Letters on Singing: 1. Introductory

1 Corinthians 14:15  •  8 min. read  •  grade level: 9
In singing, as indeed in all things, it behooves the Christian to seek the enlightenment of the Spirit and the teaching of the word. The two things will be possessed together; for both the Spirit and the word are alike “truth” (1 John 5:66This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. (1 John 5:6); John 17:1717Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. (John 17:17)). And it follows therefore that there can be no inconsistency, much less contradiction, between the two. The illumination of the Spirit guards against false interpretation; while the word itself is a safeguard against any pretended revelation of the Spirit.
Herein is the twofold security given us to prevent our lapse into error. Similar counsel did Jehovah give to the distracted remnant in Isa. 8:2020To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20). “To the law and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” And on this principle did the Berean disciples act when they searched the scriptures to see where the things testified by the Holy Ghost through the apostles were so or not (Acts 17:1111These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11)).
And this diligent study of the Scriptures in dependence upon the teaching of the Spirit is the more necessary in consequence of the position of freedom into which believers are now brought. The law was an age of tutelage in contrast with the day of grace which is characterized by sonship. The epistle to the Galatians insists on this distinction with great force. The difference between the Jew and the Christian is by no means nominal. It is the difference between bondage and liberty, between slaves and sons. Now to those in the former state of comparative weakness and incapacity God vouchsafed the fullest and most minute directions, descending to the commonest matters of daily life. Not alone was their mode of approach before God regulated, but even as to food and raiment they received careful instruction from God Himself.
But in the New Testament we find the reverse of this. In the epistles, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” are conspicuously absent. In the place of a list of clean and unclean meats, we find a general principle laid down which the believer is to apply to each case as it arises. “Whether therefore ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:3131Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)). Because the Christian has the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:1616For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)) and has received “not the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:77For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)), he is called to judge by the word whether such and such a thing is for the glory of God or not, and to act accordingly.
Hence the care with which the Scripture should be searched and self-judgment exercised lest flesh instead of spirit should judge in the things of God.
Now in the light of these foregoing considerations permit me to direct your attention to the passages of the New Testament which relate to the subject in hand. From what has been said it will be no embarrassment to you to find that the references to singing are few and brief. Neither will the scarcity and the brevity of the passages furnish any argument for the unimportance of the subject; since even such important matters as baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Lord's Day, &c., are not brought forward to any degree of length or frequency. The truth is that in agreement with New Testament practice a few pregnant sentences are given which shed abundant light on every phase of the subject as it presents itself.
The passage in 1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15), “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” lays down simple but fundamental principles which are of all-importance in considering the question of singing. From the context it is apparent that this text, while it has a bearing upon the singing of the Christian under any circumstances, is introduced especially in connection with assembly singing.
For in the fourteenth chapter the apostle shows the principles which regulate the operations of the Spirit in the exercise of gift in the assembly. In a previous chapter (xii.) it is made clear that the Holy Ghost is the only source of power in the assembly. The gifts are under the Lord's direction by the Spirit. The Head of the church above bestows the gifts (Eph. 4); the Holy Ghost below makes use of them as He wills. “To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit. . . But all these worketh the one and the self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will” (1 Cor. 12:8-118For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; 10To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: 11But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. (1 Corinthians 12:8‑11)). So that saints are dependent upon the Spirit for power that the gifts may be put into practical and efficient use.
Now in the, chapter before us the manner or occasion of the exercise of these gifts is set forth. There is a right time for all things; and there is a proper way in which everything should be done. And certainly spiritual gifts should be exercised in due season and in a suitable manner. On this head therefore the apostle instructs the saints.
It appears there were those at Corinth who had received the gift of tongues. They were enabled in the power of the Spirit to speak in unknown languages. And such persons were responsible to use this gift at the suitable time. But we find they took advantage of the gathering together of the saints to display their marvelous gifts with not a little vanity as we may suppose. Now this was wrong. It was plain that utterances in a foreign tongue could not benefit the assembly unless they were interpreted. Besides, tongues were “for a sign, not to them that believe, but to those that believe not” (1 Cor. 14:2222Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. (1 Corinthians 14:22)). So that it was altogether improper to use this gift in the assembly unless it was interpreted (1 Cor. 14:2727If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:27)). In other words, if the Spirit made use of the gift of tongues, He would immediately utilize the gift of interpretation; since the profit of the saints as a whole is a cardinal principle which ever governs the ministrations of the Spirit.
This truth lying on the face of the whole chapter is of primary importance. It is manifest that the mere possession of a gift affords no sufficient reason in itself for its indiscriminate exercise. And the rule is that all things should be done unto edifying, otherwise confusion results, which is not of God (1 Cor. 14:3333For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33)).
For it must be borne in mind that the Spirit works in conjunction with the understanding—that is, with the understanding of (1) the one who speaks and (2) those who hear. And it is the latter consideration that affords such guidance for the exercise of spiritual gifts in the assembly. The Spirit would lead to the blessing not of a single individual only but of each individual. This principle the apostle lays down to show that prophesying is more appropriate in the assembly than speaking in tongues. For “he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church” (1 Cor. 14:41).
Here then is a plain and simple rule which has its application to the practical use of the gifts of the Spirit. Every operation of the Spirit of God in the assembly aims at the edification of the saints in their corporate capacity, and this must be the criterion of every word spoken in the assembly; as it is said, “Forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church” (1 Cor. 14:1212Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12)).
The apostle did not deny that tongues were a gift of the Spirit; but he would not allow that the Spirit prompted their use in meetings of the saints. Tongues were given as a testimony to unbelievers, and could not build up the assembly in the faith for the simple reason that they did not reach the understanding. Supposing a person prayed in an unknown tongue, it is clear there could be no fellowship. He might be praying with his spirit (the new nature), but his understanding was unfruitful (1 Cor. 14:1414For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. (1 Corinthians 14:14)), and therefore his prayer was not in accord with the mind of the Spirit. For himself the apostle says, “I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the understanding Also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also.” And so it is with blessing, giving of thanks, and teaching (vers. 16-49).
Every operation then should be capable of being understood and such that the simplest saint might be able to say Amen. In short, fellowship between the one who speaks and those who listen is the rule enforced.
Now from this cursory examination of the early verses of chap. 14 it appears, that singing is one of the instances adduced by the apostle along with praying and blessing to show that the intelligent co-operation of the saints marks the true working of the Spirit of God in the assembly. Singing in this corporate way is the expression of the hearts of all to God as one. Without a spiritual nature the saints cannot sing to God at all. Without spiritual understanding they cannot sing in communion with one another. Let us therefore when gathered together sing with both the spirit and the understanding also.
In a future letter, if God permit, it may be further considered how the above truths apply in a practical way in the assembly, to which the preceding remarks may serve as an introduction.
Faithfully yours in Christ Jesus,