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Chapter 7: Musical Excellence

Through Christ

By Grantley Morris

    'Through Him, [ie. Jesus] therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name.' (Hebrews 13:15)

    We have established a solid Scriptural basis for using music not just for praise, but for many diverse purposes. The above verse about praise, however, uncovers principles essential to all forms of Christian music.

    Through Him

    Not through training, practice and effort. Not through righteous living, Bible study and prayer. We do those things but they can never turn sound into ministry or make one note acceptable to the Holy One. Our only hope of doing anything of eternal value rests in the undeserved kindness of Jesus. Place empty hands in the nail-scarred hands of the sinless Son, or throw your life on the garbage heap.

    Though 'I can do all things through Christ', (Philippians 4:13) without Him 'I can do nothing'. (John 15:5)

    Through Him involves more than performing in Jesus' name. Our music must be the product of an intimate union with the Lord. Otherwise, though we may entertain and perhaps even impress some people, our best musical efforts are ultimately as useless and repulsive as to use the language of Scripture filthy menstrual rags and dung. (Isaiah 64:6 literal translation. See also Ezekiel 36:17. Philippians 3:8 note also Titus 1:15f.)

    Strong language! But the Lord deliberately chose it. Apparently, this stark reality can be adequately portrayed by nothing less.

    Without Christ, the awesomely Holy One is repulsed by even our best, most unselfish endeavours.

    If we understood, we would sooner proudly exhibit our own bodily filth than attempt to produce Christian music without a total reliance upon Jesus Christ.

    Most of us realise that a ministry can be divinely inspired and empowered only because of God's power to cleanse us. We know that this is available solely because of the sacrificial death, miraculous resurrection and triumphant ascension of the sinless Son of God. But too many of us are gravely mistaken about how to receive this cleansing.

    A horrifyingly large number of sincere church people falsely imagine they are serving Christ. (Proverbs 16:2; Jeremiah 17:9; 1 Corinthians 4:4) They mumbled a prayer asking God's forgiveness through Jesus' shed blood and since then they have been virtually indistinguishable from true Christians. However, their certainty that they are forgiven, heaven-bound, born again Christians is nothing but a tragic delusion.

    Being good, clean-living, hard-working musicians in the best church does not guarantee we have been forgiven. Neither does believing the right doctrines. Neither do spiritual experiences, dramatic answers to prayer, and loving every aspect of church life. Such blessings merely prove God is working in our lives, trying to draw us to Himself.

    Our attitude to sin, however, is an excellent indication of whether we have saving faith. (1 John 3:8f) If you are not willing to obey God, irrespective of cost, your faith rests not in the saving power of Jesus, but in your own power to love and protect yourself. If you do not trust Jesus to take you through the known (this life), you obviously cannot trust Him to take you through the unknown (death).

    The essence of sin is disobedience. So to be saved from sin is to be delivered from disobedience. No matter what you pray, heaven knows you cannot want the Saviour to deliver you from disobedience if you want to remain in disobedience.

    It is sheer hypocrisy to ask God to take away the sins we hate if we plan to keep the sins we love. Our pet sins are just as deadly as the sins we loathe. Adam's sin, with its cataclysmic results, was not mass murder, hideous perversion or demon worship. In fact, by human standards, it was two saints who were forever banished from Eden. It is blissfully easy to define sin a manner that make us feel good.

    We can never fool God. Tragically, we often fool ourselves.

    The Almighty longs to give us holy desires (Eg Philippians 2:13) and victory over sin, (Eg 1 Corinthians 10:13) but He never abuses His power by forcing this upon us against our will. Many people, though they would never admit it, want to keep their favourite sin more than they want forgiveness. Though it would grieve God greatly, we will rot in any sin we deliberately choose to remain in. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-2; Ephesians 5:4-6; Revelation 21:8) This would result in not only our music, but our entire lives being cut off from God.

    Imagine a head of state with the legal power to pardon anyone he chooses. It would be morally wrong for him to pardon a murderer who showed every intention of continuing his killing spree when released. Likewise, the Perfect One is obligated to consider our attitude to sin before releasing us from eternal condemnation. He does not insist that we never fall, simply that we want to never fall.

    Just as we cannot let a jet take us into the sky while insisting on keeping one toe on the tarmac, neither can we let Christ take us to heaven if we stubbornly insist on keeping a part of us outside of His will. Our own efforts will never get us off the ground, but we must agree to Christ's desire to lift every part of us away from the world. This has nothing to do with our own moral struggles, but simply permitting Christ to save us from the sins we love giving Him permission to wrench our darling sins from us.

    I am referring neither to 'works' nor sinlessness, but to a mental attitude of vital importance to God. The Bible calls it repentance a change of heart regarding sin; a genuine desire to surrender to God's holiness. It involves placing our trust in Him, rather than in our own ability to control our lives; giving more credence to His wise and loving demands than to our own whims. (Mark 6:12; Luke 13:3; 24:47; Acts 3:19; 17:30; 26:20; 2 Corinthians 7:9f; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 2:16, 21f) We may find it virtually impossible to even desire a sin-free life. God is eager to help us even in this, but we must at least be willing to be made willing.

    Another heart attitude essential to salvation is our willingness to forgive others. (Matthew 6:12-15; 18:21-35; see also Matthew 5:23 f) God treats us the way we treat other people. (Eg Matthew 7:1 f) Unforgiveness is sin.

    Put simply: if you want Jesus to deliver you from all your sins, He will. If you don't, He won't.

    I urge you to settle this matter right now. The stakes could not be higher.

    To offer music to God through Christ, it is obviously essential to be truly saved. More is required, however. Not all music emanating from genuinely born again Christians is produced through Christ.

    Once we slip from a total reliance upon, and submission to, the power of the crucified Lamb all sorts of horrors raise their head. As John Fischer observed we can become so anxious for people to accept the gospel that we unknowingly change the message of salvation, making it easy, popular, glamorous, compatible with a soft life and materialism. In short, in the name of Jesus, we abandon the teaching of Jesus.

    Sex appeal sells albums. And many Christians use it. I wonder how many million fans have fanaticised a romantic involvement with a Christian artist solely as a result of a poster or album cover authorised by the artist. We're too sophisticated to use eroticism but we nonetheless want to market the latest Christian sensation as physically desirable. You don't have to convince me that it's harmless. You have to convince God. Convince Him that this is the way of the cross.

    Do we secretly believe that the world's gimmicks are more powerful than the way of Christ? If the world is the ultimate, follow it; if Christ, follow Him.

    How much are we really relying upon Jesus to render our music acceptable to God? The priority we give to praying for our music is very revealing. We say we can effectively minister only with Christ's help, but how ruthlessly our prayer life exposes the strength of this conviction!

    Another sobering indicator is how much we inwardly attribute our success to the Lord, rather than to our own efforts or natural abilities.

    The faith which entices God to minister through us operates just like saving faith. To obtain forgiveness, we must believe that our efforts can contribute nothing towards salvation. It is totally a work of Christ. All credit for it belongs to Him alone. Likewise, to effectively engage in Christian ministry, we must firmly believe we can contribute nothing towards ministry. The most that practice and hard work can achieve is to put us on the level of non-Christian performers. Developing our God-given talents could never meet a listener's spiritual needs. Ultimately, all we can do is trust Saviour and let Him minister through us.

    The extent to which we deserve credit for the results of our music, rather than Christ, is a measure of our failure as Christian musicians.

    Anything done in our own strength stinks. But when we yield ourselves to Christ, allowing Him to minister through us, everything accomplished is of inestimable worth.

    Faith, prayer and willing submission give Christ permission to do what He longs to do minister through you. And since it is Christ who is ministering, don't be surprised if the result is supernaturally powerful.

    Musical sacrifice

    Having plumbed some of the depths of those vital words through Him, let's explore more of this powerful verse:

      'Through Him, . . . let us offer the sacrifice of praise . . .' (Hebrews 13:15)

    That startling expression 'sacrifice of praise' reminds me of Psalm 69:30f:

      'I will praise the name of God with a song,
      And will magnify Him with thanksgiving.
      This will please the Lord better than an ox
      Or bullock that has horns and hoofs.'

    This encourages us to realise how highly God values our musical praise. Consider how costly animal sacrifices were. Even in our affluent society, few of us would sneeze at the cost of a fully grown bull. (Think of the price of a single beef steak.) Moreover, in Bible days, these animals were more than four-legged hamburgers. They were also tractors, trucks and threshing machines. And you could bet your bottom shekel, that forced the price up.

    How much are we willing to spend in time, effort, and money to offer a melodic sacrifice of praise worthy of our Creator and Redeemer?

    Early in Malachi we find God's judgment concerning those who offered to God blind, lame or sick animals as sacrifices. Though a blind animal may not fetch the highest market price, it would be of significant value for slaughter. But since it was not the best possible specimen, it was unacceptable to God. The prophet suggested this test of whether it is worthy of the Lord: would the governor be impressed if it were offered to him?

    If we were asked to perform before television or heads of state, would we endeavour to improve our efforts beyond what we usually offer to God? If so, are we implying that there are people who are more worthy of our best than the King of kings is?

    Perhaps we should very seriously meditate upon Malachi 1:7-8. It suggests that anything less than our best is defiled and that offering it to God is offensive to Him. Another Scripture suggests that anything done half-heartedly is nauseating to God. (Revelation 3:16)

    Yes, we enjoy a beautiful, intimate relationship with the Lord of creation. The Holy One accepts us in Christ despite our flaws. But dare we abuse God's matchless grace as an excuse for robbing Him of the honour He so richly deserves?

    New Zealand senior music lecturer, John Cousins made 'spectacular' music at Britain's 1984 Edinburgh Festival by publicly urinating on drums. Surely your music is of more significance to God and our dying world than that! How many times more important than that insult to dignity would you rate your music ministry? One hundred times? One thousand? More? Then are you willing to be that many times more dedicated to your ministry than Cousins was to his questionable act?

    Cousins fasted four days and drank large quantities of water for a gruelling seven hour performance. How do we compare in praying and fasting for God's blessing upon our ministry? How much have we sacrificed in order for our music to be, with divine assistance, the best we are capable of?

    If we are 'walking in the realm of the Spirit' we can hear the redeemed in heaven sing their songs 'and join in with them,' says Roberts Liardon. He implies that by this means, songs composed in heaven can become part of earth's repertoire. Roberts, whose visit to heaven I described earlier, claims he discovered books and songs in heaven that are also on earth because people 'have paid the price to write them'. However, he adds that some compositions in heaven 'have not yet come to earth, because no man has yet paid the price for them'. You can remain sceptical like me. You can add that Christ has already paid the price. But it is undeniable that in terms of dying to self, resisting opposition, slogging on despite the pressure to slacken off, effective ministry is costly.

    'Through Him . . . let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God CONTINUALLY ...' Not spasmodically, not just when asked or when convenient or when consistent with our emotions, but continually, persistently.

    'Through Him . . . let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips . . .'

    Though linguistically the link with Hosea 14:2 may be slightly stronger, I am drawn to Isaiah 57:19 where God says, 'I create the fruit of the lips . . .' I am again reminded of our dependence upon the creative power of God on our utterance if it is to be pleasing to heaven and potent on earth. We should aim to so yield to Christ that through Him we utter words that are not merely ours, but His; desiring like Paul to 'speak not in the words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches . . .' (1 Corinthians 2:13) In expounding Paul's statement, respected theologian Leon Morris says, 'The Spirit's activity extends to providing the actual words used, and is not confined to the supplying of general ideas (cf Mk. 13:11).'

    Finally, is our music directed ultimately to humanity or as our verses in Hebrew concludes 'to His name'?

    The limiting factor

    A very talented instrumentalist, drawing upon his wide experience, once remarked that those musical performances which the Lord appeared to particularly bless and use, seemed inevitably to be those which were below standard.

    Lest this seem a contradiction to what we have already established about offering our best, let me put it this way: those performances which the musician couldn't possibly feel proud about were more likely to be the very ones God chose to use. It's not that God approves of shoddy performances, but our pride limits God's willingness to use our music. Our loving Lord never gets so selfishly rapt in our music that our spiritual welfare ceases to be His top priority.

    Hymn-writer and composer, Frances Ridley Havergal discovered, '... it is nearly always just in proportion to my sense of personal insufficiency in writing anything, that God sends His blessing and power . . .' 'It's generally something I don't think worth copying out or getting printed . . . that God sees fit to use.'

    If God chose to use our music in a special way, would we afterward begin to secretly imagine that our skill or hard work or 'spirituality' contributed to the blessing which God freely poured out? God knows the answers to that one better than we do. Our Lord wants, and deserves, our very best, but only when undefiled by pride.


    Do you sometimes think that your musical abilities are pathetic compared with those which exist in the secular world? Are the musical resources available to you ridiculously inadequate? Then take comfort from Gideon's predicament.

    His under-equipped army of a mere 32,000 was hopelessly outnumbered by forces so vast they are simply said to be 'like grasshoppers for multitude, and their camels were without number, as the sands by the sea-side for multitude'. (Judges 7:12) One gets the impression the Hebrews couldn't cope with their numbers mathematically, let alone militarily! And yet, astounding as it sounds, Gideon's problem was that his army was too large.

    The principle involved here is so significant that I will quote the Lord Himself:

    'The people who are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, My own hand has saved me'. (Judges 7:2)

    This inadequate army was whittled down to less than one-third of its original size, and still it was too large! They knew only an act of God could give them victory against such odds. But their present sobriety was not the issue. It's after the victory that pride-intoxicated minds begin to imagine foolish things. More than 99% of that meagre band were sent packing before it was pathetic enough for the Lord to use.

    When the Lord is our strength, we are strong indeed. (Psalm 27:1; 59:16f; 73:26; 84:5, 7; 2 Corinthians 12:9) But if we are content to merely draw upon our own abilities, we will always be pitifully inadequate for Christian ministry. (Psalm 52:5-7; John 15:5)

    The more we recognise our weakness, the more we will, in desperation, throw ourselves upon the limitless power of God. No wonder the great apostle wrote, 'When I am weak, then I am strong'. (2 Corinthians 12:9) And it is no coincidence that this famous declaration was made in the midst of a discussion about pride (2 Corinthians 12:1, 7, 10) that insidious delusion that lulls us into a false sense of self-sufficiency so that we fail to tap into the dynamic power of God, which alone can meet humanity's chronic needs.

    So a key to spiritual power is to both distrust our own ability to minister without God, and to trust God's ability to minister through us.

    God delights to use the weak to astound the powerful; the unlearned to put intellectuals to shame. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29; Matthew 11:25) It is then obvious to everyone that God has acted. In most cases, however, the critical factor is not abilities or lack of them. Nor is it merely a question of knowing God. The issue is whether we place our confidence partly in our own abilities or solely in God.

    It's a disturbing paradox that the closer we get to the musical excellence God deserves, the greater the likelihood that pride will nullify our ministry. The more we improve musically, the more diligently we have to fight the delusion that our dependency upon God is becoming less chronic., We were once certain we couldn't complete a single performance without God's miraculous intervention. Now, we're not so sure.

    The life of King Saul tragically demonstrates the dangers involved.

    Two kings

    He started off so well, regarding himself as quite insignificant (1 Samuel 9:22) and, far from seeking public acclaim, he actually hid himself. (1 Samuel 10:22) After his first taste of success, the people wanted the death of his opponents. What an excellent opportunity to exalt himself. But this humble king displayed a beautiful, patient spirit, and declined, publicly declaring that the victory was due to God. (1 Samuel 11:12f)

    Rather than grow in his confidence in God, however, Saul grew in self-confidence. The rot set in. Finally, instead of rejoicing in the victory God had wrought through a puny shepherd boy, Saul began to imagine that, as king, he deserved to be praised above everyone else. (1 Samuel 18:8) Regrettably, he ably proved the truth of the proverb, 'A man's pride shall bring him low'. (Proverbs 29:23 see also Proverbs 11:2; 16:18; 18:12)

    Interestingly, it is two Biblical songs which most vividly reveal the crucial difference between Saul and his successor.

    Rejoicing women greeted Saul with a song which exalted him. But he was furious because the lyrics attributed even greater victories to the shepherd boy. (1 Samuel 18:7f)

    In contrast, David, though the object of Saul's wrath, composed a memorial song praising the man who had repeatedly tried to murder him. (2 Samuel 1:17-27)

    David, the man after God's heart, (1 Samuel 13:14) continually humbled himself, (1 Samuel 18:18-23; 22:22; 24:4-7, 14; 25:32-35; 26:20) even after gaining the throne. (Eg 2 Samuel 3:38f; 5:12; 6:9, 14, 21f; 7:18-22; 9:3f, 11; 15:30; 16:5-13; 19:21-23; 22:1 ff; 24:10, 17) Consequently, this king experienced the outworking of the truth, 'He who humbles himself will be exalted'. (Luke 14:11)

    Temptation is basically deceitful propaganda from the father of lies. So our best defence is faith in the truth of God's Word. It was this very weapon which Jesus used to overcome each of the temptations He faced in the wilderness. (Matthew 4:1-11)

    The most powerful truth I know of in combating pride is found in the words of Jesus: 'I can, of myself, do nothing'. (John 5:30) I suggest repeating and meditating upon these words until becoming convinced in every fibre of your being of the truth they contain. After all, if Jesus could accurately say that about Himself, how much more applicable should it be to us!

    Occasionally, Satan may so hoodwink us that it really seems as though we could accomplish something of value without divine assistance. At such times we may have to simply take it by faith we can of ourselves do nothing! God is doing us a favour (never vice versa) in allowing us the privilege of serving Him.

    In your particular situation, God may choose to use an additional Scripture to defeat the Deceiver. So search the Scriptures.

    You may briefly quell the fires of pride so effectively that Satan reverses his tactics, whispering, 'You're useless. You'll never achieve anything.' Defeat him by wielding Philippians 4:13, 'I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me'. Only be sure to emphasise 'through Christ!'


    A highly experienced, deeply perceptive and loving man of God astounded me. Knowing that I was writing a book for musicians, he confided that he had little time for musicians. Obviously, he was talking in generalities, but he found Christian musicians to be egotists, more concerned with being in the limelight and doing their own thing than humbly serving the Lord; more eager to exert their power over people than to seek and submit to the power of God.

    Coming from most people, I would have ignored such an evaluation. A man of this calibre, however, is much harder to dismiss.

    Words are powerful. Put them to music and they are more powerful still. Yet Paul was adamant that the proclamation of spiritual truth rest on a still greater power:

    'My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.' (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)

    He spoke elsewhere of declaring 'the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness . . .' (2 Corinthians 6:7) As the sons of Sceva discovered in their abortive attempt at exorcism, words that sound Christian are easy to come by; backing them with the power of God is something else. (Acts 19:13-17)

    Some supposedly Christian music sounds beautiful and has the right lyrics, and yet is no more Christian than exquisite pharisaical prayers. (Cf Matthew 6:5; Luke 18:11-14) For music to be authentically Christian, it must be accomplished 'through Christ'. Anything else is a sham.

    Once we learn the secrets of yielding to Christ, however, a whole new realm opens. In a later chapter we will see some of the wonders God has prepared for those musicians with the faith and boldness to enter this realm. I believe few of us have sampled more than a fragment of the splendours purchased by our crucified Lord to empower our ministry. Let's resolve that nothing not pride, not fear, not sloth, nothing rob us of the musical miracles within our reach.

    Next . . .

    Not to be sold. © Copyright 1986, Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged; if used in a webpage, the new page is significantly different to this one. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at  Freely you have received, freely give.
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