Can "Worship Songs" Be Saved?

Bob Kauflin is “Director of Worship Development” for Sovereign Grace Ministries. He’s posted a top-ten list of things not to do when writing “worship songs.” (HT: Challies) The points are helpful but, from the point of view of the RPW, from the point of view of the Reformed Reformation, they aren’t radical enough.Who authorized anyone to write new worship songs, i.e. new lyrics by which God’s people should respond to his grace to us in Christ? Why doesn’t an attempt, however well intentioned, to write new words which God’s people take to their lips in corporate service to the holy Triune God, imply the insufficiency of the Word? Why isn’t God’s Word sufficient for responding to his grace? 

I’ve argued previously that we need new tunes for the psalms. In Recovering the Reformed Confession We ought to sing all of God’s Word. In that case, what is the uninspired song adding to worship? With those caveats, Kauflin makes some helpful points. #4 is especially useful. One reason some old hymnals are frustrating, beyond the fact they are hymnals and not psalters, is that many of the melodies seem to be written too high and, if one doesn’t read music (as most congregants do not) and can’t sing parts then we have trouble.

Most of the other problems Kauflin highlights are swept away simply by refusing to sing non-canonical words in worship.

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  1. We praise God all the time. Even during prayers in a worship service we say things like “We praise you for …(God’s glory)…. “. And you’re asking if we want to put tunes to it then we only use lyrics in Psalms? So, if I want to praise God without some melody, say in prayers or prayer request, I can come up with my own words, but God hates that if I do it with melody?

  2. As an evangelical on something of a pilgrimage towards Reformed Confessionalism, I feel the emotional pull of the RPW. I’m tired of clenching my butt-cheeks while having to watch drama-skits, listen to cheesy chairmen’s gags and endure the singing of kids choruses to the tune of the ‘Flintstones’ during worship.

    I’ve just got a few questions about the exclusive singing of inspired texts. First, why is it ok to pray uninspired prayers in worship, recite uninspired liturgies, listen to uninspired sermons but not ok to sing uninspired hymns?

    Second, to jettison amazing (I’m betraying my prejudices with that word!) didactic hymns that exalt gospel theology (e.g. In Christ Alone, The Power of the Cross, Before the Throne of God Above) seems like throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Is there any evidence of hymn writing in the early church? If they are not fit for public worship, is there any place for these uninspired hymns in the singing of the people of God?

    Third, do you know of any decent music CD’s of Psalmnody?

    Hope these questions don’t sound like the Pharisees asking Jesus about paying taxes! I’m genuinely interested and, as I’ve said earlier, seriously attracted to the RPW.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I’ve heard that there is actual work being done in the URC to update and/or revise the blue Psalter. Is this true? Is any progress being made, or are things still in planning stages?

  4. Hun,

    God has given us canonical lyrics. He hasn’t given us tunes.

    See WCF ch. 21. You’re missing the distinction between “elements” and “circumstances.”


    I think that’s a first on the HB! I’m laughing out loud!

    It’s okay for the minister/elder, who is called by Scripture and ordained to the office of public prayer for the congregation, to pray with uninspired words because that’s his office. The congregation’s office is to repeat God’s Word after him in response to the announcement of God’s Word from the pulpit and from the table and from the font.

    We can keep the amazing grace of hymns on Saturdays or Sundays between services or on any of the other days of the week, but if you will impose (to put it sharply) your hymns on me then why can’t I impose my preferences on you?

    One of the great blessings of the RPW is that it protects us all from conservative preferences or liberal preferences in favor of God’s revealed will and Word.

    I deal with this and the history (briefly) of worship in RRC.

    Yes, there are good CDs of psalmody. Go to the RPCNA website. They sell them there. It’s wonderful.

    Good questions.


  5. “5. Never let anyone alter the way God originally gave your song to you.

    Why mess with divine inspiration? Well, because we see in part and don’t always get it right the first time.”

    Speaking of clenching, is he suggesting what I think he is?

  6. WPS,

    Yes, there is a URC synodical committee to revise the Psalter-Hymnal. I guess they won’t be radical and I’ve heard a few things. The first stage entailed working with the CanRC. The present stage, I think, is working independently of the CanRC. I don’t hear much.

  7. Dr. Clark, other than your book, could you recommend any other books dealing with the RPW? I’ve read through Ames’s Marrow and he deals with the issue, bumping off a few often encountered majority objections. I don’t recall him expressing anything in the book concerning what to sing.

    “I’ve just got a few questions about the exclusive singing of inspired texts. First, why is it ok to pray uninspired prayers in worship, recite uninspired liturgies, listen to uninspired sermons but not ok to sing uninspired hymns? ”
    -Are parallels between the RPW and observance of the Lord’s day in that God commanded 1 day in 7 but not all days are the Lord’s day?

  8. Durell,

    There is a good lot of footnotes with many references to the literature. You might check out Wm Ames, A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1610). This might be hard to find, but it’s available via Early English Books Online as a PDF. See also George Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies. Chris Coldwell did a nice republication of that at Naphtali Press.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I’ve read the 21st Chapter of WCF; with that, you have said (elsewhere) that “the elements of worship are Word, sacrament, and prayer.” So, my question still stands; why praising or praying without melody different then praising or praying with melody? The only difference I see is that the former is usually monotone but the latter, not. Hence I don’t see much ground for strict Psalmody for singing.

  10. “A Fresh Suit against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1610)”
    -I managed to find a 1633 edition, does that make a difference?

  11. Scott, thanks for your frank response. The argument about personal preferences is a powerful one. Hmm. Hadn’t thought of it in that light.

    You might think I’m using hyperbole about ‘Flintstone’ praise time, but I’m really not! We’d have one youngster who would scream ‘Wilma’ at the end of the song (this in an auditorium of about 200 people!) Seriously, I nearly pulled a muscle in my backside with all the cringeing. If I complained about how awful it all was, I was accused of being mean.

    Then you have the petty fall-outs in the praise team because someone is strumming too loudly or playing out of key.

    Another time we had an elderly chairman reading from the KJV to the children during a kids talk. He read about Jesus entering Jerusalem on his ‘ass’. “Do you know what an ‘ass’ is children?” he asked. Then to give a clue he said “An ‘ass’ is something you sit on”.

    At least the RPW would save us from all this.

  12. Hey Dr. Clark,

    I haven’t been able to pick up RRC yet, but I was wondering if the discussion of this whole matter involving song writing and RPW goes into any depth of discussion on the parallel statements of Paul in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 regarding our singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”?

    Knowing the cultural context in which Paul wrote those statements, and knowing (from my snooze-worthy B.Mus. history courses) that the Greek world had its own “psalmois, hymnois, kai hodais pneumatikais” in their pagan worship, I have always though the standard argument that Paul was merely making reference to those terms as found in the headings of the LXX version of the Psalter to be a little less than convincing. It seems to me that Paul could just have easily been exhorting the new saints to make use of their already possessed musical language and talents in offering up praises to God from their newly transformed hearts.

    You don’t have to get in to any of it here, I was just wondering if the book deals with that issue, especially if it breaks new ground on that subject.

  13. Hun,

    I’m sorry can you try again? Where did I argue against or for melody? I complained that some melodies are too high to sing.

    Regarding psalmody, I’m not arguing for strict psalmody. I’m arguing that only canonical songs/words be sung. It’s in the book.

  14. Didn’t the Free Church of Scotland (the confessional one) set some of the Psalms to contemporary tunes? I’m pretty sure they did, and I’m pretty sure we’ve been singing some of them in our services.

  15. Hun,

    WCF 21:5 restricts the ordinary elements of worship, apart from the sacraments, to the reading of the inspired Scripture, the preaching of the word – which is an uninspired exposition, the singing of the inspired psalms and uninspired prayer. One might just as well ask why we can’t read what we want for the scripture reading if we are free to ‘ad-lib’ in the sermon or prayer. But the parallel is not there. Rather it is the reading/singing of scripture and preaching/prayer. Like it or not, that is the confessional paradigm.
    In this day and age of almost universal literacy, the reading of scripture might seem to be lost to view as a separate element of worship and consequently then, the parallel with singing and the corresponding restriction to inspired material. Psalmody then is seen as the odd man out and incorrectly compared to preaching/praying, hence the question and the assumed answer.
    Again, that was not and is not the consistent reformed view.


    Michael Bushell’s Songs of Zion is the unanswered contemporary classic on the RPW and psalmody generally blackballed and blacklisted by one and all. It is on Crown & Covenant, the RPCNA publishing house, though he is an OPC RE. Unfortunately, it might be out of print at the moment, but it would be well worth your while to get a hold of a copy.


  16. One more question! I know you aren’t in favour of musical accompanyment during the worship service. The question goes (from my wife this time!), ‘Why insist on no muscal instruments when singing Psalms about praising God with stringed instruments?’

    Would the Reformed response go something like, ‘Musical instruments were part of the OT shadows of worship. We should no more go back to them than we should go back to having incense and slaughtered cattle’?

    That’s what I said to my wife when she came at me with the above argument!

  17. Bob, you said

    “Rather it is the reading/singing of scripture and preaching/prayer. Like it or not, that is the confessional paradigm.”

    My question is now naturally lead to “Is such pairing (reading-singing, preaching-prayer) backed up strongly by the Word? Is such paring consistent with what we learn from the Scriptures about worship or praise? Isn’t this a human invention?” WCF 21:5 talks about Reading, Preaching, and Singing; but Prayer is dealt elsewhere, so I don’t see WCF making such pairing. Or am I missing something? I know that neither John Calvin nor Thomas Manton (who wrote the introduction to WCF) endorse exclusive scripture singing.

    Moreover, I am in the position that Singing should not to be thought as an element, but more properly, “Praise” (Hebrew word “tehillah”) should be considered as an element. We can praise with monotonic words or with melody. I think it is an error to think that “praising in melody” is different than “praising in monotone words”.

    I think the Scripture tells us not to remain with lyrics in the scriptures. I agree with the view that the word “psalms” in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 is matched with “tehillah” rather than “sefer tehillim” (the book of psalms).

  18. I ordered my copy weeks ago and it’s still not made its way to damp, dark Scotland from I looked in my local christian book shop, but they don’t have your book. I suppose I’ll need to wait for Joel Osteen to write a book on confessional theology before they’ll stock anything like that.

  19. Thanks Nick! You could ask the bookshop to carry it, but it doesn’t have a UK publisher so….. (OTOH, my first two books were published in the UK and they didn’t have easy American distribution so it evens out).

  20. Hun,

    You’ll have to read the book. I can’t repeat all the argumentation for the RPW here.

    As to your reading of history, I’m afraid the evidence is against you. See RRC.

  21. Well then I guess I’ll have to read your book.

    Now to support my reading of John Calvin and Thomas Manton, let me just quote from their commentaries:

    Calvin on Colossians 3:16> Psalms, hymns. He [Paul] does not restrict the word of Christ to these particular departments, but rather intimates that all our communications should be adapted to edification, that even those which tend to hilarity may have no empty savour …[ellipsis]… Further, under these three terms he includes all kinds of songs. They are commonly distinguished in this way — that a psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of: a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode (spiritual song) contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters.

    Manton on James 5:13> Others question whether we may sing scripture psalms, the psalms of David, which to me seemeth to look like the cavil of a profane spirit. But to clear this also: I confess we do not forbid other songs; if grave and pious, after good advice they may be received into the church. Tertullian, in his Apology, showth that in the primitive times they used this liberty, either to sing scripture psalms or such as were of a private composure.

  22. I know you don’t Dr. Clark, and in that I agree with you. By the way, I am a member of RPCNA and I love to sing psalms. Yet, I think not all the psalms but the ones classified as “tehillah” are more suitable for worship. During worship we should concentrate on praising God rather than our personal comfort. Congregation may sing the Ten Commandments if the main purpose is the edification of one another; but when the primary purpose is to praise God in public worship I think there are better choices. Of course there is preaching and edification going on during public worship but isn’t that what God is giving to us? Shouldn’t what we be doing is praising and bowing to Him? That is why I think the attitude “I am singing only the Psalms or the Scriptures so my worship is not as bad as others worshipping with man made hymns” is not desirable.

  23. Hun,

    If I’m understanding you, I agree that pride in getting the RPW right is neither helpful nor appropriate in worship. I agree, if I understand you, that our attitude in worship ought to be one of humble thankfulness to God for first coming graciously to us and for calling and leading us into his presence. We might call that grace and dialogue (God speaking and the people responding, by his grace) the substance of worship.

    I think we agree, however, that the substance of worship must be regulated according to God’s Word. Pietism and evangelicalism have often set the relation and dialogic elements against each other. Reformed piety and practice doesn’t require us or even permit us to do that.

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