Let The Word Of Christ Dwell In You Richly!
Written by Eric Moerdyk
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Reformed Practice - Music

The power of music over hearts and minds is nearly too obvious to need proof. Simply asking the question “what are your favorite songs” probably sets off melodies in your heart. Many have pointed out the incredible power of music. These two famous sayings express it well. “Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” At the time of the Reformation, one disgusted opponent of Martin Luther is said to have remarked “he converted more people through his hymns than through his sermons.” Various Biblical examples could be given too. Just think of the golden calf scene at Mount Sinai, where Israel danced and played, leading to sexual immorality. Or think of the image that Nebuchadnezzar set up, and the pressure he put on everyone to bow through the music that was played. Sometimes you only have to hear a song once, and like it or not, the tune and words seem to be branded on your mind with inerasable force. More than one young person who was converted has said – I wish I could forget some of the songs I used to listen to, but I can’t.

How does music get this incredible power? Well, it combines words with sound and rhythm. You are unlikely to get up after this article with the words you are reading buzzing through your head days later. But music does have this power, doesn’t it?

For this very reason, the Holy Spirit has guided the apostle Paul to write these insightful words in Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” What we are really being told here is, harness the power of music to fill your thoughts with scripture, so that throughout the day God’s truth echoes in your mind. So that when temptation comes with its seductive tentacles, you can cut them off with the sword of truth.

Now before we consider what the apostle means here, we need to clear up a common misunderstanding about what the words psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs mean. At first glance, psalms would refer to the 150 psalms as we know them, hymns to works written in the last couple of centuries, and spiritual songs to modern choruses. However, we should not import our modern sensitivities into an ancient text. What did the Greek speaking people of Colosse think of when they heard these words? As important background information, you need to know that the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible had divided the 150 psalms into three categories: the words we have translated as psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. So the Greek speaking ear heard “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…in psalms, psalms, and psalms singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” This is not the time or place to defend our practice of singing only the psalms in worship, but this verse is an important argument supporting it. At the very least, it suggests that the psalms should be the central part of private and public worship, so that through song the word of Christ dwells in us richly.

This also has application to the whole debate about Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). The Biblical standard for music that honours God is that it must allow the word of Christ to dwell in you richly. If it does not, then you are watering down the power of truth. The Psalms point the way for how this should be done. Songs in which Christ’s word dwells richly must be saturated with truth, with minimal repetition. Songs in which Christ’s word dwells richly must be full of God’s character, including his holiness, righteousness, love, and grace.

By far the majority of CCM fails the test of this verse. Instead of being saturated with truth, it is instead far too often a watered down mixture of sappy sentimentality and feel-goodism. Comparing CCM with the Psalms is like comparing a bowl of thick and chunky pea soup with chicken noodle soup that has 4 times as much water as the package calls for.

Space limits us to considering only one example. Fairness requires that I choose a song that is considered a classic, one of the best the movement has to offer. Consider the words of a song sung by Jaci Velasquez, titled John 3:16. The chorus is as you would expect John 3:16. How could anyone complain about that? However, let’s take a closer look. Look at this stanza: “O I know you’ve been through so much it’s hard to contemplate letting to and reaching out in trust, but I know the simple truth, that love is here for you so take him at his word and see what he can do.” Did you catch what she did? The Bible text in its context is about sinners who need a Savior. Her lyrics are about victims in need of a therapist. Her main concern is the feelings of her audience, rather than God and His truth. I wish I could say this was a slip up or mistake. Unfortunately it is standard fare in CCM. Unlike the Psalms, words like sin, holiness, and wrath are usually conspicuous by their absence in CCM. This raises the very serious question: can you listen to most CCM and still be obedient to Colossians 3:16?

Take a long hard look at the music you are listening to. Through it, words are constantly invading your thoughts, often pushing out other thoughts. The key question is, is it the word of Christ that is dwelling in you, and is it doing so richly? Is it doing so in the way God intended that truth to be considered? If not, then you will also water down the promise at the end of this verse about being able to sing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Rev. Eric Moerdyk is pastor of Monarch Free Reformed Church in Alberta, Canada. This article was previously printed in the FRC Youth Messenger and has been republished here with permission.