My Second Major Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

by | Jul 21, 2014 | Exclusive Psalmody

We have come to the point in this blog in which we are considering arguments against exclusive psalmody.  Here is my second argument.

Second, we are commanded to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24), that is, we must worship in the light of gospel fulfillment and not Old Testament shadows.

John 4:24  reads, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”  Some explanation of the use I am making of this text is necessary.

John 4:24 is arguably the classic text in all the New Testament on the necessity of worshiping God—not according to the fleshly types and shadows of the Old Testament—but worshiping God in accordance with the fulfillment of these types and shadows in the New Covenant.  It is crucial, therefore, that we understand the teaching of this text to the effect that we must worship God according to the light of the gospel and not according to the shadows of the Old Covenant.

A hendiadys is found in John 4:24 in the phrase “in spirit and truth.”  Hendiadys is a sophisticated sounding word, but it actually has a very simple meaning and derivation.  A hendiadys is a grammatical construction in which one concept is conveyed through two words.  That is what hendiadys means.  Hen=one.  Dia=through. Dys=two.  In this hendiadys in John 4:24 spirit and truth are introduced by a single article and thus combine to convey one concept.

John’s writings are often marked by a deceptive simplicity which disguises a richness of meaning.  Here spirit-truth worship has at least three shades of meaning.  This is confirmed by the fact that the context of John 4:24 emphasizes each of these different shades of meaning.  Though it is the third of these shades which is most important to my thesis, we must not neglect the first two shades of meaning.

Worship in spirit and truth is worship conducted in light of and in submission to divine revelation.  It is, therefore, the opposite of ignorant worship.  There is an emphasis on this in the context.  John 4:22 says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews.” Remember the emphasis out of the prophet Isaiah quoted by our Lord in Matthew 15:8-9:  “THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. ‘BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.’”

Worship in spirit and truth is worship that corresponds to God’s nature as spirit. It is, therefore, the opposite of dead worship. Why do I say that?  Again the context guides us.  Verse 24 makes clear that worship in spirit and truth is worship that is controlled by or corresponds to God’s nature as spirit.

Important as these two facets of this phrase are, they do not exhaust or even constitute the main point of the text.  Worship in spirit and truth is worship in terms of the gospel realities brought by the coming of the Messiah.  It is, therefore, the opposite of the shadow worship of the Old Testament.  The context of John 4:24 is filled with an emphasis on the coming of the new age of fulfillment in which the shadows of the temporary Old Testament order pass away (vv. 21, 23, and 25).

21 Jesus told her, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

23 But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him.

25 The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will explain everything to us.”

Truth in the Bible is not only the opposite of falsehood; it is also the opposite of shadow.  John 1:17 is clear:  “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”  On this point listen to the words of John Calvin:

And here again it must be observed, that truth is not compared with falsehood, but with the outward addition of the figures of the Law; so that—to use a common expression—it is the pure and simple substance of spiritual worship.  (Calvin’s Commentaries.  See his comments on John 4:23.)

This facet of the meaning of John 4:24 has several important applications, but among them is the plain teaching that exclusive psalmody is in many people’s minds is associated with the regulative principle.  But this views looks strangely out of step with what Jesus says in John 4:24.

Let me explain what I mean.  Of course, I am not saying that we should not sing the psalms of David.  I believe we should.  But they are to be understood and sung in light of the principle of John 4:24.  They are to be sung and understood in terms of their true meaning which finds their fulfillment in the worship in spirit and truth of the New Covenant.  So, yes, we must preach, pray, and sing the 150 biblical psalms.

But Jesus’ words clearly indicate that even the psalms were part of the shadow worship of the Old Testament.  It would be strange, indeed, in light of Jesus’ teaching to take the position that we may only sing the Psalms of the Old Testament, but that we cannot sing the words and truths in which they find their fulfillment in the New Testament.  The church must be allowed to worship in spirit and truth and must not be restricted in its singing to the preliminary, typical, and shadowy revelation of the Old Testament in its worship.  Think of what the exclusive psalmody position is really saying and how jarring it is.  Jesus tells us to worship in the spirit and truth of New covenant revelation, but exclusive psalmody tells us that we can only sing the psalms of the Old Testament in that worship.

The conclusion must be that the book of Psalms is an inadequate hymnbook for the church of Jesus Christ.  The exclusive psalmodist will certainly say that the psalms must be sung in light of New Testament revelation.  That’s good.  Yet even if it is sung in light of New Testament revelation, this still assumes that the Christian interpretations and understandings of the psalms are worthy to be sung.  This further and also means, since there is no New Testament equivalent to the Psalms, that Christians are called to compose hymns that are faithful to the word of Christ.

But even admitting that the Psalms are to be sung Christianly does not satisfy John 4:24.  No one before the coming of Christ specifically understood or believed the doctrine of the Trinity.  It was implicit in the Old Testament, but it was not explicit.  No one in the Old Testament taught the doctrine of justification with the clarity of the Apostle Paul. It was implicit in the Old Testament, but it was not explicit.  No one in the Old Testament specifically identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  It was implicit in the Old Testament, but it was not explicit.

So what is my point?  It is not sufficient to sing words that only make the identity of the Messiah, the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine of the Trinity implicit.  The Christian heart cries out to say these things with the clarity of the New Testament revelation.

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