The Glory of God and Why We Sing

Sing! Conference | Belfast, Northern Ireland

We are going to talk about the relationship between the glory of God and Christian singing in corporate worship. So we have lots of words to explain here.

Who is God? What do I mean by “the glory of God”? What does it mean to “glorify God”? What is Christian singing — for that matter, what is singing? What is corporate worship? Should we even think of our weekly gatherings as “worship services”? You may have heard people say, “That’s not even a New Testament idea. We don’t gather for worship. We gather for edification.” Is that a right way to think?

Hold Fast to What God Says

So we have our work cut out for us. And it is a glorious work! Because we are not making things up. We are not basing our answers to these questions on imagination or preference or culture or tradition. Wonder of wonders, God has given us a book, the Christian Scriptures, the Bible. And he has told us,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

And that includes the good work of knowing who God is, and what “the glory of God” refers to, and what it means to “glorify God,” and why there is such a thing as singing, and whether we are to gather for corporate worship or only for instruction and edification. God himself has spoken about these things in his word. And it is a glorious work to listen and understand and be changed and joyfully obey.

What matters is not my opinion on these things, but God’s revelation. If you see it in the word, you should grab it like a man caught in a riptide clutching a rope. And if you don’t, you owe me nothing, except perhaps polite pity that an old man from American couldn’t make anything plain. My opinions do not matter here. Neither do yours. So test all things by the word of God. And hold fast to what he says, and what you see.

Who Is God?

Let’s begin with God himself. Who is God? The most foundational statement about what it means to be God is found in Exodus 3:14. God had appeared to Moses to make him the leader of Israel and to bring them out of slavery in Egypt. Moses shrinks back and says in verse 11, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” And God responds in verse 12, “I will be with you.”

The Great ‘I Am’

Moses argues in verse 13, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God answers in verse 14, “I Am Who I Am. . . . Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”

“My opinions don’t matter here. Neither do yours. Test all things by the word of God.”

What does that mean? Why did God identify himself this way: “I am who I am”? “I absolutely am.” If we can remove our clouded spectacles of mere religious tradition, this may come to us like a bolt of lightning. God is. He is who he is. He absolutely is. What does that mean? It means at least ten things.

I linger here because until God becomes dominant in our thinking and in our feeling — until he becomes the blazing sun at the center of the solar system of our daily lives, until he becomes the Mount Everest among the foothills of little concerns with this world, until he rests upon our souls and our churches with ten thousand times more weight than politics and church growth — until then, all our talk about his glory, or worship, or singing will just be more human engineering of religion, of which the world needs no more.

Ten Implications of ‘I Am Who I Am’

So what does it mean when God said, “I am who I am”?

1. God is who he is means he never had a beginning. This staggers the mind. Every child asks, “Who made God?” And every wise parent says, “Nobody made God. God simply is. And always was. No beginning.”

2. God is who he is means God will never end. If he did not come into being, he cannot go out of being, because he is being. He is what is. There is no place to go outside of being. There is only he. Before he creates, that’s all that is: God.

3. God is who he is means God is absolute reality. There is no reality before him. There is no reality outside of him unless he wills it and creates it. He is not one of many realities before he creates. He is simply there as absolute reality. He is all that was eternally. No space, no universe, no emptiness. Only God. Absolutely there. Absolutely all.

4. God is who he is means that God is utterly independent. He depends on nothing to bring him into being or support him or counsel him or make him what he is.

5. God is who he is means rather that everything that is not God depends totally on God. All that is not God is secondary and dependent. The entire universe is utterly secondary. Not primary. It came into being by God and stays in being, moment by moment, on God’s decision to keep it in being.

6. God is who he is means all the universe is, by comparison to God, as nothing. Contingent, dependent reality is to absolute, independent reality as a shadow to substance — as an echo to a thunderclap, as a bubble to the ocean. All that we see, all that we are amazed by in the world and in the galaxies is, compared to God, as nothing. If you put God on one side of the scales and the universe on the other side, the universe goes up in the scales as if it were dust. “All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:17).

7. God is who he is means that God is constant. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He cannot be improved or diminished. He is not becoming anything. He is who he is. There is no development in God. No progress. Absolute perfection cannot be improved.

8. God is who he is means that he is the absolute standard of truth and goodness and beauty. There is no lawbook that he consults to know what is right. No almanac to establish facts. No guild to determine what is excellent or beautiful. He himself is the standard of what is right, what is true, what is beautiful.

9. God is who he is means God does whatever he pleases, and it is always right and always beautiful and always in accord with truth. There are no constraints on him from outside of him that could hinder him in doing anything he pleases. All reality that is outside of him is subordinate to his sovereign will. So he is utterly free from any constraints that don’t originate from the counsel of his own will.

10. God is who he is means that he is the greatest, most beautiful, most valuable, most important Person. He is more worthy of interest and attention and admiration and enjoyment than all other realities put together — indeed the entire universe.

The Bible reveals and assumes this supremely great, supremely beautiful, supremely valuable God everywhere.

What Is the Glory of God?

Which brings us to our next question: What is the glory of God? I venture this: The glory of God is his greatness, his beauty, and his worth on display. Remember what the angels cried out in Isaiah 6:2–3 as they flew in the presence of God:

Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

“Nobody made God. God simply is. And always was.”

Why didn’t they say, “The whole earth is full of his holiness”? My suggestion is that the holiness of God is his intrinsic worth and beauty and greatness — the transcendent greatness and beauty and worth that he has in himself apart from any revelation or creation on display.

But when this greatness and beauty and worth shine forth in revelation for the world to know and admire and enjoy, it is often called God’s glory. Hebrews 1:3 speaks of “the radiance of the glory of God.” Glory has radiance — moving out from God to the universe. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1 NASB) — his greatness, his beauty, his worth.

  • His greatness, referring to his scope, extent, grandeur.

  • His beauty, referring to the perfections of all his attributes and the infinite harmony of their interrelationships.

  • His worth, referring to the fact that he is a Treasure more precious, more valuable, more to be desired than anything or anyone else in the universe — or all the universe itself.

This is the glory of God.

The Ultimate Goal of All Things

But my experience has been that the greatness and beauty and worth of God — the glory of God — did not become a dominant reality in my life until I saw how dominant the glory of God is in the purposes and works of God himself. Let me try to show you what I mean by giving you one passage of Scripture to describe God’s ultimate goal in six of his main works of God in the unfolding of history — beginning to end.

1. Predestination: “He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5–6).

2. Creation: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isaiah 43:6–7).

3. Incarnation: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:11–14).

4. Substitution in Christ’s Work on the Cross: “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation [a means of satisfying God’s wrath] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25–26).

5. Sanctification: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may . . . [be] filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9–11 NASB).

6. Consummation — the Second Coming of Christ: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:9–10).

My conclusion from these six passages, and dozens of others, is that God’s ultimate, all-encompassing goal in creation and redemption and consummation is that his glory be known and admired and enjoyed — that he be glorified — in all that happens. In other words, God himself is radically God-exalting in his purposes.

You exist, your family exists, your church exists, Northern Ireland exists, and the world exists to glorify God.

What Does ‘Glorify God’ Mean?

What does that mean: to glorify or magnify God? To glorify God does not mean to make him glorious. He is glorious. Infinitely glorious. It means to experience him for what he is — dominant, majestic, weighty, great, beautiful, worthy. It means to show him to be what he is.

Two Ways to Magnify

There are two ways to magnify something: with a microscope or a telescope. You can magnify a human cell under a microscope and make something very tiny look bigger than it is. Trying to magnify God that way is blasphemy.

Or you can magnify a star with a telescope and make something that looks tiny (about the size of a pencil eraser in the sky) and show it to be something like it really is: bigger than our solar system. God appears to most people like a twinkle, twinkle little star, when in fact, he is so great he could carry the universe in his pocket like a peanut.

The reason we exist is to glorify God like that. To magnify God like that — to experience him and show him to be what he really is. Another name for this is worship. And yes, all of life, Paul says in Romans 12:1–2, is worship, because the aim of all of life is to experience and show the greatness, beauty, and worth of God.

Savor and Show

Why do I use those two expressions for glorifying or worshiping God, that we must experience him for who he is, and we must show him for who he is? Because experiencing God is an invisible act of the mind knowing and the heart feeling, and showing God is a visible act of the body doing. Both are parts of authentic worship. Where either is missing, the other is incomplete.

If we try to show God when there is no experience of God, it is called hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed” (Matthew 23:25). And if we think we are experiencing God where there is no impulse to show God, it is called dead: “Faith, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 NET). “Every good tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17 NASB).

“He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He cannot be improved or diminished.”

The inward experience that glorifies God is knowing God truly, and feeling him duly. Knowledge that is true to God. Feelings that are due to God. We cannot glorify God as we ought without knowledge that accords with God’s truth and feelings that accord with God’s greatness and beauty and worth. “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2). And knowledge without the heart is the knowledge of demons: “Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (James 2:19). They know the truth. But they don’t love it. They are dead to it. Authentic experience of God must be knowing God truly and feeling him duly.

Should We Sing in Corporate Worship?

Bring this to bear now on corporate worship and singing. Here’s what Paul tells us to do when we meet together as God’s people:

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)

Six Steps Toward Singing

1. Corporate worship begins with — that is, has its roots and spring in — the word of Christ. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16). We don’t sing our opinions. We sing what God has revealed — grounded in, governed by, saturated with the word of God. Our minds are alive and active, riveted on truth.

2. The fullness of the Holy Spirit illumines the word and reveals Christ, the Truth. “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).

3. We see Christ for who he is and know that there is no access to God in worship but through Christ crucified and risen. So, we come “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).

4. Our hearts are moved by the fullness of the Spirit with affections like thankfulness: “making melody with your heart, giving thanks” (Ephesians 5:19–20). The mind is alive with the truth of God. The heart is alive with affections for God.

5. His focus of our mind on God and these affections of our hearts for God overflow in singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).

6. This singing is addressed both to other people and to God. “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). The fact that we are singing “to the Lord” makes it worship. The fact that we are singing to be heard by each other makes it corporate. So we call it corporate worship.

This is the pattern of authentic corporate worship:

  1. the word of Christ;
  2. illumined by the fullness of the Spirit;
  3. revealing Christ’s truth and beauty and worth;
  4. awakening heartfelt affections;
  5. overflowing in song;
  6. to God and each other.

For God, to One Another

And let’s make sure we are aware of this: It’s not as though some songs are sung to God in corporate worship (“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father”), and some are sung to believers (“Come, Christians, join to sing!”). No. They are all sung to be heard by God, and to be heard by believers.

Nobody puts on noise-canceling headphones during “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” because we are singing to God. And nobody in his right mind says that “Come, Christians, join to sing!” is not to be heard by God, for his glory and for his pleasure. No, all singing in corporate worship is for God and for each other.

Sacrifice of Praise

What should we say to those who argue that the New Testament never calls Christian corporate gatherings worship services, so it is mistaken to think of our gatherings as worship gatherings? “We gather to teach and edify, not to worship.”

“We don’t sing our opinions. We sing what God has revealed.”

Here’s what I would say: To say that we should gather as Christians to teach and edify but not to awaken and express Godward affections is like calling for marriage without sex. Or eating without taste. Or discovery without delight. Or miracles without wonder. Or gifts without gratefulness. Or warnings without fear. Or repentance without regret. Or resolves without zeal. Or seeing without savoring. No. Emphatically no.

When your church gathers, of course, it is for edification — for building up. “Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). Yes. Yes. Yes. But building up into what!? Here’s Peter’s answer: “You . . . are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). And one of those sacrifices is the “sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips” (Hebrews 13:15). And one of the sweetest fruits of lips that God created is the fruit of singing.

A World Filled with Song

God could have created a world without singing. Without music. He could have silenced ten thousand radio stations that play nothing but singing. He could have silenced every concert hall. He could have shut down the rising song of every culture in the world. But he didn’t. Why?

Partly because when people sing, a new God-designed, God-reflecting beauty comes into being. But mostly I think because singing has a peculiar power to awaken and express strong affections. Jonathan Edwards says that

The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.

And God made these song-awakened, song-carried affections for himself. Christian singing is the musical use of the voice to express truth that accords with God’s word, and feelings that accord with God’s worth. It is a gift beyond measuring. Therefore,

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
   Serve the Lord with gladness!
   Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)