiritual songs are to be about Him, and not for us. Yet about much contemporary music Professor Michael Hamilton notes, “One cannot sing praise songs without noticing how first person pronouns tend to eclipse every other subject.”[12] But in the praise songs of heaven, the first person will not be the pronoun of choice (See Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:9; 15:3-4.).

Fourth, spiritual songs are sourced in “the word of Christ” that abundantly indwells God’s children. Spiritual songs spring forth from the heart as they testify and extol the person and work of Jesus. He is to be the object of our praise.[13] Like the twenty-four elders, authentic worship extols in song the worth of the Lamb (Revelation 5:9). If worship music is not Christ centered, then however else one might classify it, the songs are not spiritual (i.e., of the Spirit), for the Spirit’s ministry is, like the Scriptures which He inspired, to bear witness to Christ (John 5:39; 2 Peter 1:21). Of the hymns quoted in the New Testament, one scholar noted that, “these hymns have a common pattern of thought . . . They are related to the person and mission of Christ Jesus.”[14]

Good worship music, lyrics, and singing proclaim truth about God and His Christ. Jesus’ Person and Work are to be both the subject and object of the church’s praise. In addition to the Old Testament Psalms, the New Testament contains, alludes to, and quotes from several apostolic era hymns.[15] For example, it is thought by scholars that the Kenosis passage of Philippians 2:5-11 was excerpted from an ancient hymn. Paul’s poetic lines in 1 Timothy chapter three, and verse sixteen, are thought to have been part of an ancient hymn.[16] Other Scripture passages quoted in the New Testament evidence that they were probably ancient Christian hymns (John 1:1-14; Ephesians 5:14; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Peter 1:18-24; 2:21-25; 3:18-22; Revelation 5:9 ff., 12; 12:10-12; 19:1ff.).[18] These hymns exhibit profound Christological content that the Holy Spirit, whose ministry is to bear witness to Christ, led the apostles to quote and include in the New Testament (See John 14:26; 15:26-27.). Spiritual songs are “teaching” songs! (Colossians 3:16, Greek, didaskō)

If “word of [about] Christ” dwells in us, then such indwelling will be manifested by our singing songs that will, as the Spirit bears witness, extol the worth and work of Jesus Christ. On this basis alone, much of contemporary music may not be categorized as spiritual, as prompted by the Holy Spirit. Johnson admits to this when he speaks of the “mind-numbing drivel” sung by “well-known Christian artists.”[19] He confessed that, “After more than twenty years in the Christian music world, I have seen more than my fair share of sub-standard, untruthful, disingenuous, and manipulative propaganda peddled under the label ‘Christian’.”[20] This brings us to a fifth test.

Unity of the Spirit

Corollary to the witness that church music ought to bear to Jesus Christ, “spiritual songs” should also, in concert with the Spirit’s work, facilitate the development of congregational unity. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that, “There is one body, and one Spirit . . .” Therefore, that church was to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:4, 3). Note the unity of the Spirit. Jesus prayed that all true believers would be one (John 17:20-23). Spiritual songs contribute to the unity of the local body as its members, employ them to teach and admonish one another in the faith.

One Another

Therefore, the Apostle Paul wrote that Spirit-filled believers were to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). In another letter he wrote that the Colossians were to teach and admonish “one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 5:16).[21] We cannot help but note the “one-anothering” facilitated in the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Divisive music violates the intent of it; that is to glorify God and promote unity in the church. Music that does not promote “one-anothering” is not spiritual. Selfish songs which promote discord in the congregation are not spiritual.

In the biblical understanding, regardless of whatever else can be said about them, songs that do not testify of Jesus Christ and promote unity amongst believers are not spiritual per se. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding (Greek, nous, or “mind”) also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). Godly singing is not to be something mysterious, magical, mythical, even mystical, but is mental. Assuming a distinction between the right brain (feely) and the left brain (thinky)—personally, I believe the two brain theory is hocus pocus—then good worship music that contains lyrics that are thoroughly about the person and work of Christ, will provide an exhilarating corporate worship experience that is all about Him, and not about us.


Admittedly, for all of us the subject of music is a “touchy-touchy-feely-feely” one. The controversy over church music is not new, and has in another time and place involved the appropriateness of using organs and pianos in worship. Personally, I have attended church services where they only sang a cappella from the Hebrew Psalter. But Paul instructed, we are to “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). In addition to the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are appropriate for corporate worship.

But absent the word of Christ in it, music without a message is not worship. Such music will neither teach nor admonish others in the faith. It may be entertainment. It may provide emotional catharsis, but in so doing the songs become me-centered and in such a centering, are therefore carnal, and not spiritual. Confessing the dividedness residing in his heart over music, Augustine offered his personal testimony that might help all of us discern which music is consistent with the indwelling word of Christ:

However, when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of thy Church at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved, not by the singing but by what is sung . . . I then come to acknowledge the great utility of this custom. . . . Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. [22]

Worship songs that teach and admonish must do so with lyrics containing “the word of Christ” which glorifies the Lord and promotes “one-anothering” in the local body of Christ. Absent their conveyance logos truth, reasonably discerned as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, the only basis of appeal of the music is in the mystical realm.

1. Robert Jourdain, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy (New York: Avon Books, 1997) 327-328.
2. John J. Johnson, “Secular or Sacred?”, May 5, 2009 ( I found Johnson’s article stimulating to my thinking about church music. I want to thank Renee Dixon for drawing my attention to it.
3. See my article "Everything Is Not Spiritual," posted on Emergent Rob Bell states that, “In the Hebrew language there is no word for ‘spiritual.’ If you would have said to Jesus, ‘How’s your spiritual life?’ he would have said, ‘What? What do you mean?’ because to label one area ‘spiritual’ is to label areas ‘not spiritual.’ It’s absolutely foreign to the world of the Scriptures. It’s absolutely foreign to the worldview of Jesus. The assumption is that you are a fusion of the two realms. . . . Everything we do we do as an integrated being. One-hundred percent physical, one-hundred percent spiritual.” To proof text his everything-is-spiritual paradigm, Bell then quotes Colossians 3:17 where Paul states, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus . . .” (See “Rob Bell: Everything is Spiritual,” YouTube,
Of course, Bell’s sweeping generalization is not true. Everything is not spiritual for natural persons because the “things of the Spirit of God . . . are foolishness unto him” (1 Corinthians 2:14, KJV). Then too, Paul states that “the carnal mind is enmity against God” (Romans 8:7). Pan-everything-is-spiritual is not the Scriptural/spiritual worldview.
4. Johnson, “Secular.”
5. Ibid.
6. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902) 420-421.
7. Johnson, “Secular.”
8. Ibid.
9. Rick Muchow,, “Seeker-sensitive worship does not mean shallow.” See www.
10. W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, “Spiritual,” An Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984) 1078.
11. Johnson, “Secular”
12 Michael S. Hamilton, “The Triumph of the Praise Songs,” Christianity Today, July 12, 1999, 34.
13. Though the genitive “of Christ” may be subjective indicating that Christ is the speaker when His word is proclaimed or sung, the better option understands the genitive to be objective; that is, the message contained in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” ought to be centered on Christ. See Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon (Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 1982) 206.
From the early centuries, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), and Nuc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32) have been used by the church in praise worship. These words uttered by Mary the mother of Jesus, Zacharias the father of John the Baptist, and Simeon evidence godly Christ-centricity as they exalt the Lord.
14. See Ralph P. Martin, Worship In the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964) 52.
15. Ibid. 39-52.
16. See Ralph P. Martin, A Hymn of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997).
17. Mounce calls verse 16 “the fragment of a Christological hymn.” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000) 215.
18. Martin, Worship, 50-51.
19. Johnson, “Secular.”
20. Ibid.
21. Regarding Paul’s threefold classification, Bruce comments: “It is unlikely that any sharply demarcated division is intended, although ‘psalms’ might be drawn from the OT Psalter (which has supplied a chief vehicle for Christian praise from primitive times), the ‘hymns’ might be Christian canticles (some of which are reproduced, in whole or in part, in the NT text), and ‘spiritual songs’ might be unpremeditated words sung ‘in the Spirit’ . . .” See F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984) 158-159.
If spontaneous, “spiritual songs” will vindicate their origin as truly being of the Spirit for reason that they will exalt Christ’s Person and Work. All singing is to be conducted with a thankful, not a selfish heart. Hymns are to be about Him, not about us!
22. Augustine, “Confessions,” The Library of Christian Classics, Volume VII, Albert C. Outler, Translator and Editor (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955) Book 10, Chapter XXXIII, 50.

*Pastor Larry DeBruyn will be posting regular commentary on the Slice of Laodicea blog in the coming months.