A Catechism on Judgment in Worship

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How are we to worship God?

We should worship in all of life, but we have been told most explicitly to worship God corporately through the following:

  • The reading of Scripture
  • The preaching of Scripture
  • The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
  • The offering of public prayer
  • The observance of the ordinances

How do we know which songs, what kind of music, what kind of sermons, what kind of prayers we should offer God?

We know this through exercising sound judgment.

What is sound judgment?

At the very least, it is the ability to discern between good and evil (Heb 5:14), to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10), and to be able to recognise what is true, just, noble, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, commendable, and excellent (Phil 4:8)—and the opposites of these. Judgment can also be thought of as discernment, discrimination, prudence, taste, or more broadly, wisdom.

Why is judgment fundamental to worship?

  1. To worship God for His excellence, we must be able to distinguish excellence from inferiority, beauty from ugliness, good from bad. We cannot admire God if we do not know what is admirable. We cannot see the beauty of God if we are poor at recognising beauty. To offer God what is worthy of Him, we must be able to judge the worth of our offerings. God is worth our very best offerings, but if we cannot tell tacky from elegant, we will end up offering him what is profane. We are required to discover what is excellent (Phil 1:10) and use it for God’s glory. Moreover, since God is true, we must never offer God what is false in any way: false in statement or false in sentiment.
  2. To rightly respond to God from the heart, we must be able to distinguish between affections and judge what is appropriate for worship. To recognise inordinate joy from ordinate, to distinguish between familiarity and boldness, between joyful exuberance and impudent flippancy, or between shades of joy, fear, or sorrow, requires judgment. To understand how a song, prayer, sermon or other act of worship represents ordinate or inordinate affection, we need good judgment. We must understand the meaning of the prayer, song, music, or sermon and judge its worth for worship.

Isn’t it wrong to judge?

No, judgment is at the very heart of a mature Christian life (Heb 5:14). If you cannot judge good from bad, you will never worship meaningfully or be protected against profanity. In fact, good judgment is placed side-by-side with a holy and fruitful life (Rom 12:1–2; Eph 5:8–11; Phil 1:9–11; Col 1:9–11; 1 Thess 5:16–22).

Proud judgmentalism is what is forbidden to us, which is the same as ‘thinking evil’ of another, assuming the worst, or claiming to be able to perfectly read motives.

Won’t these judgments be subjective?

Yes, that does not mean they will not be true. Judgments made by subjects can still conform to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Why can’t we just be given a list of approved hymns and songs?

If everyone does nothing more than submit to another’s list, then no one is learning to judge, discriminate, and sing with understanding. It is fine for children and beginners to trust the judgments of others, but a maturing conscience is meant to be formed with knowledge and judgment.

Do you have to be a literary or musical critic to worship properly?

No, because we are all commanded to worship, and that would mean everyone should be a literary or musical critic. We should not be afraid to learn from critics, though.

What about just giving simple offerings?

God loves simple offerings. He does not love cheap and tacky offerings. Discernment is learning to tell the difference.

How shall we go about learning judgment?

First, we should commit to living in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of sound wisdom and discretion. No judgment or discernment will come to irreverent, flippant people. We must determine that we wish to revere God, whatever that might mean.

Second, we should commit ourselves to godliness of life. Discernment comes by reason of use, as we seek to know the difference between good and evil for application to life (Rom 12:1–2; Eph 5:8–11; Phil 1:9–11; Col 1:9–11; 1 Thess 5:16–22).

Third, we must embrace the examined life. That is, we must seek a life in which we become thoughtful about the meaning of the various technologies, media, forms, and devices in our lives. We must become thoughtful and contemplative about meaning if we are to grow in discernment. This is the same as Proverbs’ instructions to pursue knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. We are to vigorously pursue an understanding of God, ourselves, and the world.

Fourth, we should root ourselves in the genuine Christian tradition, immersing ourselves in it so that it gives us a sense of its discerning judgment by example and exposure.

How can I fairly judge something that I already like or dislike?

First, we should make our prejudices explicit. If we like something, or dislike something, we should own that to be true.

Second, we should ask why we like what we like or dislike what we dislike. If we do not have reasons, we ought to seek them. Understanding why we love something is part of the way to learning what it means, and learning about our own hearts.

Third, we need to compare what we currently like, or dislike, with some standard of what is good, or true, or beautiful. What I like does not become good by virtue of my liking it; rather, I must learn to love what is good. What I dislike may not necessarily be bad; rather, my sinful heart may dislike things that are true. We should not defend our preferences because they are familiar; we should learn to like something because it really is good, and then make the good familiar. Sanctification is all about unlearning some loves, and learning new ones.

Where shall we get this standard of goodness or beauty?

The standard already exists in God. He is the source and standard of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. In God’s common grace, He has allowed both believers and unbelievers to produce works of imagination that conform, more or less, to God’s view of what is excellent. Therefore, we come to know this standard as we:

  1. Consider what has been loved and cherished by God’s people for centuries.
  2. Listen to people, who, by God’s common grace, have proven judgment—people who explain the meaning of works of imagination.
  3. Compare and contrast different works, considering what they are trying to do, how they do it, and whether or not they achieve it.
  4. Write poems, songs, prayers, and sermons that are true, good, and beautiful for God’s glory.

What shall we do with growing discernment?

We must weed out and reject offerings that trivialize God, humanity, or creation. We must choose the good and the true. We must learn to write our own apprehension of God’s glory in poems, songs, prayers, and sermons. We must worship God in our generation, in our words. And yet our words and works must also be true, good, and beautiful.

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David de Bruyn

Pastor New Covenant Baptist Church, Johannesburg, South Africa

David de Bruyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he now pastors New Covenant Baptist Church and resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). David hosts a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa, serves as a frequent conference speaker, and is a lecturer at Shepherds Seminary Africa.