Congregational singing is not an occasion for individuals to seek a “just me and Jesus” moment in the midst of a crowd. It is not a private devotional experience.
Congregational singing is a teaching ministry of the local church. According to Scripture, it is a vital means through which believers are instructed and transformed by the gospel.
There are only three New Testament passages that instruct us in congregational singing: Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18–20, and 1 Corinthians 14:15–17.
In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Paul commands believers to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” But what is “the word of Christ”? It does not mean “the words of Christ.” We are not commanded to sing only the words Jesus spoke. “Of” means either “the word about Christ” or “the word which consists of Christ.” Either way, it means the message about Jesus—the gospel.
The gospel—the truth of Christ crucified for sin and raised from death—is to dwell in us richly. How does the gospel dwell in us? By “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” All of us—not just pastors or preachers—are to teach and admonish one another with the gospel. And how do we do this? By “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Congregational singing is an act of instructing and encouraging one another. Finally, notice to whom we’re singing: a dual audience. We sing “with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” So we sing to God, with hearts that believe, but we also sing—the verse implies—to one another.
Congregational singing is an act of instructing and encouraging one another.
Nearly identical to Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:18–20 has one significant difference. Instead of “let the word of Christ dwell in you,” the command is “be filled with the Spirit.” Comparing these texts, we see there’s no difference between the gospel dwelling in us and the Spirit filling us. The Spirit fills us through faith in the gospel; he does not indwell us apart from the gospel.
Finally, notice Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:15–17. My singing in church is not merely for my own benefit, but for the edification of those who hear me. It is not private, personal worship; it is an act of corporate instruction and encouragement. “For you may very well be giving thanks, but the other person is not being built up” (v. 17).
How Then Shall We Sing?
We must sing the gospel explicitly. Our song selections should make clear that Jesus died for sin and rose from the dead. A song set that does not proclaim the gospel is a song set without the power of God to save. It fails to fulfill the primary corporate-music instructions of the New Testament.
This is not to say every song in a service must contain every fact of the gospel. Many good songs establish the themes of God’s holiness, graciousness, faithfulness, and love without mentioning Christ or his work. But these themes find their fulfillment and become good news only when understood through faith in Jesus. Therefore, the scope of our songs in a service should together cover the basics of the person and work of Jesus, crucified and raised. Service planners should see that the gospel is present, regularly sung and applied in memorable, expressive ways.
A song set that does not proclaim the gospel is a song set without the power of God to save.
Edward Mote’s classic hymn, “The Solid Rock,” excels at explaining, applying, and celebrating the finished work of Christ. The first verse establishes that our hope rests on nothing other than Christ’s atoning death and imputed righteousness:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.
The theme continues throughout, covering seasons of darkness and suffering, showing how the oath and covenant made in his blood provides a sure foundation for hope. Mote ends with the return of the risen Christ. Even when we meet him in glory, our confidence has not shifted to our works, but remains in “his righteousness alone.”
When he shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in him be found;
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
In my personal songwriting, I’ve tried to put the gospel at the center of every song. One example, “All Gone,” takes its start from a Spurgeon sermon meditating on the greatness of forgiveness. The song begins by confessing the vastness of our sin:
Sins against the Holy One,
Sins against his loving Son,
Sins against his law we’ve done,
Sins against both God and man,
Sins that we have boldly planned,
Sins outnumbering the sand.
The second verse counters the first with Christ’s exhaustive atonement made:
All the justice we deserved,
All the punishment we earned,
Holy wrath without reserve.
Poured upon the righteous one,
Once for all the work is done,
Now the victory is won.
The chorus celebrates that our sin is all gone, no trace remains:
What grace! No trace remains.
They’re all gone, all gone.
Far as the east is from the west,
Into the ocean they are cast.
They’re all gone, all gone.
He has removed our ev’ry debt,
Covered our shame and our regret.
They’re all gone.
These poetic retellings and applications of the gospel equip our people to remember the gospel and to sing it out, letting the word of Christ dwell in them richly through all the ups and downs of their life together.
Sing the Gospel
As you plan your songs for next Sunday morning, approach it with Paul’s concerns in mind. Sing with thankfulness in your hearts to God, but also sing to one another. Don’t sing for the sake of mere personal edification; sing to instruct and admonish your neighbor. Paul tells us to let the “word of Christ”—the gospel message itself—dwell in us richly and corporately. Singing general truths about God is right and good. But for the gospel to dwell in us, it’s necessary to sing specifically about Christ’s person and work.
Singing general truths about God is right and good. But for the gospel to dwell in us, it’s vital to sing specifically about Christ’s person and work.
In the excitement over gospel-centeredness, let’s make sure we are actually clear about the gospel in the songs we sing. Let’s give our congregations content, not mere sentiment. Let’s sing about the crucified and risen King. For the gospel, spoken and sung, is the power of God for salvation.