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The songs we sing

songs we sing(view original article here)

Derek Bigg considers how they affect us

‘Music is a gift of God… After theology I accord to music the highest place and greatest honour.’

So said Martin Luther, who composed chorales to be sung by all the people, not just the clergy as in the Roman Catholic Church of his day. It is largely to him that we owe today’s opportunities for congregational singing.

But do we make the best possible use of them? I will be asking some searching questions about the songs we sing. My prayer is that this will stimulate fruitful discussion and encourage a God-honouring approach to the musical side of church life.

My musical family

First, let me say a little about my background to show where I am coming from.

Music was always prominent in our family life. As a family we occasionally performed Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony. Two of my brothers followed musical careers, one of them becoming the youngest-ever Fellow of the Royal College of Organists at the age of 17. My father was an organist and choirmaster; and I myself have been a chorister. I have experienced a variety of musical traditions in both Anglican and nonconformist churches, including numerous evangelical churches in Spain. Four years’ training at the London Bible College, when Ernest Kevan was Principal, provided me with resources for bringing biblical teaching to bear on practical issues. Music is one such issue.

Just a matter of taste?

Is musical style merely a matter of personal taste? No. To some extent it mirrors the spirit of the age. As H.R. Rookmaaker said in Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, ‘there is nothing neutral’. Like other aspects of culture, music should be judged by the standards of God’s Word and by the effect it produces. Music can soothe a troubled spirit (1 Samuel 16.23), but it can also whip people into a frenzy.

Adolf Hitler would only listen to military bands and music composed by Richard Wagner. Wagner despised the music of his contemporary Felix Mendelssohn on account of its ‘Jewishness’ and advocated the elimination of all Jews from German society. Significantly, Hitler saw him as his sole predecessor. He attended several performances of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. The explosive Prelude to Act 3 feels like a musical accompaniment to Hitler’s ranting speeches. For a complete contrast, take Elton John’s Candle in the Wind at Princess Diana’s funeral. It moved people to tears.

The renowned conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once said that, if he were a dictator, he would compel everyone between four and 80 to listen to 15 minutes of Mozart every day. In an educational research project some years ago, Mozart was played during school lessons. The result? Improved concentration, as the sheer beauty of Mozart’s melodies and harmonies evoked a tranquil, tension-free atmosphere.

What kind of atmosphere?

Since music invariably creates a certain atmosphere, we ought to ask what kind of atmosphere we generate through the music in our Sunday services and Christian conventions. John Bell of the Iona Community thinks we have swapped the model of the Victorian schoolroom for that of the theatre. Is this true? Has today’s pervasive pop culture influenced our music in any way? Does a Christian gathering in which music features strongly ever feel like a pop festival?

Like all God’s gifts, music can be used in a self-centred fashion or in a way that exalts God himself. Do our songs reflect the truth of God’s Word and promote godly living? If singing is to glorify God, we need to remove any obstacles that might hinder us. The questions below will draw attention to several possible hindrances.

Questions to face

To what extent are our minds engaged when we sing? Do we sing with both spirit and mind (1 Corinthians 14.15)? In his book And Now Let’s Move into a Time of Nonsense, Nick Page describes how the pop song has replaced the poem as the model for most Christian songwriters today. Poetry, he points out, stimulates serious reflection; but pop songs tend to provoke a purely emotional response, with the music taking precedence over frequently banal words.

Do some songs claim too much? If I sing ‘My love just keeps on growing’, am I displaying an indefensible self-confidence rather than a humble spirit?

How are tunes to be judged? Is it stating the obvious to say that they should be easy to follow? Sadly, there is an increasing number of tunes which are too complicated, making it difficult for the congregation to keep in step with the musicians and hampering concentration on the words. The main reason for this trend seems to be that most Christian songs today are written not for congregational singing but for performance before a listening audience. Is this a commendable development?

Words and music

All tunes should fit the mood of the words. Generally speaking, a major key and fast tempo suit a joyful theme, a minor key and slow tempo a sombre theme. But what if words and music clash? Does the triumphant ‘Hallelujah!’ in the hymn Man of Sorrows! feel strangely subdued when the new tune ‘Burney Lane’ takes it on a gentle downward cadence? Are the solemn words of the children’s song ‘We can’t be friends because of our sin’ neutralised by the jaunty music? Incongruously, the words ‘I’m sorry for the wrong I’ve done’ are set to lively, upbeat music.

Music affects us at a subliminal level more than we realise. If it conflicts with the message of the words, it may well become the dominating influence and win the battle between the two.

Childrens’ songs

We rejoice in the knowledge that Jesus is in the highest place, with a name that is above every name (Philippians 2.9). Do we revere this precious name and all that it represents when we sing nine times ‘How cool is that!’ in praise of Jesus’ miracles and deity? It may be groovy, but does it drag the Lord down to our level?

What kind of songs do we choose for our children to sing? Children learn through singing and need a balanced musical diet covering a variety of themes, including those we might be tempted to avoid, such as sin and judgment. Are we looking for songs that are faithful to Scripture, couched in simple, non-theological language? Do we check carefully not only the words themselves but also the style of writing? Children tend to take everything literally. What, then, will they make of Our God is a Great Big God ? The combination of ‘great’ and ‘big’ speaks of physical size! The song continues: ‘He’s higher than a skyscraper… deeper than a submarine’. Will this portrayal implant a distorted picture in children’s hearts and minds?

Spiritual blessing

Lots of questions! They raise issues we all ought to ponder; but let us also be grateful for all the songs that we can happily sing without any misgivings about their quality. Many of those produced in the last 20 or 30 years have been a source of great spiritual blessing.

One example must suffice. A heart-warming song by Stuart Townend and Mark Edwards directs our thoughts heavenwards as it focuses on life beyond the grave. Through helpful use of the first person singular I can make my own the words ‘There is a hope that burns within my heart’ (verse 1) and ‘lifts my weary head’ (verse 2). Firmly rooted in Scripture, the song strengthens our faith; and the fine poetry (eschewing language like ‘Cos the Lord don’t change at all’, found in another modern song) enables us at the same time to reflect on something ‘lovely’ and ‘praiseworthy’ (Philippians 4.8). More songs like this one, please!

Whatever our personal tastes may be, we must never forget that any sinful attitudes in the musical arena can easily undermine that unity which Paul urges us to maintain in Ephesians 4.3.

Our final question must therefore be: Are we applying this teaching of God’s Word and thereby exhibiting musical godliness?

Derek Bigg is a member and former elder of Christ Church, Haywards Heath.


This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

Galatians for you

Galations for you

Galatians is a letter that is full of doctrinal truth, but is no theological treatise.

It is a letter from a man who deeply loves the men and women he is writing to. 6.11-18 is his last appeal, his last invitation to keep trusting the gospel for salvation and living it out day by day, and he decides to ‘write to you with my own hand!’ (v.11).

Internal not external

First, he wants to convince them that real Christianity is a matter of inward change, not external observance. It is substantial, not superficial. Again, he focuses on the motives of the false teachers. They ‘want to make a good impression outwardly’ (v.12).

Paul has already said that the preaching of the gospel is terribly offensive to the human heart (5.11-12). People find it insulting to be told that they are too weak and sinful to do anything to contribute to their salvation. The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people. Ultimately, the gospel is offensive because the cross stands against all schemes of self-salvation. So people who love the cross are ‘persecuted’ (v.12).

False saviours

If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.

The false saviour that the Judaizers are worshiping is approval. That’s what is going on under their legalistic teaching. ‘The only reason they [teach what they do] is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (v.12). They want to ‘boast’ (v.13). They got into religion for the fame, prestige and honour it can bring them in the world. Their ministry, as in 4.17-18, is a form of self-salvation.

As a result of this concern for appearances and acceptance by the world, the false teachers are offering a religion that mainly focuses on externals and behaviour (circumcision and the ceremonial law), rather than internal change of heart, motives and character. The gospel is inside out: an inner change of heart leads to a new motivation for and conduct of behaviour. They are outside out: focusing on behaviour, never dealing with the heart, and always remaining superficial.

Paul again makes the most telling critique of this way of religion: ‘Not even those who are circumcised obey the law’ (v.13). On its own terms, biblical legalism cannot work. If we really read the law and see what it commands (e.g. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, 5.13-14), we will see that we cannot possibly save ourselves by obeying it. A religion based on externals and behaviour as a way of salvation may prompt pride and bring popularity, but it cannot deliver the eternal life it promises.

What are you boasting about?

Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at bottom, is the reason that you think you are in a right relationship with God?

If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference. Therefore, you ‘boast about your flesh’ (v.13), your own efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!

But if you understand the gospel, you ‘boast’ exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do ‘boast’! — yet humbly, based on a profound sense of our flaws and neediness.

So the gospel can be well summarized in one remarkable sentence: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (v.14).

I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I ‘never boast’ — I take no credit for my standing with God — ‘except in the cross’; what Christ has done is now something I ‘boast’ in. To boast is to joyously exult, and to have high confidence, in something. To know you are saved by Christ’s work alone brings a joyous ‘boasting’ confidence; not a self-confidence, but Christ-confidence.


This brings a stunning turnaround in my life. The world is dead to me. First, as John Stott says, the Christian does not need to care what the world thinks of them. But Guthrie probably gets closer to Paul’s gist when he says: ‘The natural world … has ceased to have any claims on us’.

Paul is telling the Christian that there is nothing in the world now that has any power over them. Notice he does not say that the world is dead, but that it is dead to him. The gospel destroys its power. Why? If nothing in the world is where I locate my righteousness or salvation or boasting, then there is nothing in the world that controls me — nothing that I must have.

Paul is not saying that I must have nothing to do with the people and things of the world. Ironically, if I must have nothing to do with the world and must separate from it, then the world still has quite a lot of power over me! Paul means that the Christian is now free to enjoy the world, because he no longer needs to fear it, nor to worship it.

So Paul restates what he said back in 5.6: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; but a new creation’ (6.15). Religious or moral attainments or failures are irrelevant when it comes to salvation, because it is not about what I have done, but about what Christ has done. Because of the gospel, Paul says, I do not feel inferior to or intimidated by anyone — circumcision means nothing. And because of the gospel, I do not feel superior to or scornful of anyone — uncircumcision means nothing.

All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a ‘new creation’ (v.15). The gospel changes my future, giving me a place in Christ’s perfected re-creation. And the gospel changes my present, giving me a whole new self-image and whole new way of relating to everyone.

New creation

‘A new creation’ in verse 15 is the parallel to ‘faith working by love’ in 5.6. Paul’s point is that the two are essentially the same thing. The gospel creates a new motivation for obedience — grateful love arising from a faith view of what Christ has done. It is a new birth, a supernatural transformation of character, a new creation.

So verses 14-15 sum up what it means to rely on what Christ has done, rather than on myself. I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

A life of peace

If verses 14-15 sum up chapter 5, verse 16 (which, following such an emotional and stunning sentence, is easy to miss!) encapsulates what Paul was saying in chapter 3. Here, he calls living by the gospel a ‘rule’ (v.16) — it is a way of life, a foundation of everything. Anyone who sets the gospel of Christ as their ‘rule’, he says, will find ‘peace and mercy’. And they will be members of ‘the Israel of God’. Christians are all Abraham’s children, heirs to God’s promises to him.

Paul concludes by pointing to the fact that: ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus’ (v.17). What are these? Probably he is referring to the literal scars he had from the imprisonments and beatings he had received for the sake of Christ. The teachers of the false, popular, self-salvation gospel had none of these, because the world loved to hear their message. But Paul is a true minister, a true apostle, as he argued in chapters 1 and 2. Do not doubt me, he says: I have the real marks of apostolic authority — not greatness and riches, but signs of suffering and weakness.

And then he signs off. But even here, Paul is reminding the Galatians of the message of his letter. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v.18) is the entry point to, and the way to continue with, and all we will ever need in, the Christian life. We begin by grace, by being justified by faith in what Christ has done. We continue by grace, not by anything we do. This gospel of grace is what the Galatians need to know, and love, in ‘your spirit’. It is not a set of abstract truths. It is a way of life, of deeply fulfilling, secure life now, and of eternal life to come. Amen.

This article is an edited extract from Tim Keller’s new book, Galatians For You (published by The Good Book Company —, and is used with permission.


(This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057)