Lewis on Worship Music

Often one hears questions regarding worship that ponder the concept of what God finds more pleasing.  Is a particular genre or style worship music more excellent, and, therefore, more worshipful of our great God?  Is one instrument better suited than another to praise the perfections of Christ?  Is a particular musical quality or technique desired by God?  These questions are outside of my grasp in this short article, but what I would suggest that we do is step back and view what God looks for in worship.  I would like to attempt an answer to the question: “What does God want most from my worship in song?”

To begin, I must admit that I am deeply indebted here to C. S. Lewis’ incredible insights written in his essay “On Church Music” in Christian Reflections.  In his context, Lewis is weighing in on the High Church and Low Church music controversy of his day.  The High Church faction felt that only trained musicians should worship.  The Low Church proponents held that the focus should remain almost exclusively on congregational singing, even if the quality of the musical excellence was degraded.  In this milieu, Lewis offers some excellent rejoinders to both camps.  These points are certainly not lost over the half-century that separates his writing from our time, and would be worthy of our consideration.

1: God wants me to edify my brothers and sisters.

Lewis’ first point is to emphasize the importance of edification in worship.  Drawing from 1 Corinthians 14, he makes the following statement:

“Whenever we edify, we glorify, but when we glorify we do not always edify.”

On a surface level, I recoiled after having read this statement for the first time, but pausing for a moment, I began to recognize what Lewis was saying.  We can say all the right things.  We can move through the motions of worship.  We can even have a good heart for praising God.  But if we fail to edify our brothers, then we have failed to offer God what He wants most in our worship.  The Corinthians passage is an apt allusion here.  Here you find a group of believers passionately worshipping and glorifying God in the Spirit-gift of tongues, but they are cautioned about doing this.  Paul warns these believers of excluding their brothers and even unbelievers in this sort of worship – a worship that speaks only to self and not to others.

2: God wants me to submit my desires regarding worship styles to that of my brothers and sisters.

The second point that Lewis makes is the importance of humility in worship.  He argues that both sides of the worship of his day had assumed “far too easily the spiritual value of the music they [wanted].”  They had placed particular musical styles above their brothers and sisters.  They were willing to fight and war over worship styles.  Here Lewis makes the awesome point that God is most glorified, not simply when we worship the way we want, but when we sacrifice ourselves in worship and worship in a manner that our brothers find helpful.  Lewis argues that the High church worshiper gains the most out of worship when he “sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish.” If he fails to do so, “the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation.” Lewis also argues that the Low church worshiper gains much as they sacrifice their desires and struggle to learn to their High church brother.” He goes on to suggest, then, “that the problem is never a merely musical one.”  The problem is a failure to demonstrate Christ-like humility towards our brothers in the assembly.

3: God wants the intentional praise of myself and my brothers and sisters.

The final and culminating point that is made in the essay is that there is the importance of intentional worship.  To explain what Lewis means, let’s follow his line of reasoning.  Lewis holds that there is a very elemental sense in which all of creation glorifies God.  A simple look at the Psalms illustrates this concept well.  It is from this concept that we gather the idea that God is glorified by things that are beautiful, strong, majestic, etc.  These things glorify God because they exemplify the potential of God’s creative excellence even in the fallen world.  It is in this sense that the explosive waterfall, the sprinting cheetah, the soaring eagle, and the skilled unsaved musician or athlete could be said to be glorifying God.  Lewis states that “we must define rather carefully the way or ways in which music can glorify God.  There is…a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them.  An excellently performed piece of music, as a natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be.”  Thus aesthetic “excellence” in worship is certainly able to worship God, but it is not the true measure of divine desire in worship.

I will here reproduce an extended citation from the essay: “What is looked for us, as men, is another kind of glorifying which depends upon intention.  How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry, and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know…  But I must insist that no degree of excellence in the music, simply as music, can assure us that this paradisal state [the merging of natural glorification and intentional glorification] has been achieved.  The excellence proves ‘keenness’; but men can be ‘keen’ for natural, or even wicked, motives…  We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer.  That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats…  For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which the father values indeed, but values only for the intention.”  With this last and powerful sentence, Lewis closes the essay, leaving us to consider the ramifications.

In conclusion, Lewis points us to three areas in which we should learn to value what God values in our worship in song.  First, we must learn to value the edification of others.  Second, we must learn to value the humble serving of others and their worship needs.  Third, we must learn to value redeemed intentionality in worship.  Excellence without edification becomes the obnoxious repeated clanging of a cymbal.  Excellence without humble condescension, denies the spirit of the incarnation.  Excellence devoid of intentionality places an improper value on my scribbled child-like sketch of the Almighty.  Let us all seek to value what God values in our worship this week!


His Favorite Song of All

He loves to hear the wind sing

as it whistles through the pines and mountain leaves

And He loves to hear the raindrops

as they splash to the ground in a magic melody

He smiles in sweet approval

as the waves crash through the rocks in harmony

And creation joins in unity

to sing to Him majestic symphonies

 

And He loves to hear the angels

as they sing, “Holy, holy is the Lamb”

Heaven’s choirs in harmony

lift up praises to the Great I Am

But He lifts His hands for silence

when the weakest saved by grace begins to sing

And a million angels listen

as a newborn soul sings, “I’ve been redeemed!”

 

But His favorite song of all

Is the song of the redeemed

When lost sinners now made clean

Lift their voices loud and strong

When those purchased by His blood

Lift to Him a song of love

There’s nothing more He’d rather hear

Nor so pleasing to His ear

As His favorite song of all

 

It’s not just melodies and harmonies

That catches His attention

It’s not just clever lines and phrases

That causes Him to stop and listen

But when anyone set free,

Washed and bought by Calvary begins to sing.

Bell on Hell

Rob Bell:

Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the Gospel of Jesus is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus.  What gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God.  But what kind of god is that, that we would need to be rescued from this god?  How could that god ever be good?  How could that god ever be trusted?  And how could that ever be good news?

The good news is that love wins.

William Ellery Channing:

 The idea, which is conveyed to common minds by the popular system, that Christ’s death has an influence in making God placable, or merciful, in awakening his kindness towards men, we reject with strong disapprobation. We are happy to find, that this very dishonorable notion is disowned by intelligent Christians of that class from which we differ. We recollect, however, that, not long ago, it was common to hear of Christ, as having died to appease God’s wrath, and to pay the debt of sinners to his inflexible justice; and we have a strong persuasion, that the language of popular religious books, and the common mode of stating the doctrine of Christ’s mediation, still communicate very degrading views of God’s character. They give to multitudes the impression, that the death of Jesus produces a change in the mind of God towards man, and that in this its efficacy chiefly consists. No error seems to us more pernicious. We can endure no shade over the pure goodness of God. We earnestly maintain, that Jesus, instead of calling forth, in any way or degree, the mercy of the Father, was sent by that mercy, to be our Saviour; that he is nothing to the human race, but what he is by God’s appointment; that he communicates nothing but what God empowers him to bestow; that our Father in heaven is originally, essentially, and eternally placable, and disposed to forgive; and that his unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love is the only fountain of what flows to us through his Son. We conceive, that Jesus is dishonored, not glorified, by ascribing to him an influence, which clouds the splendor of Divine benevolence.

They’re both saying the same thing.

Myths about Gospel Living: #5

Gospel-centered sanctification will lead to lawlessness.

Wasn’t this the objection of the Catholic Church when Luther proclaimed justification through faith alone?  They objected that if people were taught that they would be saved simply through faith, they would leave off the mass, almsgiving, prayers, confession, and all other good works and sacraments.  To this we all object that the Gospel in justification does not keep us from doing what God commands, but all the more motivates us to do what God’s Word teaches.  And why not so in sanctification as well as justification?  If the recognition that I can offer God nothing that will gain me merit in my justification does not lead to lawlessness, then why should the same recognition in regard to my sanctification do the same?  No one is looking to make grace abound because of sin, rather, we look to the Gospel as the powerhouse of sanctification.  Being good and glorifying God does not result from my intense self-discipline.  It is a result of the Gospel.  The more I come to see His righteousness in my place, the more I will be motivated, no, find the power, to live out who I really am in Christ.

Myths about Gospel Living: #4

Unity cannot be achieved around the Gospel; unity must be achieved through doctrinal affirmation.

To some extent, our problem, once again, is a flawed understanding of the doctrine as it has been presented.  When referring to the Gospel, we are not simply referring to the concept of justification through faith alone (the simplistic view), but rather the fact that the whole of Christian doctrine finds its source in the Gospel and the whole of Scripture focuses on the Gospel.  For example, how do we learn that God is love outside the Gospel (I John 4:10)?  How do we worship without an understanding of the Gospel (“Word of Christ” – Col. 3:16)?  What was the purpose of the prophecies and the moving of the Holy Spirit in the work of inspiration but to proclaim the Gospel (I Pet. 1:9-12)?  Through the lens of the Gospel, there is no doctrine, whether eschatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, or even angeology, that remains untouched.  So when a pastor calls his people to Gospel unity, he does not call them to unify around justification through faith alone (and thus to unite with Pentacostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Luthrans, Baptists, and cool church up the block), he rather calls them to unity around the full implications of the Gospel in every area of doctrine that it touches (which is essentially analogous to the fundamentals of the faith).

Myths about Gospel Living: #3

It’s all about Calvinism.

This objection is often presented because the chief proponents of the movement are Calvinists.  On a surface level, this statement seems to have much merit, but in reality it is quite lacking.  Should we reject the teachings of Luther because of his “Calvinism”?  Should we burn our copies of Pilgrim’s Progress?  Should we ignore the contributions of men like Jonathan Edwards?  No!  Should we reject the use of Nouthetic counseling?  Just because someone may believe in what may or may not be a flawed system, it does not negate the entirety of their dogma.  In other words, this objection is flawed because it attempts to negate the doctrine by questioning another aspect its sources rather than wrestling with the argument.

Myths about Gospel Living: #2

The gospel is just about justification, getting saved, or evangelism.

The majority of the writers on the subject (Piper, Keller, Chapell, etc.) have been quite clear in their objections to this point.  The whole purpose of their writings on the topic is to assert that the Gospel is to be central not only in justification but also in sanctification.  As defined by these and other writers, the Gospel is that doctrine that teaches that we are unable to merit God’s favor due to sin, that we must come to God simply through faith in His Son, and that God, through Christ, gives us everything we need for life and godliness.  This objection is flawed because it fails to understand the source material on the topic.

For a further explanation see my pastor’s brief introduction to the topic here.

 

Myths about Gospel Living: #1

It’s just a fad.

This statement is code for: All the preachers outside my camp are all about it, so I must be against it.  Has the Gospel regained centrality in our discussions about sanctification?  Yes.  Does it run through the majority of conservative devotional literature today?  Certainly.  Does this negate its value or significance?  Most emphatically not.  Just as the rediscovery of the Gospel’s relation to justification by the Reformers was significant in their day (yet not a passing fad), neither is the rediscovery of Gospel-based sanctification in our day.  Should Fundamentalists then reject Dispensationalism because of its relative youth?  To conclude, this objection is flawed because it focuses on the supposed “newness” of the teaching rather than on the significant contributions of the doctrine itself.