RPM, Volume 14, Number 01, January 1 to January 7, 2012

A Singing Faith

The Reformation and Music

By Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.,

President, James M. Baird Jr. Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC

The Christian faith is a singing faith. The Reformation recovered this because the Reformation recovered the Gospel of God's grace revealed from the authority of the Word of God, which was recovered through a revival of the supremacy of preaching. The Reformation broke out in "Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" because of the revitalization of expository preaching. Great hymnody always follows a revival of Biblical preaching.

Now that may sound counterintuitive to speaking about music. One might think that to recover the centrality of preaching would be in some way to diminish the role of music, both in private as well as in public worship. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, before the Reformation the music of the church had degenerated from the sacred song which the apostle Paul describes in the book of Colossians (3:16), from the full range of emotions expressed in worship in the book of hymns in the Bible—that is, the Psalms—into a replacement for the centrality of the preaching of the word of God. For prior to the Reformation the music of the church was characterized by that which could not produce the singing of the people, for where there is a dearth of preaching there will be a downgrade of rich, Biblical hymnody. I say again, great hymns follow great preaching. Make music the main part of public worship and preaching will decline, leading, ultimately, to a decline in God-gloryfying, soul-nourishing hymnody.

The Reformation was more than a political realignment of Europe. It was a revival. This revival had particular necessary goals given to it by God. One of those was to be an ecclesiastical wrecking ball in the choir loft. Now I say this and know that many will think of regrettable excesses that happened. They did and they were and are regrettable. Yet there had to be reform in the church and that reform, fueled by revival for the centrality of the Gospel and the authority of the Word of God, produced a new song. It always does. God takes a wrecking ball to our lives when we come to Him by faith in Christ Jesus as Lord. He demolishes the humanistic and demonic shackles of the Fall that keep us from the freedom that comes with faith in Christ. And so the Medieval ecclesiastical system had to be done away with. Touching only on music, for a while, we must recall what kept the saints from singing and thus what the wrecking ball had to demolish. Now in swing this I want to issue the caveat that there have always been faithful people. Even Calvin admitted that many in the corrupt Church of his day were, in fact, believers. They were just skinny believers. They were not being fed on the Word. The priests too were not all unbelievers. They, too, were caught up in the web of ecclesiastical bondage of a movement that had metastasized into a hierarchical organization with very human goals. Yet there have always been the presence of the faithful. And faith leads to singing. But I am speaking in the larger sense here. I am speaking of the majority of those who were denied the preaching of the Word and thus denied the singing of the Word.

There were at least three abuses that stifled the song of the soul of the believer in the Church of the Middle Ages.

Clericalism—The clergy sang the music of the Middle Ages Church. In fact, the choir, as it developed in the Middle Ages, was merely an assemblage of priests and monks and deacons and other representatives of the hierarchical Roman Church who sung the Latin service of the Church. The people were excluded from the singing of the service music of the church. The concept of hymnody that most of us would recognize was simply absent in the medieval church. That is not to say that people, in private, did not burst forth with joyous praise to the Lord Jesus Christ! Nor is it to say that we may not find primordial samples of the more full-blown invalidity of, say, the 18th-century, in that era. A review of most terminals will show that the church of Jesus Christ has sought to compose entity as well as diversify and put music to Scripture, for the people, throughout all of Georgia Street. I'm speaking now about the majority practice of the church. One of the points they were going to see, one of the points that the Reformation recovered, was in fact, the jubilant expression of the human soul finding its perfect, God crafted outlet in music. However, sad with the days when choirs were filled only with ordained clergy and the Saints of God set closed lipped in the pews, so distant from the antiphonal strains of praise, however subdued or dry those strains may have been.

Liturgical Imbalance—now when I say liturgical I do not mean to do injury to that very good biblical word. The liturgia literally means the service or the worship of the people. It refers to the laity, the people of God, in an act of worship, in the Fellowship of the Saints, in the assembly of the saved, expressing their hearts, with excellence, to the King of kings and Lord of lords. When I argue that the church music of the pre-Reformation period of church history was unbalanced in its liturgy (not to mention contaminated by unbiblical ideas) I mean to say that music, aiding that liturgy, had replaced the centrality of the word of God. Martyn Lloyd Jones, that great Welsh preacher, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, on surveying the history of the preaching of the word of God and music and perform in worship, commented that when there was a rise of practice in liturgy there was a simultaneous decrease in the importance of expository preaching. When that happens the pastor's role changes in the service. He must necessarily assume the role of a facilitator of the ritual and not a preacher. I say again, I think we need liturgical renewal in our day, but it must be a Biblical liturgy that exalts the preached Word. When that happens, great hymnody in our congregations will follow. This was certainly the case during the Middle Ages and it needed reforming. The music of the Middle Ages church was composed, song, and presented, as a replacement for preaching. It was not hymns that were being sung, but the service itself. You'll notice that in some branches of the church services are not held but it is said that services or read. For instance, one reads the Morning Prayer service of the Anglican tradition. Now in no way do I mean to cast aspersions on that wonderful branch of the modern Reformed and evangelical church, for the Anglican church is probably growing at a phenomenal rate in the Global South and East (and through the new Anglican movements in America as well, thanks be to God!), what I do mean to say is that the service is said to be either "read" or "said." In a similar way, the Latin Mass, if it did contain nourishment for the soul or converting virtues, it was not explained (it was in Latin). It was merely presented in the barest ritualistic method. There was no preaching as we understand preaching: diving down into the Word of God to get the sacred pearls of truth and coming up on Sunday to adorn the lives of those in the flock, causing them to erupt in composition of sacred song and sending them out with freedom and hope and Bible-saturated minds and hearts. As a preacher, I think of music as an integral and Biblical part of the liturgy of the Church. Yet I see it as cultivating a fallowed ground in the soul, preparing the lives of the people to receive the implanted Word. Music thus supports the service of worship. Yet then, music, at least music in its Middle Ages pre Reformational setting, became the whole of public worship. What do I mean? Examples of this would include the Middle Ages use of Gregorian chant. Supposedly Codified by Pope Gregory I (served 590-604), this form of official church music was the use of the clergy singing the Latin liturgical text for one of the several approved services that were conducted, especially to seeing the prayers and the thanksgivings and the petitions and even the Scriptures as part of the Latin mass. It was beautiful. And it is beautiful to hear today. Yet for those in the pews, it was like my appreciation of an Italian opera. I see and hear moving notes and beautiful renditions of musical phrasing, yet because I cannot understand Italian, most of the opera is lost to me. To be moved is not to understand. Yet Christianity requires more than mood and good music. In fact good music, in the Church, is defined by how well, how faithfully Biblical, it supports the ministry of the Word so that the people can understand what God is saying to them. But it did not at that time. Something else had grown up in its place, something unhelpful and in many instances down-right wrong. It had to be removed.

The music of that time was thus characterized in this third way:

Inaccessible—The musical settings of the pre-Reformational church, expressing the Latin Mass, were sung in the Latin. Thus, even when there was Bible in the service, it was being sung in a language that was accessible only by the clergy. There would have very little to no devotional use in the lives of the congregants. Therefore however lovely, however beautiful, however inspired the text, the people simply could not understand it! Furthermore, the expressions of the human heart could not flow forth with composition and skill and excellence in hymns to God. Something had to be done.

One may even today listen to the music of these periods being reproduced and discover some of the most extraordinary and beautiful music ever composed. However, if you cannot understand the words, it is like taking in the breathtaking spectacle of the Temple, glimmering with its golden gilded façade and alabaster stones in the Western sun, and yet deprived of any vibrant spiritual realities on the inside. It is to me like walking through some of the magnificent cathedrals of Europe and yet the cathedrals are empty. There is no worship. And when there is true worship in such places there is often a repeat of these pre Reformational musical practises. How utterly soul-starved were the people who set on the benches to observe and listen to that which they could not understand.

It was into this world that the preacher and Doctor of Divinity, John Wycliffe (c. 1328 — December 31, 1384), began to translate the Scriptures into English. The translation of the Scriptures into English, a task, which Wycliffe is most, credited with but which included others, led to the inevitable preaching of the word of God to the people and the conversion of the people under that word. Wycliffe multiplied his ministry by training and sending out preachers who were called Lollards— literally those who went about speaking the word. This would not be the last time that a seminary professor would be caught up in what became a Reformation. For the word of God began to spread all over the English realm and when the word of God goes forth the word of God accomplishes its supernatural ends. Now how does this relate to music? In those days, popular music—no doubt arising out of the desperate souls of believers who wanted something of the gospel brought to them in their own language—consisted of madrigals, or singing plays. These madrigals went across England, essentially performing the passion play, with variations. These travelling bands of actors and singers who performed these plays were the closest thing one could get to the telling of the gospel in the English language until the time of Wycliffe and his Lollards. Yet an examination of their contributions revealed that there were superstitions intertwined with Gospel, thus denying the human soul of the saving graces of the Gospel. The rich history of English sacred music finds its headwater, or better put its opening movement, its overture, in the scriptural translation of Wycliffe and in the doctrinal preaching of the Lollards. And while Wycliffe's detractors and enemies would shake their heads and say, " The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity," the doctrinal preaching of the word of God in the English language gave birth to English hymnody. During Wycliffe's parish ministry in Lutterworth, he suffered a stroke and subsequent death. Ten years after his death he was officially condemned as a heretic by the Council of Constance (1414-1418), even as the ministry of that pastor-scholar-evangelist had migrated to the Continent. There is a story that I often tell about Wycliffe as I consider the years after his death and his impact on the Reformation. Ten years after his death the Council of Constance decreed that John Wycliffe was a heretic (4 May 1415). It was therefore ordered that his body be dug up and burned, with his writings. So Roman church officials exhumed the bones of John Wycliffe and burned them in public. They tossed the ashes of Wycliffe into the River Swift, which runs fast by Lutterworth Parish. The River Swift carried the ashes of Wycliffe into the Servern, and from the Severn into the great ocean. The ordinary work of the earth then drew the water and ash into the clouds and the clouds moved over England and then over Europe and "rained down the doctrine of John Wycliffe" and drenched the people with God's grace, drowning the unrepentant in the deluge that would come, and freeing the common man to become a noble man by reading and understanding the Word of God. And Wycliffe's doctrine became the song of revival.

Following John Wycliffe came the ministry of the Bohemian John Hus and following John Hus came Martin Luther. As the Reformation continued men such as John Calvin in Geneva and John Knox in Edinburgh and then the Puritans in England and Wales and the Covenanters in Scotland and afterwards the Methodists, both the Wesley and Whitefield, arose, and with them arose countless, anonymous ministers of the Gospel who preached the doctrines of the word of God. Their preaching crossed the seas and came to America and men like Edwards and others further fanned the doctrinal flames of the Reformation. And from the 14th century and that the century in the 16th century in the 17th century and 18th century and on the end of the 19 century and down to our own day where ever there is strong doctrinal, expository preaching of the word of God, there has followed great sacred music. The music is not been used to replace preaching but to prepare hearts to hear it and to commit the Scriptures or their expository thoughts to the heart through the unforgettable impact of a hymn. There is so much more that we could say about the relationship of doctrine and music. But this much we must say: sacred music is composed and sung best and most Biblically and faithfully when the music follows a recovery of the gospel, a recommitment to the authority of the Bible, and a re-centering of the preaching of the Word of God. Grasp this truth and then you will find the music of Bach. Look closer to see if this is true and you will find the hymns of Martin Luther. Start your search with this truth and you will find the reason for the creation of the Genevan Psalter. Understand this reality and you will apprehend the source of Scottish Psalter. Recognize this truth and you will see the glory of the German Lutheran chorale. Receive this truth and you will recognize what gives English hymnody its wealth and its beauty. From Isaac Watts versification of the Psalms, from his "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," to William Cowper's "There is a Foundation filled with Blood," to Charles Wesley's glorious anthem of the first great awakening, "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!" to the moving Welsh revival hymns and even the "Gospel hymns" of 19th century Britain, Canada and the United States. See this truth—that strong doctrine unleashes Biblically faithful and soul-stirring lyric and setting and you will know how John Newton's, "Amazing Grace," could be combined with the American folk music of the late nineteenth century to produce the most recognized song in the world.

The Christian faith is, indeed, a singing faith. And the song is moving across the face of the earth in our day. From the global south to the global east. From there to Middle East, new Christians are hearing the Word of God preached and they are responding in sacred song.

And, now, with that cursory review (and it is only that; so much more should be said) of the Reformation and music, we must move to the fullness of Scripture to derive something directly from God's Word, tonight, about sacred music and its use Gospel usefulness to us as God's people. However we will limit ourselves to only a few passages and seek to derive from them what I will now call a sevenfold ministry of sacred song. The passages that I would have you look at would be Exodus 15:1-18, Psalms 66, Hebrews 2:12, and Revelation 15:3. I want to read these and then give my thoughts on them.

Exodus 15:1-18 "Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, "I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.

Pharaoh's chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.' You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.

You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed; you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. The peoples have heard; they tremble; pangs have seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Now are the chiefs of Edom dismayed; trembling seizes the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away. Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O LORD, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased. You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever.

Psalm 66


Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, "How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you. All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name." Selah

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations— let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah

Bless our God, O peoples; let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept our soul among the living and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fattened animals, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah

Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. I cried to him with my mouth, and high praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.

Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me!

Hebrews 2.12

"I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise."

Revelation 15.3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!" (Exodus 15.1—18; Psalms 66.0—20; Hebrews 2.12, ESV)

Let us then carefully derive a seven-fold ministry of sacred song from these passages;

1. Sacred Song is directed to God

Exodus 15 is called the song of Moses because of the very reason that Moses sang this song to the Lord. The relationship between the covenant God—and it is the covenant name of God, given in Exodus 15:1—and his servant Moses is a doctrinal truth which produces a veritable bubbling over of the glory of God in the soul of Moses. Now we notice in the last text that I read, that is, the last book of the Bible, that we will be singing the song of Moses in eternity future. For there in Revelation 15:3, we read:
And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb…
There! Did you see it? Moses, according to Revelation 15:3, that is according to the Lord Jesus Christ Revelation to St. John, tells us that Moses' song was about Jesus Christ!

In Psalm 66 the congregation of Israel is told to sing to God.

2. Sacred Song is about God and shared with each other or self

In the passages before us, in Psalm 66, for instance, in verse 8, the psalmist directs the people to "Bless our God who people; let the sound of his praise be heard…" We are to sing to God but we also sing horizontally—to each other. We are told by Paul in Colossians 3:16 to,
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. (Colossians 3.16 ESV)
We can think of "How Firm a Foundation Ye Saints of the Lord," in which we are encouraged to stand strong in the faith once delivered to the saints. It is a great hymn but its direction is towards the Body of Christ to "admonish one another."

There is no greater balm for the soul than to come to church and stand and sing the hymns of the Church. I like to use hymns in weddings as well as funerals as well as Communion services and in all the services of the Church—for this reason: we are encouraged in the Word of God in sacred song and strengthened by sacred song that is shared with each other. And when I am in need, when you are in need, there is great Gospel consolation in singing, even as David would sing to himself in the Psalms.

How clear is the text of Hebrews on this subject: "I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise."

But let us see a third truth about sacred song:

3. Sacred song begins with the inspired Word of God.

We are told to sing Psalms. Indeed, we know that Christ sang the Psalms in synagogue worship as he was upon the earth. The music of the Church should be the Psalms. It is a good practice for a Reformed church to read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, as well as sing the Word. It is good and right that we should seek to sing the very words of Scripture. We are most familiar in doing that with Psalms. But we do that also with hymns like "Great is Thy Faithfulness," 1 which is a direct quote from Lamentations 3.23. That is also an example of how we move from singing inspired text to human composition. And that is the fourth thing to say about the Gospel and Sacred Music.

4. Sacred song is composed by humans under the direction of Scripture

Now I admit that there are those in the Body of Christ and perhaps some here who would disagree with me on this one. But I see that this is actually a COMMAND! This is what Paul is commanding us in Colossians 3:16, but it is also what the Psalmist is directing us to do in Psalm 66:
"Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!"
The child's sounds are perfected into praise. The very sounds of the trees and the stars are said to be making music to God—how much more the human heart and the human voice? Thus, we raise our own voices and instruments to God and join the celestial and terrestrial bodies to sing with our very created beings to the Creator God.

5. Sacred song is a private offering of personal devotion

I will come into your house with burnt offerings; I will perform my vows to you, that which my lips uttered and my mouth promised when I was in trouble. I will offer to you burnt offerings of fattened animals, with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams; I will make an offering of bulls and goats. (Psalm 66:13-15)

But truly God has listened; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalm 66.19).

These personal times of worship are revealed all through the Word of God, and given to us as examples. We pray and preach and sing to ourselves to encourage ourselves as David is said to have encouraged himself in the Lord.

But hymnody sung alone must also become useful by a larger congregation. And that is our next point.

6. Sacred song is a public offering of corporate worship

Sacred Song in corporate worship is what Moses wrote in Exodus 15. It is the context for so many of the songs of the Bible, and particularly in the Psalms. Our hymns should be useful beyond ourselves. The hymns of the Church should be faithful to Scripture, displaying the fullness of Redemptive history in Christ Jesus, and drawing forth some doctrine that exalts God or blesses or admonishes the saints and usually all the above! The accompanying music should not overwhelm the message but carry it. The musical phrasing should be excellent, fit for the King of Kings, representing our very best, yet accessible by all generations gathered in community.

7. Sacred song is eternal.

Finally, let me say this: Preaching will go away. Singing will never stop. I will be out of a job. John Haines 2 will still have one!

Peggy Noonan wrote in her book, On Speaking Well, that the most important things are said the simplest.; like, "I miss you;" or I love you." Sometimes sacred song is simple and yet profound.

My Aunt Eva, who was born in 1897, used to love the nineteenth century Gospel hymn, "When Upon Life's Billows." Many will know it by the name of its refrain: "Count Your Blessings." The lyrics are so meek, just like Aunt Eva. Yet the message is so doctrinally pure, just like the Bible she taught me. The hymn seems quaint and yet it can be very powerful. It is praise to God. It is an encouragement to each other. I used to think that some of those hymns were too simple. But then I got sick. I spent days wondering if I would ever rise again to work, much less preach and sing. I would sit on the front porch, this past spring, and began to try to sing what I remembered from her in my heart,

When upon lights billows you are tempest-tossed, when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Count your many blessings—name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord has done. Count your blessings—name them one by one; Count your blessings—see what God has done; Count your blessings—name them one by one; Count your many blessings—see what God has done. 3
I realized that even in this simple Gospel song, often sung at evening services when I grew up, the truth of our texts:
Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul. (Psalm 66:16).
This weekend we sing praises to Him for the gift of His Son, and the blessing of His Word, which leads to the overflow of our hearts, in a language that is reserved for the Lord and the Church, which we call sacred song.

I invite you to learn the Word and then the Word—even the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord—will cause us sing the songs of Zion. We should be practicing now. We will be singing for a long, long time.


1. "they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3.23 ESV)

2. Director of Music at Christ Covenant Church (Presbyterian Church in America).

3. "When Upon Life's Billows" by Johnson Oatman, Jr. (1897) and Edwin O. Excell (1897).

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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