Discerning Theology in Worship Music

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

How do we know if what we’re singing to God is truthful and good?

In this episode, Phy explains the regulative v. normative principle of worship and breaks down four popular hymns/worship songs, comparing them to Scripture.


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Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer. I’m here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here. And I hope you’ll join me on this journey, because every woman is a theologian. 

Hello, friends. Welcome back to Verity podcast. Today’s episode is one long requested. We’re going to be talking about discerning theology in worship music. Before we do, I wanted to first thank you for reviewing Verity because your reviews, not only mean the world to me and the every woman a theologian team, but they always help other listeners find the podcast. If you have enjoyed Verity podcast, would you take a few moments to leave us a star review or write out why you enjoy it because that would help us get the word out to more people. Thank you so much for listening. 

This week, as we look at this topic, I want to first just make sure that our approach to this, as we think about this, is not one of hyper criticism or a critical spirit, but a desire to truly honor God with our words and to worship Him rightly. I think that’s so important going into this. What I’ve found when it comes to worship music, is it’s very easy to descend into this hyper critical, cynical attitude. I’m just going to put it out there and say it bluntly, “Cynicism is not of the Lord.” Jesus is not cynical. He’s full of hope and joy, and peace. Look at scripture, look at Revelations, specifically, there is no place for cynicism in the body of Christ. When we allow it to rain in our hearts, we will find fault with everything that we can. 

Certainly, there has been worship music that has been not accurate, not biblical, or even just ridiculous, as we will see in a moment. But there’s also been a lot of good worship music that’s been produced, so I just want to make sure that our attitude going into this is one of honor, both for worshiping the Lord, but also toward other Christians who operate differently. Before we get to some specific examples of worship songs, and how to discern through them, so we can get a little practice, I first want to look at the basis for how we discern, because the foundation for our interaction with worship music and with songs of praise to God is found in our approach to the principle of worship. There are two principles of worship the Regulative and the Normative principles. Let’s start with the regulative principle of worship. 

The regulative principle holds that God commands us to worship Him in a specific way, with specific elements and only these are permitted for use in worship. Most Christians who hold to the regulative principle, look to Leviticus 10, as a great example of why God wants to be worshipped a specific way. In Leviticus 10, we see Nadab and Abihu, who are Aaron sons, go into the tabernacle, and present unauthorized fire before the Lord. So, they decided to worship God however they wanted and they just marched into the tabernacle and decided to do their offering how they wanted, and God’s strikes them dead for it. 

This is an example that those who hold to the regulative principle would point to and say, “Look, we don’t get to just worship God how we want, we have to worship Him in the way and with the things that He has endorsed.” We see another example of regulating worship in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul corrects the Corinthian church and he says, “Look, you can’t just speak in tongues willy-nilly. [chuckles] You can’t just do it however you want, whenever you want. There’s an actual order that has to happen you need to have a translator; you need to take turns talking,” etc. They point to these as, “Look, here’s an example we are to be worshipping in a specific way, not just in any way that we feel led or that we are pleased to do.”

The regulative principle is very common in Reformed churches and this is actually not a surprise because Calvin talked extensively about this, John Calvin. And not just John Calvin, we also see this principle of worship in church of Christ, and some Anabaptist churches, Church of Christ has no musical instruments for this reason. Calvin specifically said that, “God disapproves of all modes of worship that are not expressly sanctioned by His Word.” And so, John Calvin actually also refrained from using musical instruments because he believed that they were not specifically sanctioned in the Word. 

Some would argue against that saying, “Look, the Psalms are worship to God, and they involved musical instruments, or Miriam led Israel and worship of God with a tambourine.” That can be argued, but those who hold to this principle of worship typically are looking to see something very specifically outlined in scripture regarding worship before they’re willing to do it. Some people who hold to this principle will go so far as to no longer celebrate Christmas or Easter, because those are not outlined as Christian holidays in scripture. So that’s where this comes from, this outlook is the regulative principle of worship. 

Now, the other view is the normative principle of worship, which says, “What is not directly prohibited is permitted.” I loved this definition from the Colson Center. It said, “It does not interpret the biblical text as a set of rules for worship, but rather as guidelines showing us how to worship in spirit and truth without mandating every last thing that can be done in worship.” It allows for more creativity, including the use of a range of arts. The normative principle is what’s being discussed here and it is basically saying, “We worship in spirit and truth.” And that means that we can worship God in the New Testament era, the church era with a lot of freedom, with the freedom to maybe even dance before God or do art to celebrate Him, to sing in a variety of musical styles. We also have to remember that this worship has to be something that can be given to God around the world. So, is our view of worship able to translate to cultures that are not America? Does this principle apply to these other cultures? And so normative and regulative, both at the end of the day come back to a conclusion and it’s this, “Worship must be based on scripture.” They have different ways of understanding that, practically, but they both do have a high view of scripture, and they both do want what scripture permits or prohibits to be the guide.

The next thing I want to mention as we move towards looking and discerning worship songs, is that worship will always contain theology, whether it’s good theology or bad theology. Worship is directed towards a God; worship is more than music. First of all, our sermons in church, that’s worship, anything that exalts God and directs our attention to Him, honors Him, reverences Him, that’s worship. Work is worship, prayer is worship. It’s all worship. So singing is not just worship but because singing is an expression of worship, it’s important that the theology line up with scripture and it not just be something that we’re irreverent with. 

Now, because worship is theology, it matters what we’re saying, it matters what we’re thinking about, and we want to be sure that it is accurate. But we also have to remember that the Holy Spirit is always at work in people’s lives. And even a song that isn’t written well or isn’t super accurate, can point people to Christ, if they’re young in their faith, and they don’t know any better, and they’re just singing in spirit and truth to God, God can still work through that and I think that’s important to remember. But at the same time, the theology of worship songs, it matters, and we should care about it and we should pay attention to what is being said and what we are singing.

Lastly, I wanted to make a quick note about poetry in scripture. So, we see poetry throughout scripture, especially in the Psalms, which are songs. And in poetry, and this is from Lee Ryken and who wrote a lot about the nature of the Word of God and the genres of literature. Poetry is different than ordinary prose. It has images and figures of speech; it uses a verse form. Some of you know that I myself am a poet. I have a poetry book in the shop. I share my poetry on Instagram. And the point of poetry is not to just get to the point of something. The point of poetry is to use images and figures and figures of speech, rhymes and form of the verse to evoke an emotional response or a deeper connection with the message you’re trying to give. 

So instead of just saying something like “God is love,” I can say it in a less direct way that meet someone’s heart on a deeper level, and that’s the gift of poetry. Poetry is a beautiful art form because of that, and we see poetry in scripture, in the Psalms. I loved what Dr. Jane Beal said about this, “Poetry provides the perfect mode for expressing the emotional realities of human hearts.” Whether the biblical writers or their readers are standing alone before God, or in community with one another. And I wanted to mention poetry in scripture before we look at these songs, because I think what can be forgotten when we’re analyzing and discerning worship songs is the poetic element and the limitations of that poetic element. So, when you’re writing a poem, there are only so many synonyms for the word that you want to use and if you’re specifically writing a worship song, if you look at the lyrics, you’re going to see that you only have so many ways that you can say, “Jesus saved me.” [chuckles] Okay, or “Jesus died on the cross.” I’m thinking of In Christ Alone by the Gettys. Where it said, “On the cross that Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” 

Okay, in that sentence, they’re actually writing a very specific atonement theory and you can go back and listen to the atonement theories episode if you want to. But that line expresses a very specific atonement theory. However, they may not have intended it to, they may not have intended it to be so specifically penal substitutionary atonement. But there are only so many synonyms that you can use to describe that concept. There are only so many ways you can talk about it. Poetry then is limited by the amount of synonyms you have for a word and that leads some artists, some writer, some songwriters to use words that are out of the ordinary to describe a theological concept and they themselves love scripture. They’re orthodox people, but the way that they describe the concept, using this new word or this new angle, this poetic license, if you will, has resulted in people getting very alarmed or upset as we’re going to look at in a moment. 

I would just encourage some grace in this department. Again, cynicism has no place in the Christian life, discernment does and there’s a big difference between being discerning and having a critical spirit. I have an episode about that, too. So, you can scroll back up in the library in iTunes if you would like to listen to. Critical Thinking versus a Critical Spirit. 

Okay, so we’ve kind of laid the groundwork here. What’s the principle of worship? Worship is theology. Poetry matters as a genre, it’s in scripture, but also poetry has its limitations.

Now, I want to look at four different songs and walk through the discernment process with these. I have picked, Reckless Love, Beautiful Name, The Old Rugged Cross, and In the Secret. So, Reckless Love and Beautiful Name are both more recent. The Old Rugged Cross is an old hymn from the 50s and In the Secret Place was from the 90s. I thought this was a good range of songs that we could look at, because oftentimes, worship music today gets picked on a lot. But there were actually some problems with older worship songs too. So, we’re going to look at some of the pros and cons of these together. Let’s start with Reckless Love. I could sing these for you, but you probably don’t want me to, so I’m just going to read you the lyrics and then we’ll talk about this, 

Before I spoke a word, you were singing over me. You have been so, so good to me. Before I took a breath, you breathed Your life in me. You have been so so kind to me. Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Oh, it chases me down, fights ’til I’m found, leaves the 99. And I couldn’t earn it. I don’t deserve it, still You give yourself away. Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God.” 

Okay, so before we get to the problematic bits, we’re going to look at what scriptures are actually referenced in this song. The first is Zephaniah 3:17, which says, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save, He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will quiet you by His Love, He will exult over you with loud singing.” So, this is referenced in the first line that says, “You were singing over me,” this is directly from Zephaniah 3:17. Then the line “before I took a breath, you breathed Your life in me,” comes from Genesis 2:7, and also Job 33:4. And Job 33:4 says, “The Spirit of God has made me and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” So again, this is directly from scripture. And then Luke 15:3-7 is the next passage that we have that is referenced in this first stanza. And it says, so he told them this parable, “What man of you having hundred sheep if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?” So, the leaving of the ninety-nine is that reference to the parable that’s told here in Luke 15.

Then last but not least, we have Ephesians 2:8, which says, “For by the grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of work so that no one may boast.” This is referenced in the line that says, “I couldn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it, still you give yourself away.” So, there’s a lot of scripture that’s in just the first stanza of Reckless Love. It’s there. The concepts are there, they’re just being expressed in different wording. However, there is one word and it happens to be in the title, and that has been the point of contention about the song, and that is the word “reckless.” So, I looked up the word reckless in the dictionary, and it means, “Marked by lack of proper caution, careless of consequences.” So, the question is, is God’s love really reckless? Is God marked by a lack of proper caution? Is He careless of the consequences with His love? I’m going to tell you my biased answer, and it is yes and no. How do you like that? Let’s start with the no, why is God’s love not reckless? 

Well, I would say most people who have a problem with this song, have an issue with the word reckless, because Ephesians also tells us that God’s salvation plan was in place before the foundation of the world. He predestined Christ to come to offer a salvation. That’s the Wesleyan view of Ephesians 1 where it says that “God predestined us.” He’s predestining in the plan of salvation through Christ, from the foundation of the world. So, this is not something marked by a lack of caution or careless person, he’s planning this salvation from the get-go. It’s being offered to the world. In that sense, God’s love is not reckless, it’s actually very intentional. It’s very planned. It’s not just throwing it out willy-nilly. But at the same time, I would say, yes, God’s love is reckless, in the sense that He knows that the consequence of loving people will often result in his pain, that there will be a consequence of them rejecting Him and walking away from Him, and hating Him and spurning Him, and yet He still gives His love away. He still loves these people; He still offers Christ to them. So, in that sense, I would say, “Yes, God is not cautious with His love.” He is willing to abundantly give it away and, in that sense, I would say yes, He is reckless. But is the word problematic, confusing, perhaps? Yes, it could definitely be that way. But what I want you to think about when you’re looking at songs like this, instead of just that visceral reaction, look at the lyrics, print them out, and find out where in scripture, we see these concepts, if they are there at all. 

We see that God planned salvation Ephesians 1, salvation is offered to us, but we also see in the story of the Prodigal Son, and the story of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, that God as described in these parables is willing to go to great lengths to love people and to offer the kingdom to them, even if they walk away from Him or even if they hate Him. I just think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That seems very reckless, if you will, but also very intentional, so it could go either way. 

After a three-year hiatus, Verity Conference is back, and it’s coming to Petoskey, Michigan, November 4th and 5th. I’m so thrilled to bring back Verity Conference after our short break of a few years for COVID, and this time, we are much bigger with two amazing speakers joining me, to talk about Apologetics and Evangelism. How do we share our faith effectively in today’s culture, in a way that is both gracious and truthful. You’ll hear from me, Jeremy Jenkins of All Things All People, and Pricelis Dominguez, who is going to share with us, how to love other people, while also speaking the truth. Jeremy specializes in world religions and cults, and he will be talking about evangelism in that context. I am so excited for this event. I hope you can join us, you can grab the remaining early bird tickets on my website, phyliciamasonheimer.com if you click the conference tab.

Okay, now let’s look at Beautiful Name. I’m actually going to read you the second stanza of this song, because this is the part that’s a little bit questionable. It says, “You didn’t want heaven without us. So, Jesus, You brought heaven down. My sin was great, Your love was greater. What could separate us now? What a wonderful Name it is. What a wonderful Name it is. The Name of Jesus Christ my King.” I personally really love worshiping with the song, but the line in question is,you didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus you brought heaven down. Is this true? Is this what Jesus was doing on the cross? Did he just was he hanging out up there with God, in the Spirit, and he’s like, “You know what? Heaven is boring. Let’s get some more people up here.” And so he brought heaven down, is that what was going on? 

Well, let’s look at what else is in this stanza and see what else we can find in scripture. Romans 5:20-21, the first place I wanted to look at and it says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned and death, grace might also reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” So, this is in reference to, “My sin was great, your love was greater,” Romans 5. Then Romans 8:35 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors.” This refers to what could separate us now, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Romans 8:35.

Lastly, Isaiah 9:6 talks about how Jesus’ name is Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace, referencing what a wonderful name it is. So, this brings us back again to, “you didn’t want heaven without us.” So, is that in scripture? I wanted to look at two other passages that talk a little bit about something similar. 

One is in Luke 17, and this is Jesus talking to the Pharisees. It says,”Being asked by the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus answered them, the kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘there, for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.'” 

When I was reading this passage, I thought, okay, I can sort of see how God, He’s bringing the kingdom to earth in Christ. We also know that God created Adam and Eve, with the option of knowing Him and all of their children, to the option of knowing Him, so that they could be a part of His kingdom. And then when they said, He puts into place this redemption plan to save people and to bring them back into communion with Him, so that they can live in eternity with Him. 

Eden is going to experience this great reversal through what we see in Revelation, and brings all these people into the community of faith, so that they can be in Heaven with Him. So, in this sense, the kingdom is being brought down, so that we can live in communion with God eternally. You didn’t want heaven without us, so you brought heaven down. I can see it a little bit. 

The last verse I wanted to look at is Matthew 6:10, which says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So, the kingdom is coming down to earth in Christ, and we get to be a part of it. This is what I would argue this line is a poetic expression of what we see in Luke 17 and in Matthew 6. Is it a perfect way of saying it? Probably not. But, again, we’re looking at that poetic license and the limitations of language when you’re writing a song, so could you do it differently? Yes, you could do it differently. Is it completely heretical? No. 

All right, let’s look at Old Rugged Cross. So, I’m going to read you the chorus to the song with a pretty classic song. If you grew up Baptist, you probably know it. I know it because I had a CD of Roy Rogers & Dale Evans singing classic hymns, because I was a strange child who believed she was actually living in the 1950s and that’s how I learned the Old Rugged Cross. Here is the chorus, “So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it someday for a crown.” 

Okay, I have to say, as a poet, I love this imagery. I’ve always loved this image, “till my trophies at last I lay down, I’ll cling to the cross, and then I’ll exchange it someday for a crown.” It’s a really nice tight stanza. I’ve always liked it, but let’s look at what we have here in scripture. Philippians 3:8-11, is our first passage and this says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord. For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” 

What he’s talking about here is everything that he has achieved everything in Philippians 3, everything he’s achieved, he counts as a loss. So, this would be referenced in “till my trophies at last I lay down.” And then in Galatians 2:20, it says, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” So, this particular verse kind of references that “crucified with Christ, so I’m clinging to the old rugged cross, I’m crucified with Christ.”

Here’s the problem with the theology of this particular song. I first noticed this when I was in college, studying religion, surrounded by future pastoral students. And several of my male colleagues and fellow students would complain about this song. I was always like, “What is your problem?” It’s The Old Rugged Cross, it’s a classic of Christianity. We’re in southern Baptist country here, how can you not like The Old Rugged Cross?” But what my friend Dan pointed out, was that the pinnacle and climax of Christian salvation is not the cross, it’s the empty tomb. And I thought, “Oh.” What we’re trading or exchanging for our crown is not the cross. We are secured in salvation because of the resurrection, which proved Christ’s supremacy over death. 

So, theologically, yes, The Old Rugged Cross is actually flawed, because the resurrection is the pinnacle of our salvation, which is talked about in 1 Peter 1:3, Romans 8:11, and Romans 10:9. But the most obvious place where this is discussed is in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead, but if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised? And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.” This is a huge statement; he talks about this whole concept in 1 Corinthians 15. 

Basically saying, “The resurrection is the most important thing ever, and you can’t have Christianity without it.” So, if we move back to Old Rugged Cross, and it says, “I will cling to the old rugged cross, and I’ll exchange it someday for a crown.” It’s a great line. Is it accurate? No, because the crown that we receive is secured by Christ, the Kings, overcoming death, and that was accomplished at the resurrection. 

Let’s move to our last song and this one is fun to pick on. It’s almost as fun to pick on as, Oh, how He loves us by Crowder because we all know, the question is, is it an unforeseen kiss or a sloppy wet kiss? And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, first of all, that would be very awkward to listen to. And secondly, you should go look up the lyrics to Oh, how He loves us, and then you understand. Okay, so The Secret Place is a fun song to pick on. I’m going to read you the lyrics, “In the secret, in the quiet place, in the stillness, You are there. In the secret, in the quiet hour, I wait only for You, because I want to know You more. I want to know You, I want to hear Your voice, I want to know You more, I want to touch You, I want to see Your face, I want to know You more. I’m reaching for the highest goal that I might receive the price, pressing onward, pushing every hindrance aside out of my way, because I want to know You more.” And then it goes on through the course again. 

So referenced here is most obviously in the second stanza Philippians 3:14, which says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” So, pressing onward, pushing every hindrance aside out of my way is a reference to Philippians 3:14. And then this idea of wanting to know God more, we see kind of similar themes in Psalm 119:10, which says, “With my whole heart, I seek you.” We also see in Psalm 46:10, it talks about, “Be still and know that I am God, wanting to know Him, wanting to hear His voice. And then Isaiah 40 talks about, “Waiting on the Lord.” This concept of waiting on Him could maybe translate to this idea of a secret or quiet place. 

I would say, this is one of those songs that is theologically lacking. When I was looking for scriptures for this one, it was pretty thin, I was often grasp at straws a little bit with this one, other than the most obvious Philippians 3 reference. So, this was at a point in the church, where kind of the Emergent Church seeker friendly church movement, where the worship tended to be kind of vague, it wasn’t super theologically rich or specific. And then it has moved slowly to be more that way again. But at this point in church history [laughs] is a little rough. 

And this is an example of a song that, I think, it could be sung from a genuine spirit from someone who genuinely does want to know God more and hear His voice. But just reading the lyrics, there’s not a lot here. In fact, to prove this point, I want to read you the lyrics of another song, and I’m going to have you just guess who wrote this. I’ll tell you; I promise. “I want to touch you. Nobody else will do, no. I want to touch you, because a little too much could never be enough.” And I’m going to reread in the secret which says, “I want to know you. I want to hear your voice. I want to know you more. I want to touch you. I want to see your face. I want to know you more.” Versus, “I want to touch you, nobody else will do, I want to touch you because a little too much could never be enough.” Okay, one of these is written by a worship pastor and one of them was written by Def Leppard. 

So, our words do matter [laughs] and we do have to consider, is the worship song I’m writing to God clearly rooted in scripture? And giving elements of scripture that the worshiper can actually articulate to the Lord, or am I just rewriting a Def Leppard song? Those are the questions we have to ask. 

Those are the four songs I wanted to show you and walk you through my process. When I looked at these, what I’m doing is, okay, is the concept expressed in this line found in scripture? The concept, it doesn’t have to be the direct line itself, but is the concept about God found in scripture. And then I go, and I look and I see if I can find it. If I can’t find it, if it seems like a stretch, if it feels wonky, or if there’s some line that just isn’t lining up with what we know of God, then I may not sing that song, or I may not listen to that song, or promote that song. But I also believe, as I said at the beginning, that there is an element of God’s grace for the seeking heart, and the worship in spirit and truth. 

The important thing is, you can have a very genuine spirit but not be worshiping in truth, and that’s why the Bible matters. That’s why we want to bring the Bible into this as the foundation whether we hold to the regulative or normative principle, the Bible has to be the foundation. The danger with these two principles, if you are an advocate of the regulative principle, your danger may be legalism, and veering so far away from anything that seems like freedom, that you end up actually losing the spirit of worship. And then if you’re someone who holds to the normative principle of worship, you may be so immersed in your freedom, that you actually miss the truth of worship. As with everything theological, we can always swing to extremes and we don’t want to do that. We want to end up in that holy moderation as I’ve talked about previous episodes, holy moderation in the middle, that is walking in scripture, in spirit and in truth. 

I hope this was helpful to you, as you discern theology in worship music. If you want to send me a few more songs and want me to do a follow up episode where we look at some other songs, you’re more than welcome to do that. You can email me phylicia@phyliciamasonheimer.com, and I, or Every Woman a Theologian team will get back to you. As always, I’m so grateful for all of you who listen and take the time to hear my voice in your earbuds each week. So grateful for you and everyone in Every Woman a Theologian community, and I can’t wait to see you next week. 

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast. If you enjoy this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity, and about Every Woman a Theologian, as a ministry and a shop. We appreciate you and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s Word and the heart of Jesus Christ.

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