Congregational Singing: How (Part 2)
Series: Come, Let Us Sing
As we wrap up our series on congregational singing, we see that one of the attitudes with which we should sing is an attitude of joy, and that far from being contrary to dense doctrine, this joy proceeds from dense doctrine.
1 Peter (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), Wayne Grudem
Prayer, Timothy Keller
The Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards
We’re wrapping up our mini-series on congregational singing this morning, and this is the second week we’re looking at the question of how we sing. The question is with what attitude should we sing, and we saw last week that it is with reverence and awe, but what about happiness and joy? I’ve gotten this question during this series, and over the years of our existence as a church, and it sounds something like this, “Mike I get it, we want to have songs that really give us good doctrine, and the hymns are great at that, but what about emotion? What about intimacy? What about feeling God, experiencing God? Don’t we need that too?” Well, as with any question about what we do as a church, we want to do our best to answer it from the Bible, and so here we are today, and the answer we’re going to see may surprise you. The answer is basically yes, we should sing with a real joy that typically produces the emotion of happiness (maybe that part surprises you), but no, we do not need to depart from doctrinally rich songs to do so (maybe that part surprises you). Instead, we’re going to see in these two short verses that Christian worship is ordinarily characterized by great joy, but it’s a joy that comes through faith in Christ as he is revealed in gospel doctrine, not apart from it. So sing with exuberant and serious joy, and we’ll talk about where it comes from, what it is like, and where it leads. And I’ll just warn you at the outset: We’re going to spend most of the sermon on the first point. Sometimes that happens because I mess up and spend too much time there, but this time it’s intentional, because I think it’s so important for us to understand where the joy for which the Bible calls comes from. So let’s jump into it.
Where it comes from
Where we began reading in verse 8 begins with the words “Though you have not seen him, you love him,” where the “him” refers to Jesus Christ from verse 7. The people to whom Peter was writing had never seen Jesus. Some people in their day did see Jesus. Peter, the author of this letter, was one of Jesus’ disciples while Jesus was on earth, and thus he saw Jesus. In the 33 years between Jesus’ birth and death, many saw Jesus. Even after he rose from the dead, he appeared to a number of his disciples, and then to 500 more (1 Cor 15:6). But then he ascended into heaven, and since then, aside from a few exceptional cases of which the Bible tells us, no one has seen him: not you, not me, not the recipients of Peter’s letter.
And yet, they loved him. Notice they didn’t merely love the sense of significance, belonging, security, or purpose they got from him. Notice they didn’t merely love the philosophy, theology, or ethics they learned from him. They loved him, the person, Jesus Christ, though they had never seen him. What is love? Some say it’s a feeling, others that it’s an action, but biblically it is associated with both, but identical with neither. Love produces action for the good of the one who is loved, but it cannot be identified with action. Elsewhere the Bible says it is possible to deliver up your body to be burned, which is likely a reference to martyrdom, without love (1 Cor 13:3). In other words, it is possible to willingly die for Christ without loving Christ. Someone may do it, for example, because they think that by so doing they will earn eternal life for themselves, or because they think they will be honored and celebrated by people after they are dead for doing it. So love produces action, but love cannot be identified with action. It is better identified as an affection, which is not quite the same as an emotion, or a feeling. Bear with me here, as these distinctions are meaningful.
Jonathan Edwards helpfully defines an affection as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” Because of the connection God has instituted between our souls and our bodies, affections typically do produce emotions, but affections are not identical to emotions. God has affections, but not emotions, because God has no body, and as our understanding of brain science develops, we learn more and more just how much what we call emotions are related to changes in brain chemistry, a brain chemistry God does not have. Yet, God does love. Love typically produces actions and feelings, but it can be identified with neither. Love, then, again borrowing from Edwards, is that affection whereby one is dear to another. It is when our soul is inclined to something or someone in a particularly vigorous and lively way. So here, when Peter says to his readers, “you love him,” he means your soul is inclined toward him in a vigorous and lively way, such that you find him beautiful, glorious, delightful, and you therefore desire to obey his commandments (John 14:21) and serve his interests in the world (Phil 2:21).
Now, how could they love him, having never seen him? They could first because he was still alive, though they had not seen him. You cannot love a dead person in the present tense. You can be said to have loved them previously, and you can be said to still love their memory, but love between persons in the truest sense is only possible when there is a living communion between those persons, and that communion with Christ was possible for them, and for you and me, because though Jesus died, he rose again, and though he ascended into heaven, where we cannot now see him, he is still alive. And, though they have not seen him, they did hear him. Look at verses 10-12: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
There Peter tells us that when the prophets of the Old Testament prophesied, it was the Spirit of Christ speaking, and then he says the things that have now been announced to them were announced through those who preached the good news to you, that is the gospel, by the same Spirit, sent from heaven, sent by Jesus himself (John 15:26, 16:7)! When they heard the gospel, they heard Jesus, because it was by the Spirit of Jesus the gospel was proclaimed to them! And when they heard it, they believed, which is where our text takes us next; look again at verse 8. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him.
Notice again the present tense: It’s not that you previously believed in him once, but your present state, the way you live now, is as one who is not seeing Jesus, but is believing in him. Notice also that the object of faith, like the object of love, is Jesus himself, the person. The person is revealed through the gospel message, but true faith is ultimately in the person. It’s hard to bring this out in English, but the Greek there is even stronger: Though you do not now see him, you believe into him would be a more literal translation. The connotation is one of giving the whole self to him, trusting him, setting all your hopes for the future on him.
Doctors have to take board exams. They are apparently difficult, and the score has a significant impact on their future. Imagine someone came to them, though, and said, “Someone else has already taken this exam in your place. She is a true genius, and when she heard of your situation, she decided to take the exam in your place, so that you would get credit for her score. She got a perfect score, and now, if you will believe in her, her perfect score will be credited to you. Or, you can keep studying and trying your best to get the best score. Which will it be?” You might ask, “Well, can I see this person? Can I see their perfect score?” The person answers, “No; you have never seen her, and you do not now see her, but will you believe in her?” To do so would mean you’re setting all your hopes for the future of your medical career on her. She’s revealed to you through the message, but ultimately you’d be trusting her for your future medical career.
That’s what believing in Jesus is like, except instead of setting all your hopes for the future of your medical career on him, you’re setting all your hopes for your eternal future on him! You’re saying that you trust when you appear before the judgment seat of God, that what he did for you will be sufficient to earn for your eternal life. You’re saying you trust him to carry you through from here to that day. So the Reformed catechisms define faith as “receiving and resting on him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.” And if you believed the lady really did get that perfect score for you and freely offered it to you, wouldn’t you start to love her? How could you not? And might you not even begin to rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, as we see verse 8 continue to say?
You know, there’s no way Peter knew everyone to whom he was writing. He addressed Christians throughout multiple regions. So how could he say in verse 8 that they love Christ? How’s he know? Because he knows what it means to be a Christian is to be someone believing in Christ, and that if someone is believing in Christ, they will love him, and if someone loves Christ, they will rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, because they have Christ, the one whom they love most. Here’s the order of operations, then: You hear Christ when you hear the gospel proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit, you believe in Christ himself as he is revealed in the gospel, and so you love him, though you have never seen him, and now having the one you love, you rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, and then, in any normally functioning embodied human, that does typically produce a happy emotion. Hear, believe, love, rejoice, feel; that’s the order.
Now, who doesn’t want to be happy? Our most natural desire as humans is the desire to be happy. And maybe you think that Christianity or that God himself is against that. “Nope, you gotta lay down your desire to be happy, so you can be a good person and not go to hell.” That is quite literally Satanic; it is a lie of Satan. 1 Peter 1:8 shows us that a joy inexpressible and filled with glory is expected of those who believe in Jesus. In other words, that kind of joy is part of the ordinary Christian life. Did you know that? Maybe you do know that, but you’ve just kinda learned to live without it, and have given up aspiring for it. You’ve believed in Jesus, you still do, but you’ve just come to accept as normal that you won’t have much joy from him. So maybe you come to church occasionally, maybe you even pray, but you go elsewhere for joy in life. And if that’s you today, can I just tell you first that you aren’t alone? I’ve been through seasons like that myself and know plenty of other Christians have too. But second, can I just tell you that you’re wrong? There really is so much joy to be had in Jesus, but to get it, you have to believe that, and you have to want it. Believe that today, and get your hopes up for what’s possible in Jesus.
Others of you expect that kind of happiness, and perhaps have even tasted it before. That’s a good thing; don’t suppress it. But consider this: Are you willing to follow the order of operations God has ordained? The emotion of happiness is a byproduct at the end of the process we’re seeing this passage. Remember the order is hear, believe, love, rejoice, feel. But those first few steps take time, they take intentionality and concentration, and if we are just narrowly fixated on the feeling at the end, it becomes tempting to skip them altogether, and just seek the feeling, whatever the path to it.
Unfortunately, churches and church leaders are also not immune to this temptation. We know that if we can deliver that happy feeling, you’re more likely to come back, because as it turns out, people like feeling happy. So, sometimes even with good intentions, church leaders have tried to deliver the feeling to attendees, without a due consideration of the order God has ordained to get to that feeling. More traditionally, churches sometimes did that with visuals. Though this text is clear that you do not now see him, but believe, and that the order toward the joy inexpressible and filled with glory begins with hearing, not seeing, a few hundred years after Christ’s ascension, churches began producing images of him, and even of other saints, and using them in worship. The use of these images in worship, and sometimes even bowing before them and kissing them, produced powerful emotions in the worshippers, and the church leaders encouraged the worshippers to identify that emotion with the work of the Spirit in their lives.
Today you can still find churches doing that sort of thing and it’s actually making a comeback in some quarters of Christianity, but probably more commonly the attempt to create an emotional response through visuals today can be seen in the lighting, smoke shows, and professionally produced videos of the stereotypical megachurch. And, connecting back to our series on congregational singing, another key way churches today will try to create the emotional response is through the music. The words decrease in significance; often you can barely even tell what they are as they are drowned in the sea of instrumentation and electricity. Where the words are intelligible, they are typically simple and designed to produce an emotional buzz in anyone who sings them, whether believer or unbeliever. Then, when the emotion comes, the pastor tells you it was Jesus or the Holy Spirit or some combination thereof.
And again, the problem with that isn’t that it produces powerful emotions. 1 Peter 1:8 is very much in favor of producing powerful emotions. The problem is where it comes from. The problem is that it doesn’t follow the order of operations God has instituted, and therefore, the final emotion produced isn’t actually a joy in the Lord, the joy inexpressible and filled with glory described here, because it’s not flowing from the word of Christ dwelling richly in us, it’s not flowing from hearing the word with faith, and therefore loving Christ. As Tim Keller says in his book on prayer, “It is possible to use techniques of meditation and imagination to create changes in consciousness that are not at all tied to the reality of who God is.” And so also, it is possible to use techniques of sight and sound to create changes in emotions that are not at all tied to the reality of who God is. They’re flowing from the psychological effect that certain combinations of sounds tend to have, no matter who plays them, or what they’re about. They’re flowing from the same place the happiness produced at a good concert flows from. That’s not inherently sinful; go enjoy a good concert if you’d like. But it’s not our goal in church. Our goal in church is the joy inexpressible and filled with glory, and the path to it is hear, believe, love, then rejoice with joy inexpressible and filled with glory, then the emotion of happiness typically comes more as a byproduct than as the goal.
So, what’s that mean for us? It means the first thing we do in our services, before we sing, is hear. We begin with a call to worship, something from scripture that you can hear and believe, that is meant to fuel your love for God, which we then respond to by rejoicing in song. It means we sing after the sermon for the same reason. Our goal in singing, then, is not first to produce a certain emotion in one another through it, but to express an emotion we already have because The Spirit of God is enabling us to believe the word of God that we’ve heard! So we’re putting the weight of producing the emotion on the Spirit and the Word, rather than the visuals or the music, which is admittedly less comfortable to our flesh, because while we can faithfully minister the Word, we can’t control what the Spirit does with it! If you play a certain combination of chords, you can pretty much count on it affecting people emotionally, whether the Spirit of God works through it or not. But if we read and exposit the scriptures faithfully, and the Spirit doesn’t give us ears to hear, nobody’s going to have the joy inexpressible and filled with glory. So we actually don’t want to pretend we do by doing some emotionally powerful songs and calling it the Spirit. If it’s not the Spirit giving this church life, let it die.
Nonetheless, we do recognize that singing not only expresses what is already inside us; it also shapes what will be inside us in the future. So while the joy inexpressible and filled with glory should be produced by love proceeding from faith proceeding from the word, singing does also produce emotions that reinforce that. Again, that’s a good thing biblically, but we just want to again do what we can to tie those emotions to the word. That means we want to sing songs whose words are the things driving the emotions, while the musicality takes on a supporting role. In the language of the Oscars, the words of the songs we sing should be the lead actor, whereas the musicality is in a supporting role. So when considering a song, we ought to consider questions like, “If you read the words of this song without the music, should those words produce joy in us?” or “Do the emotions the music of this song tends to produce match the emotions the words of this song ought to produce?” And we reject the idea that if we want our congregational singing to be joyful we have to get away from densely doctrinal songs and sprinkle in some shallowness. The doctrine, if it’s true biblical doctrine, is the God-ordained path to the joy inexpressible and filled with glory! With some of these songs you might have to sing them 5 or 6 times before you even understand what they mean, but when you really understand that your sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and you bear it no more, and you really believe that, how can you not feel the bliss of that glorious thought, and say, as the hymn goes, “Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul”?
And if you find that isn’t happening, again I sympathize with you; the songs we sing sometimes don’t affect me as they ought to. The things described in this passage admit of degrees. Though all Christians love Christ, some love him more than others, and we love him more on some days than on others. Though all Christians rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, some rejoice with greater joy, and on some Sundays, our joy is greater than others. But if you notice as a pattern that there is little joy in your singing, can I just encourage you that instead of first thinking, “Man, I wish we sang more emotional songs,” think, “what were the scriptures read in that service? What was the good news proclaimed in the sermon? What are the words of that song?” A great use of time in your Christian life would be to sit down and just read the words of some of the songs we sing here, if not simply to understand them better, but also then to be able to ask, “Wait, why isn’t it bringing me joy to hear that my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more?” Repent, go back to the gospel, believe in Christ, ask the Spirit to produce in you that love and joy that faith in him ought to produce, and keep rejoicing until he does so. With that, let’s finally talk about what this rejoicing with joy inexpressible and filled with glory is like.
What it is like
The phrase in verse 8 is rejoicing with a joy inexpressible and filled with glory. Rejoicing is the activity, the joy inexpressible and filled with glory the attitude with which it is done. Rejoicing is bigger than singing; we’ve talked already about how worship encompasses all of life and all we do when we gather as a church, but singing is probably the most prominent manner of rejoicing throughout scripture, and our focus in this series. So we can learn from this how we should sing, or with what attitude we should sing: with joy inexpressible and filled with glory. I’ve already alluded to the fact that joy is an affection, like love, and it corresponds to love in that joy comes when we attain that which we love. It is the relaxation of desire, because now we have that which we desire, and so we are pleased. In embodied souls like us, that joy of the soul then does typically produce the bodily emotion of happiness.
And it is a joy inexpressible and filled with glory. More literally it is a joy that is unspeakable, or beyond words. This may be another explanation for why we sing, rather than simply speak to God and to one another. The words are insufficient, not to cultivate the joy in us, but to express the joy we feel from believing the words we have heard! It explains why some of you may even feel the desire at times to clap, raise your hands, or move your body. We are groping for ways to express the inexpressible. Sometimes people wonder, “Is it ok to do things like that?” and the short answer is yes, it’s ok to do things like that, and may even be really good to do things like that if that’s a natural way for you to express joy alongside your singing. Let me just give a few biblical guidelines: Such activity should not replace singing. Singing is the one thing we are clearly commanded to do in the New Testament, and no body motion by itself can say something true about who God is, what God has done, or what God will do. So detaching it from singing tends to detach the emotional experience from the word, whereas we’re seeing here that the emotional experience should flow from the word. Furthermore, we should be sensitive to how what we’re doing affects others. You can overdo that so that it becomes fear of what others think of me, but 1 Corinthians 14 tells us to do everything we do in public worship to build up others. Considering how my actions are hitting others is loving. So, if you were to run around the room dancing while everyone is singing, for example, you probably wouldn’t be addressing others in song, and probably would distract others from being able to focus on the words of the song.
That said, I don’t think our challenge as a church has generally been too much or too diverse emotional expression. I remember one member who is generally more expressive while singing saying to me something to the effect of, “Mike, sometimes when we’re singing, I look around and wonder if people are really getting this. I think of the sermon and think, man, did you hear what I just heard? I think of the words of the song and think, do you get what we’re singing?” Another member has said that she’s seen people in this church yell and get excited at a sporting event, and if you can do it there, why can’t you do it for Jesus? It’s fair to consider whether sports fill you with more joy than Jesus does. Or might it be that there are actually ways you naturally would express a joy inexpressible and filled with glory, but you’re holding them back out of self-consciousness, or fear of what others might think of you? Forget that. Forget yourself. Rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. I know everyone’s different and every culture is different, so a joy inexpressible and filled with glory can truly be there, and not show itself outwardly the same in each person. Generally, majority white and Asian cultures tend to be more reserved in emotional expression, whereas majority black and Latino cultures tend to be more expressive, but maybe this is an area where we who are coming out of majority white and Asian cultures have something to learn from our black and brown brothers and sisters. The point is not to examine one another and judge one another’s emotional expression, but let’s all examine ourselves. If you are one of those who are prone to observable emotional expression, consider whether it’s coming from faith in the Word, and how it’s building up others. But if you’re among those who may make others wonder, “Is this doing anything in you?” consider whether you are believing the word you’re hearing, and if so, consider whether you might have something to learn from your other brothers and sisters in how you express the joy that ought to produce. Faith in Jesus and the love for Jesus that flows from that should produce a joy inexpressible, and that is an exuberant joy.
And then, it also should produce a joy that is full of glory. What does that mean? The glory referred to here is the glory of God, and the background is the worship of the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. There were times then when the glory of the LORD would fill the temple, and that’s the idea here. The joy we feel is no ordinary joy, but a joy shot through with the glory of God himself. It is a holy joy, a pure joy, a joy flowing from the presence of the God who, as we saw last week, is a consuming fire. So just as last week we saw that reverence and awe are not contrary to joy, so we see this week that joy is not contrary to reverence and awe. It’s an exuberant joy, and it’s a serious joy. Remember Newton’s phrase: Vain indeed the worldling’s treasure, all his boasted pomp and show; solid joys, and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know. So there’s a sense in which it shouldn’t sound like the rowdy cheer of a sporting event or the adoring fans singing along at a concert, not because it shouldn’t be happy or emotional, but because it’s a different kind of happiness that springs from a different source. Good music can produce a happy emotion, but it can’t produce a joy inexpressible and filled with glory. That’s a joy, to use Keller’s earlier phrase, that is very much tied to the reality of who God is, to his very glory as it is revealed in the gospel. And it’s a joy that in some way recognizes that though we possess Christ now by faith, we still have not yet seen him. We aren’t yet at our final destination. A day of greater rejoicing is coming, and so let’s close with where such singing leads.
Where it leads
Verse 9 tells us that as we love Christ, as we continue believing though continue not seeing him, as we rejoice with a joy inexpressible and filled with glory, we are obtaining the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls. The Bible can speak of salvation in the past, present, and future tenses. On the one hand, if you are a Christian, you have been saved. Verse 3, just before our passage speaks to that: Past tense, God has caused us to be born again to a living hope. If you are believing in Jesus today, you have gone from death to new life, you are a child of God, all your sins, past, present, and future have been forgiven, and you are legally righteous in God’s sight. You have been saved. But, here in verse 9 we see that we are also in the process of receiving salvation still as we continue believing, loving, and rejoicing. Through these things, God is still in the process of remaking us into the image of Christ so that we become inwardly righteous like him. In the words of verses 6-7, just before our passage, he is still refining us, especially through trials. And then one day, alluded to at the end of verse 7, the day when Jesus is revealed, when you finally do see him, you will be saved. You will be cleansed of all remaining sin, you will be declared righteous publicly, your body will be physically resurrected, and you will live with Jesus forever in a new heaven and new earth. To extend our previous illustration, it’s as though the moment you believe, you are licensed as a doctor, because the one in whom you trusted aced the board exam for you. Then, he goes to work to make you into a doctor as great as he, until the end, when you retire, and receive the payout from your retirement account.
Some of you here today have not yet been saved. Perhaps you even profess to believe, but you do not love Christ, and so there may be emotional highs and lows for you even when you attend church, but there is not this joy inexpressible and filled with glory. It comes first from hearing. Though Christ partook of the exuberant joys of heaven, he became a man of sorrow. Though he is the very glory of God, he veiled it to take on the shame of the cross on our behalf, and then rose again to the glory of his Father, so that we would have not seen him could be saved by believing in him, and be filled with a joy inexpressible and filled with glory. Repent and believe in Christ, and you will be saved. Many more of you have been born again, but you are still grieved by various trials, and you still do not see Jesus. Keep listening to his word. Never drift from the gospel. Keep trusting him, keep loving him, rejoice with a joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, and in the end you will obtain the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.