Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
This is part 2 of 5 in the series “Shepherding Souls Through Song.” David, Bob, and Bob’s son Devon explore the way leading songs can be a means of feeding the church though doctrinally rich, gospel-driven, emotionally engaging songs.
Referenced in this podcast:
“The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.” – Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise on Religious Affections
“The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotions that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms, or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry and some demand that poetry be stretched into song.” (John Piper message, “Singing and Making Melody to the Lord”)
“It is true that all evil speaking (as St. Paul says) perverts good morals (1 Cor. 15:33), but when melody accompanies it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and so enters inside it. Just as by a funnel wine is forced into a vessel, likewise venom and corruption is distilled into the depths of the heart by melody. What then is to be done? We must have songs not only honorable but also holy, which are to be like needles to arouse us to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works, in order to love him, fear, honor and glorify him.” John Calvin
Have a question about this episode? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Kauflin: Hey, you’re listening to Sound + Doctrine, the podcast of Sovereign Grace Music. Sovereign Grace Music exists to produce Christ exalting songs and training for local churches from local churches. For more information and free resources, you can check out sovereigngracemusic.org. Thanks for joining us.
David Zimmer: Hey, welcome back to Sound + Doctrine. I’m David Zimmer.
BK: I’m Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And we have Devon with us. We’re on part two of Shepherding Souls through Songs.
BK: Devon Kauflin, just in case first time someone’s listening.
Devon Kauflin: In case anybody’s wondering. And I’m glad you guys… I’m glad I passed.
DZ: Into episode two?
DK: Yeah, I passed into episode two. I made it.
BK: We had a meeting outside of this and “Yeah, let’s let him come back.”
DK: Here we are.
BK: It’s great.
DK: We’re talking about part two.
BK: We are talking about part two. Last time we talked about the concept of shepherding souls through song, that leading music in a church is more than picking songs you like, picking songs people like, preparing for the sermon. It’s an act and extension of the pastoral ministry that God has assigned to pastors in the church. You don’t have to be a pastor to lead, but you want to have pastoral impulses. And if you’re looking for someone to lead in your church, that’s a significant part of what you should be looking for, someone who has that heart to care for God’s people. So we look at five ways in the New Testament that God has… Five roles that God has given to pastors to care for the flock: To feed, to lead, care for, protect and be an example to. So we’re gonna start, and I don’t know how far we’ll get today, but just talking about how songs help us feed the flock, how songs help us teach basically.
BK: So I thought I’d just start with Colossians 3:16, where Paul is in the midst of talking about how to live a Christ-honoring life, a Gospel-centered life in the midst of a pagan culture. And he just jumps into music kinda out of the blue in verse 16. He’s talking about how we’re to live with one other, live in harmony, live in peace, forgiving each other, clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, patience. And then he says in verse 16, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” That little phrase, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” that’s significant. It ultimately means that we’re to let the Gospel dwell in us as we sing, that is to fuel and to fill the songs that we sing. But it’s the Word of God that points to the Word of Christ. So we are seeking to teach and admonish one another as we sing. Someone said one time, “We are what we sing.” I think that was in an article I read years ago. Gordon Fee says, “Show me… ”
DK: “A church of songs.”
BK: “A church of songs, I’ll show you their theology.” We can’t find the source of that quote, the origin, but we’re pretty sure he said it. And Gordon, if you’re listening, let us know if you happen to know where that’s from. So it’s not… We think that it’s preaching that feeds the flock, and it is. That’s the primary way God has given for the church to be equipped through the teaching of the… Expositing the Word of God. But when we sing, we do that as well. God tells us that’s…
DK: All that we do when we gather should…
BK: Go ahead, jump on that.
DK: Function and feeding the flock of God. That’s all I wanted to add. I didn’t wanna add very much. Just saying, I think that that’s one of the priorities of the gathering of God’s people.
BK: Yeah. So think about the way we normally think about singing. I think it’s usually an emotional response that we think of. “This song makes me feel happy. This song makes me feel good. This song makes me feel sad,” whatever. And we bring that into the church, and it’s not a good thing necessarily. Music is designed… God designed music to affect our emotions, but if that’s the main reason we’re listening to music or we’re singing music, that’s not God’s primary intention for it. It’s that music be used as a tool, as a means, as a vehicle for helping us understand God, to helping us understand who we are, to helping us remember what Jesus has done, to help us understand our world. All those things are to be done in the context of music. So it really changes the way you think about the songs that you sing. If you lead the songs, if you pick them, if you choose them, that’s gonna make a difference in terms of why you pick something. It means that words are pre-eminent, they’re not secondary. And we’ve talk of many conversations about the words of the songs we sing. They really matter. People remember the songs we sing much better than remember the sermons.
BK: You can be sitting there on a Sunday afternoon and ask the people you’re with, “Hey, what do you remember from the sermon?” They might remember a couple points hopefully, but by Wednesday, maybe not. Certainly by next week, the following Sunday, a lot of people don’t even remember what we talked about last Sunday. But they remember the songs. We can remember songs. And God designed it that way. In Deuteronomy 31 when Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, God was telling Moses that the people were about to deny him and follow idols after they got into the Promised Land. And He says, “Teach them this song because it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their children. The song will help them remember.” And that’s one of the characteristics of music, it helps us get the words into our heads and into our hearts. And so it’s crucial that we consider, “Is our congregation getting the right diet theologically through our songs?” If someone was to get their knowledge of God from the songs we sing over a year, how well would they know him? How much would they know of him? We expect the preaching to do that, but the songs should be doing it too.
DK: Yeah, and I think again it highlights the fact that we have to understand that singing is formational, singing does shape us. It shapes our affections, it shapes our theology. And once we grasp that, then yeah, what we sing matters. Singing becomes more a matter of being governed by the Word of God and reciting who he has revealed himself to be, than it does of expressing what we want to think about God or what makes us feel best about the God that we believe in. And it’s such a powerful medium. So you can have people… The way our brains function, God has made our brains to function… Word joined to melody has far more of an effect than word on its own. And so God has given us this gift. I love Calvin in his forward to the Salter, that he put together. It’s a… He spends an extended time talking about the power of music, the power of melody. He recognizes what he calls the secret power, that the two parts of music, words and melody, exercise when they’re joined together. And he writes this, he says, “It’s true that all evil speaking perverts good morals, but when melody accompanies it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and so enters inside of it. Therefore it’s all the more necessary to have songs not only honorable but also holy, that have the effect of encouraging the church to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works in order to love him, fear, honor and glorify him.”
DZ: That’s so good. That’s Calvin?
DK: Yeah, that’s Calvin.
BK: Wouldn’t normally expect that coming from John. Yeah, so that makes me think of when we approach singing in the church as, “How is it gonna make me feel?” it really doesn’t matter so much what the words are saying because I just want it to make me feel good, which is how we get bad words or vague words set to great tunes, great melodies, because it just makes us feel good. That’s not the ultimate goal. Now, if we’re singing the truth about Christ and singing it with comprehension, it will make us feel good, but not in the sense… The first way I was talking about. Because that would be more an emotional response, the second is more talking to our affections, which… Emotions are what we feel, affections are why we feel it. So when your songs are addressing affections, they’re speaking to, “Well, this is who God really is. This is what Jesus has really done. This is the proper response to him.” So it means that if we’re really taking this seriously, and I’ve been challenged by this numerous times as I look over our repertoire over the years, are we singing songs about God’s holiness and judgment and justice?
BK: Sean O’Donnell had a book years ago called God’s Lyrics, he wrote a book years ago, and it went through the songs of the Bible and just referenced how many times they talk of God’s judgment, of sin. And there’s a purpose to that. The purpose is that even when we’re brought to God through Christ, God’s still holy, he still hates sin. And so for the Christian, that’s a sanctifying… That’s a means of sanctification. Reminding ourselves God is holy. But for any unbelievers who are present, it can be a means of convicting them. Like, “Oh no, God is holy. Jesus is coming back to judge the earth, to judge sin. And those who have not trusted in Christ will experience eternal torment, separation from God.” That’s something we need to sing about. Not every song, but it needs to be there. If we’re gonna have a theologically balanced diet in our songs, there need to be songs where we are referencing God’s righteousness, his justice, his wrath, his holiness so that the word of Christ can dwell in us richly. Because when we see the wrath that we were under because of our conscious, willing, intentional rebellion against God, oh man, the mercy of God becomes so much sweeter. The fact that Jesus would live a perfect life so he could die as our substitute, taking our sins upon himself so that we could be forgiven and know God, that’s amazing. But you have to explore all of who God is for that to be really meaningful.
DK: Yeah, our singing must be governed by the Word of God. Not by the God that we want to be singing about, but God as he’s revealed himself to be. And that’s far more incomprehensible to us and far broader than what any of us could come up on our own. The God that we make in our own image, in one sense, is a pathetic imitation.
BK: He’s like us.
DK: Yeah, a pathetic imitation of the true God. And the only way we can do that is to really be ruled by God’s word, and to get God’s word deep in our hearts through the songs that we sing. And so whether you’re choosing the songs or writing songs for the church, that’s the framework that we have to have if the word of Christ is gonna dwell in us richly.
BK: And I would stress that this is something that we’re aiming at. I’m always reforming the songs we sing. Maybe I’ll look at our songs and say, “Yeah, we don’t have enough about this topic. Yeah, we don’t have enough about this,” and realize, “Oh… ” A few years ago, we did an album called Sooner Count the Stars. Something about the tri in God, I forget the subtitle. But it’s the songs… Trinitarian songs. Because I don’t think many of us are consciously trinitarian in the songs we sing. Not that every song has to be three verses, Father, Son and Spirit, but just that we’re speaking about God the way the New Testament does. There’s a verse in 2 Thessalonians 2:16 where it says, “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace… And I thought, Why does Paul do that? May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father. It’s just kind of part of the fabric of the New Testament that we’re seeing God, we’re singing to Him, we’re praying to Him as Father and Son, primarily Father and Son through the power of the Spirit. Spirit is not addressed very much in the New Testament, but He’s God. Three persons, one God. Do our songs reflect that? That we are exalting the Son by the power of the Spirit for the Glory of the Father? Well, if we’re aware of that lack, it’s gonna affect the songs we choose to sing.
DK: Yeah. One scholar, Lester Ruth, he recently did a study of the top CCLI songs over, I think it was over a 20-year period, and so it kinda came up with, I think, what songs were in the top 20 maybe over that time. Came with 112 different songs, and found that of those songs, only 4% of them mentioned Father, Son and Spirit.
DK: And then he makes the point, which is an important point to make, that if the songs that we sing fail to speak accurately of God as He reveals Himself to be, and that is as triune, then we end up with a very different faith and a very different God than the God of the Bible. And so we always wanna be evaluating what kind of God do we present through the songs that we sing. And it’s a… Yeah, that’s just something we’re always… Because our songs teach and our songs are gonna shape people.
BK: Yeah, and ultimately, I think I said that recently, I would say primarily what our songs are meant to be doing is enabling the word of Christ to dwell in people richly, which is why whether it’s through a gospel arc that you’re taking your meeting through, God is holy, we’re sinful, God’s provided a way of being forgiven through Christ, and we respond to that. Or whether it’s through specifically referencing who Jesus is and what He did exactly on the cross. That’s a distinction that we don’t often see, I don’t think. A song like the Isaac Watts tune…
BK: When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
BK: Man, whew.
DK: I know.
BK: It’s this powerful song about the cross, and one of the… Some people call it the greatest hymn in the English language, it doesn’t tell what Jesus did. It just says that he hung on the cross, he died, his blood flowed down, has ever been love like this, love like this demands my soul, my life, my all. But it doesn’t articulate what say, In Christ Alone does. And on the Cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. That is fact, that is objective truth that enables the word of Christ to dwell in people richly, and that’s something we need to be looking at again. If you’re responsible for planning or leading the songs, you need to be looking for songs that say that. And of course, the Sovereign Grace Music, we have a burden for that. If you’re gonna write a song that’s gonna be sung somewhere, sometime, why not try to include the heart of the Gospel, Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for us, and all it implies. We don’t just keep seeing about that over and over and over and over, but we talk about the implications of that, what it means, how it affects our lives, and that’s a part of feeding the flock.
DZ: Yeah. And I feel like a lot of people… If you look at YouTube or Instagram or whatever, a lot of people are singing about Jesus, they’re gathering in large crowds to sing about Jesus, but I feel like the pattern seems to be we’re just responding to this one area, this one point, and we just keep rehearsing that. And so how do you make the… For someone who loves to be a part of those worshipful events, or those are the songs that they sing at their church, what would you say to someone that’s saying you’re missing such a bigger view of the work of God, what He’s done? His holiness, the Trinity? To someone who thinks, “Well, those might be really dense topics when I just wanna experience… I just wanna just sit in this like responsiveness of what He’s done, the joy of the party of the gathering.” What would you say to someone that would find those hymns or those kind of songs too dense or too thick?
BK: Great question.
DK: Can I jump in on that?
BK: Yeah, absolutely.
DK: First I think when we are only thinking about what we do when we gather in terms of response, then all of the activity is on us. And that really flips on its head, what I think a Biblical conception of Christian worship in the church is meant to be. And certainly that’s a part of it, but if it’s only response it almost functions as a high that we’re just always pursuing and we become just addicts, and so it’s just give me the response.
BK: The worship adrenaline high.
DK: Yeah. If worship is only about our responding, we eventually run out of things to respond to in one sense. But worship begins with God’s revelation, and it begins with what God wants to do as we gather together. So if we push back on objective truth and prioritizing objective truth in our gatherings, what we’re pushing back on, in one sense, is God taking the initiative in our gatherings, and that’s where the church’s worship must begin, in God’s service, God’s revelation to his people. And because God is… And this is where, again, I’m getting back to the trinitarian priority of corporate worship, because God is triune, because he has this fellowship within himself, he is a communicative God. And that communication that he has within himself, that fellowship that he has between Father, Son and Spirit, that pours forth to us and we get to participate in and enjoy that.
BK: We’re invited in.
DK: We’re invited in that through Christ by the power of the Spirit, to be able to enjoy that and participate in that and really respond to the goodness of that. And so if we miss that, then we’re just… It’s like trying to live on a diet of dessert, where it’s just always…
BK: Which in some way sounds appealing.
DK: But it makes you sick.
BK: It does, that’s right.
DK: It does. Over time, it makes you sick and your muscles atrophy and your gut will be bloated and eventually you will die from malnutrition. And I think that’s where we can be in danger of going if it’s all on us and our action and what we do.
BK: Yeah. I would just describe that as you start to worship your worship, you start to be passionate about your passion. And it just dries up. Or as you were saying, you run out of things to talk about. Well, you run out of true things to respond to because it’s all about your response and you’re just trying to produce that again. And another thing I’d say is that I wouldn’t want people to understand, and to answer your question, wouldn’t want people to think that we’re just talking about or the Bible is just talking about singing weighty, heavy songs. But our songs teach us how to relate to God. So if you have shallow, repetitive songs, if that’s all you sing, it can communicate that God’s easy to know and he’s a lot like us. He never gets very deep. He just kind of functions at our level. But if all you ever sing is doctrinally thick, difficult songs, that can communicate that God is only interested in relating to highly educated people.
DZ: Yeah, or he’s distant and far off.
DK: He’s inaccessible.
DZ: Yeah, he’s inaccessible. Yeah.
BK: If you only sing emotionally driven songs, songs that they’re always charged up… I’ll look at YouTube sometimes at different worship events and whatever, and they’re always so excited. I thought, “My church isn’t like that. We get excited, but it’s just not always up here.” But if that’s all you ever do, is sing emotionally driven songs, that can tend to teach us that God is primarily interested in our feelings and not so much in our minds.
DK: Or our hearts.
BK: Or our hearts.
DK: More importantly.
BK: And then if you sing, on the other hand, emotionally dry songs that never allow for expression, that can teach us that God really isn’t interested in what we feel and desire. And as JK Smith has written so well in You Are What You Love and some other books, but that’s my favorite…
DK: James K. Smith? Jamie Smith?
BK: Yeah, Jamie Smith. What you desire is crucial. And you can sing all the right things, but if your desires are going in another direction, you haven’t changed at all. So it’s really important that we sing songs that balance this objective truth about God with a proper response to him. It’s not just a party or we’re not just getting together to have some emotional pinnacle. That might happen. In corporate worship, there have been numerous times I’ve been undone, I have been unable to sing because of the reality of what I was singing. I remember one time when we were in the Philippines and I was with Devon, we were singing the song Grace Alone, “And I was an orphan lost at the call, running away when I heard you call, but Father, you worked your will.” And I remembered my conversion and I just broke. I couldn’t sing. I encountered the Lord, it was wonderful, through the truth of election. But that’s not happening every time. What I wanna focus on is, what’s true?
DK: And when that doesn’t happen every time, it doesn’t make that truth any less true.
DZ: Yeah, because that’s what you were saying before, that’s the foundation. That’s the formation of what you’re…
BK: There’s a time for bowing, there’s a time for celebrating. There’s a time for repentance, there’s a time for rejoicing. There’s a time for reflection, a time for proclamation. All that’s based on the truths that we’re singing and rooted in how God has revealed himself to us in the person and work of Christ. So it’s just so big, the importance of feeding people with the songs we sing, because ultimately they reflect and shape what we believe and feel. And I came across two quotes, one’s by Edwards, one’s by Piper, that talk about that. Songs in one way are meant to be an expression of what’s in our hearts and minds. So this is Jonathan Edwards… Or sorry, John Piper, he says, “The reason we sing is because there are depths and heights and intensities and kinds of emotions that will not be satisfactorily expressed by mere prosaic forms or even poetic readings. There are realities that demand to break out of prose into poetry, and some demand that poetry be stretched into song.”
DZ: I love that.
BK: Oh, I do too. It’s just so true. You cannot sing about the Son of God leaving his throne, taking on our flesh, living a perfect life, dying as our substitute, receiving God’s wrath in our place, rising from the dead, ascending to his Father’s right hand to intercede for us from where he’s coming one day as a faithful groom for his bride and not be, “Ah! This is amazing!” We have to sing. But then Edwards flips that, Jonathan Edwards, American theologian, one of the greatest ones we’ve produced.
DK: English actually.
BK: English? Okay. Jonathan Edwards was in America.
DK: Before it was America.
BK: Before it was America?
BK: This is cool, man. I’m feeling corrected right now.
DK: Americans like to claim him, but he’s really not American.
BK: Oh, no, I’m gonna continue to say he’s American.
BK: Anyway. He said, “The duty of singing praises to God seems to be given wholly to excite and express religious affections.” To excite. “There is no other reason why we should express ourselves to God in verse rather than in prose and with music, except that these things have a tendency to move our affections.” So concentrating or being aware of how songs are meant to feed us is a means of actually encouraging faith-filled, Christ-exalting, Christ-Spirit-empowered worship in people’s hearts. So it expresses what’s there and then it excites what should be there. That’s what singing can do.
DZ: Right. Amen. Amen. We’re out of time, but let’s continue this conversation.
BK: I think we should do that.
BK: Thanks for joining us.
DZ: Thank you for listening to Sound + Doctrine, the podcast of Sovereign Grace Music. For more information, free sheet music, translations and training resources, you can visit us at SovereignGraceMusic.org.