This article lays out basic principles for evaluating the lyrics of church music suitable for Reformed worship.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 7 pages.

Church Music: Watch Those Words!

Setting down certain principles for evaluating the words of songs suitable for Reformed worship is a tricky business. On the one hand, these principles can be stated so generally that they are not at all helpful in evaluating any particular song. On the other hand, we can become so rigorous in our principles, set­ting law upon law, precept upon precept, with such legalistic rigor that hardly any song survives our scrutiny. We could become like the biologist, so intense in his work of analysis that what used to be a beautiful, living organism now lies there in pieces, dead on the dissecting table.

We conservatives must especially beware of this danger. It is fairly easy to find examples of bad church music with words that are alto­gether inappropriate for corporate worship. Commenting on the abun­dance of church music, both good and bad, one well-known musician and theologian has observed that "the fertilizing rain brought up a crop of toad-stools."1There is no lack of toadstools growing in the field of Christian music today, as we shall see. But we cannot dwell on the toadstools, the bad music. Let us go about the more difficult work of cultivating and harvesting a flourishing crop of good church music.

In this article I am at­tempting to set down some basic principles for evaluating the words, the texts, the lyrics of music suit­able for our Reformed worship.

Principle #1:🔗

The words of our worship songs must be thoroughly Scriptural and must reflect the full counsel of God.

There should be no argument with this most basic principle. All other principles for the words of our church music ought to flow from this first one. This principle con­forms to what the CRC Synod of 1953 said about music "appropriate for worship," namely, "in spirit, form, and content it must be a positive expression of Scripturally religious thought and feeling." And in one of its "implications" for church music recommended to the churches for study, the synodical report concluded that this music "should represent the full range of the revelation of God."2

Our worship must always be Bible-based, including all the words of all our songs used in worship. Just as we expect the call to wor­ship, the salutation, the law, the prayers, the sermon, and the bene­diction to be taken from or to be conforming to the Word of God, so the texts of our songs. We often cite one of John Calvin's basic principles: where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are si­lent. So it should be with our mu­sic. The lyrics of our church songs must echo the words, the images, the teachings of the Bible. They must neither add to nor subtract from the Scriptures. It was with this principle in mind that the Re­formers especially emphasized the singing of the Psalms. For who can improve on the "divine and heav­enly songs" given by God through King David?3Thus, for years we have sung the words of Psalm 90, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" and the familiar doxology suggested by Psalm 100, "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow." We ought to regret that the practice of Psalm-singing increasingly is being abandoned in favor of singing songs not so rooted in the biblical text. "Heavenly Father, we appreciate You" is a nice thought, but it is merely that — nice. According to the Bible, believers know God, they love, fear, praise and obey Him. "Appreciation" is expressed to the seventy-year-old employee at a retirement banquet. It is hardly the right word or the biblical way to express our praise of God!

Occasionally we find examples of outright unbiblical words or thoughts expressed in the lyrics of certain church songs. Even in the blue-covered, centennial edition of the Psalter Hymnal (hereafter, 1959 PH) we can find the occasional unscriptural thought. For example, the well-known "Now Thank We All Our God" (1959 PH, #316) im­plores God to "free us from all ills in this world and the next," a to­tally unbiblical idea (unless these words were sung by an unbeliev­er — that person should expect ills in the next world!). In the new edi­tion of the Psalter Hymnal (hereaf­ter, 1987 PH), the phrase is changed to this: "And free us from all ills of this world in the next," a definite improvement.4In "Come, Thou Al­mighty King" it seems unbiblical to implore the Holy Spirit to "ne'er from us depart" (1959 PH, #317). In light of Jesus' words that the Father would give us a "Counselor to be with you forever" (John 14:16), the song distorts biblical truth. This is one not corrected in the new Psalter Hymnal (see #246).

In this regard the worst offenses by far are found within more re­cently composed church music. Brian Wren's 1989 song, "Bring many Names," lists some of the names by which God is known in the Bible. But, contrary to Wren, you cannot find this in the Scrip­tures:

Strong mother God, working night and day,
Planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation,
genius at play;
Hail and Hosanna,
Strong mother God!5

In his artistic attempt to echo the lament language found in the Psalms, Calvin Seerveld, in an otherwise suitable composition, adds this stanza:

Why, Lord, must he be sentenced, locked away?
True, he has wronged his neighbor and has failed you.
Yet none of us is innocent and sinless;
only by grace we follow in your way.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share...6

Nowhere in the Bible are we told to offer a lament or given an ex­ample of a lament for the guilty criminal who has clearly "wronged his neighbor" and has "failed" God. When the Psalmists express lament, it is for innocents who suffer injus­tice or for the righteous who are oppressed by the unrighteous. We should not be lamenting, in the bib­lical sense, for those who have clearly done wrong and now are receiving the legal penalty for their wrongdoing.

In some quarters of the contem­porary Christian music world, es­pecially in the past fifteen years or so, we have seen a return to songs based directly on the words of Scrip­ture. Sandi Patti has popularized a rendition of Psalm 8, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth." The singing of Psalm 89 has been revived with a new tune, "I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever." The New Testament also increasingly has found its way into our church music and for this we should be thankful. The six­teenth century Reformers put us on the right track, but they basically limited themselves to only one of the sixty-six books of the Bible. We are not as limited in this way today. We sing "He is Lord" from Philippians 2, "Behold, what man­ner of love" from 1 John 3 and "Thou art worthy" from Revelation 4. No one should object to the in­clusion of such Bible-based "con­temporary" songs in our worship services. These songs touch the very heart of biblical worship. They are a great improvement over some of the popularized hymns of the early 1900's which are so common in our hymnsings today. Compare the words of "Wonderful Peace:"

Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight
Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm;
In celestial-like strains it unceasingly falls
O'er my soul like an infinite calm.
Peace! Peace! wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above;
Sweep over my spirit forever,
I pray, in fathomless billows of love.7

to the words of the following, more contemporary song:

There is a Redeemer, Jesus, God's own Son,
Precious Lamb of God, Messiah, Holy One.
Thank You, O my Father, for giving us Your Son;
And leaving Your Spirit 'til the work on earth is done.8

Purely on the basis of the mes­sage, the latter song has a much more Bible-based message than the former. This also illustrates the fact that many newer songs speak more biblically than many older songs.

Principle #2:🔗

The words of our worship songs must primarily focus upon the be­ing of Almighty God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and upon His re­demptive work on behalf of hu­mankind.

This second principle flows naturally from the first principle. If we are serious about our church songs reflecting the Scriptures, then we ought to find in the words of our songs a focus upon God. The opening words of the Bible ought to be the guiding force in our songs: "In the beginning, God." Indeed, one of the main reasons why God has re­deemed us through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and has made us to be His "chosen people" is so that we "may declare the praises of him who called (us) ... out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9). We gather in worship first and foremost to praise our God. Our worship songs, then, must always be in praise of Him. The "dialogue" of worship begins with God's words and works to­ward us and to these His people respond. Our songs are part of that dialogue/response to our God. He then, must be the primary object of our singing and the main subject in our church music. In the words of one well-known hymn-writer, "Let every creature rise, and bring pecu­liar honors to our King." Bringing honor to our King — this is the ulti­mate purpose for all of our singing in the worship service.

In this regard many "toadstools" have grown up and polluted the field of popular church songs today. This is particularly true of many soloists and their particular brand of "special music." "I've got my Father's Eyes," claims one. An­other will declare that "I'm not what I wanna' be; I'm not what I'm gonna' be; but thank God I'm not what I was." Every pastor who has led a worship service knows the ex­perience well — inwardly groaning, listening to some horrible song, and having to politely thank the soloist afterward. Such songs are preoccu­pied with self, just like many of the so-called "testimonies" offered in certain evangelical churches. These musicians, despite their sometimes good intentions and efforts, often dwell on themselves and on their roller coaster spirituality.

It is not that we should immedi­ately condemn all individual expressions of faith within our corporate worship. Even a passing familiar­ity with the psalms and the psalm­ists' personal experiences will show us the propriety of speaking about one's spiritual defeats and victories. Out of his experience of being for­saken and despised and then deliv­ered by the Lord, David says, "I will declare your name to my broth­ers; in the congregation I will praise you" (Psalm 22:22). It is not true, as some say, that in our congregational singing we must always use the plu­ral pronouns — "we," "us," "our" — and never the singular — "I," "me," "my." The psalmists often give expression to their own personal situations. But herein lies the key difference: they do so as part of the congregation, as a member of the covenant community, not as a de­tached individual. In the Bible the individual testimony always fits within the wider plan of God's re­demptive work on behalf of all His people. This is so sadly missing in much of what is offered in worship today as "special music."

This is not only a problem within contemporary Christian music. It was back in the year 1950 that Ira Stanphill wrote these words:

I don't know about tomorrow, I just live from day to day;
I don't borrow from its sunshine, for its skies may turn to gray.
I don't worry o'er the future, for I know what Jesus said;
And today I'll walk beside Him, for He knows what is ahead.
Many things about tomorrow I don't seem to understand;
But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.9

Look carefully at these words and you will notice that there is no clear reason given why we do not worry. We can find no testimony here about God's redemptive plan through the shed blood of Jesus, the indwelling of His Holy Spirit, the specific prom­ises found in God's Word, the as­surance of Jesus' glorious return, or the restoration of all things in a new earth. Some of these things are men­tioned in the third stanza, but not in the first two.

For singing about one's personal confidence in facing the future, how much to be preferred is the song penned by (the sometimes unre­formed and overly sentimental) Bill and Gloria Gaither:

God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus,
He came to love, heal, and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.
Because He lives I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives.10

Here we have the similar theme of confidence for facing the future, but what a difference in perspec­tives. "Because He Lives" is clearly rooted in what God has done in rais­ing Jesus from the dead. Yes, the song is an individual testimony, but not at the expense of God's redemptive work in this world. Likewise, we can sing about finding "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine, with ten thousand besides" because we know how "great is Thy faithfulness" (1959 PH, #408). Again, the personal experi­ence is based upon God's never-changing character and His ever-faithful works.

Principle #3:🔗

The expressions of personal expe­rience contained within the words of our church songs must convey genuine, deep and reflective feel­ings, not those which are artificial, superficial or sentimental.

We must affirm, as mentioned with the previous principle, the va­lidity of certain Christian experiences and feelings within our songs. Just as the Heidelberg Catechism be­gins by asking about one's personal "comfort" in life and in death, in body and in soul, so it is altogether proper to sing about our personal "comfort" in our worship songs. While many of our evangelical brothers and sisters dwell overly much on the personal aspects of salvation, we Calvinists have tended to exclude them. The writers of the Heidelberg Catechism give us a more balanced approach. Once they ex­plain the theological aspects of a particular doctrine, they often will go on to describe the practical and experiential aspects of that doctrine. For example, after explaining the meaning of Christ's ascension into heaven, they ask how that ascen­sion into heaven "benefits" us (Q. & A. 49). Later, in developing the meaning of Christ's second coming, they show how in our "distress and persecution" we can turn our eyes to heaven (Q. & A. 52). Likewise, in the interpretation of the Ten Com­mandments and the Lord's Prayer, the writers of the Catechism repeat­edly find applications for the be­liever in his daily walk with the Lord. We find something similar in many of Paul's epistles. He spends the first few chapters of each epistle explaining key Christian doctrines, but he usually concludes with words of more practical advice for daily Christian living. So let us not be afraid of referring to genuine Christian experiences in our church songs.

I like how seminary professor Ralph Martin puts it in one of his guidelines for church music. The acceptable hymn will "register its sensitivity to personal experience of God's saving and renewing grace in Christ and in the Spirit, leading to an encouragement to God's people to rise to their full stature in Christ."11That is a positive way of expressing what the Christian Reformed study committee on church music warned us about back in 1953. Among other things, they said that the poetry of our hymns should be "free from the defects of artificiality and sentimentality."12Examples of artificiality and senti­mentality abound among popular Christian songs. Again, one can find as much of it from early in this cen­tury as well as more recently. An artificial sentimentality is expressed by these words:

If the dark shadows gather as you go along,
Do not grieve for their coming, sing a cheery song;
There is joy for the taking, it will soon be light,
Ev'ry cloud wears a rainbow if your heart keeps right.
If your heart keeps right, if your heart keeps right,
There's a song of gladness in the darkest night;
If your heart keeps right, if your heart keeps right,
Ev'ry cloud will wear a rainbow, if your heart keeps right.13

Not only is the biblical message totally lacking in this 1915 hymn, its sticky-sweet cheerfulness is not genuinely expressive of Christian experience. Contrast this artificial sentimentality to the more reflec­tive experience rooted deep in bib­lical reality:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like seabillows roll,
Whatever my lot,
Thou hast taught me to say:
It is well, it is well with my soul.
And why is that?  
My sin — O the bliss of this glorious thought! —
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!1959 PH, #445

Principle #4:🔗

The words of our worship songs must give expression to our Reformed heritage and must be in agreement with our Reformed con­fessions.

It is often said that heresy enters the church first through her songs. The Arians of the fourth century popularized their theology by in­troducing their catchy songs to un­suspecting Christian people. Mor­monism in America, though the Salt Lake City Tabernacle Choir per­forms many of the classic Christian hymns, has developed its own unique hymnody to reinforce its false teachings.

Out of a desire to bring greater variety to its congregational sing­ing most of our Christian Reformed congregations have added an extra hymnal and/or collection of praise songs to their pew book racks. Though ninety percent of these songs would meet the five principles found in this article, at least mini­mally, the other ten percent would not. Of this ten percent, most would fail this fourth principle. Many of their words are simply unreformed, particularly with regard to the doc­trines of sovereign grace and sav­ing faith. Too often they so empha­size human control and decision- making in receiving Jesus as Savior, that they altogether ignore God's work in human hearts. The worst offenders are written along this line:

The Savior is waiting to enter your heart,
Why don't you let Him come in? ...
Time after time He has waited before,
And now He is waiting again
To see if you're willing to open the door;
O how He wants to come in.14

Jesus is often misrepresented in such songs as a powerless suppli­cant, something like a homeless beg­gar, who is waiting and wondering whether the sinner will respond to His request for entry. The message of such songs is unbiblical and unreformed. Any church consistory which allows supplemental hym­nals to be used in song services or in worship services must evaluate every song in these hymnals and must inform their song leaders which ones are unsuitable for sing­ing.

To be sure, we can become overly picky in applying this principle. Is "The Old Rugged Cross" really an unbiblical and unreformed song? Is it wrong for us to sing that we "cherish" or "cling to" the cross? Not if we recog­nize that the cross is, as the song itself says, "the em­blem (i.e. a pictorial symbol) of suf­fering and shame." Personally, I see no material difference between that hymn and this one: "In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime" (1959 PH, #429). Our Reformed theology is sometimes said to oppose the song, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world." Theologically, if we can quote John 3:16, we should be able to sing the words of this children's song. In the Bible, "world" does not necessarily mean every indi­vidual in the world, and "all" does not necessarily refer to every per­son on the planet. These are collec­tive words, and our exegesis of mu­sic texts should be in line with our exegesis of the Bible texts.

Principle #5:🔗

The words of our worship songs must be written with words and expressions which are understood by the ordinary person and in a style which communicates to the prevailing culture.

The apostle Paul says that he would rather speak five words in a language that people can understand than ten thousand words in a language that they do not under­stand (1 Corinthians 14:18). Like­wise he explains that if an unbe­liever happens to enter the worship service and the Christians are speak­ing in an unintelligible language, he will not understand, and he might even think that the Christians are out of their right mind (1 Corinthians 14:23). Elsewhere, the apostle Paul asks how people can believe in someone they have not heard about in a clear and direct manner (Romans 10:14). So the Prot­estant churches have always sought to translate the Bible into the com­mon languages. And over the years we have attempted to provide new Bible translations as the common language changes over the years; archaic expressions are replaced by more up-to-date terminology.

One reason why contemporary Christian music has become so popular over the older psalms and hymns is because this music often speaks in a more up-to-date way. As indicated earlier, some of this contemporary language does not reflect biblical language or Reformed teachings. But the music which meets the four previous prin­ciples must also pass this final test: does it speak to people today? Does it clearly communicate biblical truth to our congregation and to our cul­ture? Can it be understood by younger people as well as by older people?

Personally, I like the following song, but I am afraid it no longer effectively speaks to us, not even to most of our church members:

"Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish; Come to the mercyseat, fervently kneel" (1959 PH, #458). Even "Come, Thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace ... Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above" 15(1959 PH, #314) leaves many people wondering what they just asked for. How much to be preferred are the more understand­able calls to worship such as, "This is the day that the Lord has made, We will rejoice and be glad in it."16These words speak clearly, without sacrificing any of the biblical mes­sage. In fact, we have to wonder whether singing man-made hymns such as "Come, Ye Disconsolate" or "Come, Thou Fount" in our genera­tion more greatly obscures the meaning of worship and the Chris­tian message than does the singing of pure words of the Bible such as "This is the day." It would seem that under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David has written more clearly and more understandably for all time and across all cultures than have many of our professional church musicians! Closely following the Biblical text and with mini­mal poetic flourish, the following examples are intelligible to the or­dinary person:

Within Thy temple, Lord,
in that most holy place
We on Thy loving-kindness dwell,
the wonders of Thy grace.
1959 PH, #89

The Lord's my Shepherd, I'll not want;
He makes me down to lie
In pastures green; He leadeth me
The quiet waters by.
1959 PH, #38

With joy and gladness in my soul
I hear the call to prayer.
1959 PH, #263

No, we cannot expect unbelievers to fully understand everything that we believers are singing about. Christian truths are spiritually dis­cerned and come from an under­standing of the Bible. But overall, our music should strive to clearly communicate both to Christians and to non-Christians, to the older and to the younger.

Beyond the words themselves, difficult poetic expressions and dif­ficult musical tunes can likewise re­duce a person's comprehension of a song's message. We cannot give our poets free license to obscure simple Bible truths with artistic em­bellishments. While the poetry must be good poetry, I fear that great damage can be done and has been done through "good poetry" which is "too good" — too clever, too flow­ery, too obscure for the ordinary believer, much less for the ordinary unbeliever. Martin Luther, in the preface to a new Protestant hymn­book in the language of the people, speaks highly of the book's publish­er: "The printers ... do well in that they are diligent to print good hymns, and make them agreeable to the people." 17Elsewhere, in a letter requesting the assistance of an experienced poet, Luther gives him this instruction: "I desire, how­ever, that new-fangled words, and courtly expressions, be omitted, in order that the language may be the simplest and most familiar to the people."18In all of the church mu­sic he produced, Luther paid close attentiveness to the singing congre­gation. At all times he made sure the tunes and the texts were not too difficult, lest some members would be excluded from bringing mean­ingful praise to the Lord.19

The application of these five prin­ciples to the words of our worship songs should help us offer unto our God a "sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips" (Hebrews 13:15). But let us also clearly understand that within the worship service the sing­ing of the Word can never be a substitute for the preaching of the Word. Many congregations seem to be tiring of the Word (or is it a tiring of mediocre preaching of the Word?). And in their spiritual lethargy many Christians are finding their primary inspiration from church music. Such a substitution will ultimately leave the Christian and the congregation in a state of spiritual weakness. Remember, church music is not one of the keys of the kingdom — preaching is! Singing songs is good in our wor­ship. And we should try to make it better. But the pure preaching of the Word of God still remains the better part. Let us not abandon what is better for what is merely good.


  1. ^ Albert Schweitzer, quoted in Austin C. Lovelace and William C. Rice, Music and Worship in the Church (New York: Abingdon Press, 1960), p. 13. 
  2. ^ "Statement of Principle for Music in the Church" in Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, Inc., 1959), p. v.
  3. ^ John Calvin, "The Form of Prayers and Songs of the Church, 1542, Letter to the Reader," trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Calvin Theological Journal, 15 (No­vember 1980), p. 165. 
  4. ^ Original text by Martin Rinkart, revised in Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1987), p. 576.
  5. ^ Copyright 1989, Hope Publishing Com­pany. Used by permission. This song is reproduced in Reformed Worship 17 (September 1990), p. 30, a joint publi­cation of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America.
  6. ^ Copyright 1986 by Calvin Seerveld, Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1987), p. 576.
  7. ^ Text by W. G. Cooper in Hymns for the Family of God (Nashville: Paragon As­sociates, Inc., 1976), p. 494.
  8. ^ Text and music by Keith Green, copy­right 1982, Birdwing Music/Cherry Lane Music Pub., co-administered by The Sparrow Corp
  9. ^ Text and music by Ira F. Stanphill, in Hymns for the Family of God (Nash­ville: Paragon Associates, Inc., 1976), p. 96. Copyright 1950, Singspiration, Inc.
  10. ^ Text and music by Bill and Gloria Gaither in Hymns for the Family of God (Nashville: Paragon Associates, Inc., 1976), p. 292. Copyright 1971 by William J. Gaither.
  11. ^ Ralph P. Martin, The Worship of God; Some Theological, Pastoral, and Prac­tical Reflections (Grand Rapids: Wil­liam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), p. 59. 
  12. ^ Psalter Hymnal, 1959 ed., p. v. 
  13. ^ Text by Lizzie DeArmond, Copyright 1915 by Homer A. Rodeheaver, in Hymns of Praise, Numbers one and two combined (Chicago: Hope Pub­lishing Company, 1943), p. 170.
  14. ^ Text and music by Ralph Carmichael, "The Savior Is Waiting," in Hymns for the Family of God, p. 435. Copyright 1958, 1966 by Sacred Songs.
  15. ^ Psalter Hymnal, 1959 ed., p. 314. 
  16. ^ Copyright 1967, 1980, Scripture in Song. Administered by Maranatha! Music.
  17. ^ James F. Lambert, Luther's Hymns (Philadelphia: General Council Publi­cation House, 1917), p. 15.
  18. ^ Ibid.
  19. ^ See Edward Foley, "Martin Luther: A Model Pastoral Musician," Currents in Theology and Mission, 14 (December 1987), pp. 406, 410-411, 413.

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