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Worship, the Regulative Principle, and Psalm-Only Singing

What is the regulative principle of worship?.

Here’s a simple basic definition:

“God’s Word is the alone magisterial (ruling) authority for Christian worship and the Christian life” (see this R. Scott. Clark link for additional info).

With a definition like that, how can you argue against it? Who doesn’t want to do worship according to what the Bible says? Yes and Amen to biblically-defined, biblically-guided worship!

My issue, however, with some proponents of the regulative principle is how it seems to me they actually go beyond what the Bible says. They add restrictions and prohibitions that strike me as adding another man-made law on top of the Bible. I think this is especially true for those who argue for Psalm-only singing. It’s to the Psalm-only regulative principle proponents that I offer the following rejoinders:

1. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 clearly point to singing in worship that is more than just only singing Psalms. I have yet to see any convincing exegetical treatment of this that can get around what the text is saying here, that we should sing songs of multiple genres, and not just psalm-only. It is three different words in the Greek here that get translated as psalms, hymns, spiritual songs. These words aren’t just strict synonyms. Paul isn’t saying, “Singing psalms, psalms, psalms.” Paul is thinking of worship of God that involves the psalms, but not just strictly and only singing the psalms.

2. If we are going to go with what the Bible says, then surely we should pay attention to the times when we see worship in the Bible. Can we say that if we see worship in the Bible, then it probably is helpful information towards how we should worship? So I find it curious that in Revelation we see worship of God. And this worship does not involve strictly singing only the Psalms. It evokes the Psalms, this is true, because the Psalms evoke biblical priorities and values. But it is not simply word-for-word singing of the Psalms. And so we shouldn’t sing songs that contradict what we see in the Psalms, because that would go against the priorities and values of the Bible. But we should and must sing songs that flow out of the Psalms and bring in the fuller language of New Testament revelation. Songs that can say things like, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15)

3. And this brings me to my last point. And here I will quote Mark Johnston in his article, “The Psalms in Worship.” It’s worth noting that his article overall is arguing for more inclusion of the Psalms in our worship. Yes and Amen to that. However, I think he aptly notes a big problem with the “psalms-only” position:

“So for those who are committed to a ‘psalms-only’ position, although they argue strongly and rightly for a Christocentric understanding of the psalms, they can never sing the name of Jesus. And although they are fully Trinitarian in their theology, they can never acknowledge the Blessed Trinity in song using the fuller language of New Testament revelation. Even though both these facets of worship define the praise offered by angels, heavenly beings and the spirits of the righteous made perfect (He 12.22-24) – and the church on earth shares in their worship – it creates what David Garner has described as an unusual kind of ‘unrealised eschatology’ for those whose worship is shaped only by the Old Testament.

The key to appreciating the depth and richness of New Testament worship is seeing that it neither appears out of nowhere, nor does it stand alone. Just as the New Testament would be meaningless without the Old, so too New Testament worship ends up being superficial if it is not self-consciously rooted in its Old Testament antecedent.”

So let’s be biblical in our worship. But let’s be WHOLLY biblically – including both the Old AND New Testament - and let’s do so in ways that will allow us to sing in old ways and fresh new ways, to the glory of God.

All People. All of Jesus.
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