The Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs with Grace in the Heart

opcgasing.jpgThe Elements of Public Worship Part V

The Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs with Grace in the Heart

Part 1 of 2

“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.” (Col. 3:16)

The singing of praise unto the Lord is a vitally important element in the scriptural worship of God. Throughout the Bible we read that the people of God throughout the ages have responded to his self-revelation and mighty acts of redemption on their behalf with an outpouring of songs of praise. For instance, after the parting of the Red Sea when the people of God where miraculously delivered from danger and the armies of Pharaoh destroyed, we read that Moses and the sons of Israel sang a song of praise to the Lord celebrating his mercy and their deliverance (Exodus 15:1).

The Book of Psalms, which contains songs, meditations, and prayers, is a wonderful source of divinely inspired hymns of praise. It has provided the church in all the ages with a rich compendium of theologically impeccable and spiritually edifying songs for use in its worship.

During the Reformation, the importance of the singing of Psalms (1 Chron. 16:9) was rediscovered by the church, and in the 17th century the singing of Psalms exclusively rather than uninspired hymns or spiritual songs, became the practice of Presbyterians. The belief that the church may only sing Psalms in worship is reflected in the Westminster Standards, which only acknowledge Psalms and not uninspired hymns as a legitimate element of Christian worship. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries this practice began to change, and today most Presbyterians also sing hymns and spiritual songs. In chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession the divines listed amongst the elements of acceptable worship: “singing of psalms with grace in the heart” however, what scripture commands us to sing with grace in the heart are not merely Psalms but – “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16)I therefore agree with commentators like Charles Hodge who pointed out that this proves that singing was from the beginning a part of Christian worship, and that not only psalms but hymns also were employed.” It is therefore my belief that the church is commanded in scripture to sing both Psalms and uninspired hymns and spiritual songs in our worship and have therefore recorded this as my only exception to the teaching of the Standards.

Unfortunately, as many other Presbyterian Pastors have noted, the modern church seems to have gone from exclusively singing Psalms, to exclusively singing Hymns. It is my conviction that scripture teaches us that the New Testament church should be singing both and that to neglect the Psalms is to impoverish the people of God.

About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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7 Responses to The Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs with Grace in the Heart

  1. Andrew Duggan says:

    So if you believe that scripture commands you to sing uninspired songs, how do you get past the necessary consequence that WCF in limiting worship to the inspired Psalms, forces a sinful practice on the church? (Sin being any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God).

    Since the focus of your blog is to return to OSP, I understand your point of view. You might however, try taking a more historical approach. How since the introduction of uninspired song into worship has the Presbyterian church improved? Old Side/New Side controversy (1740s+), Old School/New School controversy(1830s-1860s), Modernism,(1900-1973) and now the Federal Vision, yeah, man things have been so much much better since Presbyterians abandoned the Psalter. You might want to consider that in the light of the length of time for four generations to come and go.

    Finally, I think you’re allowing your own bias to color your view of history when you wrote: “..and in the 17th century the singing of Psalms exclusively..”, I think it would be far more historically correct or say ” and by the 17th century”. Reformation does not occur in a single day or week, and so yes it did take full century from the start of the Protestant Reformation until the practice of Exclusive Psalmody became common, but Exclusive Psalmody is hardly the invention of the Westminster Assembly or its contemporaries.

    Are there any other places in the WCF/WLC/WSC that you see them commending, in your view, a specifically sinful practice?

  2. Andrew Webb says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for you comments. I don’t know if you intended your first statement to have the force it does, but I should point out that I do not believe that the WCF “forces” anything on the church. As Machen noted: “The fact often seems to be forgotten that the Presbyterian Church is a purely voluntary organization; no one is required to enter into its service. “ Subscribing to the standards is voluntary, and no one is forced to accept any of its teachings against their will.

    Now perhaps I am being foolish, but I personally tend not to call the WCF prohibition from singing hymns in worship a “sin,” rather I would put it alongside the practice of some denominations in forbidding their members the use of wine and other alcoholic beverage as an uncommanded restriction on the liberty of Christians. Would you call the denominational practice of abstinence sin?

    Regarding the historical approach, the Old School Presbyterian is trying not to get back to the pure practice of the 1648 edition of the Westminster Standards (for that matter in common with most American Presbyterians I subscribe to the American Revision of 1788 and feel that it is a distinct improvement over the original in regards to the bible’s teaching on the Civil Magistrate and his powers) because it is not the standards themselves that are the genius of Presbyterianism, it is the principle of the practice of simple, biblical Christianity that they promote and do an excellent (unparalleled would be an appropriate term as well) job of defining that is their genius. I happen to believe that the Apostolic church sang Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, and that we are told to include these in our own worship.

    Also, the idea that the introduction of hymns leads to apostasy and that Psalmody prevents it simply isn’t true. Several Presbyterian denominations in England, Scotland, and America have all marched into liberalism and unbelief singing Psalms all the way. Psalmody can and has in some instances become simply one’s accepted and venerated tradition inherited from one’s elders and in and of itself will not maintain true worship in Spirit and Truth. Also, keep in mind that it is singing with “grace in the heart” and not merely singing Psalms that is key. If we lose our love of the biblical gospel, making sure we are singing the right words will never be sufficient. Sometimes I fear we reverse the actual biblical order and assume that orthopraxy will maintain orthodoxy, and that simply isn’t true.

    Finally, I get tired of the argument being framed in all or nothing terms. Neither I, nor this blog, am advocating an “abandoning of the Psalter” – far from it! We are strong advocates of “inclusive Psalmody” and adhering to the biblical practice of singing PSALMS AND HYMNS AND SPIRITUAL SONGS and as a result on average we sing 3 psalms in worship every Sunday.

  3. Matt says:

    ‘Inclusive Psalmody’ — nice! Not sure I’ve seen that one before, but it has a nice ring to it.. 🙂

  4. Andrew Duggan says:

    Rev Webb,

    First, let me apologize for being tiresome. That was not my intention. That might be a record for me though. While most people do find me tiresome, I am fortunate that most don’t discover that quite so quickly as you did. So, thank you for taking the time to reply. I didn’t mean any offense in my above comment, and I don’t mean any offense in the following, and I hope you will not find it as tiresome as my last.

    I wasn’t trying to state or imply that abandonment of Exclusive Psalmody was THE vector of liberalism and unbelief. Certainly there are many. I was hoping, perhaps, for your allowing even a “ever so slight” possibility of it being “A” vector of such. Having merely the right form of worship is certainly no guarantee of continuing in God’s favor, as is demonstrated, for example in the post exile period leading up to the coming of Christ. Certainly by the end of the era, the post exile church was pretty corrupt, although having (more or less) the right forms in worship.

    I totally agree that orthodoxy is not maintained solely or even primarily by orthopraxy, but don’t you agree that where there is heteropraxy, it is always preceded (logically or chronologically) by either heterdoxy or ignorance? cf Mal 1:6ff. [Yes, I understand that you deny that the use of uninspired song is heteropraxy, I’m speaking a little more generally.]

    In your reply to me you wrote “but I personally tend not to call the WCF prohibition from singing hymns in worship a ‘sin,'”, but what I am trying to address is that I think you did just that in your original post. If you will bear with me, I’ll try to explain why.

    I think understand what you believe about the practice of the apostolic church, but you went past that when you wrote “It is therefore my belief that the church is COMMANDED [emphasis mine] in scripture to sing both Psalms AND uninspired hymns…” . The “sticky” word there is “commanded”. In your reply to me you started by asking if I intended my statement to have the force that it did? I guess my answer is rather to ask, did you? I know of no wiggle room in the word “commanded”.

    Would it be fair for me to restate that as, it is your belief that church is commanded to sing Psalms AND the church is commanded to sing uninspired hymns? If the church is commanded in Scripture to sing uninspired hymns, is it not “a want of conformity unto the law God” (since we’re talking Scripture) to abstain? That was really my point. What I am trying to bring attention to is what appears to be a necessary consequence of your statement that the practice of Exclusive Psalmody as taught in the WCF is inherently sinful. Certainly a sin of omission but a sin nevertheless — right? If, as you seem to say scripture commands the singing of uninspired songs, is it not sin to abstain from those?

    The American Presbyterian Church amended the WCF with respect to the Civil Magistrate and the Pope, it did NOT do so with regard to Chapter XXI and the use of Psalms, so that’s not really an apples to apples comparison is it?

    Yes, I would call it sin to forbid the use of alcoholic beverages. God calls it good. (Ps 104:16) Christ used wine in instituting His Supper. Are we to call evil what God has called good? So yes I would call the RPCNA to real repentance on that subject. A mere change in policy or practice does not constitute repentance. Their hit-and-miss application of the RPW, impeded the cause of Christ over the past century-plus. [FWIW that’s hard to say for one such as me that is not worthy of the name Christian.]

    Obviously you understand I agree with the WCF with respect to the exclusive use of the Psalter, but I gather from your reminding me about “singing with grace in the heart” above that you would be surprised to know I think that singing Psalms exclusively WITHOUT doing so with grace in the heart, WITHOUT a self-conscious teaching and admonishing one another in the congregation, WITHOUT the self-conscious praising of our Triune God is FAR a more heinous sin in His sight than the use of uninspired song. You seem well versed in the stereotype of an Exclusive Psalmist. 😉 However, I sing the Psalms exclusively out of need. I need Christ and his Word (Col 3:16) so much I just don’t have have the luxury to sing other men’s words to Christ’s praise and for my own and the congregations edification, when I have His own words inspired, inerrant and infallible.

    Finally, I was not accusing you of advocating the abandonment of the Psalter, you made it quite clear that you thought it a mistake that what started out as something you could embrace, the inclusion of uninspired song, degraded into a virtual wholesale substitution. It was clear that you disapproved of that.

    I really didn’t mean to be tiresome to you, so I apologize.

  5. Well said Andrew Duggan. I have just one correction to offer. We, in the RPCNA, do not forbid the use of alcoholic wine in the Lord’s Supper. In fact, we never have–not even when abstinence was required of the eldership.

    Andy Webb: I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but perhaps others haven’t. There are at few things I’d encourage us to consider with regard to Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. First, we know that all three of these terms are titles that are used as the titles of Psalms as they are found in the Septuagint (LXX–a Greek translation of the OT). Given the fact that the LXX was the common version of th Scriptures in Paul’s Day, and given the fact that he so often quotes from the LXX in many places, it’s safe to assume that Paul is referring to the Psalter by using this expression here. This is all the more easy to see when we consider this together with what follows.

    Consider the phrase once again: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Well, the word “spiritual” here means inspired by the Holy Spirit. Dr. B.B. Warfield confirmed this with the following statement.

    Quote: Of the 25 instances in which the word [spiritual] occurs in the NT, in no single case does it sink even as low in its reference as the human spirit; and in 24 of them it is derived from “spirit”, the Holy Ghost. In this sense of belonging to, or determined by, the Holy Spirit, the NT usage is uniform. … The appropriate translation for it in each case is “Spirit-given,” or “Spirit-led”, or “Spirit-determined”. End Quote.

    What this means is that all three terms refer to those songs that were written by the Holy Spirit. Man-made hymns, therefore, do not qualify.

    The other thing to point out is that the Ephesians passage commands us to be filled with the Spirit and the passage from Colossians commands us to let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. Both of these passages are telling God’s people to be filled with God’s Word. The Ephesians passage tells us to be filled with the Spirit and it then tells us how to do it. When we sing to one another from the Psalter in worship we are being filled with the Spirit. According to the passage from Colossians, having the Word of Christ dwell in us richly is also done by singing to one another from the Psalter. You see, the Word of Christ is the Word of God and the Psalter is part of God’s Word.

    So, I think it’s difficult to argue that Paul is here commanding the use of uninspired song in worship.

    Just my two cents. By the way, I appreciate the fact that you are being honest about what the WCF teaches on this subject. I also appreciate the fact that you are willing to talk about and debate the issue as I look forward to the debate between you and Rev. Winzer on the Puritan Board.

    Your brother in Christ our Lord,


  6. “Several Presbyterian denominations in England, Scotland, and America have all marched into liberalism and unbelief singing Psalms all the way. ”

    Do you have an example of a liberal church that retained exclusive psalmody? Would there not have been a move to hymnody at some point along the slide to liberalism?

  7. Pat Bell Smith says:

    I wish that all these churches would wake up to the fact that satan and his music is marching into all churches these days, execpt maybe the Catholic. They seem to still mostly stick to the old hymns. I attend a Oneness Pentecostal Church and the music is mostly vain repitition (cheerleading type songs), or rock music. I can’t understand how these Pentecostal Churches think they are so holy and separate and then have their churches filled with loud, unruly, fleshy rock music. Instead of seeking to be truly filled with the Holy Spirit, I think they try to “drum Him up” with fleshy rock music. I guess they think that if they dance around “looking” spiritual, it’s just the same.

    I wish ALL churches would wake up and sing the truely spiritual hymns and psalms that really move the Holy Sprit.

    I am looking for a spirt filled church in Northern NJ that sings the old traditional hymns and psalms — no rock or drums please. If anyone can make a suggestion, I’d appreciate it!

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