We Calvinists can be a wacky band of brothers and sisters, diverse in many ways, and we don’t always get along. But together we celebrate five of the most incredibly profound theological truths, that bind us together, about how God saves sinners, generally summarized in the acronym TULIP:
T — Total Depravity (Total Inability)
U — Unconditional Election
L — Limited Atonement (Definite Atonement)
I — Irresistible Grace
P — Perseverance of the Saints
Each point deserves a long discussion to spread the wealth of biblical evidence. But here I simply want to connect TULIP to the joy of the Christian life, and to do it I’ll pick on Greg Forster and his book The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love.
I am picking on Forster not because his book is erroneous, but because his book is representative of the limits of most Calvinists in exploring the connection between true doctrine and deep joy.
Forster’s book is a commendable description of why Calvinism matters and how it should influence every area of our lives. Joy is central to Christian obedience (see Philippians 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16), and Forster understands this well.
But jumping too quickly to these apostolic commands preempts the important spadework of digging down to the solid theological bedrock indicatives that hold up the weight of the high calling of the joy imperatives. Calvinism is especially suited for this work.
It comes to a head late in Forster’s book. The affections are fully brought into the discussion, and Forster introduces his key summary phrase, “Joy is a settled certainty that God is in control.” This dogmatic definition of joy emerging from Calvinism is repeated four times in the conclusion of the book and serves as a repeated crescendo to the entire project.
“The joy of Calvinism is a joy purchased by Christ and emerges from the ever-present Spirit within us.”
When we reach the very end of the book, we read these capstone sentences: “In heaven we will have the full joy of God for the same reason we will fully glorify him — because we will fully know that he is in control, and always was, and always will be. Only through that truth can we truly place all our trust, all our hope, and all our love in God without reservation; and only through that truth can we receive back the full joy of God” (154).
Forster’s premise for the joy of Calvinism is not complicated: “Joy is a settled certainty” and a “full knowing” of God’s sovereign power. God is in complete sovereign control over our lives, and in knowing this “we receive back the full joy of God.” Eternal joy, then, is an eternal and unshaken confidence in God. This is the heart of sovereign joy, according to Forster.
The book’s subtitle has signaled this conclusion all along: The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love.
Yes, there is a joy in discovering God’s sovereignty — in knowing it, and in gaining new confidence in him. We should have no qualms with that. But the book cannot end there. To sign off at this point is to stop short of the true joys of Calvinism.
To be saved is to enter the new covenant, through the sacrificial blood of Christ. And to enter the new covenant is to be introduced — by God’s sovereign initiative — into the presence of new divine joys, God’s very own felicity. God is inherently “blessed,” or, better, inherently full of joy. Joy is the radiance of God’s glory (1 Timothy 1:11).
We also know that God’s promise to break into human depravity, to redeem the world, and to liberate sinners from their sinful bondage did not (and cannot) rest on the initiative of sinners (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).
Instead, God’s promise rests on the blood of his own Son. Christ’s blood inaugurated a new covenant (Matthew 26:28). There is no understanding of Christ’s work in the new covenant without seeing how tightly the gift of joy is bound up with this new work of God (see Jeremiah 31:12–14, in the new-covenant context of Jeremiah 31:31–40; also Joel 3:18 and Hebrews 12:22–24).
The joy of the elect was Christ’s purchase. The cost was Christ’s blood.
Where Does Joy Come From?
In this marvelous achievement of our Savior, Calvinists can make bold statements like these:
“Jesus Christ creates and confirms and purchases with his blood the new covenant and the everlasting joy of our relationship with God” (John Piper).
“That’s what Christ bought for us when he died and shed the blood of the new covenant. He bought for us the gift of joy in God” (John Piper).
“Christ purchased for us spiritual joy and comfort, which is in a participation of God’s joy and happiness” (Jonathan Edwards).
“The joy of the elect was Christ’s purchase. The cost was Christ’s blood.”
But not only is joy the express purchase of Christ’s blood in the new covenant, within this new covenant, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s children is identified in Scripture with the presence of God’s joy. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is joy (see Luke 10:21; Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6).
At root, the joy of Calvinism is a joy purchased by Christ and emerges from the ever-present Spirit within us.
The Joy Project
This is why I find it more compelling to explain the joys of Calvinism not on the basis of cognitive conviction or daily obedience, but as a sovereign initiative of God. This thought developed into the structure of my book The Joy Project.
There I make the point that the joy of Calvinism is not a joy that hovers around the periphery of the Christian life, waiting until we intellectually comprehend that God is in complete control of everything around us (and in us). No, God’s “Joy Project” goes way deeper than the thrill of discovering his sovereignty.
In the words of Spurgeon, “All the gifts of sovereign grace are intended to give us joy.” Yes, the gifts of sovereign grace are themselves the key conduits of our joy.
God acts to give us his own happiness! By his own initiative, and by his own inventiveness, and by his own design, which unfolded in Christ, God has sovereignly orchestrated — from the beginning of time — our deep and enduring joy.
Nothing short of our triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — took action to fill us with God’s own happiness. Here, and here alone, we arrive at the basis of the Calvinist’s joy.
Joys of Calvinism
So, by all means, yes, discover God’s sovereignty and rejoice in the fact that God has control of the universe, reigns over all evil, and navigates the course of our lives. Grasp this truth from the Bible. Stand on this truth with the joy of faith.
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is joy.”
But most foundationally, we must see that the Father elected us for joy, the Son purchased joy for us, and the Holy Spirit is now the divine presence of joy within us, applying that joy to our hearts now and always.
In other words, God ensures our joy from two directions. Joy comes out of our hearts because God has first put joy there. God’s purchased joy is our joy. It may seem redundant at first, but one perfectly good way to say it, as Piper does, is this: “Christ-treasuring, blood-bought joy will sustain my joy.” That’s exactly how we Calvinists should speak of happiness.
Forster shows himself to have reached a level of theological awareness we can wish all Calvinists would one day reach when he writes, “Real Calvinism is all about joy” (15). Amen! I believe he is more right than he knows.