Why We Sing What We Sing in Church

Lutheran Sanctuary (610x351)This is our pastor’s article for the July-August 2013 newsletter.

One of the deep enigmas in the current-day church is why we sing what we sing.  Few of us have ever given much thought to that.  We grew up singing hymns in church, and we like what we like.  And we want to sing what we like–end of story!

But as Lutherans, we ground and center ourselves on God’s Word, not just Jesus Christ as the Word but also the Scriptures that bring us the Word, Jesus Christ.  So, is there a Bible passage that tells us what we are to sing and why?  Yes, there is.  It’s Colossians 3:16.

Colossians 3:16 is a verse within a long string of ideas that the Apostle Paul and Pastor Timothy bring up.  Because that verse is just one in a long string of ideas, we often get lost in that maze of ideas.  Colossians 3:16 states:

Let the word of Christ inhabit you richly, teaching and correcting one another in all wisdom by psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and singing to God with thankfulness in your hearts.

Hymns have a purpose: They are to teach and correct us.  The “spiritual songs” that Colossians mentions are not what we, today, call “spirituals.”  That phrase is talking about Holy-Spirited songs, songs that are so true that one can know the Holy Spirit was involved in its composition.  That means that “spiritual songs” simply rephrase the truths that Scripture teaches, for we know for that the Scriptures are Holy-Spirit inspired.

Teach and correct: that’s what hymns are supposed to do.  I know that sounds stodgy, maybe even boring.  Most of us would rather have a good time instead of being taught, especially corrected.  Hey, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday.  Yet, that’s the purpose of hymns–if we are to take the Bible seriously.

You sing hymns in church to be taught and corrected away from your natural, that is, sinful inclinations.  So every hymn we sing should teach us something.  But what?  Well, that comes down to why we come to Church.  So, why do we come to church, or why are we supposed to come to church?

Jesus tells us that when a pastor preaches, he is to preach repentance into the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47).  In other words, a sermon, in some way, is to convict you of your sin and turn you toward the forgiveness that God gives to you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.  Simply put, you come to church to get, and continue to be, saved.

For that to happen, Jesus Christ has to be front and center, for He is the only One who saves us.  That’s why the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus.  And it’s only Jesus who brings us to God the Father.  So, good hymns teach us about the fullness of our salvation in Christ.  They even correct us from our mistaken notions about Jesus.

So let’s look at a couple of hymns and see how they teach and correct us about Jesus and our salvation.  Here’s one I grew up singing as a child, but one that you won’t find in any of our Lutheran hymnals.  It’s called “In the Garden.”  The words for that hymn go like this:

I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.  And He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am his own.  And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

How does this hymn teach and correct us?  What it does teach is that I go to meet Jesus in “the garden alone” (perhaps a metaphor?).  And how does Jesus come to me?  He comes “in the voice I hear falling on my ear.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean that Jesus comes to you in some mystical way when you are by yourself and He tells you that you are His own?  Is that what the Bible teaches?

In the New Covenant, Jesus says how He comes to us.  It’s not alone in the garden but in Word and Sacrament, where we gather as God’s people to receive what Jesus wants to give us.  This doesn’t happen in the garden while alone, but where Jesus comes to you: In the preached Word, baptism, absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.

So, “In the Garden” not only teaches us little, but what it does teach is wrong.  (I know some of you may like that hymn because you, like me, grew up singing it.)

But do you see how a hymn like “In the Garden” can teach us to seek Jesus apart from Word and Sacrament?  Do you see how a hymn like that can teach you that you don’t need Christ’s bride the Church, which is contrary to what the Bible teaches?  After all, you can meet Jesus in the garden.  That’s why “In the Garden” has never been published in any of our Lutheran hymnals.

So, let’s compare a hymn from Lutheran Service Book.  It’s called “Oh, How Great Is Your Compassion.”  I chose this one because you probably don’t know it.

Oh, how great is Your compassion, faithful Father God of grace, that with all our fallen race in our depth of degradation you had mercy so that we might be saved eternally!  Your great love for this has striven that we may, from sin made free, live with You eternally.  Your dear Son Himself had given and extends his gracious call, to His Supper leads us all.

This hymn goes on for several more stanzas.  But in two stanzas, it teaches us that God the Father has compassion and mercy.  Why?  So we can be saved, but also live in that state of forgiveness.  And then at the end of stanza two, we learn that God’s compassion and mercy come to us in the Lord’s Supper.

“Oh, How Great Is Your Compassion” teaches us that Jesus comes to us where He says He does: in Word and Sacrament.  It tells us who God is and who we are in Christ–and apart from Him!  The hymn also corrects us from seeking God in places where He has not promised to be (such as in the garden), or in ways He has not promised to come to us (mystically, where He walks with you and He talks with you).

I know it’s not as fun to sing hymns that teach and correct us.  I admit it.  Eating ice cream and cake for every meal would be more fun than eating vegetables.  I hate vegetables!  But I know eating one way would kill me while eating another way would bring me health.  So it is in our spiritual lives.

As your called shepherd, God has placed me here to help make sure you are fed proper spiritual nourishment.  Part of this includes singing hymns that teach and correct you.

And so I ask for your grace and mercy, for I’ve found out that choosing hymns that teach and correct often lead to a litany of complaints.  As your shepherd, I’m supposed to have you sing hymns in church that lead you to the greener pastures of the pure Word, which includes singing hymns that teach and correct.

God willing, may we ever be willing to learn hymns that teach and correct us, even if we happen to be older.  For God wants us to learn and grow in the Faith until He brings us home to eternity.  After all, isn’t that what church is all about?  Amen.


To hear an Issues Etc. interview on this topic, click here.



  1. I can understand why it is thought this way with this particular song, In the Garden but I also can see it as a teaching song too. It does teach us if we are to compare it to the Scriptures that tell us to pray to our father in secret not for the display of others. What if this song was written by someone who finds that walking alone with God is how he communes secretly? I am a fairly new practicing Lutheran and grew up on the old southern gospel music. I was probably 4 the first time I sang this song. Just wanted give my two cents as I see it. Thank you and God bless!