Sermon on Colossians | Gospel Sing | Colossians 3:16

singing hymns with an instrument

Gospel Sing (Colossians 3:16)

There is something about me that you may not know: If it were not for instrumental music in the worship of the church, I would not be standing before you this morning. Dad was raised in the independent Christian Church, and he accepted a part-time position at the Cornwell Christian Church while he was in college at Kentucky Christian College. The piano player had this cute little niece that she brought one Sunday, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But, my dad is a lover of truth. In college, Dad began to see inconsistencies between church practice and the New Testament. Dad left the independent Christian Church many years ago. In fact, I cannot remember a time when Mom and Dad were members in a Christian Church. I have always admired my dad for doing the right thing. I’ve always admired the fact that he loves God more than his heritage. I’ve always admired the way he has stood for truth and taught his sons to do what is right before God.

We all come from different religious backgrounds. It may be that you once worshiped with a congregation where instrumental music was used. It may be that you had quite a shock the first time you walked into a church building without a piano or organ. Some of you have been on vacation and had to leave a service because those folks were using instrumental music.

This morning, we want to think about the subject of instrumental music in the worship of the church. This is not a subject I really enjoy; I’d much rather talk about God’s love or His grace or the wonderful things He does through Jesus, our Lord. Yet, instrumental music is a discussion that we need to have. We need to have this discussion because so many in our fellowship are abandoning a cappella singing. We need to have this discussion because so many look at worship through a prism of what they desire worship to be. Victoria Osteen, who, by the way, was raised in the church, very aptly expressed that sentiment when she said that worship was really about us, not God.

You’re wiser than that, and you know that worship is always about God, not us. “It is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve'” (Matt 4:10). God expects worship to be on His terms, not ours: “The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (Jn 4:23).

In an effort to be true worshipers, we’ll think about instrumental music in worship this morning. In Colossians 3, Paul discusses life as a body, and in that context, Paul writes: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). From what Paul writes, let’s think about a singular truth: “Singing comes from the heart.” Let’s take a careful look at Colossians 3:16:

Scripture (Colossians 3:16)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” Our singing in the assembly comes from the word of Christ. Sometimes we sing hymns which are quotations from Scripture; someone simply added music and perhaps even changed word order for poetry’s sake. But, every song we sing needs to be biblical. I have no problem whatsoever with “poetic license”–I even do that myself in preaching from time to time. However, when a song is unbiblical, we cannot sing it. I’m grateful that our song leaders and elders are wise enough to keep us from unbiblical hymns.

The word of Christ is to dwell in us richly–not just a little bit. Scripture needs to permeate our lives.

The word must dwell in us “in all wisdom.” We need to know the Word of Christ and we need to know how to apply truth.

We’re to be teaching and admonishing one another. The context of Colossians 3 is life in the community. Because we’re part of the Christian community: We do not lie to one another (v 9), we do not have racial and ethnic divides (v 11), we bear with one another and forgive one another (v 13), we put on love which binds everything in perfection (v 14), and we have been called in one body (v 15).

Part of that life in the body is teaching and admonishing one another. This, in part, goes back to thinking about the lyrics. If a song is not teaching or edifying, it really has no place in our worship.

We must be together for this activity to take place. I’ve heard people defend instrumental music by saying that the context of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are not the worship assembly. Yet, how can we teach and encourage one another in song if we’re not together?

An instrument cannot help fulfill the purposes of singing. We sometimes hear that an instrument is an aid — like a pitch pipe or a pulpit. The very idea of an aid is to help complete an action. An instrument cannot teach me anything about God; an instrument cannot encourage me to put away sin. In fact, I would argue than an instrument can very easily prevent these purposes. You ever struggled to understand every word in a song on the radio because there are instruments and road noise and conversation and other things drowning out the words? You ever been to a funeral or a worship service where instruments were used? Ever find it hard to tell exactly what was being sung?

Our teaching and admonishing one another is to be “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Psalms would refer to the Psalms found in the Old Testament. Hymns are words in praise of God. Spiritual songs would likely be songs inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We are to sing “with grace in [our] hearts to the Lord.” “Grace” refers to that which is pleasing, that which causes joy. The idea is that we’re joyful of all that God has done, and that our joy fills our hearts and burst into song. There’s something wrong if we sing with long faces and just because we must.

We are to be singing with grace in our hearts. In the Old Testament, there were many externals used in worship — the garments of the priests, the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle and then the temple. New Testament worship is much more about the heart: We determine in our hearts how much we’ll give; we pray from our hearts, the bread and wine become part of us as we commune, preachers speak from the word, and we sing with grace in our hearts.

The grace by which we are to sing is “to the Lord.” I have a major problem with people justifying worship by the standard, “It’s what I like.” I don’t care what we do in worship or don’t do — It is not my right to determine what is proper worship and what isn’t. My worship is about God from beginning to end: When John fell at the feet of the angel who showed him the revelation, the angel says, “See that you do not do that! I am your fellow servant, and of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Rev 19:10). I’m not to worship self; I’m to worship God. I’m not to worship according to my tastes; I’m to worship God. When I worship according to my likes and dislikes, I declare that my desires are more important than God’s desires. How dare we!!


Singing comes from the heart.” Therefore:

One: We need to understand what we sing.

Paul says we must allow the word of Christ to dwell in us richly and then sing. Elsewhere Paul says: “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (1 Cor 14:15). How do we go about doing what Paul teaches?

  1. You need to spend time in Scripture. If we’re not studying the Word of God, how can the word of Christ dwell in us richly?
  2. If you find a part of a song you have trouble understanding, look up the biblical reference or learn what the song is saying. “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Do you know what that means? We need to be very careful to understand what we sing.

Two: We cannot use instruments in our worship.

There is absolutely no biblical authority to use instruments in worship. If you look at every text in the New Testament which mentions singing in worship, every text mentions singing. There is no word about the use of instruments.

Some will say, “What about pulpits and pews and song books and other things we use that are not mentioned in the New Testament?” That misunderstands the nature of biblical authority. When God tells us to do something, we may use anything necessary in carrying out His command. While Noah was required to use gopher wood, he was able to use whatever tools were needed in the construction of the ark. Jesus told the disciples to go into all the world; Paul traveled by ship and Philip got into the chariot with the Ethiopian eunuch. God has told us throughout the New Testament to sing in worship, and I have no right to change one word of that.

The principle of specific authority is biblical and common. Jesus could not be a priest without a change in the Law: “It is evident that our Lord arose from Judah, of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb 7:14). Moses never said someone from the tribe of Judah could not be a priest; however, when Moses said priests were to come from the Levites, and the issue was settled.

If I show up at Peak’s Motors to buy a car tomorrow evening at 7:30, Joe isn’t going to sell me a car. The sign gives the hours as 9:00-6:00, but it doesn’t say they are closed at 7:30. We’d think someone who did not understand that to have a mental issue or two, so why would we treat God’s Word any differently?

Aids do not change the nature of what we do. I can worship sitting in a pew or in a chair; I can preach using my Bible or my iPad, I can start a song with a pitch pipe or without one. Instrumental music adds to what I’m doing.

I have absolutely no right to change one word of Scripture; that principle runs throughout Scripture. “You shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (Deut 5:32). “Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (Prov 30:6). Revelation 22:18-19. You are well aware that we cannot use those Old Testament passages as binding. We’ll make that point in just a moment. However, the Old Testament provides important principles for the people of God. “Whatever things were written before were written for our learning” (Rom 15:4). “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal 3:24). The Old and New Testaments both teach that we cannot add to God’s Word.

Those who would use instruments in our worship will appeal to the Old Testament for authority. You know how misguided that is. We cannot use the Old Testament to regulate New Testament practice. Jesus “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14). “When there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb 7:12, ESV).

There is a great deal of inconsistency in appealing to the Old Testament for authority to use instrumental music. Will you offer sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem? Where are the Levitical priests? Where is the ark of the covenant?

We have fabulous elders here who believe and practice the truth. However, let me be extremely clear: The day an instrument is brought in here for worship is the day I walk out the door without looking back. J. W. McGarvey, who dedicated the building where I preached my first sermon, left Broadway Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, over the use of instruments.

Three: We must sing.

I’m not just speaking of singing as opposed to instruments; I’m speaking of the need we have to sing to each other. Singing is a part of worship, and if I’m not singing, I’m not participating in the worship. We’re to help one another through our singing. We are to be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph 5:19). If I’m not singing, I cannot speak to you in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. That would also prevent solos and choirs as part of our worship.


Sometimes it has been said that instrumental music does not occur in the New Testament. That’s not exactly true; the New Testament contains many references to instrumental music. When Jesus raised a girl from the dead, He “came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing” (Matt 9:23). 1 Corinthians 14:7-8. The fact that instruments are mentioned in certain contexts and not others I believe speaks volumes. Jesus and His apostles knew about instruments, were around instruments, and had no issue with instruments in their proper place. Never once did Jesus or His disciples mention instruments as part of worship.

Some seek to justify instrumental music because you find instrumental music in Revelation. You find instrumental music throughout Revelation. Revelation 5:8. Revelation 15:2. The more I think about it I really have no problem with using instrumental music because of Revelation, if:

  1. You will only use the instruments mentioned in Revelation (harps, flutes, trumpets, etc.).
  2. You are consistent and plan all of worship to conform to Revelation. You get a throne for God to sit upon, and you have a rainbow around it. You will need different colored horses running back and forth, and you cannot forget the angel with the large sickle. Don’t forget you need a beast in the sea and one on the land. You’ll need a red dragon (which doesn’t even exist, by the way).

We could talk about a host of things in heaven that aren’t on earth. However, there are a host of things in this world that I desperately want to be in heaven: the souls of my wife, my children, this church. I want my soul there, too. If you were to meet the Lord today, would you spend an eternity in heaven with Him?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.

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