Why Our Church Sings Hymns
(As Well As Psalms)
by Pastor Larry Wilson (2012)
Most Orthodox Presbyterian congregations sing hymns (as well as Psalms) in their public worship. But some of our brethren in our Reformed tradition, in sister denominations, even in our own denomination, believe that this practice is wrong. They believe that fidelity to Scripture involves singing only Old Testament Psalms in public worship (“exclusive psalmody”). I have dear friends—godly folk, some of whom served as teachers and pastors to me—who are committed to this position. In a nutshell, they argue that:
Premise 1: God requires his church to do in worship only that which
he commands (i.e., only that which Scripture requires).
Premise 2: He commands his church to sing Psalms.
Premise 3: He does not command his church to sing hymns.
Conclusion: Therefore, the church is to sing Psalms only in public
I do think that the conclusion of this argument follows logically from its premises. At several points in my pilgrimage I have almost been persuaded by it. Nevertheless, in the end, I think that this argument is incorrect because some of its premises are unbiblical and wrong. The following are some of my main reasons (none of which is original to me, but all of which are persuasive to me).
I affirm Premise 1 of the argument. This is nicknamed “the regulative principle of worship”, and it is what we confess in our Church’s Standards (e.g., Confession of Faith XXI:1 [cf. I:6]; Larger Catechism 108–109; Shorter Catechism 50–51). I should clarify that I think that the Reformed understanding of this principle includes the assumption that we need to form and direct our worship not only by the explicit commands of Scripture but also by implications of Scriptures, such as its examples, patterns, and narrative structure (that is, by what is “either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”— Confession of Faith I:6).
But I question Premise 2 of the argument for the following reasons:
1. Where did our Lord actually command his church, including the old covenant church, to sing the Psalms in public worship? It does not appear to me that Scriptural commands to “sing psalms” (e.g., 1 Chr. 16:9 KJV; Ps. 105:2 KJV) use the term in the technical sense of songs or prayers from the canonical book of Psalms; they seem to use it in a more generic sense, as in “sing praises to God.” That is, it seems to me that these verses command the element of congregational singing, but they do not necessarily specify the form of the words that will be used in congregational singing.
2. I’ve heard it asserted so often that the old covenant church sang psalms exclusively in their worship that it feels preposterous to question that assertion, but I do question it. From Moses till David, Psalm 90 was the only psalm. Did they sing only that song that entire time? That doesn’t seem likely. As well, why do we find other songs throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Ex. 15; Num. 21:17–18; Dt. 31:19–32:44; Jdgs. 5; Isa. 5:1–7; 26-27; Hab. 3)? I do not think that even the old covenant church sang psalms exclusively in worship.
I also question Premise 3 of the argument.
1. Before the coming of Christ, Israel added new psalms in response to each significant step in redemptive history. The church’s hymnody grew in response to the LORD’s saving acts. As John Frame puts it:
In Scripture, new acts of God call for “new songs” (Pss. 33:3; 40:3; 144:9; 149:1; Isa. 42:10; Rev. 5:9; 14:3). God delivers his people from Egypt, and they sing a new song (Ex. 15). He gives them water in the wilderness, and they sing (Num. 21:17). He renews the covenant and commits it to their memory with the song of Deuteronomy 32. Christ is conceived by the Spirit, and Mary responds with her Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55; compare 1:67–79; 2:14, 29–32). The picture is not one of a static hymnal given by God for all time; rather, it is the dynamic picture of God continually doing wonderful deeds and his people responding to them with shouts of praise. Just as God’s deliverances elicit new prayers of thanksgiving and new subject matter for preaching, so they elicit new songs. In this regard, is it even remotely possible that the greatest divine deliverance of all, the redemptive work of Christ, should not evoke new songs?
Indeed, when all of redemptive history finally reaches its climax and fulfillment—when the shadow finally gives way to the good things to come, the realities—when the mystery hidden for ages and generations is at last revealed to his saints—does it really make sense that the covenant community’s hymnody would fall silent for the first time ever? Of all the times to sing “a new song” to the Lord, is not the day of new covenant fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ the time to do so?
2. As we might expect, then, the songs sung by the redeemed saints recorded in the book of Revelation are explicitly (not merely implicitly) Christ-centred (e.g., Rev. 5:9–10; 14:3; 15:3–4; 19:5–7). Is it sinful for the saints and angels to sing those songs in heaven? That’s impossible. Is it sinful for us to sing them here on earth? That’s implausible. Why? Because elsewhere the New Testament tells us consciously to pattern our worship after “the heavenly pattern” (cf. Hebrews 8).
3. Not surprisingly, then, there appear to be new covenant hymns embedded in the New Testament itself (e.g. Eph. 5:14; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20). Apparently, these were known widely enough to be cited by the apostle Paul.
4. Moreover, the Lord does seem explicitly to command his church to compose and sing new covenant hymns in addition to the psalms. As Edmund Clowney argues:
“Those who insist that the church should sing biblical psalms exclusively need to consider more carefully the apostle’s words in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–20. It is the wisdom that is the enduement of the Spirit-filled church, taught by the Word of Christ, that enables them to admonish and teach one another; they do so in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Paul’s expression shows that he is thinking of the wisdom that composes psalms, and therefore not the psalms of David. Nor do his words refer to inspired compositions exclusively. The context of his use of spiritual wisdom in Colossians 1:9, his prayers for wisdom, and his charge to walk in wisdom show that he thinks of the wisdom of the Spirit as the daily need of every Christian, not a gift of revelation to bring the Word of Christ.” 
5. It is not startling, then, to find a mention of distinct new covenant hymns composed for worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26.
Therefore, since I believe that Premises 2 and 3 are wrong, I believe that the conclusion of the argument is wrong. It appears to me that not only does our Lord not require us to limit our congregational singing to the biblical Psalms, but also that he positively summons us to sing praises “that reflect the full scope of divine revelation.”
I had the privilege of studying under J. G. Vos and others who were committed to exclusive psalmody—people for whom I have warm affection and deep respect. I have many friends who hold this view. They have helped me to grow in my love for the Psalms. I also love my exclusive Psalm-singing brethren. I know that they want to please their Lord, as do I. I respect their view, even if respect for my own view has not always been forthcoming. I also believe that they must follow their consciences before the Lord, as must I, for “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Moreover, in matters of conscience we each must answer to the Lord, not to one another (Rom. 14:4). I have listened sincerely and openly when they have appealed to me to embrace their view.
And now I appeal to them—please consider before the Lord: is it possible that it falls short of God’s revealed will to sing only Psalms in new covenant worship? Is it really a good thing to refuse to sing praises that explicitly exalt the Person and work of the One who has been given a name that is above all names, the only name by which we may be saved, the only Mediator between God and man? Does it really obey our Lord’s instructions in John 4:21–24  to insist on restricting our praises to the shadows of the old covenant rather than to the substance of the new covenant? Does not the book of Hebrews command Christians to worship in terms of the new covenant, not the old? In this day of new covenant Spirit and Truth worship, could it possibly violate the regulative principle of worship to insist on singing our praises only in the terminology of the old covenant? Does that wrongly hide the face of Jesus Christ behind the veil of Moses?
Larry Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church
serving as a church planter in Airdrie, Alberta, Canada.
For further reading:
Clowney, Edmund P. — The Church (IVP, 1995), chapter 9, pgs. 117–136.
Coppes, Leonard J. — “Exclusive Psalmody and Doing God’s Will As It Is Fulfilled in Christ” (available from the author, 9161 Vine St., Thornton, CO 80229)
Gordon, T. David — “Why Not Exclusive Psalmody?” (available at http://www.tdgordon.net/theology/)
Grossman, Robert — “A Friendly Critique of Exclusive Psalmody” (not published)
Irons, Lee — “Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody?” (available at http://www.the-highway.com/psalmody_Irons.html)
Lauer, Stewart E. — “By Writing ‘Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs,’ Did Paul Really Mean, ‘Psalms, Psalms, and Psalms?’” (available at http://woodylauer.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/exclusive-psalmody-tract1.pdf).
Murray, Iain H. — “The Psalter–the Only Hymnal?” (Banner of Truth, 2001)
Pearce, Ronald — “A New Song? A Biblical and Historical Look at the Use of Psalms and Hymns in Public Worship” (available from the author, 122 Deerfield Drive, Hackettstown, NJ 07840)
Pribble, Stephen — “The Regulative Principle and Singing in Worship” (available at http://www.all-of-grace.org/pub/pribble/hymnsing.html)
Sanborn, Scott F. — “Inclusive Psalmody: Why ‘psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs’ Refer to More Than the Old Testament Psalter” (available at http://www.kerux.com/doc/2303A3.asp#_ftn1)
 In this, we simply follow the American Presbyterian tradition. Compare The Directory for the Worship of God, adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the USA in 1788, “It is the duty of Christians to praise God by singing psalms, or hymns, publicly in the church, as also privately in the family” (IV:1).
 The reason for making that clarification is because objections to this principle frequently arise from misunderstandings of it. It seems to me that the three most significant objections to this regulative principle arise in this way: (1) by confusing this confessional view with the so-called “regulative principle” as some say it should be defined—that God requires his church to do in worship only that which he explicitly commands in the New Testament. That, I believe, is an anabaptist hijacking of the regulative principle (originally formulated mainly to combat the baptism of covenant infants); (2) by failing to see that Scriptural requirements can be implicit as well as explicit; (3) by failing to notice the distinction between “elements” (what we do in worship, which must be rooted in the requirements of Scripture) and “circumstances” (how we do them, “common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” [Confession of Faith I:6]). God’s Word puts it this way, “All things [the elements] should be done decently and in order [the circumstances]” (1 Cor. 14:40).
 Frame, John, Worship in Spirit and Truth (P&R, 1996), pg. 125.
 Clowney, Edmund P., The Church (IVP, 1995), pg. 136. Incidentally, this quote comes from a very good chapter on worship, with a very helpful discussion of the regulative principle of worship.
 OPC Directory for Public Worship II:B:2:c.
 This article is not intended to argue against singing Psalms at all in worship; I think we should sing Psalms; most of us should sing many more of them than we do; I also think, however, that new covenant believers should not restrict their singing to Psalms only.