Sweet or Sour Holiness?

In his new book Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson writes, “If holiness makes you a sourpuss, you’re doing it wrong.” (Wouldn’t that make a nice slogan on a changeable letter church billboard?)

Wilson’s line is pointed and poignant. But why? What is the fundamental connection between joy and obedience?

One biblical text that gets at this dynamic is 1 John 5:3–4,

For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.

In his book Finally Alive, John Piper draws out three links within this text:

  • Link One: “Love for God is expressed in obedience to his commandments with a spirit that does not act burdensomely.”
  • Link Two: “The basis of this unbegrudging obedience is the power of the new birth to overcome the world.”
  • Link Three: “This world-defeating power that breaks the spell of sin and makes the will of God beautiful, not burdensome, is our faith.”1

Here is where the gospel, the new birth, faith, and joyful obedience converge. Piper fits the links in the chain together like this:

The new birth happens as we are brought into contact with the living and abiding word, the gospel. The first effect of this new birth is that we see and receive God and his Son and his work and his will as supremely beautiful and valuable. That’s faith. This faith overcomes the world, that is, it overcomes the enslaving power of the world to be our supreme treasure.

Faith breaks the enslaving spell of the world’s allurement. In that way, faith leads us into obedience with freedom and joy. God and his holy will look beautiful and not burdensome. The new birth has taken the blinders off. We see things for what they really are. We are free to obey with joy.2

So this is why the pursuit of holiness is a sweet, not sour, endeavor. Our enslavement to the world’s allurements has been broken in Christ. By faith the triune God has become our supreme treasure. We are free to obey joyfully.

But if the pursuit of holiness makes us a sourpuss, we’re doing it wrong, because it may be that the world’s deceptions have circled back around to confuse us about what holiness really is (comfort or convenience). Or because the world wants us to believe that immediate gratification in sin is a better deal than future joy.

Our flesh is weak, so we continue to confess sin and apply gospel grace to our lives (1 John 1:8–10). But even in our stumbles, the reborn children of God get up and look past the deceptions of the world — whether religious or irreligious — and walk by faith, convinced that God’s commands are in fact sweeter than honey to the redeemed tongue and are leading us to our home where pleasures pour forth forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

Joy is serious business, writes Pastor John. “It’s the kind you fight for by cutting off your hand (Matthew 5:30) and selling your possessions (Matthew 13:44) and carrying a cross with Jesus to Calvary (Matthew 10:38–39). It has scars. It sings happy songs with tears. It remembers the dark hours and knows that more are coming. The road to heaven is a hard road, but it is not joyless.”3


1John Piper, Finally Alive (Christian Focus, 2009), 131.

2Ibid.

3Ibid., 87.


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Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is a content strategist at Desiring God, blogger, the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015), and hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Karalee, and their three children.