I have a friend who is adamant that Psalms are the only legitimate lyrics for worship on Sundays, and moreover that musical instruments have been abolished and are prohibited since the end of the Levitical priesthood. I've read around the supporting text and essays, but I'm not convinced. What do you guys think?


The short answer is that we believe the Bible nowhere prohibits or even hints at prohibiting the use of musical instruments in worship. Further, while the Psalms are wonderful, inspired, perfect lyrics for worship, they are by no means the only acceptable lyrics for use in Sunday worship. [For information regarding our view of the regulative principle in general, see Richard Pratt's article The Regulative Principle in IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 28.]

Regarding lyrics other than the Psalms: Few people dispute the propriety of the use of psalms as the lyrical content of songs in Sunday worship. Although, certain formulations of the argument against the use of other lyrics also reject certain psalms that encourage the use of instruments (e.g. 149, 150). These psalms are sometimes rejected on the basis that they were part of the Levitical ordinances that were abbrogated when Christ came. Interestingly, however, the Law itself nowhere mentions these particular psalms as part of the Levitical ordinances, which leads me as a believer in sola Scriptura to understand that they were not part of the Law, however much they may have been associated with certain rituals of the Law.

Sometimes the argument is offered that our worship on Sunday ought to be as perfect as possible, and therefore that the songs we sing should be as perfect as possible. Of course, most will agree that the Psalms are perfect lyrics in and of themselves.

While the argument that we must use the most perfect lyrics available may sound admirable, it is not biblical. Nowhere does the Bible tell us that we must sing only the best songs, preach only the best sermons, or pray only the best prayers. Further, nowhere does the Bible tell us that the Psalms are the best songs for any and all occasions.

Frequently, the regulative principle is invoked as well: "We should not do in worship anything that the Bible doesn't prescribe." Well, okay, I agree. But how do we figure out what the Bible prescribes? Unless the different parties of this debate can agree on a hermeneutic -- and I mean agree in the actual doing of exegesis, not just on generic statements of principle -- we simply won't agree on what the Bible teaches in this area.

To put flesh on these assertions, let me say that I have yet to find good answers to the questions: If we should sing in public worship only lyrics contained in Scripture, why are we not similarly constrained to pray in public worship only prayers contained in Scripture? Certainly the Bible gives us more explicit information about the way we are to pray than it does about the songs we are to sing. After all, Jesus actually said, "Pray like this" (Matt. 6:9). And why are we not constrained to preach only sermons contained in Scripture? And what about collecting an offering during a worship service, or making announcements, or handing out bulletins . . . ? The list can go on and on. We realize that the Bible allows us great freedom of expression in prayer, and great freedom in selecting texts and applying them to Christian living (sermonizing).

Let me expand on this idea by suggesting that the Psalms are not always the "best" songs. We see many different emotions and situations in the Psalms, but these few songs do not exhaustively represent all the emotions and situations Christians face today. Our Reformed doctrine is that Scripture is sufficient for life and godliness, not that the little part of Scripture we call the Psalms is sufficient all by itself. Moreover, even though we find Scripture to be sufficient for life and godliness, we don't think that the best way to handle any situation is to quote relevant passages of Scripture. Rather, we may quote Scripture, but we realize that the goal is to apply Scripture. We need to figure out how the principles of Scripture apply to the situations we face, and then we can formulate the ideas of Scripture in ways that apply to our own lives. When we tell someone else about the gospel, for instance, how often do we do nothing but quote Scripture? How effective would that be anyway? It wouldn't really communicate what we wanted to say. Rather, we tend to explain Scripture's ideas in words and ways that we think our audience will understand.

The same is true of prayer. We take the Bible's teachings on prayer, and its examples of prayer, and we apply those to ourselves as we formulate our own prayers. We have the freedom to cry out, "Dear God, I feel like killing that mechanic who ruined my car and ripped me off in the process! Please don't let me sin in my anger!" We don't have to recite Psalm 25 and let God read between the lines. In fact, the quote above probably is a better prayer than Psalm 25 would be in that circumstance. Or think about a family you know who has lost a baby. Is she in heaven? Well, you can't very well quote a chapter or two and think you have effectively counseled and consoled the bereaved parents.

Just so, when it comes to songs we sing in church, the Psalms are not always the best songs we can sing. Sometimes there are other songs that express our own situations and circumstances in better ways than the Psalms do -- the Psalms were written in very different situations and circumstances. Sometimes there are other songs that are more moving and worship-inspiring.

And here's the biggest reason (in my mind) that the Psalms are frequently not the best songs to sing in church: they never once mention the person of Jesus Christ. The Psalms are in the Old Testament, before the Son of God was incarnate as the man Jesus of Nazareth. They are ancient hymns. Yes, they are good. Yes, they are true. And yes, they talk about the messiah generically. But no, they are not the whole story, and they leave out the biggest and best part of the story. How can the Psalms fully express for Christian worship truths at which they only hinted? The New Testament clearly expresses truths and history that the Old Testament saw in only the vaguest images. Can't we -- shouldn't we -- write songs today that joyfully proclaim the person of Christ and the history of salvation, and thereby honor God? The Psalms are full of references to the Exodus -- Israel saw this as a tremendous historical event worth celebrating often in song. Shouldn't we do the same with the even greater truth of the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ?

Now, about instruments: To tell you the truth, I have difficulty understanding why some are persuaded that the use of musical instruments in worship should be abandoned. I have yet to hear a sound exegetical or theological argument from the opposition. Instruments were used in Old Testament worship, so they clearly are not abhorrent to God. But they were not part of the Law, so why would they have been abbrogated with Christ's first advent? What did Christ do that "fulfilled" the use of instruments in corporate worship such that it would be offensive to God to use them now?

Generally, the arguments I have heard have been that instruments are impractical ways of accomplishing the goal of worship. Instruments are said to distract from worship or simply to be a form of entertainment. The readily evident problem with both these arguments is that God seemed to be perfectly happy with instruments in worship in the Old Testament. Evidently, back then God thought the benefits of using music (inspiring our emotions, for example, and appropriately demonstrating his majesty) outweighed any potential negatives (e.g. distraction). As far as I know, no redemptive-historical change has taken place which would cause God to perceive music any differently today. To the argument that we ought not to use instruments because they are not mentioned in the New Testament, I answer that I reject this Dispensational hermeneutic which demands that the New Testament repeat commands from the Old Testament in order for these commands to be valid in the current era.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.