Instrumental Music and the Nature of the New Covenant

By Leon Willis

The New Testament scriptures do not command the use of a mechanical instrument in the worship of God. This fact is generally conceded by “instrumentalists” and “non-instrumentalists” alike. Therefore those who wish to use the mechanical instrument must find some other means of justifying their musical preference. Some seek to discover in the old covenant what they cannot find in the new. Dwaine Dunning stated in an article that,

those who advocate them may go to the Old Testament Scriptures, such as Psalm 92, “It is a good thing to give thanks to God … upon an instrument.”

He anticipated the non-instrumentalists’ reply that the mechanical instrument of music could not be used because, as part of the old covenant, it was taken out of the way, by adding,

It is hard to believe that this argument is considered at all valid among people who believe that “the new covenant is in the old concealed, the old is in the new revealed.” God certainly declared himself under the old dispensation as highly favorable to instrumental music in His praise, and never did He rescind His approval. Is it proper exegesis to take His “silence” in the New Testament in such a manner as to outweigh His prior approval?1

It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that the mechanical instrument is not to be used in worship to God, not simply because, “the old testament was nailed to the cross and the instrument right along with it,” but because the very nature and purpose of the new covenant demand such not to be used.

Let us first contrast the nature of the old covenant with the new covenant. In the fourth chapter of John, a Samaritan woman, seeking to know “the place where men ought to worship,” asked Jesus whether it was in Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem. Jesus gave the surprising reply that soon worship would be in neither of these places, “but the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).2 There are several contrasts worthy of notice. Worship will soon not be identified with a physical place such as Jerusalem, but will be in spirit and truth. Secondly, Jesus said that the Jews were right, “salvation is from the Jews,” however, a change in the system would soon take place. Finally, the law itself is contrasted with Christ as in John 17:17: “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

Some have suggested that the phrase “spirit and truth” refers to the sincerity of worship and its accordance with God’s revealed truth. This, however, fails to reveal the true impact of the statement. Even under the old covenant, sincerity was demanded. God’s law was to be upon the heart, and obedience was to be motivated by love for God (Deut. 6:4-9). Jesus condemned the Pharisees for hypocrisy in worship-mere lip service without the sincerity of the heart is vain (Matt. 15:6-7). Truth, also, was a necessity of the-old covenant. Otherwise, how could Jesus have answered the woman’s question, “Where ought men to worship?” The law could not be added to nor diminished from; the result of such would make void the law (Deut. 4:2; Mk. 7:5-13).

What then is the meaning of this contrast? To comprehend this, we must first understand and appreciate the nature and purpose of the old covenant. The writer of Hebrews states that the “first covenant had ordinances of divine service,” but he terms these ordinances carnal, that is, material, worldly, sensual (9:1,10). It consisted of things to see, as “the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry” (9:21); things to do, as “the priests go in continually into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the services” (9:6); things to smell, as the “golden censer” (9:4); and even things to hear’ as “with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbols” (I Chr. 25: 1). Instruments of music were an integral part of the old covenant, having been used in the dedication of the temple of Solomon (2 Chr. 5:11-14), in cleansing of the temple by Hezekiah “for the commandment was of Jehovah” (2 Chr. 25:29)3, and generally in all worship to Jehovah (Psalm 150). Some of the instruments used were trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbral, stringed instrument, pipe, and cymbols.

However, the Hebrew writer maintains that the old covenant was “weak and unprofitable” (7:18), and that it was “imposed until a time of reformation” (9:10). This does not mean that God failed in His first attempt at legislation, but simply indicated that the purpose of the old covenant caused it to be inherently “weak and unprofitable.” There are, in actuality, two purposes of the old covenant that are pertinent to this discussion.

The old covenant was never meant to justify man before God, but was given to demonstrate that man needed to be justified, (Rom. 7:7, 12-14; Gal. 3:21-22; Heb. 10:4,11). Paul said, “It was added because of transgressions till the seed should come” (Gal. 3:19). Through the old covenant, man was caused to recognize the need for a Messiah. In this sense, the old covenant brought the Jews to Christ (Gal. 3:23-24). When the seed came, the need for the old covenant no longer existed; its time had lapsed (Gal. 3:25; Col. 2:14; Heb. 7:18-19).

Secondly, the old covenant revolved in the realm of the sensual for a reason-it was to be the divine demonstration of coming attractions. The Hebrews writer calls it a “shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things” (10:1). The law, therefore, was “weak and unprofitable” because it was only a shadow, not the reality. According to the chart given on page 12 many of the old covenant types found their anti-type, or reality, in the new covenant.4

(See chart at bottom of preceding page)

Truly, “the new covenant is in the old concealed, the old is in the new revealed.” Once the nature and purpose of the old covenant are firmly fixed in our minds, we can readily understand what Jesus meant by the expression, “in spirit and truth.”

When Jesus speaks of “in truth,” he is referring, not to true as opposed to false, but shadow as opposed to reality. “True worshippers” worship in the truth of the new covenant, not in the shadow of the old. Under both covenants, worship is based upon man’s relationship to God. The old covenant relationship of the Jews to God was intensely physical-they were His chosen people through whom the seed was to come. God’s dealings with them were on a worldly plane. When obedient, they were materially blessed; when disobedient, they were materially cursed. It is understandable that worship would be compatible with this relationship. The outward show of the temple, priesthood, mechanical instruments of music, and daily ministries reinforced it. The new covenant, however, is not based upon such a sensual, ritualistic system; its worship should quite naturally be expected to possess a different nature also.

Man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26); as God is a spirit (Jno. 4:24), so is He the Father of our spirits (Heb.12:9). Under the new covenant, the emphasis is upon the Christian’s relationship to God as the spiritual seed of Abraham, not his physical seed. Those who are obedient are spiritually blessed, those disobedient are spiritually cursed. Worship, therefore, must be compatible or coordinate with the spiritual nature of the covenant. Under this covenant, there is the twofold aspect of the temple: first, each Christian is a temple (2 Cor. 6:16) and an officiating priest, “accomplishing the services;” also, each Christian is a unit that is integrated with others “into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-22). Indeed, we worship “in spirit” John 4:24; Rom. 1:9, 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6). The Christian is to present his body “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service” or logike latreia (Rom. 12:1, cf. I Pet. 2:5).

The adjective logike was current in the philosophical literature for the distinctive nature of man, the reasoning power (logos), which distinguished him from animals, and his spiritual nature in contrast to his sensual nature … worship characterized in this way can neither proceed from nor appeal to the lower nature of man, but is not thereby simply “intellectual” worship. 5

Logike must describe all aspects of worship under the new covenant.

Is instrumental music as much a part of the new covenant as it was a part of the old covenant? To this question, we must answer “yes” along with Dwaine Dunning, “God certainly declared himself under the old dispensation as highly favorable to instrumental music in His praise, and never did He rescind His approval.” However, with this answer, we are faced with the crux of the whole matter. The instrument of music, as a part of worship, must be coordinate with the nature of the covenant. The old covenant was sensual, and the instruments employed were mechanical. The new covenant is spiritual, and the instruments used must correspond with this nature.

Music, as described in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, served two purposes. The first was for edification. Paul said, “speak one to another” and “teach and admonish one another.” The instrument thus specified is the vocal cords.

Edification for Paul in I Cor. 14 meant intelligible, verbal instruction, in contrast to speaking in unintelligible (to those present) tongues.6

“I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (v. 15). If a tongue cannot edify because it has no appeal to the understanding (and “ye will be speaking into the air,” v. 9), how can a mechanical instrument be used for edification? It cannot teach nor admonish. It does not cause one to understand. Like the unknown tongue, it Aspeaks into the air.” Secondly, music is to be used in worship to God. The instrument specified for worship is the heart-“sing and make melody with your heart to the Lord.” Music is no longer representative, as when the Levites played for the assembly (2 Chr. 29:25). It is now an individual act. Every Christian can make melody to God. Just as the temple and the priesthood, the mechanical instrument typified the new covenant.

Can the mechanical instrument then be consistent with the’spiritual nature of worship? Some have erroneously assumed that what stimulates the feelings, that what is 11 aesthetically satisfying” constitutes worship to God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worship is maintained on a rational, spiritual level, and feeling should come as a result of knowing we have pleased God in acceptable worship. Mechanical music, on the contrary, cannot offer spiritual worship. A mechanical instrument cannot worship God.

Those who advocate using an instrument assert that it is merely an aid, to help the assembly worship God. There are several problems with this view in light of what has been shown. The use of a mechanical instrument denies the individual act of making melody to God, by placing the worship service back to the representative system of the old covenant. If an instrument is needed to “help the assembly,” the implication is that the heart is not sufficient to offer acceptable worship to God. A mechanical instrument is sensual by nature. It activates the feelings by appreciation of the sound of the instrument, rather than by the recognition that acceptable worship has been offered. In this sense, the instrument diverts the attention from the heart, and thus depreciates the worship.7 Finally, for something to be an aid, it must first be compatible with the nature of the thing it aids. The sensual nature of the mechanical instrument and the spiritual nature of the new covenant worship are directly antagonistic, in antithesis to one another. Such an instrument therefore, cannot be an aid.

We are asked, “Is it proper exegesis to take His ‘silence’ in the New Testament in such a manner as to outweigh His prior approval?” Many years ago, the prophet Ezekiel complained that some. men “have made no distinction between the holy and the common … between the unclean and clean” (22:26). The writer of Hebrews states that the tabernacle was cleansed, or sanctified, by sprinkling of blood (9:18-22), as was the temple dedicated by sacrifice of animals (2 Chr. 7:4-7). God set all things that were to be used for worship within the bounds of the sanctified temple area, including the instruments of music (2 Chr. 29:25). The sin of Nadab and Abihu was that they violated God’s silence by offering that which was not sanctified. The law specified that the fire to be used for the censer had to be taken from the altar (Lev. 16:12), yet they disobeyed by offering “strange fire” (Lev. 10: 1). The temple of the new covenant has also been sanctified by blood (Heb. 10: 10), including the instrument of worship-the heart (Heb. 10:22, cf. 8:10). The mechanical instrument has been left outside the temple gates, and within the silence of the NT scripture. Shall we call holy, what God has left profane?8

In new covenant worship, therefore, the mechanical instrument would be an anachronism, that is, something historically out of place. In Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar (II.1), the conspirators were interrupted by a clock that strikes three times. Now, although striking clocks were plentiful in seventeenth century England, there were, in fact, none in Rome during the time of Caesar. Anyone that would seek to play a mechanical instrument in worship to God today would be, like Shakespeare’s clock, at the wrong place and at the wrong time.

An attempt has been made to show that the mechanical instrument has no place in the worship of the new covenant. This has not pretended to be an exhaustive treatise,.but a summary of some arguments that have proved persuasive in our own mind. Since the instrumental music question is of such grave import and not to be lightly discarded, if we have overlooked any important detail, the reader will please bear the responsibility of guiding us to the right path.


1. “New Thoughts on an Old Problem,@ Christian Standand, Feb. 12,1966.

2. For an excellent analysis of this passage, see James D. Bales, Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, pp. 15-30.

3. Some discredit this passage due to an alleged corruption in the text, but see Hugo McCord’s article, “Old Testament Instrumentation”, Firm Foundation, Apr. 26, 1966.

4. Adapted from Book-Miller Debate, p. 26.

5. Everett Ferguson, A Capella Music, pp. 88-90.

6. Ferguson, pp. 90-91.

7. See R. L. Whiteside’s comments, Reflections, pp. 368-369.

8. For a similar argument, see Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Bulwarks of the Faith, II.226-228.


Bales, James D., Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, Searcy: 1973.

Book-Miller Debate. Gainesville: Phillips Publications, 1955

Dunning, Dwaine, “New Thoughts on an Old Problem”, Christian Standard. February 12, 1966.

Ferguson, Everett, A Capella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1972.

McCord, Hugh, “Old Testament Instrumentation?” Firm Foundation, April 26, 1966.

Wallace, Foy E. Jr., Bulwarks of the Faith, Part 2, Oklahoma City: Wallace Publications, 1951.

Whiteside, Robertson L., Reflections, Denton: (privately published),’1965.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:37, p. 12-14
July 25, 1974