Conversion to Christ: the Making of a Christian Hedonist
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Last week we saw that the infinite and overflowing happiness of God is the foundation of Christian Hedonism. God is happy because he takes perfect pleasure in the excellence of his own glory, especially as it is reflected in his divine Son. God is happy because he is sovereign and therefore can overcome every obstacle to his joy. And God's happiness is the foundation of Christian Hedonism because it spills over in mercy to us. When God calls men and women to himself, it is not out of a deficiency that he needs to fill but out of fullness that he loves to share.
We concluded last week by saying that not everyone has an eternal share in God's joy, because there is a condition that must be met. The condition is that we obey the command: Delight yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4). But many people take more delight in riches and revenge and recreation than they do in God. And so they have no share in God's saving mercy; they are lost. What they need is conversion to Christ—which is nothing more than the making of a Christian Hedonist. That's what I want to talk about this morning.
Someone may ask, "If our aim is conversion, why can't we just say, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved'? Why bring in this new terminology of Christian Hedonism?" It's a good question. Here's my answer. We live in a superficially Christianized society where thousands of lost people think they do believe in Jesus. In most of my witnessing to unbelievers and nominal Christians, the command, "Believe in Jesus and you shall be saved," is virtually meaningless. Drunks on the street say they do. Unmarried couples sleeping together say they do. Elderly people who haven't sought worship or fellowship for forty years say they do. Every stripe of world-loving church attendees say they do.
My responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a teacher of the church is not just to repeat precious biblical sentences, but to speak the truth of those sentences in a way that will prick the conscience of the hearer and help you feel your need for Christ. What I am trying to do is take a neglected and essential teaching of Scripture and make it as pointed as I can in the hope that some hearts will be stabbed broad awake. And therefore I say, when a person is converted to Jesus Christ, that person is made into a Christian Hedonist. Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist, he cannot see the kingdom of God. That's what I want to try to show from Scripture.
Created by God
Before we can focus on conversion, we need to review the great truths about reality that make conversion necessary. The first truth we have to face as human beings is that God is our Creator to whom we owe heartfelt gratitude for all we have. The best evidence for this is in your own heart and life. Why is it that the judicial sentiment of your own heart automatically passes judgment on a person who snubs you when you have done him a favor? We automatically hold a person guilty who fails to have any gratitude to someone who has shown him great kindness. Why? You know it would be a totally unsatisfying answer to say: I feel that way merely because I got spanked as a child for not saying thank you. We don't let people off the hook that easily. The quickness with which our hearts judge inconsiderate people bears witness to our true belief: ingrates are guilty!
The real reason for why our hearts respond this way is that we are created in God's image. Your judicial sentiment, which automatically holds me guilty if I ignore you after you've saved my child from drowning, is the voice of God in you. An aspect of the image of God in you is that you involuntarily hold people accountable for ingratitude. Therefore, you know in your heart that there is a God to whom we owe heartfelt gratitude. It would be utterly hypocritical to think that God expects any less gratitude for his gifts than you do for yours. "O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures forever" (Psalm 107:1). Therefore, if you will simply own up to the moral standards which you automatically make on your neighbor, you will not be able to escape the fact that the law of God is written on your heart and it says: a creature owes his Creator the affection of gratitude in proportion to his dependence and God's goodness.
Falling Short in Sin
And that leads to the second great truth which human beings must face: we have not felt, nor do we now, nor will we feel tomorrow the depth and intensity and consistency of gratitude to God which we owe him as our Creator. And we do not even need the Bible to tell us that we are guilty. We know that we have not rendered to God what we demand for ourselves from our neighbor. We know that the judicial sentiment in our heart which holds other people guilty for ingratitude, also bears vivid witness that God holds us guilty for our astonishing ingratitude to him. And if we suppress this witness in our own hearts, the Scriptures make it plain, Romans 1:18–21:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . For although they knew God they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
When every human being stands before God to give an account of his life, God will not have to use one sentence of Scripture to show people their guilt and fitness for condemnation. He will simply ask them three questions: 1) Was it not clear enough in nature that everything you had was a gift, that as my creature you were dependent on me for life and breath and everything? 2) Did not the judicial sentiment in your own heart always hold other people guilty when they lacked the gratitude they should have had in response to a great kindness? 3) Has your life been filled with the joy of gratitude toward me in proportion to my kindness to you? The case is closed.
Under God's Wrath
And so the third great truth we have to face is that the wrath of God is upon us because of our ingratitude. Our own judicial sentiment requires that the moral accounts of the universe be settled. We do not allow indignities against our own character to be swept under the rug. How much less God! The righteousness of God means that he must uphold the worth of his glory. When we, by our ingratitude, belittle the worth of God's glory, the accounts of justice must be settled. A man is worth more than a cat. And therefore you can go to jail for defaming a man's character, but nobody has ever been convicted of libel against a cat. And God is worth more than a man—infinitely more—and therefore the defamation of his character through manifold marks of our ingratitude brings down a sentence of eternal destruction. The wages of sin is (eternal) death (Romans 6:23).
Christ: The Wrath-Absorber
The most terrifying news in the world is that we have fallen under the condemnation of our Creator and that he is bound by his own righteous character to preserve the worth of his glory by pouring out his wrath on the sin of our ingratitude. But there is a fourth great truth that no one can ever learn from nature or from their own consciences, a truth which has to be told to neighbors and preached in churches and carried by missionaries: namely, the good news that God has decreed a way to satisfy the demands of his righteousness without condemning the whole human race. He has taken it upon himself apart from any merit in us to accomplish our salvation. The wisdom of God has ordained a way for the love of God to deliver us from the wrath of God without compromising the righteousness of God. And what is this wisdom?
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:23, 24)
Jesus Christ, the Son of God crucified, is the Wisdom of God, by which the love of God can save sinners from the wrath of God, and all the while uphold and demonstrate the righteousness of God.
Romans 3:25, 26,
God put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over our former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
How can God exonerate sinners who have been ungrateful for his glory and yet demonstrate his righteous and unswerving commitment to his glory? Answer:
God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3)
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Peter 2:24)
Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. (1 Peter 3:18)
If the most terrifying news in the world is that we have fallen under the judicial condemnation of our Creator and that he is bound by his own righteous character to preserve the worth of his glory by pouring out his wrath on the sin of our ingratitude, then the best news in all the world (the gospel!) is that God was willing to sentence his own Son in our place (Galatians 3:13) and thus demonstrate his righteous allegiance to his own glory and still save sinners like you and me!
What Must I Do to Be Saved?
But not all sinners. Everybody is not saved from God's wrath just because Christ died for sinners. And this is the fifth great truth we need to hear: there is a condition you have to meet in order to be saved. And I want to try to show as my last point that becoming a Christian Hedonist is an essential part of that condition.
"What must I do to be saved?" is probably the most important question any human can ask. Let's look for a moment at the different ways God answers that question in his Word. The answer in Acts 16:31 is "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved." The answer in John 1:12 is that we must receive Christ: "To all who received him . . . he gave power to become children of God." The answer in Acts 3:19 is, Repent! That is, turn away from sin. "Repent therefore, and turn again that your sins may be blotted out." The answer in Hebrews 5:9 is obedience to Christ. "Jesus became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him." Jesus himself answered the question in a variety of ways. For example, he said in Matthew 18:3 that childlikeness is the condition for salvation:
Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In Mark 8:34, 35 the condition is self-denial, the willingness to lose your earthly life for Christ:
If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.
In Matthew 10:37 Jesus says the condition is loving him more than anyone else:
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (See 1 Corinthians 16:22; 2 Timothy 4:8.)
And in Luke 14:33 the condition for salvation is that we be free from the love of our possessions: "Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple."
These are some of the conditions that the New Testament says we must meet in order to benefit from the death of Christ and be saved. We must believe on him, receive him, turn from our sin, obey him, humble ourselves like little children, and love him more than we love our family, our possessions, or our own life. This is what it means to be converted to Christ. And this alone is the way of life everlasting.
One Condition for Salvation
But what is it that holds all these conditions together? What unites them? What one thing impels a person to do them? I think the answer is given in the little parable of Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then from his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
This parable describes how a person is converted and brought into the kingdom of heaven. He discovers a treasure and is impelled by joy to sell all he has in order to have this treasure. You are converted to Christ when Christ becomes for you a treasure chest of holy joy. The new birth of this holy affection is the common root of all the conditions of salvation. We are born again—converted—when Christ becomes a treasure in whom we find so much delight that trusting him, obeying him, and turning from all that belittles him becomes our normal habit.
Someone may say against Christian Hedonism: "It is possible to make a decision for Christ without the incentive of joy." I doubt that very much. But the issue this morning is not: "Can you make a decision for Christ without the incentive of joy?" Rather, the issue is: "Should you?" Would it do you any good if you could? Is there any evidence in Scripture that God will accept people who come to him out of any other motive than the desire for joy in him? Someone will say, "Our aim in life should be to please God and not ourselves." But what pleases God? Hebrews 11:6:
Without faith it is impossible to please God. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
You cannot please God unless you come to him in search of reward.
What did Jesus say to Peter when Peter focused on his sacrificial self-denial and said, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you" (Matthew 19:27)? Jesus saw the seeds of pride: "We have made the heroic decision to sacrifice for Jesus." And how did he banish that pride out of Peter's heart? He said:
There is no one who has left anything for my sake who will not receive a hundredfold . . . now, and in the age to come, eternal life.
Peter if you don't come to me because I am a greater treasure than all those things you have left, then you don't come to me at all. You are still in love with your own self-sufficiency. You have not become like a little child basking in the beneficence of his Father. It is pride that wants to be anything more than a little baby branch sucking righteousness, peace, and joy from Christ the vine. The condition of salvation is that you come to Christ in search of reward and that you find in him a treasure chest of holy joy.
To sum up: There are five great truths every human needs to own up to. First, God is our Creator to whom we owe heartfelt gratitude for all we have. Second, none of us feels the depth and intensity and consistency of gratitude which we owe our Creator. Third, we are, therefore, under the condemnation of God's righteousness. Our own judicial sentiment shows us we are guilty. Fourth, in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins God has made a way to satisfy the demands of his righteousness and yet accomplish salvation for his people. Finally, the condition we must meet to benefit from this great salvation is that we be converted to Christ—and conversion to Christ is what happens when Christ becomes for you a treasure chest of holy joy. Every biblical invitation of the gospel is rooted in the promise of lavish treasure. Christ himself is ample recompense for every sacrifice. The invitation of the gospel is unmistakably hedonistic:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in abundance. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1–3)