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The Happiest Saints in History

Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and You

In the last two thousand years, God has filled the history of his church with stories — of persecution and endurance, of sorrow and hope, of failure and repentance. The history of the church has been dramatic and epic. Perhaps the most important story of all, however, is the one about joy and glory. This is the story that underpins and frames the others, because it is the story of the church finding her joy in the glory of God.

The story of the saints down through history is a story of joy lost and found, of glory smothered and shining. From the church fathers to the Reformation to our own century, we learn that true and deep joy grows dim whenever God’s glory is eclipsed. But when God’s glory shines, then the saints sing for joy.

In this article, we’re going to take the long film reel of the church’s history since the apostles and zoom in on four key scenes that illumine the whole film. We will look at the early church first, at the great Augustine second, at the Reformers third, and finally at two giants in modern theology.

Scene 1: The Early Church

Let’s start in the first centuries after the apostles, where perhaps the dominating issue was this question: Who exactly is Jesus? The orthodox church had to fight for the truth that Jesus is truly God — and that he truly became human. And that was a fight for the fact that we truly see the glory of God in the face of Christ — and that his birth is good news of great joy.

Truly Human

Consider, first, the fight to uphold Jesus’s true humanity. In the early days after the New Testament, there were some who just could not believe that God himself could have become truly human. So they dismissed the very possibility and said that Christ must only have seemed to be human (they were thus known as “docetists” from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem”). Christ, they argued, was a spirit. Therefore, he didn’t really eat, breathe, or die; he didn’t even really leave footprints, they said. Rather, he only pretended to eat in front of his shortsighted disciples; he pretended to walk, while all along floating through the world.

It was just what the apostle John repeatedly condemned. He writes, for example, “Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7 NIV). And why was it such a problem to deny Christ’s humanity? The fourth-century theologian Gregory Nazianzen summed up the church’s thinking when he answered, “Whatever [Christ] has not taken to himself he has not healed” (On God and Christ, “Epistle to Cledonius I”).

That is, Christ took our humanity in order to heal it of its sin: he would take it through death into a new life, and bring it back to God. But if Christ did not truly take our humanity, then humanity will not be healed by him. No good news of great joy without that. What Gregory had seen with limpid clarity was that Jesus’s humanity is essential for the salvation of our humanity. He simply could not be the head of a new humanity if he was not truly human. He could not be our kinsman-redeemer or the true Bridegroom of his people if we were not flesh of his flesh.

“The story of the saints is a story of joy and glory — of joy lost and found, of glory smothered and shining.”

Also, it was belief in the true humanity of Christ that gave so much comfort and joy to the many martyrs of the early church. A good example is Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred about AD 110. Ignatius’s entire motivation in accepting martyrdom was based upon his belief in the real incarnation of Christ: Ignatius longed for martyrdom because then he would be copying Christ. But if Christ did not really suffer in his body, then Ignatius could not be copying him at all. “If that is the case, I die for no reason,” he wrote (Apostolic Fathers, Trallians 10.1). Instead, Ignatius wanted his life and death to proclaim:

There is only one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering and then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Apostolic Fathers, Ephesians 7.2)

Belief in such a Christ gave him the boldness to write to the Christians in Rome, where he’d be thrown to the beasts:

I implore you: do not be unseasonably kind to me. Let me be food for the wild beasts. . . . Bear with me — I know what is best for me. Now at last I am beginning to be a disciple. May nothing visible or invisible envy me, so that I may reach Jesus Christ. Fire and cross and battles with wild beasts, mutilation, mangling, wrenching of bones, the hacking of limbs, the crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil — let these come upon me, only let me reach Jesus Christ! (Apostolic Fathers, Romans 4.1, 5.3)

Christ’s true humanity meant joy set before the martyrs.

All-Glorious God

And glory? That was the other fight for the church: that Jesus is truly the all-glorious God. At the beginning of the fourth century, in Alexandria in the north of Egypt, a church elder named Arius began teaching that the Son of God was not eternal, not God himself; he was instead a created thing, made by God to go and fashion a universe. In other words, God is not truly and eternally a Father; he does not truly and eternally have a Son whom he loves in the Spirit.

What the orthodox Christians — and especially their champion, Athanasius — saw was that Arius was throwing away the very glory of God and the gospel of grace in exchange for a steely idol who lacked any real conception of kindness. For, according to Arius, God had created the Son simply to do the hard graft of dealing with the universe for him. And so, for Arius, it was not that the Father truly loved the Son (as you see again and again in Scripture); the Son was just his hired workman.

And if, for Arius, the Bible ever spoke of the Father’s pleasure in the Son, it can only have been because the Son had done a good job. That, presumably, is how to get in with the God who is simply The Employer. But that is no fatherly God of true grace.

For Arius, you do not truly see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. For Arius, you do not see a God who is glorious and gracious at all. Thus, the Christian church gathered together at the Council of Nicea in AD 325 and there agreed forever to confess that the Son is “of one being with the Father.” God the Father doesn’t use the Son as mere hired help, and the Son doesn’t use the Father to get heavenly glory. The Son has always been at the Father’s side. He is the eternally beloved, the one who shows that there is a most loving Father in heaven, the one who can share with us more than a business understanding with God: sonship!

This was the story of the early church: fighting and bleeding for truth that brought glory to God and joy to the saints.

Scene 2: Augustine

No story of the church would be quite complete without a look at the mighty Augustine (AD 354–430). Augustine was born and spent most of his life in what today is Tunisia and Algeria. It was a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire, but Augustine would be perhaps the most influential Christian in the history of the church after the time of the apostles.

Battle of Desires

Here are the opening words of his most (deservedly) famous work, The Confessions — hear his heartbeat (translations from Augustine are my own):

Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is your power, and of your wisdom there is no end. . . . You arouse us to delight in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you. (1.1.1)

The Confessions (Augustine’s testimony) reveals that Augustine’s life was one long search for happiness, for satisfaction, for pleasure. That’s how it was for him; that’s how it is for all of us. It is a right search, but before Augustine came to Christ, he had spent all his life looking in all the wrong places for that satisfaction.

Here’s how he characterized his youth. He said to God, “I abandoned you to pursue the lowest things of your creation. I was dust going to dust” (1.13.21). Notice what he’s saying there: we become like what we love. Pursuing dirty things, he was becoming dirt.

One of his most powerful illustrations of looking in the wrong place comes in the story of his friend Alypius. Alypius hated the gladiatorial fights that were so popular then — and we should think of them as the ancient equivalent of pornography and love for extreme violence in films.

Alypius didn’t want to go to the gladiatorial combats. But, Augustine says,

Some of his friends used friendly violence to take him. . . . When they arrived and had found seats where they could, the entire place seethed with the most monstrous delight in the cruelty. He kept his eyes shut and forbade his mind to think about such fearful evils. Would that he had blocked his ears as well! A man fell in combat. A great roar from the entire crowd struck him with such a vehemence that he was overcome by curiosity. . . . He opened his eyes. The shouting entered by his ears and forced open his eyes. . . . As soon as he saw the blood, he at once drank in savagery and did not turn away. His eyes were riveted. He imbibed madness. Without any awareness of what was happening to him, he found delight in the murderous contest and was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure. He was not now the person who had come in. . . . He took the madness home with him so that it urged him to return. (6.8.13)

What you look at will change you. It will mold you into its image.

As the Confessions moves on, it becomes more breathless — there’s a desperation in his search for joy. Recalling it, Augustine prayed,

I was caught up to you by your beauty and quickly torn away from you by my weight. With a groan I crashed into inferior things. This weight was my sexual habit. But with me there remained a memory of you. (7.17.23)

“The glory of God and enjoyment of him: these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation.”

You see then that his story — which is our story — is a love story. It’s the story of a battle of desires, a story of love turning. And for him the climactic moment happened when, walking in a garden in Milan, Italy, he hears a voice saying, “Tolle! Lege!” (“Take! Read!”) — and whatever that was, he took it as a divine command to pick up the book of Romans, which he had with him. His eyes fell upon Romans 13:13–14: “not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

With that, he understood that in Christ was the satisfaction all his chasing had been after. “Suddenly,” he wrote, “it had become sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly [and sin]. What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. You turned them out and entered to take their place, pleasanter than any pleasure” (9.1.1). That discovery would then shape all his thinking as a Christian and as a theologian serving the church.

Against Pelagius

Perhaps Augustine’s greatest work as a theologian was done to counter the work of Pelagius. Against Pelagius, Augustine showed that Christians are meant to find joy in the all-glorious God.

Who was Pelagius? He was a British monk who taught that each person has the responsibility and the potential to be morally perfect. Such is God’s command, and God would not command the impossible, said Pelagius. No, he said, we can make ourselves perfect, for we are born innocent, in the same state as Adam before the fall. That being so, we all face a simple choice: either copy Adam (sin and so be damned) or copy Christ (live righteously and so be saved). That, he explained, is why God gave the law: so that through obeying it we can achieve the perfection God demands and bring back paradise on earth.

A self-help theology? No wonder it’s been popular ever since. But actually it made chilling claims. For Pelagius, God is not glorious in his graciousness. He is not gracious at all. Everything is down to us. Pelagius placed a crushing weight of responsibility on the individual: we each must ensure our own personal perfection if we would have life.

Augustine realized that, for all his Christian language, Pelagius had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of God and the gospel. Pelagius was teaching that we had done wrong things — that was the problem — but that if ever we are to enter heaven, we must start doing right things. It did not seem to have properly occurred to Pelagius that we were created to know and love God, and thus for him the aim of the Christian life was not to enjoy God but to use him as the one who sells us heaven for the price of being moral.

How differently Augustine saw things! He held that we were not created simply to live under God’s moral code. We were made to find our rest and satisfaction in his all-satisfying fellowship. Augustine defined true love as “the enjoyment of God for his own sake.” God, he held, is an “insatiable satisfaction,” “sweeter than all pleasure,” and thus we love him, desiring to be rewarded with him.

Moreover, our problem is not so much that we have behaved wrongly, but that we have been drawn to love wrongly. Made in the image of the God of love, Augustine argued that we are always motivated by love — and that is why Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They sinned because they loved something else more than him. That also means that merely altering our behavior, as Pelagius suggested, will do no good. Something much more profound is needed: our hearts must be turned back.

More than anything, Augustine saw, we need to see the glory of God, to sense how delightful God is. For he has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in him.

Scene 3: The Reformation

At the end of the period we call the Reformation — in the middle of the seventeenth century — some hundred and twenty scholars assembled in Westminster, England, and put together the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The catechism’s famous first question and answer gets to the core of what the Reformation was about:

Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

The glory of God and enjoyment of him: these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and joy.

Declared Just

There was an implicit criticism in this first question and answer of the pre-Reformation theology that went all the way back to our old friend Augustine. Because, for all the great good he’d done, Augustine had got justification quite wrong. As he saw it, Romans 5:5 gave the cleanest explanation of justification. There, the apostle Paul writes that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” So, for Augustine, God pours his love into our hearts through the Spirit, and that love slowly transforms us. With that love infused into us, we become more and more just. We act more and more justly. We become “just-ified.”

The question, of course, that people were forced then to ask was, “Have I been transformed to be just enough for heaven?” And the answer could only ever be, “I don’t know. Almost certainly not.” If I can enter heaven only because I have become myself intrinsically righteous, I can have only as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness. In fact, to be confident of heaven must be a great sin of presumption. And it was precisely one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,

This woman sins when she says she is certain of being received into Paradise . . . seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment. (The Age of Reform, 30–31)

It was a theology that bred fear, not joy. The need to have personal merit before God left people terrified at the prospect of judgment. You can still feel it when you see a medieval fresco of the last judgment; you can hear it in the words of the Dies Irae that would be chanted in every Catholic Mass for the Dead:

Day of wrath, day that will dissolve the world into burning coals. . . . What am I the wretch then to say? what patron I to beseech? when scarcely the just be secure. King of tremendous Majesty . . . do not lose me on that day. . . . My prayers are not worthy, but do Thou, Good (God), deal kindly lest I burn in perennial fire.

It was exactly why the young Martin Luther shook with fear at the thought of death, and why he said he hated God (instead of enjoying him). Young Luther could not rejoice.

“We were made to find our rest and satisfaction in God’s all-satisfying fellowship.”

But with his discovery five hundred years ago that justification in fact means that sinners are freely declared righteous in Christ, that all changed. No longer was his confidence for that day placed in himself: it all rested on Christ and his sufficient righteousness. And so, the horrifying doomsday became for Luther what he would call “the most happy Last Day,” the day of Jesus, his friend. The consolation that brought to all who held to Reformation theology was captured perfectly in the striking wording of the Heidelberg Catechism’s question and answer:

Question: What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?
Answer: In all my sorrow and persecution, I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me.

Comfort in Christ for the struggling believer: that was the effect of the theology of the Reformation.

Or listen to the vim with which another early Reformer, William Tyndale, put it: “Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy” (Works of William Tyndale, 1:8). That he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by God and clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself gave Tyndale a dazzling happiness.

And that was the effect of Reformation theology: through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate — and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could know a firm standing before God, gleefully addressing him as their “Abba,” confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost. Without a priestly hierarchy detached from the world, believers could all call each other “brother” and “sister,” living every part of life for the kind Father they had been brought to enjoy. And through these truths, lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Reformation started in October 1517 with a skirmish concerning the idea of purgatory. Purgatory was the Roman Catholic solution to the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was said to be the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them — to have that process of becoming just or righteous completed.

But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolize all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin wrote,

Purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead [themselves]? . . . But if it is perfectly clear . . . that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ? (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.5.6)

His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully sufficient Savior; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy for us, no glory for Christ: it went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.

What the Reformers saw, especially through the message of justification by faith alone, was the revelation of an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing his happiness. Not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious. (That is why dependent faith glorifies him, according to Romans 4:20.) To steal from his glory by claiming any credit for ourselves would only steal our own joy in so marvelous a God.

“Happiness is not found in ourselves. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God.”

The glory of God and the resulting joy of the saints was the concern of the Reformers. It got so into Protestant blood that the Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach, when satisfied with his compositions, would write on them “S.D.G.” for Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”). For through his music he wanted to sound out the beauty and glory of God, so pleasing both God and people. The glory of God, Bach believed, gratuitously rings out throughout creation, bringing joy wherever it is appreciated. And that is worth living for and promoting.

In fact, wrote Calvin, that is the secret of happiness and the secret of life. “It is necessary,” he said, “for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.” Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God. All of which is really just another way of saying

Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

Scene 4: Modern Theology

After the Reformation, there was a new divide in Christianity: a divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics. But another divide was coming hot on its heels — the divide between so-called “conservatives” and “liberals.” These would soon be two opposite trajectories, and the essence of each was embodied in two near-contemporaries: Jonathan Edwards and Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher is almost certainly less familiar to you as a name, but he was enormously influential and is often given the title “The Father of Modern (or Liberal) Theology.” Schleiermacher was a German — a Prussian, in fact — born in 1768, ten years after Jonathan Edwards died in Princeton. There are some fascinating similarities between Edwards and Schleiermacher — and vital differences.

Most importantly, Edwards and Schleiermacher both argued that the Christian life is about more than simply agreeing to a list of doctrines. Both were agreed: true believers have an experience of God involving their affections. So both taught the importance of the heart, with its loves and desires. But there was a critical difference! Let’s look at them in turn.

Sense of God’s Sweetness

First, Jonathan Edwards. Edwards argued that having a sense of the sweetness of God is what really marks out the converted. He compares two men: one who merely understands the fact that honey is sweet, the other who “loves honey and is greatly delighted in it because he knows the sweet taste of it” (Religious Affections, 209). As Edwards sees it, believers are those who enjoy the beauty of God — they have tasted of his glory and so they adore him.

Here’s how that works. In 2 Corinthians 4:6, the apostle Paul writes that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” So what moves believers is not something within themselves — that is essential to see here. Believers are not driven by a sense of their own faithfulness or goodness. God reveals himself in Christ, the Spirit opens our eyes, and it is that sight of the glory of God in the face of Christ that wins our hearts.

Here’s how Edwards put it:

Holy affections are not heat without light; but evermore arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge. (Religious Affections, 266)

For Edwards it is the light of God’s glory that causes the heat of our desire for him.

Beginning with Feelings

Now let’s compare Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher also believed that true religion is about a living experience of the divine. Here’s his description of the essence of piety: it is, he said, “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent” (The Christian Faith, 12). Now, you may think, that doesn’t sound specifically Christian. The essence of piety is “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent”? No mention of God or Christ.

But that’s just his point: everyone feels dependent at some point (and so do dogs!). For Schleiermacher, then, there is no sharp distinction between true worship and idolatry. For him, everyone is pious in a sense — everyone feels dependent — and Christianity is simply the best form of piety (for reasons that aren’t very clearly argued). As he saw it, Christianity is really the highest stage of religious evolution so far.

“When God is glorified and shown for who he really is, then the saints are filled with joy.”

Now, you may wonder how a man claiming to be a Christian could say all this. And here’s the key: Schleiermacher wrote that “Christian doctrines are accounts of the Christian religious affections” (The Christian Faith, 76). Let’s unpack that. Schleiermacher is saying that when Christians talk about any doctrine — something about the gospel, some biblical truth — what’s really going on is that we are trying to put our own feelings into words.

So for him, doctrine is not truth about (or from) God. Doctrine is really just our attempt to communicate and share our own private religious experience. In other words, Schleiermacher had just turned Edwards’s ideas upside down. For Edwards, it is the light of God’s glory that causes the heat of our desire for him. For Schleiermacher, it is the heat of our feelings that causes us to talk about things like God’s glory.

For Edwards, it all starts with the glory of God. For Schleiermacher, it all starts with my feelings. For Schleiermacher, our feelings are the source of our theology. Not the glory of God in the face of Christ. Not Scripture. Our feelings are the control, the guide as we think about God. You can surely see how influential that idea has been ever since. Schleiermacher conquered the West.

The story the modern West likes to tell about itself in the last two centuries is one of liberation: we have been set free from the old chains of doctrine. But Schleiermacher had actually thrown out the glory of God, and thus thrown out all possibility of true, deep joy.

For Schleiermacher, there could be no such thing as a free salvation. Jesus Christ, for him, was just the first Christian. Not God become man but man become godly. Edwards could contemplate the glory of God, his beauty, his graciousness, his sovereign and fatherly care of his children — and that filled Edwards with joy and comfort. But where could Schleiermacher go for comfort and joy? He could only look inside himself and hope the good feelings would come.

Hearts at Rest

That’s what we’ve seen throughout this snapshot history of the church: When mankind is glorified and put central, the root of true satisfaction and joy is torn up. When God is glorified and shown for who he really is, then the saints are filled with joy. Then Ignatius finds comfort in the face of martyrdom. Then Augustine finds freedom from his sin. Then Luther finds liberation from his despair. Then Edwards finds happiness.

For, as Augustine wrote, God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in him.