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It was 374, and the Roman city of Milan was riotous. The bishop had just died, and there was a deep divide between the Arians (who taught that Jesus is less than God) and the Trinitarians (who taught that Jesus is God). Which one would the next bishop be? Shouting and sparring in the cathedral, the people grew increasingly belligerent. Ambrose the governor walked in, and a peaceful silence immediately descended. Suddenly, a child yelled, “Ambrose for bishop!” Only days later, Ambrose commenced his pastoral duties as bishop of Milan. Much to the consternation of the Arians, Ambrose staunchly defended the Trinitarian orthodoxy set down in the Council of Nicaea fifty years before.

The Arian-Trinitarian battles continued. The mother of Emperor Valentinian II, Justina, was an Arian. The empress demanded that Ambrose give one of the basilicas to the Arians. Ambrose refused, prompting Justina to send soldiers to take it by force. Ambrose summoned the parishioners to the basilica to hold their ground. The parishioners—among whom was Monica, the mother of Augustine—fasted, prayed, and sang. Barricaded inside the basilica, Ambrose fortified the souls of his people by teaching them hymnody. Arians advanced their teaching by singing; now, at the behest of Ambrose, the Trinitarians set biblical theology to melody, and it reinvigorated their zeal. They sang antiphonally (i.e., back-and-forth, as in the chorus of “It Is Well with My Soul”), emphatically, and prayerfully. You can almost hear the reverberation off the stone colonnades as these Milanian Christians sing: “O thou true Sun, on us thy glance let fall in royal radiance; the Spirit’s sanctifying beam upon our earthly senses stream” (“O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright”). Justina eventually backed off. Arianism was held at bay by truth well sung.

Not without reason has singing played a major role in the life of the church throughout its history. The catholic (i.e., universal) church has long understood singing psalms and hymns as a form of liturgical battle cry and a biblically sanctioned pedagogical device. And yet the church of today has drifted from this practice, largely because it has missed these reasons for singing. In a word, we typically don’t sing because we have a low view of singing. We might think that singing is for those artsy folks who can read music, and so some of us end up merely mouthing the words rather than singing. Generally, it has been us men who have become particularly proficient at this practice, and admittedly, many of the church’s modern songs appeal to a more feminine demographic. Yet even this is merely a symptom of a bigger problem. The church today tends to miss a major impetus for ecclesiastical singing that was illustrated inside the walls of the Milanian basilica: singing as a form of mutual teaching and encouragement.

Arianism was held at bay by truth well sung.

In Ephesians 5:19, Paul commands the church to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Similarly, he writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Notice the purpose: it’s pedagogical. By singing, we teach one another. Assumed here is that the songs contain something worth teaching—namely, the word of Christ. Music composed merely for entertainment is ignoble for such a purpose, as John Calvin remarks: “Songs composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree.” But as Ambrose knew well, songs founded on and infused with biblical doctrine are a powerful pedagogical tool. Good theology makes us sing, and singing makes good theology stick. When theologically rich songs get “stuck” in our heads, we’re in effect rhythmically hiding God’s Word in our hearts (Ps. 119:11).

Some time ago in corporate worship, during a season of acutely felt suffering, I rose to sing as a hymn began. I opened the hymnal and opened my mouth, but to my surprise and vexation, no words came out. Moved to tears, I was—for some reason—unable to sing. But my soul nevertheless ascended in praise on the wings of the beautiful voices of the saints both young and old who surrounded me in the pews. That Lord’s Day, I was a grateful pupil, having been taught and admonished by my covenant family: “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” That day, my brothers and sisters sang for me, and they sang to me.

But why not just talk to one another? Why do we need to sing? Music is undeniably an effective means of administering balm to the soul. When the Word of God is set to a beautiful melody, the music can stir within us a zeal and hope that nothing else can. Music is, as Abraham Kuyper wrote, a “means for bringing a worshiper’s soul out of the ordinary and the mechanical into passion and activity.” Additionally, praising the Lord in song displays and fortifies Christian unity, as members of one body unite with one voice. Perhaps Ambrose recalled the basilica lock-in when he wrote: “Who could retain a grievance against the man whom he had joined in singing before God? The singing of praise is the very bond of unity, when the whole people join in a single act of song.”

Indeed, we make melody to the Lord (Ps. 27:6), singing praises to the Most High God who sits enthroned on Zion (Ps. 9:7) and whose steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 89:1). So too, in God’s beautiful design, we sing to and for one another. When we rise to sing, we join the saints in unison in praising the Lord, reminding one another of and instructing one another in the all-surpassing glory and steadfast love of our God. We sing to the widow who just lost her husband, to the child who has cancer, to the guilt-ridden saint shedding tears of repentance, to the despairing husband and wife who have lost another child in the womb. Let us therefore with one voice sing to one another and to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:6) until we sing a new song to Him who has made all things new (Rev. 14:3; 21:5).

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