Sword and Trowel Articles

The Sword & Trowel was started in 1865 by C. H. Spurgeon. It enjoys an extensive readership throughout the world, particularly among ministers and church leaders. It has by far the largest circulation of any magazine (world-wide) adhering to reformed and Baptist distinctive. The Sword & Trowel is now edited by Dr Peter Masters.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Throwing out the Principles

The basic principles of worship broken and rejected by many today. Appendix on Psalm 150

from Sword & Trowel 2001, No. 3 by Peter Masters

CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN WORSHIP has 'captured' countless congregations of every theological hue throughout the world, though not without many a battle. At times the controversy has been so strong it has been dubbed 'the worship wars'. The chief strategy of the advocates of the new worship has been to reduce the whole debate to a matter of taste, style and generation.

'Traditionalists' are charged with refusal to adjust to changing culture. Some have called them the Pharisees of the 21st-century church, guilty of obstructing a great forward-movement of God's people, and dividing over non-essentials. Still, however, large numbers of churches hold out against the new ways, believing that great principles are at stake.

The trouble with the rhetoric of those advocating new worship is that they seem not to recognise, let alone discuss, biblical principles of worship. It is as if there is nothing substantial about worship in the Bible. It is as if the Reformation had never reformed worship, articulating great concepts about our approach to the living God. It is as though the bedrock definitions held over centuries have become invisible and non-existent.

Where have these priceless and vital definitions and principles gone? Why are they hardly ever discussed? Do the advocates of new worship wilfully avoid them, or are they genuinely unaware of them? Certainly, it is an astonishing scene to find them passed over so easily.

New definitions of worship have appeared which would never have been accepted as recently as fifty years ago – definitions which smash down the central principles of evangelical, Protestant Christian worship, taking us back to medieval and Catholic thinking.

This article will identify three major deviations from biblical standards (as recovered at the Reformation) characterising the entire modern worship movement. (A fourth serious deviation appears in a companion article.)

Churches which have adopted modern worship songs and music to only a limited degree, must be aware of the deeply significant errors which govern the writers and composers of the new genre. 'Moderate users' of new worship plug into a radically deviant philosophy of worship, and by doing so train their people (possibly unwittingly) to accept pre-Reformation notions which will lead to ever increasing acceptance of the full-blown contemporary scene.

This is not a complex and theoretical matter: it is straightforward and vital. We must know what worship is supposed to be, and we must assess the new style in the light of God-given principles.



THE FIRST MAJOR deviation today is the espousing of aesthetic worship, in preference to the Lord's command that worship must exclusively be 'in spirit and in truth' (see John 4.23-4 ).

Aesthetic worship is the idea that worship may include things that are beautiful, artistic or skilfully executed, offered up as an expression of worship to God. It is based on the notion that we worship not just with spiritual thoughts from our minds and hearts, but also with the creative skill of our minds and hands.

It believes that genuine praise needs a 'physical' dimension greater than mere unison singing. It assumes that God is an 'aesthete' – sitting in the heavens and looking down with appreciation at the skill and beauty that we bring before Him.

We may bring Him thrilling music, clever arrangements, brilliant instrumentalism and fine singing, and these will please Him. We may worship (it is thought) not only by meaningful words, but by wordless offerings.

This is of immense importance, because the aesthetic idea of worship is the essence of Catholicism, and diametrically opposed to the biblical concept. The Church of Rome, with all her masses, images, processions, soaring naves, stained glass windows, costly and colourful robes, rich music, Gregorian chants, and complex proceedings, makes an offering of worship by these things. All her theatricalism is an act of worship believed to be pleasing to God.

The Reformation went back to the Bible, and embraced the principle that true worship is intelligent (and scriptural) words, whether said, thought or sung, winged by faith to the ear of the Lord. It is true that little bits of Roman 'theatre' remained in the episcopal churches, but by and large the rites, ceremonies, images and everything else that represented a virtuous offering were swept away.

However, aesthetic worship has now flooded into evangelical and Protestant churches, and people have come to think that they can express much of their worship via music and instrumentation (and in charismatic circles via dance, bands, movements and drama).

Certainly, the Lord trusts us with music, and also with instruments to accompany the singing of praise, but these cannot actually convey worship. They are secondary. They are not in the image of God, nor do they have souls, nor are they redeemed.

Modern hymnwriter Erik Routley was way off the mark when he penned the lines (which he meant to be taken literally) –
Joyfully, heartily, resounding!
Let every instrument and voice . . .
Trumpets and organs, set in motion
Such sounds as make the heavens ring.

The recently coined, popular statement that worship is 'a celebration in words and music' (seen so often on church handbills and notice-boards) is a denial of the Lord's statement – 'in spirit and in truth'. Words and thoughts are everything in worship. Music may only assist at a practical level; it cannot be used to express worship. To believe that it can, is to embrace the error of aesthetic worship.

The singing of God's people may be grand and glorious viewed from a human standpoint, but only the words and the hearts of the worshippers matter to God. Does this sound strange? It may do so today, but fifty years ago – and all the way back to the Reformation – practically every evangelical Christian would have said this most emphatically.

A notable advocate of the new ways has defined worship as 'a discovery of God's will through encounter and impact'. Not only is instrumental and song performance offered as a meritorious expression of worship, but from the very performance one is said to glean some form of revelation from God. This is seriously believed by the main architects and promoters of new worship. Do evangelicals who adopt their materials fully realise the deep errors of the philosophy behind them?

Aesthetic worship is a huge stride back to Rome, and has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. It challenges and spoils spiritual worship, and is contrary to every praise instruction in the New Testament. When we evaluate new worship, we must do so in terms of these historic, biblical principles. Worship is exclusively spiritual.

At the Reformation, simplicity, intelligibility and fidelity to the Bible replaced the impressive mystery and pageantry of Rome, and the aesthetically splendid mass surrendered to the understanding soul.

Why did all this take place? The advocates of new worship do not seem to know. They are aware that the Reformation changed doctrinal teaching, but they do not appear to know why it so changed the manner of worship too. Do the new-worship men think it was just a 'generation thing'? Do they picture Luther, Calvin, the Protestant martyrs and others as the youngsters who just wanted a new culture? Do they believe it was all a matter of taste?

The truth is, of course, that the Reformers saw through the sensual worship of Rome (the aesthetic and ecstatic elements) and rejected artistic skill and beauty as a valid expression of worship, and also rejected the 'working up' of supposed spiritual experience by things which dazzled the eyes and the ears.

How is it that well-meaning evangelical Christians have adopted the idea that we can worship through beauty and skill? In the USA many theological seminaries and Christian colleges have greatly enlarged their music departments and courses for 'worship leaders'. Inevitably the role of music and the use of complex worship programmes has greatly increased. Churches have acquired ministers of music as well as professional worship leaders, and how could these highly trained brethren function if they did not feel that all their expertise and creativity constituted an efficacious offering of worship?

In biblical worship, only one offering counts, and that is the offering made once for all by the eternal Son of God on Calvary's Cross. Nothing should be thought of as an acceptable offering, or as having any worship merit apart from Calvary. Our thoughts and words are not an offering, but expressions of praise, repentance, request, dedication and obedience, all made acceptable by Calvary.

Writers promoting new worship actually use language which depicts God as a satisfied viewer of a 'performance' (this is their term). They explicitly say that God is the audience. Some provide illustrations of a stadium in which the church and its performers are placed on the pitch, and the word 'God' is inscribed around the seating in the stands. They seem very pleased with this scenario.

C H Spurgeon would never have an organ at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in his day, because he saw how so many of the larger churches had become carried away by the sound of their magnificent instruments, and the expert capabilities of their organists. They were tickling the ears of the people (as Spurgeon put it) with beautiful musical items other than hymns. He was concerned that people would go to church to be entertained rather than to worship, but even more seriously, he saw how the skill and beauty of the music was itself likely to be regarded as an act of worship, and an offering to God.

Today the Tabernacle uses an organ, but we endeavour to keep its deployment within bounds, so that it provides an accompaniment only, and does not become a medium of worship. We would never say, for example, that the organ 'enriches' worship. It disciplines the singing, and teaches and maintains the tune, but we know very well that in spiritual terms it can contribute nothing.

Contemporary worship, however, is usually fully aesthetic in purpose and practice. God is the audience and the worshippers are performers. Skilful instrumentalism is part of the offering of worship. Many evangelical churches have, in principle, gone back to Rome – and even surpassed Rome both in intricacy and decibels.

At the dawn of world history Abel's offering was accepted by the Lord because it was the very act God had commanded – a humble offering representing the need for atonement. Cain's offering, however, was rejected, because it presented his own skill, labour and artistry. It was a 'works' offering. To parade before God our skills as an act of worship is surely nearer to the offering of Cain than that of Abel.

Today, people often say, 'But what shall we do with our gifts if we cannot express them in worship?' Here is the heart of the matter. Worship is not the exercise of our gifts, but the exercise of our hearts and minds. For many people this is the 'lost ark' of worship, the principle which has disappeared from sight – that worship is not the presentation to God of skill or beauty, or of personal gifts, but the communication of the soul with God, through the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is not aesthetic.

We ask again, how is it that evangelicals have tumbled into this dramatic change of viewpoint in our generation? We have not been helped by a number of practices which have served as the thin end of the aesthetic wedge. We have already noted that a few pre-Reformation habits survived even in the reformed churches – remnants of Catholic theatricalism and show. These have been kept up in Anglican churches (except in the 'low' churches), and they have always had an undermining effect, causing good people to lose sight of a clear-cut definition of spiritual worship.

Over the years, pleasant inconsistencies have also been adopted by nonconformist churches. Beautiful anthems rendered by choirs came to offer an increasingly aesthetic contribution to worship. Solo items in services seemed harmless enough, and edifying if worshippers followed the words. But then the solo often became an instrument-only item, so that congregations were given 'songs without words', and taught to regard these as an act of worship. Little practices such as these have helped nibble away at the biblical concept of worship, and the Lord's people have slowly lost sight of basic principles.

But now the pass has been entirely sold, and the judgement of the Lord's people completely clouded. Simplicity has been discarded and we have been overwhelmed by a full-scale attack on long-standing principles of worship.

In many churches worship is now offered and 'enriched' by instrumental and vocal expertise. Performing gifts are exercised, and a human, artistic offering presented to God. This is only one of three quite different major aberrations from biblical and reformational principles of worship. We must return to 'spirit and truth' only.

It may be protested that worship in Old Testament times was rich in actions and artistry ordained by God, and such worship can hardly be disqualified today. How can we deny the worship-virtue of skilfully executed music and song?

It is simply not true that Old Testament services included works of beauty and skill as a direct expression of worship. The symbolism in the design of the Tabernacle and Temple, as well as the ceremonial performed by the priests, represented the work of Christ for them. They amounted to lessons, not vehicles of worship. They were intended as visual sermons, not meritorious acts. They were pictures, given and taught by God, of the way of grace. The people observed and trusted, but their personal response of praise was meant to be spiritual and from the heart.

True worship always was a matter of the heart, and not an offering of human works, skill or creativity. This lesson had to be learned by Cain of old, and many need to re-learn it today. Worship is spiritual thoughts directed to God from the heart, by faith. It is not an aesthetic activity. We again urge readers to consider this principle of worship, because how we worship is not just a matter of culture or taste or generation, but a matter of God-given rules. Principles count. The great statement common to the Westminster and Baptist Confessions stands against all that is going on today:

'The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself; and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men . . .'

Why would any church want to increase the number of instruments used in worship? If the answer is – 'To enrich our worship and to express our gifts,' then the principle has been lost, and the old aesthetic error has taken over.


THE SECOND MAJOR deviation from biblical principles in so-called contemporary worship is that it involves ecstatic worship, as opposed to 'spirit and truth' worship. The latter requires that Christians pray and sing with the understanding. 'Ecstatic', by contrast, has to do with using earthly techniques to stir the emotions and produce an exalted state of feeling.

Ecstatic worship takes place when the object of the exercise is to achieve a warm, happy feeling, even great excitement, through the earthly, physical aspects of worship, such as the songs and music. Among charismatics this is eagerly pursued, the programme being carefully engineered to bring worshippers to a high emotional pitch, and often to a mildly hypnotic state. In non-charismatic circles the objective is more modest, but essentially the same – to make an emotional impact.

We do not accuse the advocates of new worship unfairly, because they say it themselves in their books and worship guides. The upbeat opening 'number' will (they say) have such-and-such an effect upon worshippers, and then the music should take this or that direction to maintain the mood, and after that move on to another tempo, volume and key. Instruments, arrangements, chords and beat should be woven into a pattern that will bend and sway the feelings of the people to maximise their worship.

Often, tremendous musical expertise goes into the 'production' of a service. But it must be realised that any attempt to make a direct impression on the emotions by the use of music or any other earthly tool, is ecstatic worship as opposed to spiritual worship. The latter does not seek to manipulate the feelings by earthly techniques, but derives its joy from sincere spiritual appreciation of the Lord, of His words, and of the great doctrines of the faith.

Of course, music (and instrumental accompaniment) is permitted by the Lord, but it is not to be deliberately deployed as a means of arousing feelings. 'Feelings' in worship should be our response to things we understand and appreciate in our minds.

It is true that many hymn tunes touch our hearts because of their strong association with salvation sentiments, and this is wholesome and acceptable. Such tunes have taken on a special quality derived from precious words. But the architects of 'ecstatic' worship techniques have no right to hijack this pleasant phenomenon, and to use music as the chief means of moving hearts and producing feelings. This is carnal, cynical, artificial and manipulative, and it is the methodology of false religions.

As we have already noted, worship is words, whether thought, said or sung, and it is only as we are moved primarily by these, and by a view of the Lord and His work, that we have genuine and legitimate spiritual feelings. Emotions fanned into flames only by sentimental or stirring music may be enjoyable feelings at a purely human level, but they are not worship.

The same goes for all artificially generated feelings. If a preacher moves people to weeping by telling 'tear-jerkers', their sense of need for God or their repentance will be nothing more than short-lived emotionalism. If, however, the people understand their need through hearing the Word (which is surely moving enough), their conviction and repentance will be genuine and lasting.

Music cannot move the soul, only the emotions. Valid worship starts in the mind, or understanding. If it bypasses the understanding, it is not true worship. If it is aided by 'external' things, such as skilful and emotionally moving playing of bands and orchestras, it is compromised.

Such worship reminds us of the Israelites who wanted to supplement manna with other foods. Today many say to God (in effect) – 'You are not enough; I need loud or rhythmic music in addition, to excite me.'

The rule for every aspect of worship given by the apostle Paul (whether singing or hearing the Word) is – 'Let all things be done unto edifying' (see 1 Corinthians 14.26 ). The word edifying (in its various forms) is Paul's key word in worship texts. It refers to the erection of a building, but Paul uses it exclusively to mean the building up of the understanding. Every element of worship must be understood, to be valid. We are spiritually moved, not by melody, beauty or spectacle, but by what we understand.

'Worship,' says Puritan Stephen Charnock, 'is an act of the understanding applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God . . . It is also an act of the will, whereby the soul adores and reverences His majesty, is ravished with His amiableness, embraceth His goodness, enters itself into intimate communion with this most lovely object, and pitcheth all its affections upon Him' (Works, 1.298). The latter engagement of mind and soul can only follow the initial stirring up of the understanding.

We repeat yet again that in Christian worship we have the privilege of many beautiful tunes, and we are allowed to sing with accompaniment, but these must be kept within reasonable bounds, so that we never depend on them to contribute heavily to our feelings. The new worship, however, is all about music and song being used in such a way that there is a direct influence upon the feelings.

We may ask new worship advocates the same question as before – 'Why do you want to bring extra instruments into your worship?' The answer may come – 'Because it lifts us up and warms and excites us. Because we feel the Lord more. Because we enjoy our worship more. Because we worship at a deeper and more intimate level.' But surely this shows that ecstatic worship ideas have crept in. There can be no greater enjoyment than to respond with spiritual appreciation to great spiritual blessings. Why should we need more instruments to improve on this? Any group, band or orchestra will introduce an ecstatic element to praise, and this is against the principles of New Testament worship.

The new worship sets out to stir emotions externally and artificially. It is all so like Catholicism in this respect. Their worship, we have seen, is an aesthetic offering. It is also ecstatic, designed to engage and satisfy the emotions. It is true that the theatricalism of Catholic tradition is different from contemporary worship in some ways. It bombards the senses with smells and bells, processions, chants and so on. The old Latin mass was not about understanding but making an impression on the senses. Touching requiems were composed to move people emotionally.

The mystery plays of Rome were calculated to appeal to and move the feelings. The medium was considered to be more enjoyable and emotionally effective than the message, and we are back to this in present-day evangelicalism. Contemporary Christian worship shares the same theatrical and earthly aims as Rome.

Today, leading pastors encourage worship procedures designed to move, please, uplift and entertain. Sincere thoughts and words, and views of the Lord and His Word are simply not enough.

New-worship advocates give the game away in their writings. One of Britain's pioneers of new worship wrote in a magazine article the following sentiments. He recalled how, as a young man, he once wearily rose in his pew at the beginning of a (traditional) morning service –

' . . . resigned to a miserable morning, and thought to myself how dreadful it was that the hymn we were singing had so many verses. Most of the lines made no sense to me at all. Worse still, there were three more hymns like this before the meeting was finished! The whole thing was dreadfully boring.

'I tried my best to inject feeling into the 'worship', but it was like squeezing a shrivelled orange for the last drop of juice, only to be disappointed when nothing came.

'Worst of all, I kept thinking over what the pastor had said at the start of the service. He told us that we would spend eternity engaged in worship. I couldn't think of a more dreadful prospect. Surely that would be eternal endurance, not eternal life!'

The writer is frank. He is not saying that he found himself in a spiritually unsound or poorly conducted service. He caricatures any traditional worship service. He found, he tells us, liberty and enjoyment in new songs and music which could stir his passions and allow him liberty for the uninhibited expression of his feelings.

But why could he not identify with the great hymns of the faith in the church of his youth? Why did sincere thoughts and words directed to God fail to touch him? Why did they bore him to distraction? The answer is that for him, emotions had to be worked up by external aids and uninhibited actions. They had to be worked up and put on. This is just what we mean by 'ecstatic' worship. Tragically, no one told this man, in his youth, what he was getting into, and its artificiality and pandering to the flesh.

We can understand how necessary the ecstatic ingredient of new worship is in the charismatic movement. Here (because of the shallowness of preaching) large numbers of people are not really converted. They need artificial emotions. Without the human generation of emotions there would be nothing for them.

Similarly, in some of the so-called mega-churches of the USA, where the true challenge of the Gospel is greatly watered down so as not to offend worshippers, large numbers of people depend on the external emotional impact of the musical-song production. If people are brought to easy professions, and not truly changed by the power of the Spirit, they will not be capable of spiritual appreciation – the basis of true worship.

Leading exponents of new worship now speak strongly against hymns as too cerebral and complex. They want almost entirely choruses, because these, with their minimal truth content, do not get in the way of the music and its effect upon the emotions. They say that 'meaning' obscures 'feeling'!

A word must be said about the extreme manifestation of ecstatic worship, which really amounts to mystical worship. This happens when the emotional impact of music and song is intended to assist the impression of a 'direct touch' of God, or an extraordinary sense of union with Him.

In true mysticism this is sought by such techniques as contemplation and of endlessly repeating thoughts. In charismatic worship it is worked up by powerful musical manipulation, the participants swaying with closed eyes, upturned faces and outstretched hands, yielding themselves wholly into the influence of the words and music.

Words of their choruses and hymns often claim a direct touch with the Lord, or a strong sense of His surrounding arms. Instead of approaching God by faith, and reflecting on His sure Truth and His wonderful work, such worshippers seek a direct mystical impression of God's presence. Mystical worship represents the extreme flank of ecstatic worship, but it now has an immense following around the world. The understanding is unfruitful, but this hardly matters. Spirit and truth are outmoded. Artificially induced feelings are king.

Is mystical worship coming into non-charismatic circles? The alarming answer is that it is firmly established, as a modern definition from a leading seminary professor shows. Here is his definition – widely applauded and accepted. He defines worship as –

'an encounter in which God's glory, Word and graces are unveiled, and we respond, in songs and prayers of celebration. Worshippers seek an encounter with the glory of God, the transcendent power and numinous mystery of the divine.'

Notice the word 'encounter'. Is it an encounter by faith? No, it is nothing other than a mystical encounter with the glory of God. Are we reading too much into this? No, sadly, because it is also described as an encounter with the transcendent power of God! Surely the language is far too powerful to describe anything other than a felt, mystical sensation? The use of the words numinous mystery are conclusive, because numinous refers to the awesome presence of divinity.

The author of this definition believes that worship is a felt encounter with the glorious presence of God in a fully mystical sense, and in his writings shows how this is effected by the entire contents and trappings of a service – spiritual and material. We must be warned – the old definitions are being discarded with indifference and even with contempt, and new ideas are being propounded which are totally contrary to biblical and reformational teaching. The new worship is firmly ecstatic, and also largely mystical. Do cautious, 'light' users really wish to identify with all this?


THE THIRD MAJOR departure from biblical principles of worship is the flagrant disregard of the gulf between sacred and profane, so that the worst musical entertainment forms of the world are brought into the praise of God. Thus it becomes profane worship.

This writer, until recently, used the term 'worldly idiom worship' to describe this phenomenon, but it lacked precision. Some people would naturally ask, 'What exactly is worldliness?' Is a musical instrument or a musical style unsuitable for worship simply because the world does it? No, but it is unsuitable for worship if it is used by the world to promote an anti-God, anti-moral agenda.

The word profane focuses the issue more clearly. Is classical music worldly? Not necessarily. It may be beautiful music, not identified with or promoting anti-God, anti-moral forces. Are the old folk songs worldly? Not necessarily. Many were innocently sung for years in the primary schools of a more moral age. (Please notice that this comment is about old folk songs, not the new genre.)

Is the guitar worldly? Not necessarily – it depends whether it is used simply and of necessity (as by the unregistered Russian congregations who were compelled to worship in forests), or by Christians deliberately courting a pop image for the church.

Is the modern entertainment scene worldly? Most definitely, because it is the most powerful and determined anti-God, anti-moral, anti-authority culture for centuries. It is profane, treating moral and sacred things with utmost irreverence and disregard. It actively and militantly decries biblical morality, substituting the opposite. It promotes an alternative society, including the worship of self and of lust as normal, reasonable and acceptable, and that is its standing in the mind of the public.

For this reason the new worship movement is wrong, and sins against God when it borrows and employs all the distinctive components of today's popular entertainment culture. Modern worship is a total artistic identification with that culture, contrary to the exhortation of 1 John 2.15-16:

'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world'.

Modern worship equally rejects the parallel warning in James 4.4:

'Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.'

The Lord calls for submission to His standards, and will resist, not bless, those who set themselves above His Word. This is clear from James 4.6, where, immediately following the prohibition of friendship with the world, the warning to offenders is given – 'God resisteth the proud.'

A significant statement appeared in a Christian magazine article about the new worship. Thinking of 'Willow Creek', a mega-church in the USA noted for its contemporary worship, the writer said – 'Only a generation that loved Woodstock could love Willow Creek.' That hits the nail on the head. New worship is designed to close the gap between the church and the world, in order to 'win' the latter, and that, we maintain, is to employ sinful compromise in the work of the Lord.

For the last time, we must put the question – why would any church want to bring a multiplicity of instruments on to the platform? What is the aim? What, precisely, will be achieved by a group of guitars plus percussion? And what exactly is added by the inclusion of trumpet, trombone, drums, saxophone and xylophone (now so common)? The answer may well come back along these lines: 'These commend us to the present generation, drawing them in and showing them that Christianity is not fusty, but right for them, and they have nothing to fear.'

So the new worship does away with the separation of the church from the world, unites both together in Vanity Fair, and does away with the offence of the Cross. (Other biblical commands to maintain at all costs the separation between sacred and profane in worship were presented in this writer's recent review of a new hymnal, under the title 'A New Kind of Praise – Sacred and Secular Merged', Sword & Trowel 2001 No. 1. )

We have asked the same simple question about wanting more instruments three times, and the answers – all of which are typical – betray the adoption of aesthetic, then ecstatic, then profane policies of worship.

* * *

The three deviations just described contradict three great principles recovered in the blaze of New Testament light that shone so brightly at the time of the Reformation. Worship is to be offered in spirit and in truth, and not by works of skill or artistry. Worship is to be directed from the understanding, our joy being a response to things we sincerely appreciate, not a joy deliberately generated and magnified by 'external' means such as rhythm and emotive music.

Worship is to be kept apart from decadent and godless worldly culture, and not to be polluted by the deliberate adoption of that culture.

These principles must never be dismissed or surrendered. How we worship is not an accident of history – it is the application of principles. It is not a matter of culture or generation, but a matter of obeying and pleasing God the Father, to Whom worship is directed, God the Son in Whose name we offer it, and God the Holy Spirit, Who translates it into the 'language' of Heaven.


A fourth vital principle of worship is the necessity of reverence, which in some form was still in place at the time of the Reformation. Even amidst the spiritual darkness of Rome, the instinct of the common people told them that God must be approached with awe and reverence. Amazingly, advocates of new worship cannot even see this most obvious duty of Christians. Their notions of worship largely discard reverence in favour of uninhibited self-expression. This problem is addressed in a companion article, Sword & Trowel No 3, 2001, page 25.

What About Psalm 150?

Does the psalter sanction all kinds of instruments?

In response to our critical article about the new hymnbook – Praise! – included in the last issue of Sword & Trowel, several correspondents have pointed to Psalm 150 as evidence that all kinds of instruments, including percussion (the 'timbrel' or tambourine) may be employed in worship.

The problem, however, with taking Psalm 150 as an exhortation to literally use the instruments it names, is that a serious contradiction is made to appear in Scripture. Such a contradiction is, of course, impossible. If Psalm 150 is to be taken literally, then the psalmist commands his readers to ignore God's firm rules for instruments of worship laid down in the time of David (and re-affirmed in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah). This matter is of tremendous importance, because Psalm 150 must be understood in the context of the rules for that time.

For a detailed look at these rules, please see the article Brass, Strings & Percussion? – The facts about Bible instruments and the strong rules restricting their use in worship; Sword & Trowel, 1998 No. 4 (part 2 of the series 'Worship in the Melting Pot').

To summarise, David was commanded by God to use only four kinds of instrument in the Temple out of nine commonly used in the social life of the Jews. The selected instruments could only be played by certain priests and Levites, on specified occasions and at certain points of the worship. It is most probable that this was required by God to prevent musical instruments from overpowering the all-important spiritual element of worship. The Old Testament rules for instruments do not apply today, but the principle behind them, namely the practice of restraint, certainly does.

The permitted instruments were psaltery, harp, cymbals and trumpet. These played, while the choir sang, throughout the burnt offering, and when the offering was consumed the instruments stopped, and the people continued to worship without them.

The purpose of trumpets (also used for calling of solemn assemblies) and cymbals (marking the timing) was no doubt to produce a sense of awe and even of shame while the offering burned. No timbrels or drums were allowed in the Temple, and the notion of percussion-heavy, happy-clappy worship is far from reality.

For the singing of psalms outside the Temple (in private and 'synagogue' worship), harps and psalteries are the only instruments prescribed. Six psalms mention other instruments in use, but these psalms are clearly calling the people to join in open-air, civic thanksgiving celebrations for great victories, as well as to direct worship. The rules, therefore, are not broken.

In these open-air festivities timbrels (tambourines) were waved by the little girls who led the victory processions, and any instrument of normal social use was encouraged. However, for the direct worship of Almighty God, whether in Temple or home, the extra instruments were not employed. All this is set out at length, with texts, in the article previously referred to.

In the case of the six psalms which call people to outdoor, civic processions, we must remember that Israel was a nation-state, as well as a church. Greater latitude was in order for national festivities than was permitted for worship.

We return to the case of Psalm 150. At least two unauthorised instruments are mentioned in the psalm.* If these are here prescribed for direct worship, then, as we have said, the Bible contains a major contradiction, and its integrity and authority is challenged.

However, the psalm announces itself by referring to the sanctuary as the firmament of God's power, which means - the 'temple' of the entire universe. The psalmist plainly has in view the open-air, civic thanksgiving events of the nation-state of Israel, as well as the direct worship of the house of God, and this accounts for the inclusion of the 'unauthorised' instruments. It is a very comprehensive psalm.

Commentators of the past have often gone further than this, asserting that this unusual psalm is richly figurative, using the tonal characteristics of various instruments to describe the different emotions of worship. Thus the trumpet would symbolise triumphant and exalted worship, while the stringed instruments would symbolise the sweet tones of heartfelt gratitude. (A fuller treatment is given in the article referred to.)

Psalm 150 should never be appealed to as a justification for using all kinds of instrument in worship, because it would never contradict the rules set for that age. The psalm must be seen as referring to worship in its widest sense, including the civic, open-air, thanksgiving parades and also, possibly, presenting instruments as symbols.

Someone will say, 'But why cannot the symbolic instruments be used themselves in this Gospel age?' Because it is redeemed people who worship, not inanimate, soulless instruments. We are trusted by the Lord to use instrumental accompaniment, but if we elevate this to being a major source of pleasure (and even entertainment), we surely ruin 'spirit-and-truth' worship.

I believe that the friends who have written to me about Psalm 150 will receive this kind of response with serious openness and give it conscientious consideration. The spiritual and courteous tone of their letters suggests this.

Sadly, there are others who would not be interested in reading this, because they have already decided what they want to do, and Scripture will have no great influence in the matter. The drums and many other instruments are already on their platforms. They believe in the authority of Scripture, but sadly, they have far too loose a hold on God's Word in practice.

*There may even be a third unauthorised instrument, as the Hebrew word translated 'dance' may refer to a twisting pipe or horn.