Worship leader, here’s why lifting our hands in surrender is not a New Covenant doctrine

Photo by gbarkz on Unsplash

© April 11, 2017 | Schulter Etyang

For many years as a worship leader, I encouraged people during worship to lift their hands as a sign of surrender. During worship, I made it a priority to make sure that there will be a session where the whole church would lift up their hands. I actually loved the sight of it. Seeing lifted hands in worship is a sight to behold. It really is. I think the significance of that action is tremendous because we are doing it to our God.

Nevertheless, I made the church lift up their hands because I had been taught that the lifting of our hands is a sign of surrender. As you may know, we lead as we are led. We really actually parrot what we have been taught. This is one area where I just repeated what I had heard from prominent worship leaders of that time.

A prominent worship leader that I so admired (and still do) further reinforced this idea. I thought then that everything he said was ‘the truth’. He taught that the lifting of our hands in worship is equivalent to the International Sign of Surrender. (I will explain this further down the line) So I ran with that. That was easier for me to grasp because I knew what that looked like.

The International Sign of Surrender

I’m sure you have grown up in this era where we have been shown lots of historical documentaries on WW1 and WW2. In these documentaries, you get to witness combatant forces fight against each other in war. The scenes are horrific. Then there is a scene where forces of either side decide to surrender. Usually, when combatant forces surrendered in war, they waived a white flag and raised both hands up. When the Axis forces got defeated in WW2, their soldiers lifted both hands or waived a white flag as they surrendered.

Now we must know this – these soldiers did not surrender willingly. They were forced to because they had run out of supplies, were fearful, or were outrun by the enemy. They did not come out of their positions or hiding places willingly.  Absolutely not! They were forced to surrender either through ultimatums or the sheer need for survival. Surrender was forced on them.

Years later as I have thought back through my worship leading years, I have since begun to carefully consider ideas that may have enabled and reinforced ideas that were contrary to the New Covenant. Lifting our hands in surrender is one of those things we do during worship that I believe enable and reinforce these thoughts in people.

Here are the thoughts

  1. We are the enemy.
  2. God has conquered us.
  3. Our salvation was forced on us. It was a forceful surrender – we did not do it willingly. We were forced to because a superior force had outrun us or we wanted to escape judgment (hell). Kinda like a get out of jail card.

So let’s deal with this charismatic sacred cow bite by bite…

We are enemies

Or are we? Are we enemies of God? Are born again people still considered enemies of God? Can you be His son or daughter and still be an enemy of your heavenly Father? Do you see the paradox here?

Yes, it is true we were enemies. (Past tense)

Paul in Romans 5:10 and Colossians 1:21 declares that we were enemies of God. We became enemies because of what Adam did at the garden. Adam disobeyed God and thus the whole of humanity disobeyed. Adam sinned therefore all sinned. As the federal head of humanity did, we all did. We are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are inherently sinners. (Romans 5:12, 15, 18, 19)

So yes we were enemies.

But now we are not. We have been reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21) The enmity has been destroyed. (Ephesians 2:15-16) We have been made sons and daughters. (Romans 8:15-16, Galatians 4:5-7)

God has forcefully conquered us

In the WW2 documentaries, you see soldiers coming out of their positions with their hands held high whilst the conquering army points its guns at them. God did not win over us by pointing a weapon to us. No, He didn’t. He was victorious over us by the death of His Son. Again Romans 5:10 and Colossians 1:21 tells us how God did it. We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. That’s how God did it. He used His agape love towards us as a ‘weapon’ to win over us. He won us over by winning over us by what His Son did on the cross for us. That’s how God did it.

Our salvation was forced on us

God did not point a gun to our heads and force us to be saved. Absolutely not! God does not force anyone to be born again. Even under the Law, the offerer of the sacrifice had to offer the sacrifice willingly. (Leviticus 1:3) Under grace, Jesus said if anyone is willing let him come (Revelation 22:17) Only the willing come to Jesus. Only the willing are saved by Jesus. God will not violate your free will to save you. He will by grace make an impression on your free will and then you will respond by faith to that invitation. That’s what grace does.

So the church is not a group of people that have no other choice but to be a church. The church is not a group of people held hostage against their own will and would rather be some place else. (At least I felt like this for a long time). God is not pointing His weapon and is not using ultimatums on us – that we either surrender or die. That’s not our God.

Therefore, when we as worship leaders and pastors tell our people to lift their hands in surrender, we must know that it is not a New Covenant truth. It is not. Lifting of our hands is biblical – it is in the bible. But lifting of our hands in surrender is not a New Covenant truth. The lifting of our hands has got nothing to do with surrendering to God. We are not enemies. God has not forcefully conquered us and our salvation wasn’t forced on us.

Here’s what lifting of our hands is through the eyes or lenses of the New Covenant.

Psalms 141:2 (NKJV)

Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.

David was an Old Covenant believer. During his lifetime, an animal was offered twice as sacrifice – in the morning and evening. (Exodus 29: 38-39) These animals were types or shadows of our Lord Jesus Christ and His work on the cross for us. Jesus hung on the cross from 9am – Mark 15:25 (when the morning sacrifice was killed) till 3pm – Mark 15:33-37 (when the evening sacrifice was killed). Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the daily sacrifices of the Old Covenant. David likened the lifting of his hands in worship to the finished work of Jesus on the cross.

Just like the tithe and the Lord’s supper, the lifting of our hands in worship is significant. When God sees our hands lifted up, He sees His Son as our evening sacrifice. Jesus died for us and as us. Therefore, David pointed us forward into the gospel.

The other place where lifting of our hands is mentioned is in

1 Timothy 2:8 (NKJV)

I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting.

Here, Paul a New Covenant believer points us to the gospel. How does he do that? Check this out. Paul’s desire is to see men praying lifting up holy hands. Paul was Jewish and in his pre-conversion life was steeped in a thorough education of the law. (Philippians 3:5-6) Paul had already attained to the highest level of pharisaism. You couldn’t get to that level if you were not an academic. Paul therefore saw the imagery in Psalm 141:2 because he was versed in the Psalms.

Paul’s desire is to see lifted hands in prayer. But again just like David, he points us to Jesus – the gospel – grace – the finished work of the cross.

So here’s the context – what Paul wrote before 1 Timothy 2:8

1 Timothy 2:5-6 (NKJV)

For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.

Some Greek

The Greek word for wrath or anger is orge. Orge comes from the verb orago, which means to teem, to swell and thus implies that it is not a sudden outburst, but rather (referring to God’s) fixed, controlled, passionate feeling against sin . . . a settled indignation (so Hendriksen)” (D. E. Hiebert, at 1 Thes 1:10). 

Let me make it simple for you. Paul’s desire was that we lift our hands in prayer without having a sense of God’s anger or punishment against us because of our sins – that Jesus received the full punishment for our sins at the cross for us and as us.

Without doubt – the Greek word for doubt is dialogismos, which means reasoning that is self-based and therefore confused – especially as it contributes to reinforcing others in discussion to remain in their initial prejudice.

Again let me make it simple for you. Without doubt is the idea that we should be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have Jesus as a mediator between God and us. Our conviction should not be self-based and confused. We should be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus gave Himself a ransom – the redemption price for our freedom.

This is what Paul meant. The lifting of our hands should be done without having the sense that God is angry towards us – that God is going to punish us for our sins. We should be convinced that Jesus is our mediator and He does His job well. As long as Jesus mediates between God and us, we are accepted, favored, and blessed. That’s what Paul was saying here.

The lifting of our hands should be done without having the sense that God is angry towards us – that God is going to punish us for our sins. We should be convinced that Jesus is our mediator and He does His job well. As long as Jesus mediates between God and us, we are accepted, favored, and blessed.

See, we have used a cultural idea to try and explain a gospel truth. And when we do that, cultural ideas fall way short in trying to explain and express the gospel. The result is that people get a distorted view of who God is – in this case, God is the conqueror who is to be feared. He has aimed His weapon at us and if we don’t surrender He will shoot to kill. So, we cower in fear when we worship. You better surrender or else boom you are gone. When we as worship leaders and pastors enable and reinforce a slavish fear of God in the church, God’s people become slaves, workers, and laborers. This in itself is a slap in the face of what God has done for us and to us through His Son and His finished work on the cross.

Abba Father

When worship leaders and pastors write songs and lead worship from a New Covenant perspective, people are freed to see God as their Abba Father – a Father that is not narcissistic – who wants to get all the attention – it’s all about me, me, and me. No!

Our Abba Father loves lifted hands in prayer and in worship because He is reminded of what His Son did for us and how Jesus has made it possible for us to be made sons and daughters (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5-6). He also loves it when His kids come to Him without any wrath or anger – a sense that He will punish them for their sins and without doubt – that they are fully convinced of the mediating work of Jesus their elder brother.

Worship is a time when sons and daughters meet with their Father in song, dance and unbridled joy. Worship is celebration time. Worship is party time. That’s what worship is.

The next time you lift your hands in prayer or in worship, please remember that your heavenly Father sees the work of His Son on the cross for you. He sees that you acknowledge that He is not holding your sins against you and you are convinced that Jesus is your mediator with Him. He loves that.

that’s what grace looks like