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.”1 There 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 final article in a series of articles about church music 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 ofour 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 if 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 aU 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?3 Thus, 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.4 In “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 com posed 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, nutst he be sentenced,

locked away?

Tme, Ire 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 I 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 hymn-sings today. Compare the words of “Wonderful Peace:”

Far away in the depths

of my spirit tonight

Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm;

Tn 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” (I 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 dear 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 fives.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.”11 That is a positive way of expressing what the ChristianReformed 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.”12 Examples 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 rain bow,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 sea billows 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 souI! (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 decisionmaking 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.10

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 is 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 (I 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 (I 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.”16 These 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 lovingkindness 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 com prehension 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 hymn book 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.” 11 Elsewhere, 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.”18 In 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 Woed 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 PsalterHymnal(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 Colvin 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: SomeTheological, Pastoral, and Practical Reflections (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmons Pubiishing 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, Scripfure in Song. Administered by Maranatha! Music.

17. James F. Lambert, Luther’s Hymns (Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1917), p. 15.


19. See Edward Foley. “Martin Luther: A Model Pastoral Musician,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 14 (December 1987). pp. 406, 410–411, 413.

Rev. Lankheet, a musician, is pastor of the Ontario CRC, Ontario, CA.