Singing in the Holy Spirit

Singing in the Holy Spirit

Joe Nesom

C. S. Lewis described the ideal “Christian society” as “full of singing and rejoicing.”[1] Historically, Christians have been a singing people and that is especially true of those denominations that have a reformed heritage. Still, not all those who profess faith in Christ are equally enthusiastic about music in the life of Christ’s church. Many years age, a friend told me that he did not care much for the “preliminaries.” He would have preferred to go to the sermon without any initial “distractions.”

What does God’s Word teach us on this subject? Should we sing? Why? Further, what songs are appropriate to the worship of our God?

Singing in the Spirit

Our Lord told the Samaritan woman, “God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, NIV). What is the meaning of the phrase “in the Spirit?” Without the motivation and aid of the Spirit of God, there can be no true worship. Those who would worship God in the manner that pleases him must be born of the Spirit and filled with the Spirit.

The new birth is a miracle of the grace of God. It is nothing less than the Holy Spirit’s coming to the rescue of a soul that is dead in trespasses and sins and imparting to that soul the life of God. Without regeneration no one can do anything in the Spirit. The unconverted man does not have the Spirit of God. He is devoid of any legitimate impulse to adore our God. He may sing with the congregation of the redeemed but he does not sing “in the Spirit.” His “worship” is not acceptable to the Lord.

But what of the converted? Is his worship always acceptable? Is it not possible for the regenerate man to fail in the practice of acceptable worship? Indeed it is. He must be filled with the Spirit of God; i.e., his worship must be the product of his faith in the Lord (Eph. 5:18).

Why Should We Sing?

We serve a master who is King of kings and Lord of lords. When he commands us we must obey.

God’s word is filled with commands that call for his worship and many of these instruct his servants to sing his praises, “Shout with joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious” (Psalm 66:1-2, NIV). It is true that the Lord graciously invites us to sing his praises, but we must not err in thinking that singing the glory of the name of God is optional. God’s gracious invitations are also commandments to be obeyed.

We also find a rationale for singing in that our God deserves such adoration. Psalm 66 calls us to “Come and see what God has done, how awesome his works in man’s behalf” (Psalm 66:5, NIV). The psalmist recounts the great salvific acts of God and rightly calls us to worship. What greater motive for praise than the character and works of God? We are to sing because the Lord is praiseworthy.

A third reason for singing is that it is good for us. Singing is a useful means of edification. Paul taught the Ephesians to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, NIV). We sing to the Lord but in doing so we speak to each other. By singing the great doctrines of the faith we build each other up in truth.

And, we sing because it is the most appropriate way of expressing the joy we find in our Lord Jesus Christ. James taught that a heart filled with delight should find a voice. “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (James 5:13, NIV).

What Should We Sing?


Our God has given us a hymnal which was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is the Old Testament collection of songs that we know as the book of Psalms. The word “psalmos” used by Paul in Ephesians 5:19 always denoted a song sung to musical accompaniment and was understood to refer specifically to the psalms found in the collection that constituted the prayer book and hymnal of ancient Israel.

It was inevitable that the church should also sing the praise of God using the Psalter and that she should model original hymns on the inspired hymns of the book of Psalms.

Baptists and other Christians have at times debated whether the church should sing anything other than biblical psalms.

Today, singing from the Psalter is virtually a thing of the past in most evangelical churches, but some of the great metrical versions of the psalms still survive. Perhaps the best known is the adaptation of Psalm 23 from the Scottish Psalter of 1650:

  1. 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.
  2. My soul He doth restore again,
    And me to walk doth make
    Within the paths of righteousness,
    E’en for His own name’s sake.
  3. Yea, tho I walk through death’s dark vale,
    Yet will I fear no ill,
    For thou art with me, and thy rod
    And staff me comfort still.
  4. My table thou hast furnished
    In presence of my foes;
    My head thou dost with oil anoint,
    And my cup overflows.
  5. Goodness and mercy all my life
    Shall surely follow me,
    And in God’s house forevermore
    My dwelling place shall be.

It is important to observe that the psalms give us examples of both hymns of praise to God and songs that describe the experience of God’s people. The book of Psalms is very much a complete hymn book for the people of God. Had no other hymn or spiritual song ever been written, we could hardly complain of hymnodic impoverishment.


In classical Greek this word was used of a festive lyric written in praise of a god or hero. Therefore we understand a hymn to be a song that is of extra-biblical origin and employs us in the direct praise of the Most High. Such hymns are sometimes overtly “Christian,” that is, Christ is the subject. One such example is “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”

All Hail the power of Jesus name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown him Lord of all!

In a day when subjectivism and individualism threaten the cause of truth and genuine Christian experience, the singing of hymns provides a much needed corrective.

Spiritual Songs

There does exist a need for musical vehicles that express the many concerns of spiritual experience. The nineteenth century provided us with thousands of spiritual songs that have served the church well for many years. Many are exhortative in character. George Duffield wrote one of the best known.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
The trumpet call obey;
Forth to the mighty conflict,
In this his glorious day.
Ye that are men now serve Him
Against unnumbered foes;
Let courage rise with danger,
And strength to strength oppose.

Practical Warnings

The church is ever in need of reformation, and it is our responsibility to examine contemporary practice to see if it conforms to biblical precept. We have already alluded to the sad absence of psalm singing in the churches today. A revival of psalmody in the churches would be very welcome indeed. Can we go on pretending that our worship is “biblical” if we do not sing psalms?

But what of innovations that detract from the worship of God “in Spirit and in truth?” Can we have reformation in these areas?

The Show Business Syndrome

When I was a teenager I attended a youth camp where young people were encouraged to “give their testimony.” Camper after camper paraded to the “altar” where a microphone was available. Most of the “testimonies” were primarily subjective in character but were sprinkled with pious sounding sentiments. One little girl got caught up in the spirit of the thing and told us her life story minus the “piety.” She saw people performing and she jumped at the opportunity to take center stage for herself.

Today there is little embarrassment about such behavior. Religion is show business. The sacred desk, symbolic of the primacy of preaching, has been all but obscured by something that looks increasingly like a theatrical stage. In many churches the “audience” sits and is entertained by choirs and soloists. The “audience” often expresses its appreciation by applause. If hymns are sung few verses are used.

“Choruses” (which are not always to be despised) are preferred because they are short. The church that emphasizes hymn singing is a precious commodity in our day.


Little thought seems to attend the choice of songs in Christian worship today. Well-intentioned people often lead the congregation in several good songs, but they may all be hymns or they may all be songs of Christian experience. A mixture of the two would be far better. Best of all would be the inclusion of a psalm in every service as well as appropriate hymns and spiritual songs.

Musical Integrity

Finally, let us show care in the choice of musical settings. A “catchy” tune may be popular but inappropriate. Our God is a Sovereign of matchless dignity and therefore is worthy of our best offering. We may pander to popular taste and please man, but the worship–including music–that pleases the Lord God is that which reflects his glory.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (McMillan Publishing Company, NY, 1943).