Sanctification: Singing Praise to God

Singing, specifically Christians singing praise to God, will be an activity that echoes on into the everlasting halls of glory. Mankind was of course created with the ability to sing, the telos of which is the vocal adoration of the Creator. But we have also been recreated in Christ to sing, the born-again church admonished to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; an activity which will have no end.

This phenomenon of singing is of course a very human endeavor, not something that only Christians do. Singing is pancultural and transhistoric. And yet, much like the institution of marriage which also transcends cultures and times, the people of God have a unique grasp on what singing is for and therefore do it in a particularly proper way. Well, at least they ought to (we’re all looking at you CCM). There is something heavenly, by which I mean other-worldly, when a congregation really sings loudly, joyfully, and adoringly in unison. Congregational singing, and especially the biblically commanded act of singing Psalms, is an alien endeavor. It’s as if heaven has broken into the here and now and we are allowed a brief glimpse, or should I say an eavesdrop, on a more perfect future; a cosmic euphony of joy echoing from glory into our fallen present.

What is it about singing – like, the actual mechanics of it – that sanctifies our lives and our world? I think a lot of it has to do with the enabling work of the Holy Spirit within God’s people. And especially the Spirit using inspired language, namely the Psalms, to not only transform the people singing according to the truths being sung but also inject divine beauty into the worship itself.

Left to ourselves, fallen humanity drifts further and further away from the Beautiful. Which means, I believe, we do less beautiful things and more ugly things. One way this expresses itself is in a lack of communal singing, and in one regard a lack of communal singing of truth! There is of course a scale to this drift into ugliness. Some things that are ugly are uglier than other ugly things. And somethings that are beautiful are closer on the scale in reflecting true Beauty, God himself.

It is one thing when a church drifts away from the prescribed beauty of congregational singing toward a less beautiful means of singing led by solos and a loud wall of accompaniment which drowns out the church. A shift has happened, though admittedly not very drastic. It is something else altogether when the Taliban outlawed singing and music in Afghanistan. That is hellishly ugly. Or consider the shift in what has been popularly sung over the last 100 years. In 1919 the love ballads popular of WW1 versus the x-rated lyrics of Nicki Ménage. The comparison isn’t unfair if we’re only evaluating based on what is most popular in any given year. Are we drifting further and further away from true Beauty?

This is where a church’s singing becomes so revolutionary. Literally. It is the sounds of an incoming Kingdom destined to overturn the ugly wailings of a savage and satanic dictatorship. This world’s singing and her songs, the more unmoored they are to the truth of the Gospel, the more they become a communal cacophony of rebellion. In defiance of Christ, who is King, the world sings “I did it my way.” It is an anti-singing in mockery of true singing.

True singing. That’s what Psalm singing is - it’s a communal singing of truth. The words being sung are actual inspired truth and therefore beautiful because they are given by the Beautiful one. Christians then, enabled by the sanctifying work of the Spirit within them, are recalibrated (transferred from death to life, brought out of the world) in order to appreciate and enjoy this beautiful action. Christians have been recreated to sing worshipfully in enjoyment of the Beautiful One. And He’s given us the perfect lyrics!

But I imagine this is why congregational singing is so weird to nonbelievers. It doesn’t feel right to them. Before I became a Christian, it didn’t feel right to me. There’s so much of that other world in it and so little of this world. But once someone becomes a believer, they also become a citizen of heaven and thus sojourner here. And by the Spirit of God there is a sanctifying work of conformity to all that is Good, True, and Beautiful,  a sanctifying work which prepares this new citizen for life in his future heavenly home. It is here where the act of singing praises to God not only makes more and more sense, it also begins to feel right. And this is because it is right, it’s good. What God has commanded is good and it is right to obey, but also because it aligns with the reality and goodness of heaven. What hath Cardi B to do with the Heavenly Jerusalem?

Singing then becomes a (super)natural expression of enjoyment from the heart, which is beautiful and true. And as we grow in conformity to Christ, who himself loved to sing Psalms, we will find ourselves sanctified in our singing. It will become easier to sing with vigor Psalm 16 to the tune of Golden Hill and probably more difficult to sing with equal vigor our favorite popular songs, as good as some of them are. Until, one day, we will find ourselves singing forever more all that is only good, beautiful, and true. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.