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What is Holy Music?

I am often asked the question, “Can a particular style of music be sinful? How do you know?”

I certainly have thoughts that answer that question, and I am happy to discuss it when I have a chance.

However, I think it’s actually the wrong question to ask.

Spine of a BibleScripture never insists that we “prove” that something is evil; rather, the burden of proof upon a Christian who desires to be holy in his conduct is to “prove” that his behavior is holy, profitable, and appropriate. We are to prove the good and perfect will of God (Rom 12:2), prove things that are excellent (Phil 1:9-11), test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:21), and train our powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil (Heb 5:14).

All of these passages, and more, imply that we must actively evaluate everything to determine whether it is really good.

We’ve been asking, “What makes this sinful?”

I believe we are asking the wrong question; instead, we should be asking, “What makes this holy?”

I do not simply assume everything people create is good until proven otherwise. Rather, I have a robust enough understanding of human depravity to distrust human expression until I have evaluated whether it is profitable (1 Cor 10:23), godly (Titus 2:12), and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). That process of evaluation is fallible, and I always welcome correction, but here is the thought process I employ when evaluating music.

Let me first prepare this by noting that I evaluate two layers with all musical communication:

  1. The natural meaning of the music.
  2. The meaning derived from “cultural conditioning,” conventional associations, or specific contexts.

What I will do below is to consider the first layer, but assessing the second layer is also important, and it is certainly possible that something that is naturally good could be used for evil or otherwise take on sinful associations in a given context.

Second, it is important to define “holy” in this context. There is of course the declaration of God that one who is forgiven in Christ is holy (e.g., 1 Cor 6:11). This state cannot be lost or diminished, no matter what a Christian does. Furthermore, nothing a person does can make him holy in this sense. So I want to be clear that I do not believe that any music can make someone holy or improve or diminish one’s standing before God in this use of the word.

But there is also a secondary idea of holiness that involves how we live in response to that declaration, and that is what I’m referring to when I say “holy behavior.” That is what Peter refers to, for example, when he says, “be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). This doesn’t refer to the standing of a Christian before God, but rather one’s actions. A Christian’s actions are to be holy, like God is holy. They are to conform to God’s righteousness and be a reflection of God’s character and attributes.

So what does that look like?

Scripture is filled with lists and examples of qualities of a kind of behavior that is holy, honorable (1 Thess 4:4), and worthy of God (1 Thess 2:12). I’ll just give a sample: holy behavior manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22): “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Holy behavior manifests compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12). Holy behavior is worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil 1:27). It accords sound doctrine (Titus 2:1); it is sober, dignified, marked by integrity, and self-controlled. Holy behaviors peaks the truth in love (Eph 4:15).

Since music is part of our conduct, we should discern what music expresses these things just as we evaluate tone of voice, attitude, body language, etc.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.