With a view to encouraging us to more faithful and hearty worship in song, this post will focus primarily on a single verse, Colossians 3:16. This verse is found in the midst of a larger section of Pauline “put offs” and “put ons.” The put ons are positive applications to the Christian’s life in Christ: “If you are raised with Christ, seek those things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). Conversely, Christians are to put off the old man, especially the “elemental” (worldly) religious thinking and practices, for in Christ we have died to them (2:20). Ministerially speaking, Paul roots the Christian’s death and resurrection with Christ in baptism. Christians “have been buried with Christ in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith” (2:12). By faith a Christian is united with Jesus in his death and resurrection in his baptism. Since, therefore, we are buried and raised with Christ by faith and through baptism, let us take heed of the apostolic admonition.

Paul’s imperative in verse 16 is for the Colossian believers to let the word of Christ dwell in them. One might speculate what means should be employed to obey that command. The biblical testimony as a whole would include reading, memorizing and meditating upon Scripture, as well as sitting under the preaching and teaching of the Scripture. Here, however, the commandment of the Apostle is instantiated or embodied in three participles: teaching, admonishing, and singing – all in verse 16. Each of these participles has to do with music. More specifically they speak of music sung by the human voice, music sung by Christians together in worship. Thus, through Paul, the Holy Spirit instructs the Colossian church(es) to continue to develop a “music ministry” among themselves. By the saints’ own musical ministry, the word of Christ would dwell richly among them. This, I hope, is enough to give us pause to think about 1) how important the musical worship of God’s people is, and 2) if this musical ministry is flourishing in our churches.

The topic of church music in the past half century has been significantly divisive and has been referred to as the worship wars. According to Sarah Zylstra’s article, posted at Christianity Today early in 2016, the worship wars are waning (at wong wast!), but the rub is the settlement among American churches appears to be toward informality and laxity, both in worship and in doctrine. A great deal of the divisive hubbub would disappear if Christians (ironically, Protestants in particular) would seek to be obedient to God speaking in the Bible. Instead, issues other than fidelity to the Bible have tended to dominate discussions of the worship of Christ’s church: marketing concerns, individualism, emotionalism, personal preferences, and various liturgical and musical traditions. Let us humble ourselves, then, and seek to obey God in all of our lives, all of our worship, but now especially in our musical worship. Please, our covenant God, let us pay close attention with the firm intent to obey Your Word.

Teaching and Admonishing

By “liturgical” music, we mean music used in Christian worship. [1] God would have liturgical music teach and edify. How can music teach? We are not here concerned with the teaching capacity of music per se, but rather with music as a potent medium for words. Music carries messages in the form of lyrics. Liturgical music should have lyrics that teach biblical doctrine–the word of Christ. If the doctrinal content of a song is bad or false–even in part–it should be avoided (or possibly modified). Liturgical music should faithfully teach Christian truth.

The word of Christ is to dwell richly in our liturgical music doctrinally, but that word is to be in our music to admonish. Admonishment has to do with counsel. In fact, “nouthetic” counseling takes its name from this verb. The nouthetic counselor is, in the power of the Spirit, to confront sin in a brother with the word of God with the aim of bringing about repentance in that brother’s life. Liturgical music should confront our sinfulness with the Word of Christ and encourage us toward lives of repentance and faithful Christian living. In this sense, liturgical music is quite practical.

This glorious music, instructive and edifying, is also corporate. The body does it together, for we teach and admonish “one another” as we worship in song. Singing together, we unite our voices, our very breath, in the praise of God. By that musical worship, the saints are in-dwelt with the word of Christ.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Paul insists that the Colossians are to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly through liturgical singing. He specifies three types of songs: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. These three types of songs might all refer to the Psalter, [2] but I think that Paul has broader intent. [3] The word “psalms” draws on the most basic meaning of plucking or twanging and refers to a song sung along with plucked or strummed instrument(s). The word in this context most likely refers to the Psalter and is first in the list, which seems to add prominence. Thus, the corporate singing of the Book of Psalms should be prominent in the “music ministry” of our churches. What better than God’s own songbook?! We are also instructed to sing “hymns,” which means celebratory songs sung in praise of God. “Spiritual songs” are metrical chants or odes that relate to the spiritual matters and/or the Spirit of God.[4]

These Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are to minister the Word of Christ to us, doctrinally and practically, in all wisdom. The opposite of wisdom is folly. Church music should avoid folly. There are plenty of times for informal songs. That’s right, there is probably even time for Silly Songs with Larry, but the liturgy is not one of them. Liturgical music should be composed and ministered in wisdom, all wisdom. The Christian church needs poets and musicians in the church that are full of wisdom. Their music should minister wisdom.

Liturgical music should be sung with “grace in your hearts.” The word “grace” here is rightly translated “thanksgiving,” as it captures the most basic of Christian attitudes: thankfulness. Indeed, one of the first signs of divine judgement upon a person is a lack of gratitude to God. “For although they [the unbelieving world under God’s judgment] knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). Sinners 1) do not honor God, and 2) are not thankful, so God gives them over to their desired sins, which itself is judgment, but also incurs further judgment. Liturgical music should be overflowing with gratitude. The “grace” in our individual hearts is given external and united form and beauty by the musical vocalizations of the gathered people of God.

A Couple Practical Concerns

Some folks, even some Bible Presbyterians do not like to sing. Maybe some folks are just plain bad singers. Maybe there are a few that sound like a monotone Frankenstein character when they sing. We cannot deny these realities, and they are real struggles. God commands us to sing in worship not because singing is easy for us, but because it is good for us. By analogy, not everyone in the church is equally equipped to listen to and digest a 45-minute sermon. We should seek to grow in our ability to listen to and digest sermons, just as we should pursue increasing musical skill. I trust that God will bless our efforts to worship him more excellently.

Singing as a liturgical action has some advantages. In the first place, when a congregation of believers lifts of the praises of God with one voice, one can see, hear, and feel the great mystery of the unity and diversity of the church of Jesus Christ. With one voice, singing the same words, the people of God sing praises. However, within that one voice is also seen a glorious diversity. First, there are many individual voices comprising the voice of the worshiping church. Second, if we can manage to sing in parts, we can experience that wonder of melody and harmony. These (along with accompaniment) combine into one song, one message: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The living, teaching reality of liturgical music should also be felt in the daily life of the body. As our voices unite in single praise, so our lives unite under a single Lord. Liturgical music fosters and exemplifies proper Christian unity and diversity.


[1] The word “liturgy” does not denote elements of “high church” worship such as vestments, processions, incense, set responses, and the like. Liturgy, particularly as it is being used in this article, merely refers to the ordered sequence of events that constitute the worship service. Every church has liturgical forms which are set and consistent, and which the regular worshipers not only recognize but come to expect. Thus, Christian worship is necessarily liturgical.

[2] The position that the church should only sing the 150 Psalms when gathered in worship is called exclusive psalmody (EP). Here is an article (immediately downloads as a .pdf) from Brian Schwertley and another from Dr. Brian Morey, both Reformed scholars who defend the EP position. Rev. Schwertley’s argument that triadic formulation is common in Hebrew, is of course true. He does not prove that all three parts of the triad are to be understood as identical. Indeed, he cannot. One common Hebraic triad is “bread, oil, and wine.” Are these three identical? Wine is not bread, neither is oil the same a bread, and so on. To recognize, therefore, the triadic form of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” is not the same thing as proving that the three parts are identical. EP proponents assert identity, or at least that they all refer to the Psalter, but none of this can be proved. To argue that all three words can and sometimes do refer the Psalms or the Psalter obscures the actual question. No one doubts that these words could have reference to the Psalter. The EP assertion is that the Hebrew-minded original audience would have understood this triad as a clear reference exclusively to the Psalter is, again, bare assertion. To prove it, they would have to show a common tradition of referring to the Psalter with that specific traidic expression.

[3] Had Paul desired to specify the Psalter and only the Psalter, he could easily have done so. Further,  Paul’s writings themselves retain what appear to be sections of both liturgical music (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11) and Christians hymns (Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:15-20). The NT includes numerous hymns after the Hebrew model (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32, also 2:14). The book of Revelation is full of heavenly worship with a variety of songs beyond the Psalter (Rev. 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12, 13; 11:17-8; 15:3-4; 17:5-6, 7; 19:1-2, 3, 5, 6-8). All this indicates that NT worship was not limited to the Psalter. Rather, the Psalter was the very center of Christian praise, not only as songs to be sung, but also as a pattern of songs to be written and sung by the Church in her worship. For a concise and edifying overview of worship from OT up to modern times, see Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture (2d ed.; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2002), chapter 4, “The Ministry of Praise.” Finally, King David’s reforms in liturgical singing could shed some light on the application of the Regulative Principle to liturgical music, especially now that God’s people have moved forward in redemptive history into the  Kingdom era. See Peter J. Leithart, From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution (Moscow, Id.: Canon, 2003).

[4] For a concise summary of scholarship, see Karl-Heinz Bartels, “Song, Hymn, Psalm,” NIDNTT 3:668-676. Also, William Hendriksen, Exposition of Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 161-3, wherein Hendriksen helpfully catalogs numerous NT hymns. Finally, for an analysis of the parallel passage, see Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 706-713.

Tim Prussic

Aside from his dashing good looks, consistent fresh breath, and rapier wit, Tim's a normal, likeble guy... and a good spellr.

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