Singing that Sets our Affections Above

Scott Aniol


Colossians 3:16 is one of the most well-known verses in Scripture about singing, yet we often fail to recognize how the command to sing fits in the broader context of Colossians 3 regarding the nature of discipleship.

The first fifteen verses of Colossians 3 could be summarized with these four commands. Disciples of Christ must:

1.   Put to death earthly passions.

2.   Put on spiritual affections

3.   Live in loving harmony with the body

4.   Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.

This is what it means to seek things that are above.


Which brings us to the focus on singing in the rest of verse 16. After all of those commands for disciples, Paul adds the following (I’m going to use the Legacy Standard Bible here, which retains the Greek word order):

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with gratefulness in your hearts to God.

Now the question before us is this: How does this focus on singing fit within the context of these commands for disciples? How does singing fit with discipleship?

Well first, notice the actions connected with singing: teaching and admonishing. This is discipleship language. “Teaching” here is the same word Jesus uses in the Great Commission: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” “Admonishment” is a kind of correction necessary for discipleship. Paul is explicitly connecting singing with discipleship.

In other words, this focus on singing is not disconnected from the other commands regarding discipleship in this context.

Rather, singing is an essential part of discipleship.

This is important to recognize. In our day and age, music has largely been relegated to an “extra-curricular.” It’s non-essential. It’s just entertainment. Singing is just for people who have a “musical affinity.” But the command given here in verse 16 is not directed only to Christians who happen to like singing. This command is given to the whole church.

Here is the central point: God commands us to sing, because singing is an essential part of discipleship.

In fact, singing is an essential part of discipleship because it helps disciples of Christ accomplish all of the other commands in Colossians 3, and singing does that in unique ways that nothing else can. Let’s work our way back through the commands in this passage and consider how singing functions uniquely in each.

God commands us to sing, because singing is an essential part of discipleship.

1. Singing helps the Word of Christ richly dwell within us.

It’s one thing to read the Word of Christ. It’s one thing to listen to the Word of Christ. It’s an entirely different thing to let the Word of Christ richly dwell within us. How do we do that?

Well, the Word of Christ is able to richly dwell within us through what the Bible calls “meditation.” Psalm 1:2 says that the blessed man meditates on the law of the Lord day and night. The Hebrew word literally means to “vocalize,” and so it has the idea of murmuring about something; sometimes this word is translated “to muse” on something. What do we do when we muse on something? It’s more than just something we do with our mind, it’s something we do with our heart; to meditate on something, to muse on something is to allow it to form and shape our hearts.

Meditation is slow formation. It doesn’t happen quickly. Letting the Word of Christ dwell in you richly takes time. You take time to really taste and savor the truths of God’s Word. It’s like when you get a piece of your favorite candy, like a Jolly Rancher or a sweet tart. You could just chew it all up quickly and swallow it, but that’s too quick. You don’t get to really taste the sweetness of the candy. No, the best way to eat a piece of candy is to let it roll around in your mouth so you can really taste it all the way until it melts away.

That’s what meditating on the Word of Christ is like. We muse on God’s Word so that it dwells in us richly. And one of the best ways God has given us to slowly savor the Word of Christ is when we sing the Word of Christ.

Singing slows you down. You can’t rush through the words when you sing. Singing forces you to take time with each word, savoring the rich truth. We muse on the Word of Christ when the Word of Christ takes on the form of music.

Martin Luther said it best: “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.”

Singing helps the Word of Christ richly dwell within us.

However, the Word of Christ will not dwell richly within us if what we sing is not a faithful expression of sound doctrine. We need to carefully evaluate what we’re singing to make sure that the lyrics are faithful to the teaching of God’s Word.

This is also why it is so important that we actually sing the Word. There is some debate about what the terms “hymns” and “spiritual songs” mean in Colossians 3:16, but there is no debate about what the word “psalms” means. We need to sing the psalms—we need to sing the actual Word of Christ. God has inspired songs for us to sing so that the Word of Christ can richly dwell within us as we meditate on those words. And if we actually sing inspired Scripture, we won’t have to worry about whether or not what we are singing is sound doctrine. It’s God’s Word! Of course it’s sound doctrine.

This is why I wrote a whole book to help people understand the Psalms and why we published Psalms and Hymns to the Living God, a new hymnal that contains all 150 psalms plus carefully chosen hymns that are faithful to the Word of Christ.

Disciple-making music must express sound doctrine.

2.Singing harmonizes God’s people.

The beauty of singing is that it embodies the kind of harmony we are to be cultivating as disciples in the body of Christ. Singing together is at its essence bringing into unity a diversity of voices.

Even if we all sing just the melody with no instruments, we will still have an amazing amount of diverse voices unified into one. In fact, it is the very harmony of diverse sounds that creates an even greater beauty than a single voice alone. There is perhaps a no more beautiful expression of harmony in diversity than people singing together. Singing together harmonizes us.

Further, good music makes you long for unity, harmony, and resolution. If you know anything about music, you know that music contains consonance—when two or more pitches sound in harmony, and dissonance—when two or more pitches sound out of harmony. All music has dissonance, even a simple hymn, but good music never leaves the dissonance unresolved. Good music uses dissonance to make us long for consonance, and then it resolves that dissonance into beautiful harmony.

The very act of singing together cultivates harmony in our homes and in our churches.

Singing harmonizes God’s people.

3. Singing forms mature affections.

Paul said in verse 16 that singing teaches and admonishes us. Now I do not doubt that the teaching here involves using the words to teach truth as well. But the primary part of man that is being taught by music is his affections. This is evidenced by the phrase, “with thankfulness in your hearts,” emphasizing the internal aspect.

We tend to think of discipleship only in terms of teaching truth to our minds, and that is important. But the intellectual acquisition of knowledge alone is not discipleship. We will not observe all that Christ commanded with only knowledge of his teaching. In order to make disciples, we must form spiritual affections. And good singing does that—good singing teaches not just our minds, it teaches our affections.

Just like we need teaching to correct our wrong thinking and our wrong acting, so we need teaching to correct our wrong feeling. This is the unique power of music. Words alone are often inadequate to express the nuances of various kinds of affections that music can capture.

Singing forms mature affections.

Let’s take one of the affections in our text, for example: love. We are told to put on love.

But what does Paul mean with that word love? We use that one word to describe all sorts of things. The kind of “love” expressed in pop culture is hardly the same as true, biblical love between a husband and wife. And marital love is different than love between brothers and sisters in Christ. And that love is different than love for God. Same word, but completely different things.

The difference between these types of love is often difficult to articulate. And so how do you disciple someone to have biblical love for God and for others in the body of Christ?

This is the power of art in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t define reverent love with a long, drawn out dictionary definition. The Bible defines reverent love like this:

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.

Psalm 18:1–3

This is reverent love embodied in the very poetry of Scripture, it is poetry that both artistically defines love and forms that love within us.

So Scripture commands us to love God, and then its artistic expressions embody appropriate love. Scripture commands us to put on spiritual affections, and then various artistic elements in Scripture show us what those spiritual affections are like.

Music is simply an extension of this. All of the rich complexities of music, including melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, timbre, dynamics, tempo, density, and performance style all work together to musically embody very nuanced affections, and singing that music then helps to form those affections within us.

When we might have difficulty putting into words the difference, for example, between immature selfish love and mature reverent love, music can embody the latter and actually help to form that within us. My book Worship in Song explains how music does this in far more detail than we have time for this morning.

However, it is important to recognize that not just any singing will make disciples in this way. We must be discerning with what we sing, not only the lyrics, but also the music.

If our goal is discipleship, then our music must be disciplined. If our goal is maturity, then our music must be mature. You don’t form disciplined, mature, sanctified Christians by singing undisciplined, immature, or unsanctified music. You don’t form serious-minded, sober, courageous Christians by singing sappy, sentimental, or trite music. In those cases the form of instruction is working against the goal of instruction.

If we want our singing to form mature disciples of Christ, then what we sing must embody mature affections like those listed in Colossians 3. If we want to form disciples who are compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient, then the music we sing must musically embody compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

This is what spiritual maturity looks like. Other passages in Scripture describe Christian maturity with qualities like reverence, sober-mindedness, dignity, and self-control. If we want to form disciples who are characterized by those virtues, then the music we sing must be reverent, sober, dignified, and controlled.

Musical forms aid in disciplined formation by being disciplined forms themselves.

This is why Paul tells us to sing spiritual psalms and hymns and songs as opposed to fleshly songs, which leads to the next point.

Musical forms aid in disciplined formation by being disciplined forms themselves.

4. Singing kills earthly passions.

Scripture teaches that even our natural passions need to be controlled and calmed lest the control us and become our god. Theologians through most of church history until recent times warned against unrestrained fleshly passions. And they found that singing good music would help to tame such earthly passions.

Particularly because of commands in Scripture (like Colossians 3 and elsewhere) that disciples are to be humble, meek, dignified, and self-controlled, we must give care to avoid music that would cause us to have unrestrained passions, music that is ostentatious, immodest, undignified, and uncontrolled.

This is why theologians throughout history warned about music that simply arouses passions instead of spiritual affections.

Martin Luther warned against profane music, which is unspiritual, frivolous, proud, and irreverent, and instead said we should use music that is “sacred, glowing with love, humble, and dignified.” Calvin, too, insisted that music should have weight and majesty rather than being light or frivolous.

Again, we cannot form disciples who kill earthly passions if our music is sensual. If we want to make disciples, we must avoid music that arouses earthly passions.

Singing kills earthly passions.

Singing sets our affections on heavenly things.

All of this leads to the goal: if we fill our lives with the kind of singing that lets the Word of Christ richly dwell within us, that harmonizes us with the body, restrains earthly passions, and cultivates spiritual affections, that kind of singing will ultimately help us to seek those things that are above. That kind of singing fits with our purpose of making mature disciples of Jesus Christ who observe everything that Christ commanded.

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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.