By Bryan K. Brigham
Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 challenge us to encourage each other with “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Both exhortations were written from prison. Yet, rather than feeling sorry for himself, the apostle Paul used the opportunity to encourage others and to challenge us to do the same.
In the first passage, the context is about walking in sacrificial love, personal holiness, and submissive wisdom. We are instructed to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-21).
In the second passage, the encouragement we offer to one another is based upon the peace and thankfulness that comes from being united as members of Christ’s body, the church. We are challenged to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).
What’s the Difference?
Before continuing, allow me to point out that these verses are not about worship style. The apostle instructs us to speak (Ephesians 5:19) and admonish (Colossians 3:16) rather than sing. Therefore, we should focus on the content rather than any particular style of music that may accompany the content. It is the content of our psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit that provides encouragement.
Now, in considering how these verses apply to the church today, I’d like to propose a simple method for remembering how each source of encouraging content is distinct. Three words help us recognize what Paul might have had in mind when he spoke of “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit”: text, tradition, and testimony.
Psalms as Text
The psalms are an example of sacred text. As Christians, we confer authority to the text of Scripture. We believe the Bible is our doctrinal foundation for faith and practice in all areas of life.
Building upon the heritage of Israel, the early church of Paul’s day recognized the unique sanction behind certain writings from Israel’s past. Like the 38 other books of the Old Testament, the book of Psalms was understood to be “God-breathed and useful” (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, not only are the psalms inspired by God; the words they contain possess divine authority.
When we share a psalm with each other in order to encourage one another, we are speaking or admonishing via biblical text. For example, a rough season in life may be answered by Psalm 34:19: “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Or, in keeping with the same principle, Scriptures outside of the book of Psalms may address the same need. Perhaps 1 Peter 1:7 or Romans 8:28? Passages like these remind us that God is with us, that trials often have a purpose, and that even the bad things in life can be used by God for good. In each case, our faith is strengthened through the use of the biblical text.
Hymns as Tradition
The word hymn refers to poetry sanctified by tradition. This poetry is usually (but not always) set to music and sung in the course of communal worship. Of course, hymns have always been used outside of worship services as well. Whether it’s Paul and Silas singing hymns in Acts 16 or my own daughter singing “Amazing Grace” in the grocery store, the poetic words of our tradition remind us of God’s love for his people.
Unlike encouragement from psalms, hymns do not have the authority of Scripture and are not theologically perfect. However, as the body of Christ, we collectively recognize a degree of inspiration in many hymns and they have taken root in the heritage of the church. They’ve become part of our religious tradition. As such, they connect us to the larger body of Christ across history. As with text, we can offer hope and encouragement to other believers through the use of these records of faith and praise. How often have the words of “How Great Thou Art,” “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” brought light to a struggling soul? Of course, every generation has its traditional songs and some of today’s praise choruses may become tomorrow’s hymns.
In using hymns to encourage each other in our common faith, we are not claiming the authority of Scripture, but rather we are using the content of those songs in order to call upon the witness of generations past and present in order to point to the goodness and faithfulness of Jesus Christ to his church. Hymns (whether they are sung with drums or pipe organs) encourage us to remember that we are part of a larger story as God uses his church as salt and light in the world.
Songs from the Spirit as Testimony
Paul’s third source for encouraging content is both the hardest and the most powerful of the three, because the content of this source does not have the authority of text or the proven longevity of tradition. In that sense, songs from the Spirit are highly subjective and require a good deal of discernment from the hearers. However, these testimonies can also be incredibly encouraging because they relate directly to our human experience of the God who is beyond our ability to comprehend.
Songs from the Spirit are personal testimonies, confessions to ourselves and to each other of the faithfulness and majesty of God as we actually understand our experience of him. They may be well prepared or spontaneous. They may be sung, spoken, or written. They may be well organized or messy. Songs from the Spirit are incredibly powerful and should always be weighed against the established truth of Scripture.
When we encourage one another through the use of songs from the Spirit, we share our testimonies of what God has done in our individual lives. We want to lead others to understand and experience God as we have known him. In considering this particular admonition from Paul, I imagine the early church taking the time to testify to the experience of God in their own lives—perhaps even through music.
Encourage One Another
Having briefly addressed the idea of offering encouragement through the use of psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, I want to note the variety of legitimate sources we have in offering an encouraging word to another believer. Whether through text, tradition, or testimony, the most important thing is to actually speak and admonish each other as followers of Jesus. What you say will not have the authority of Scripture, but it can still bring love, wisdom, and peace to another member of the body of Christ. Therefore, whether through text, tradition, or testimony, use every opportunity to encourage one another and thereby fulfill the instruction of the apostle Paul to the body of Christ.
Bryan K. Brigham is a husband, father, preacher, and PhD student who lives in North Texas.