Gospel Songs
(What is a gospel song, and how does it work?)

QUESTIONS: What is a gospel song? Who is converted to Christ by it? What factors contribute to its impact?

ANSWER: Thank you for your excellent questions. Here are a few thoughts on the subject that I hope will be helpful to you.

1) What Is a Gospel Song?
First, as to the definition of a gospel song: the word “gospel” is used in the New Testament nearly a hundred times. Its basic meaning is good news–referring to the good news that there is eternal salvation through faith in Christ. As Paul writes: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

In another place, the apostle speaks of the content of the gospel message. At the heart of it, how has Christ provided that salvation? “I declare to you the gospel....that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:1-4).

So, if we are speaking of gospel songs, they will be ones that are centred on the Lord Jesus Christ and what He has done for us. But the category includes more than that. These songs speak, not only of how to become a Christian, but also how to live as the Christians we become, through faith.

In the latter vein they include subjects such as prayer, the study of God’s Word, witnessing, dealing with temptation, the importance of Christian fellowship, showing the love of Christ to others, a joyful anticipation of the Lord's return, and so on.

It's helpful to distinguish between hymns and gospel songs. Though we often use the word “hymns” to cover both, there is a difference. I believe this may be a difference recognized in Colossians 3:16, where the Bible mentions not only the Old Testament psalms, but also hymns and spiritual songs.

    ¤ Hymns are more often directed to God, in praise and prayer (for example, How Great Thou Art, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, or Fairest Lord Jesus).

    ¤ Gospel songs (perhaps the “spiritual songs” of Colossians) are directed more to other people, and deal with teaching and testimony (for example, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Jesus Loves Me, or Stand Up for Jesus). (Note: some songs include both of these dimensions, so the difference isn’t always clear-cut.)

2) Who Is Converted to Christ by It?
As to your second question, it’s not songs that convert people, though they can be an instrument in God’s hands for this. The Spirit of God is the One who brings conviction of sin (Jn. 16:8) and teaches sinners about the Saviour (Jn. 16:12). The new birth is an inner work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3).

The preaching of the gospel message(or the singing if ut--which, in a way is preaching set to music) is the means God has chosen to point people to Christ (Rom. 10:14-15; I Cor. 1:21). But this is only effective as the Spirit of God works through these things. It is His power that transforms lives.

This point having been made, there are some practical points to consider.

3) What Factors Contribute to Its Impact?
A) For a sermon or a song to be the means of changing lives, it has to deliver a message that is biblical, a message that conveys the truths of God’s Word, and does so in a clear and understandable way. There’s a verse in the Old Testament, dealing with the teaching of the Law of Israel, that says it nicely.

“They read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading” (Neh. 8:8). That’s exactly what we need to be doing with New Testament truth--in this case truth delivered through our songs. And let me add a couple of other verses.

“To the law and to the testimony [the Word of God, in other words]! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). “For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (I Cor. 14:8).

I realize these verses are being lifted out of their context, but they present principles that are universal. Our hymns and gospel songs should be biblical, and present the truth plainly.

B) The tunes used should be singable, and appropriate to the words. Unfamiliar tunes can be taught, over time, but it’s a great help when the tune is skillfully constructed and appealing.

However, a tune dealing with praising God or rejoicing in His blessings may not be appropriate for a song about the agonies Christ suffered on Calvary. Like the frame of a picture, the tune should enhance the words, not distract from them.

C) I find it appalling that some churches use loud rock music styles to try to convey God’s truth. If the music style is currently associated with immoral rock concerts, and other worldly things, it has no place in the house of God.

“What is highly esteemed among men is [very often] an abomination to God” (Lk. 16:15; cf. Deut. 12:3-4, 29-32; II Cor. 6:14-18). The music of God’s house should be a sacred music, dedicated to Him, not a copy of what entertains unsaved, worldly people.

D) Our hymns and gospel songs should be used, not just sung. That is, they should be intentionally and purposefully employed. If there’s a hymn sung just before the message, let’s not just pick any song we happen to like. What is it intended for? Is it one that effectively introduces the message of God’s Word?

For example, this Sunday I’m preaching on Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:1-15). My emphasis is on serving the Lord, and just before the message we’ll sing Have I Done My Best for Jesus? Afterward, the closing song is Make Me a Blessing.

In my view, when possible, many (or all) of the songs used in a church service should reflect the theme of the Bible message, and do some teaching on their own. In the 19th century, gospel songs were often called “Sunday School songs,” because they were used to amplify lessons being taught there. That's what they should do.

E) And one last thought. Pastors and service/song leaders often meet for prayer before the service. Do they ever pray specifically for the songs that will be sung, with a recognition of the message to be conveyed by them? (Personally, I expect this is rare.) If the hymns and gospel songs are chosen thoughtfully, and prayerfully, we need to ask the Lord to bless them.

For further thought, I encourage you to check out two significant articles.
See 30+ Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing in your church. As others have contributed ideas to this article, the resource has grown to over 80 items now.
And, for more than three dozen reasons why congregations should still use hymn books rather than merely projecting words on the wall, see The Value of Hymn Books.