Singing As A Means of Grace: Different Types of Songs

Music, Worship

3) We Need to Sing Different Types of Songs

Col.3:16 tells us we need to sing different types of songs – “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”.  Some people in history have tried to make very specific definitions of those three words – asserting that these were different divisions of the psalter.  There is very little historical evidence for that view.  I think he’s just saying – sing different kinds of songs.

Obviously, the Psalms were meant to be sung.  Jesus and the disciples, growing up in Jewish society, sang Psalms regularly as part of their worship.  We need to glean from and sing the Psalms.

But when Paul says, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing with grace in your hearts”, I believe that implies singing songs also in light of Christ and the grace revealed in the Gospel.  In fact, there are examples in the New Testament of verses with a metrical flavor that may have actually been early Christian hymns.  (Scholars point to 1 Tim.3:16, 1 Tim.6:15-16, 2 Tim.2:11-13, and Philippians 2:6-11 as the most likely.  But the list also may include Col.1:15-20, Titus 3:4-7, and Heb.1:3-4.  Certainly, there are examples in the book of Revelation.)  Also, there are clear examples in the early church of hymns based on the New Testament work of Christ.  The Christians were writing and singing new songs as part of their worship.

But “different types of songs” should also include the content of the songs, the mood and expression of the songs.  If we need to be taught the whole counsel of God in his Word, we need to sing the entire range of songs needed by God’s people.  So our repertoire needs to be more nuanced than some of the ‘happy-clappy’ songs that are sometimes the staple in churches today.  Dr. Carl Trueman wrote a (now famous) article several years ago entitled, “What Do Sad Christians Sing?” – pointing out that many popular Christians songs don’t express the kinds of lamentations you sometimes see in Scripture and that believers can certainly experience.  The Psalms are sometimes very raw and honest.  Believers need those types of songs, that express truths about our experience in this fallen world.

Sometimes this diversity is best reflected in the liturgy itself.  ‘Liturgy’ just means the order of your service.  Christian churches for centuries have often practiced a liturgy that follows a certain order of thought – such as: Adoration (beginning with praise to God), Confession (confession of sin, confession of need for God), Assurance (detailing the promises of the Gospel, objectively what God has done to forgive us of our sins), Commitment (exhortations to live lives pleasing to God).  This order can be reflected and practiced in the songs that are sung.  Another way of thinking about it is that Christian liturgy has often been a recapitulation of Biblical history: of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.  God created the world (we praise him), man fell (we confess our sins), Christ brought redemption (through the Gospel), and now we try to live our lives pleasing to him.  Our worship services, I believe, both in the readings and the songs we sing, should follow something of that order, as a re-expression of the Gospel every week – and expressing the diversity that Christians need.  We need to adore him, we need to confess our sins and weaknesses and griefs and sorrows, we need to assure ourselves of his love in Christ, and we need to compel ourselves to live for him.

The idea of “different types of songs” can also impact the style of songs.  Sometimes people struggle with the idea that style is attuned to cultural preferences and traditions that are not strictly Biblical.  But musicologists can demonstrate how musical style develops over regions and over time and can be compared to ‘different musical dialects’.  The music that was sung in the New Testament era and in the early church would have sounded very different and alien to our ears.  The music that has been sung by Christians over the centuries has been as diverse as the cultures that have been impacted by the Gospel.  It can be appropriate then to think about the musical ‘vernacular’ of our church and culture (as a ‘circumstance of worship’).  It can also be appropriate to express some musical diversity in our corporate singing, especially if our churches begin to reflect the ethnic diversity of the body of Christ, which we long to be expressed.

(By: Matt Foreman)

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