I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:12–26)
In our series on the thirty-year theological trademarks of Bethlehem we focus on Christian Hedonism. And let’s be clear from the outset that Bethlehem has not been built around a slogan or a label.
The term Christian Hedonism is not in any of this church’s official documents. It’s not in our constitution, or our church covenant, or our Elder Affirmation of Faith, or Values booklet, or our Ten Dimensions of Church Life. It’s catchy, it’s controversial, it’s not in the Bible, and you don’t need to like it just because I do. So the point of this message is not at all to push a label or a slogan. The point is to talk about the massive and pervasive biblical truth that some of us love to call Christian Hedonism.
So this sermon is packed with some of the juiciest, most wonderful things that I love to know and experience. We need to get to work. Here’s the outline:
- There’s a problem that needs be solved because of my second message in this series.
- Christian Hedonism is the biblical solution to that problem.
- C.S. Lewis, and St. Paul give the basis for that solution.
- This solution — Christian Hedonism — changes everything in your life. (Eleven examples!)
That’s a tall order for one sermon. So here we go.
1. God Created the World for His Own Praise
I asked, Why did God create the world? And I answered: God created this world for the praise of the glory of his grace displayed supremely in the death of Jesus. The problem is that, at the heart of that answer is God’s self-promotion. God created the world for his own praise. For his own glory.
Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt, the early C.S. Lewis, Eric Reece, Michael Prowse all walk away from such a God. They stumble over God’s self-promotion.
- Oprah walked away from orthodox Christianity when she was about 27 because of the biblical teaching that God is Jealous — he demands that he and no one else gets our highest allegiance and affection. It didn’t sound loving to her.
- Brad Pitt turned away from his boyhood faith, he says, because God says, “You have to say that I’m the best. . . . It seemed to be about ego.”
- C.S. Lewis, before he became a Christian, complained that God’s demand to be praised sounded like “a vain woman who wants compliments.”
- Erik Reece, the writer of An American Gospel, rejected the Jesus of the Gospels because only an egomaniac would demand that we love him more than we love our parents and children.
- And Michael Prowse, the columnist for the London Financial Times, turned away because only “tyrants, puffed up with pride, crave adulation.”
So people see this as a problem — that God created the world for his own praise. They think such self-exaltation would be immoral and loveless. That may be how you feel.
2. Christian Hedonism is the biblical solution to this problem.
Christian Hedonism says, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s the shortest summary of what we mean by Christian Hedonism. If that is true, then there is no conflict between your greatest exhilaration and God’s greatest glorification.
In fact, not only is there no conflict between your happiness and God’s glory, but his glory shines in your happiness, when your happiness is in him. And since God is the source of greatest happiness, and since he is the greatest treasure in the world, and since his glory is the most satisfying gift he could possibly give us, therefore it is the kindest, most loving thing he could possibly do — to reveal himself, and magnify himself and vindicate himself for our everlasting enjoyment. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
God is the one being for whom self-exaltation is the most loving act, because he is exalting for us what alone can satisfy us fully and forever. If we exalt ourselves, we are not loving, because we distract people from the one Person who can make them happy forever, God. But if God exalts himself, he draws attention to the one Person who can make us happy forever, himself. He is not an egomaniac. He is an infinitely glorious, all-satisfying God, offering us everlasting and supreme joy in himself.
That’s the solution to our problem.
- No Oprah, if God were not jealous for all your affections, he would be indifferent to your final misery.
- No Brad Pitt, if God didn’t demand that you see him as the best, he wouldn’t care about your supreme happiness.
- No Mr. Lewis, God is not vain in demanding your praise. This is his highest virtue, and your highest joy.
- No, Erik Reece, if Jesus didn’t lay claim on greater love than your children do, he would be selling your heart to what cannot satisfy forever.
- No, Michael Prowse, God does not crave your adulation, he offers it as your greatest pleasure.
God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. God’s design to pursue his own glory turns out to be love. And our duty to pursue God’s glory turns out to be a quest for joy. That’s the solution to the problem of God’s self-exaltation.
3. C.S. Lewis, and St. Paul give the basis for that solution — the basis for Christian Hedonism.
Lewis saw the basis in human experience. St. Paul shows it in the letter to the Philippians. Here is the great discovery as I first found it in Lewis’s book, Reflections on the Psalms. He is discovering why God’s demand for our praise is not vain.
The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or any thing — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. . . .
I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (93–95)
There it was. God’s relentless command that we see him as glorious and praise him is a command that we settle for nothing less than the completion of our joy in him. Praise is not just the expression, but the consummation, of our joy in what is supremely enjoyable, namely, God. In his presence is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). In demanding our praise, he is demanding the completion of our pleasure. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
That Christ Be Seen as Great
And that is what we find in Philippians 1:20–21.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored [magnified — to cause to be seen as great] in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Paul says that his great passion in life — I hope it’s your great passion in life — is that in his life Christ would be seen as great — supremely great. That is why God created us and saved us — to make Christ look like what he really is — supremely great.
Now the relationship between verses 20 and 21 is the key to seeing how Paul thinks that happens. It’s going to happen, Paul says — Christ is going to be magnified in my body by life or death — “because to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (verse 21). Notice that “life” in verse 20 corresponds to “live” in verse 21 and “death” in verse 20 corresponds to “die” in verse 21. So Paul is explaining in both cases — life and death — how Christ is going to look great.
He will look great in my life because “for me to live is Christ.” He explains in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” So Christ is more precious, more valuable, more satisfying than all that life on this earth can give. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
This is what he means when he says in Philippians 1:21, “To me to live is Christ.” And that he says is how his life magnifies Christ — makes him look great. Christ is most magnified in Paul’s life when Paul, in his life, is most satisfied in Christ. That’s the plain teaching of these two texts.
Death as Gain?
And it gets even plainer when you consider the death half of Philippians 1:20–21. Christ will be magnified in my body by death, “because to me to die is gain” (verse 21). Why would death be gain? The answer is in verse 23b: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Death is gain because it means a greater closeness of being with Christ. Death is “to depart and be with Christ.”
This is why Paul says in verse 21 that to die is gain. You add up all the losses that death will cost you (your family, your job, your dream retirement, the friends you leave behind, your favorite bodily pleasures) — you add up all these losses, and then you replace them only with death and Christ — if when you do that you joyfully say, gain!, then Christ is magnified in your dying. Christ is most magnified in your death, when you are so satisfied in Christ, that losing everything and getting only Christ is called gain.
Or to sum up both halves of the verse: Christ is glorified in you when he is more precious to you than all that life can give or death can take.
The Centrality of the Cross
That’s the biblical basis for Christian Hedonism: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
And this really was already implicit in the second message in this series. God created the world for the praise of the glory of his grace displayed supremely in the death of Jesus. Which means that the pursuit of his own praise reaches its climax at the place where it does us the most good, the cross. At the cross God upholds his glory and provides our forgiveness. At the cross God vindicates his own honor and secures our happiness. At the cross God magnifies his own worth and satisfies our soul.
In the greatest act of history, Christ made it come true for undeserving sinners that God could be most glorified in us by our being most satisfied in him.
4. Christian Hedonism changes everything.
We’ve just seen how Christian Hedonism changes death. If you want to make Christ look great in your dying, there is no big performance or achievement or heroic sacrifice. There is simply a child-like laying yourself into the arms of the one who makes the loss of everything gain.
Christian Hedonism changes how we think about conversion. Matthew 13:44 says, “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.” Becoming a Christian not only means believing truth. It means finding a treasure. So evangelism becomes not only persuasion about truth but pointing people to a Treasure that is more valuable than everything they have.
3. The Fight of Faith
Christian Hedonism changes “the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). John says in John 1:12, “To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Believing Jesus is receiving him. As what? As the infinitely valuable Treasure that he is. Faith is seeing and savoring this Treasure. And so the fight of faith is a fight for joy in Jesus. A fight to see and savor Jesus is more precious than anything in the world. Because this savoring shows him to be supremely valuable.
4. Combatting Evil
Christian Hedonism changes how we combat evil in our lives. Jeremiah 2:13 gives the Christian Hedonist definition of evil: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Evil is the suicidal preference for the empty wells of the world over the living waters of God’s fellowship. We fight evil by the pursuit of the fullest satisfaction in the river of God’s delights (Psalm 36:8).
5. What Hell Is
Christian Hedonism changes how we think of hell. Since the way to be saved and go to heaven is to embrace Jesus as your source of greatest joy, hell is a place of suffering, a place of eternal unhappiness, prepared for people who refuse to be happy in the triune God.
Christian Hedonism changes the way we think about self-denial. Oh, it is really there in the teachings of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). But now the meaning becomes,
- Deny yourself the wealth of the world so you can have the wealth of being with Christ.
- Deny yourself the fame of the world to have the joy of God’s approval.
- Deny yourself the security and safety of the world to have the solid, secure fellowship of Jesus.
- Deny yourself the short, unsatisfying pleasures of the world so that you can have fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand.
Which means there is no such thing as ultimate self-denial, because to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Christian Hedonism changes the way we think about handling our money and the act of giving. Acts 20:35 says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The motive to be a generous person, is that it expresses and expands our joy in God. And the pursuit of deepest joy is the pursuit of giving not getting.
8. Corporate Worship
Christian Hedonism changes the way we do corporate worship. Corporate worship is the collective act of glorifying God. But God is glorified in that service when the people are satisfied in him. Therefore, the worship leaders — musicians and preachers — see their task primarily as breaking open a fountain of living water and spreading a feast of rich food. The task of the worshipers is to drink and eat and say a satisfied “Ahhh.” Because God is most glorified in those worshipers when they are most satisfied in him.
9. Disability and Weakness
Christian Hedonism changes the way we experience disability and weakness. Stunningly, paradoxically, Jesus says to the weak and thorn-pierced Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” To which Paul responds, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly [yes this is the voice of the thorn-pierced Christian Hedonist] of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Christian Hedonism changes the meaning of love. Paul describes the love of the Macedonians like this: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). In verse 8, Paul calls this “love.” “Abundant joy” in “severe affliction” and “extreme poverty” overflowed in loving generosity. Still poor. Still afflicted. But so full of joy that it overflowed in love. So Christian Hedonism defines love as the overflow (or the expansion) of joy in God that meets the needs of others.
Christian Hedonism changes the meaning of ministry. What is the ministry aim of the great apostle Paul? He writes in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” All ministry should be one way or the other a working with others for their joy.
That’s why God created you. That’s why Christ died for you. That’s why we serve you as your pastors. And that is why I have preached this message. We are workers with you for your joy in God. Because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.