We’re talking with Dr. John Piper, who is the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he served since 1980. He’s the son of a Baptist evangelist and was educated at Wheaton College and at Fuller Theological Seminary, and he also studied New Testament at the University of Munich. After that, he taught New Testament for six years at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota before coming to his present pastorate.
Recently, Dr. Piper presented the Billy Graham Center lectures on preaching at Wheaton College sponsored by the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. His subject was the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Piper, when did you first become interested in Jonathan Edwards and what prompted your interest?
I think until I went away to seminary, Edwards was just a name and a sermon, namely Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. And one day in a hermeneutics course taught by Daniel Fuller at Fuller Seminary, he was in a big argument with some students about his supposed rationalism, and he threw up his hands and he said, “I don’t understand why you guys think rationalism is such a problem. You ought to read Jonathan Edwards. He could be writing an essay that would blow the minds of the greatest philosopher and then move into a devotion that would warm your grandmother’s heart.” Well, as soon as I heard him say that, I was off to the library to find out.
You mentioned Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and that’s the image that we usually have of him. We think of Edwards as something of a fire and brimstone preacher. But was that reputation deserved? Is that an accurate depiction of him?
It’s accurate if it’s not lopsided. In other words, there’s no doubt that the images he chose to represent hell were awful images — true images, I think, but terrible and terrifying. But the problem is that isn’t all he had to say about reality or about God. Edwards used the adjective sweet of God far more than horrible. God was an amazingly sweet reality to Edwards. And if you read what he has to say about heaven, Edwards was just as powerful in his positive images about salvation and God as he was about his negative images for hell.
Before we get too far in this interview, I suppose we ought to learn a little bit about the person we’re talking about. What are some of the highlights of Edwards’s life? Could you give us a quick overview?
He was born in Connecticut in 1703 into the family of a pastor, and his father taught him Latin when he was six and sent him off to Yale when he was 12. He took a short pastorate in New York, which lasted eight months, but then he quit that and went back to Yale as a tutor. And then in 1727, he went to be the associate of his grandfather in North Hampton, Massachusetts at the Congregational Church there. His grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, died two years later and Edwards remained the pastor there until he was 46 years old.
So, he was a pastor in North Hampton for 23 years. During that time, the Great Awakening happened. The two high points of the Great Awakening were 1734–1735 and 1740–1742, and he was the great defender and explainer and promoter of that Great Awakening. When I say defender, I mean it had a lot of critics because it was considered to be mere emotionalism by many of the Boston clergy and he said, “It isn’t mere emotionalism. There’s a great work of God going on here.”
Well, during that time while he was writing and defending and preaching, studying 13 hours a day, not doing much pastoral visitation, he committed some real pastoral blunders. One example that most biographers single out was that he caught some boys reading dirty magazines. And he read from the pulpit not only the names of these boys, but the names of those who were to consult with them at his house that afternoon without distinguishing the names.
You mean those who were to consult with him?
He was calling together a committee to deal with these boys, hear them out, and discipline them. There were good men from the church and young people who, I think, were reporting on the boys. And he read the whole list to be at his house that afternoon. And he didn’t distinguish who were the culprits. Well, the church just blew up over this. But he survived that, although it smoldered for about five years, I think.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Edwards came to the conviction that his grandfather, who had been the pastor of that church for 55 years, was wrong in his view of who should be admitted to the Lord’s table. Edwards thought only people who gave evidence of regeneration should be admitted, and Solomon Stoddard thought the ordinance was a converting ordinance.
Edwards wrote a book to defend it. The people rejected the book. This was the last straw, and so they voted him out of the church and he gave his farewell sermon. And so, he was without a church. He had 11 kids and was happily married. All the kids were happy, and he had no place to go.
And so, he wrote around. He was urged by many of the ministers in Scotland to come there. They loved him and wanted to give him a pastorate, but he accepted a little church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts out on the western frontier and was also commissioned by some London society for reaching the frontiers to minister to the Indians.
He had a dual charge and he endured it for about seven years. And when he was 54 years old, he was called to be president of Princeton College, and he didn’t want to go because those seven years had been immensely productive years in writing. He had written four major books during those hard years on the frontiers. But he took the counsel of his colleagues. They said that he should go, he wept, and he went. He received an inoculation for smallpox. It backfired. A few weeks later, his throat swelled up so that he couldn’t take the medicine and he died at 54 years old, leaving behind a wife and 10 kids because one had already died. His wife died just a few months later leaving all the kids to fend for themselves.
What kind of reputation did Edwards have as a preacher while he was alive? Is there any indication that his greatness was recognized then?
He was recognized as a great preacher, but he was so distinct in the views that he held that he fell between cracks, and therefore, I don’t think had the kind of regard that we might think. On the one hand, you had the Boston clergy who thought he was a raving maniac of emotionalism, stirring up this crazy Great Awakening. And on the other hand, you had the ordinary people who really didn’t have the ability to comprehend his rational powers. And so, he was really in a no man’s land, it seems to me, as far as respect.
What history has done is proven the magnificence of Edwards because we can sift things out, I suppose, better than the immediate generation. He’s regarded I think by most historians of American religion as to have been the greatest thinker that we’ve produced.
What were the major emphases of Edwards’s preaching?
The sovereignty of God would be the root of everything. It was a sweet sovereignty to him. In his Personal Narrative, he describes the day he fell in love with the sovereignty of God and how since that day he has returned to it again and again like to a favorite spot in the woods, just to delight in that doctrine.
And then flowing out from the sovereignty of God, or the infinite power and right and authority of God, flows a complete self-satisfaction and all-sufficiency of God, that God does not need man, and therefore, everything God does he does as the overflow of his own fullness to meet the needs of others and to give them the right to praise and enjoy him.
The holiness of God is his unimpeachableness that comes from a person who has no incentive to do evil because he’s so self-sufficient. So, the radical nature of his preaching was God in his magnificence, his greatness, his holiness, and his sovereignty. The counterpoint to that is the depravity of man. He really believed man was rotten to the core and could not move a muscle to save himself. He was dead in trespasses and sins.
And those two come together to cry for some solution, and the solution is the excellency of Jesus Christ and the beauty of the gospel and the free offer of grace.
What would be the applications of Edwards’s preaching then?
Edwards believed that conversion involved a great deal more than making a decision for Christ. It involved a rebirth, a transformation of what we are, and we are more than understanding, we are will and the affections or emotions are the lively activities of the will. And if affections are not transformed — things like hate and grief and love and zeal and sorrow and gratitude — if these are not transformed so that they become spiritual and holy and God directed, a person isn’t born again, which means that in all his preaching, he was seeking to stir up these holy affections.
He wasn’t seeking to get people to just decide about the truth of Christianity and then throw in their lot with it, as though you could do it in the same way you would decide for a brand of television or something. It really involved a tremendous upheaval of the heart so that you love different things, you hate different things, you delight in different things, you’re afraid of different things, you’re made guilty by different things. We are all a bundle of affections.
He knew human life so much and we are not just ideas. Ideas are so easily manipulated by the heart. We are just a bundle of hopes and desires and dreams, and that all had to be revolutionized. And so, his preaching had this razor-sharp thrust for the heart every time. The reason we need to hear Edwards is because Edwards says a one-night stand with Christ at a Billy Graham crusade is not enough to get a person into heaven. A person has to be so transformed and to have the kind of faith that perseveres.
And therefore, whenever he preached, he knew that his preaching was a means of grace to help people persevere in these holy affections. And if they don’t persevere, they’re going to bear witness that they’re not elect, and therefore, heaven and hell were at stake every time he preached. And that lent immense intensity to his preaching.
So, every message was a salvation message, either a conversion message or a perseverance message?
Exactly. My people today say to me sometimes, “Pastor, why don’t you give more salvation messages?” And I just shake my head and try to help them see that I believe in saving the saints as well as saving the unregenerate. Because the saints are only as secure as they are willing to own up to the threats given in scripture and bow before them and in an earnest way take heed to themselves lest they fall. Paul said, “Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he falls” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
Edwards is sort of an unusual Calvinist then in that it seems like if you accept that thinking there really is no final assurance of salvation on this side of death.
He would disagree with that very strongly though, because there is assurance. In fact, the aim of his preaching is to tear people away from false assurances and to give them the only real assurance that they can have. I’m sure he would ground it à la Romans 8:16, that the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. But he has a very unusual interpretation of that verse. He does not think that the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which gives assurance, is the verbal speaking of the Spirit to our hearts, suggesting that we are children. Rather, he thinks witness in the New Testament means giving evidence.
The only reason a witness in court is valuable is because they bring evidence, either they saw it or they saw the gun or something. They’re valuable because they got evidence. Well, he says the work of the spirit as a witness is to give evidence. And the way he gives evidence is by imparting to the soul his character. And so, the signs of assurance are the signs that we’ve been born again.
And so, a Christian ought to look at his life. And if he sees gobs of sin, he repents of it, but he says, “Oh, Lord, I feel welling up in this gratitude, this love for you, this forgiveness for this enemy of mine, and I thank you for that. And oh, thank you for the signs of my new birth.” And there wells up within the believer the assurance that he belongs to God, sin and all, and does experience assurance.
Let’s return now to that familiar image, the image in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. I think he uses the image of a spider being held over a flame, that sort of thing. And hell was a very real concept to him. It was a very real image, and he tried to portray it as horrible and as terrible as he possibly could. How does that translate today? How do you preach hell today when we’re told to take “the positive approach” with people, and it’s suggested that fear and guilt are inappropriate motivations to come to God? We’re told that the only true motivation to come to God is out of love for him. How do you preach the genuine threat of hell in a generation that almost worships what is upbeat?
Well, you probably won’t do it very popularly. I don’t think anything’s changed from the New Testament. Whether we think threat and fear and guilt that are produced by the preaching of sin and hell are appropriate ways to motivate ought to be determined by whether they’re in the Scriptures as motivations. And they are.
I mean, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I warned you before and I warn you now, those who do such things will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Galatians 5:21). And he said many such things to churches, not just to unbelievers. So Paul wasn’t nearly as skittish about creating fear as we seem to be.
Now, the reason I think it can be made to be understandable in an age even like ours where self-esteem seems to be the main gospel message is this, I think most people will realize that the preciousness of being saved will rise in its intensity to the degree that you see the horror of what you’re saved from and the beauty of what you’re saved for. I think most of our people cannot sing Amazing Grace with tears today because they don’t understand verse two, which says:
Twas grace that taught my heart to fear And grace my fears relieved
Grace never taught their heart to fear. They skipped that step. And so, they wonder, “What’s everybody getting so excited about here? I’m okay, you’re okay. So, how is grace amazing?” So, I think if you’ve got a church full of people who’ve been schooled on contemporary positive thinking and self-esteem, you can help them see that one of the reasons they aren’t on the edges of their chair to sing Amazing Grace with their heart beating faster is that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. They’ve been skirted around a reality that they ought to know, namely hell. And probably more important than hell is simply the offensive depravity of their own hearts and how utterly self-deceptive the human heart is in the best of us.
Edwards did not use hell as a way to lead people immediately into the kingdom. He said very plainly that a slavish fear of hell saves nobody. It is simply a stopgap measure to cause people to wake up to the proportions of what’s at stake. The reason you preach hell is to help people see the seriousness of sin, and its sin that has to be hated.
If people don’t hate sin, if they go from the fear of hell and jump over the hate of sin into heaven, they don’t land in heaven. They land in no man’s land. And if the sinfulness of our hearts then can become horrible to us over against the holiness of God, then the free offer of God to undeserving sinners becomes so precious. And you can help people see this by simply using images. I remember one image I used for my people is when I was a boy of 14. I dove down to the bottom of the swimming pool to pick the grate off the bottom to clean out where the water gets sucked out and my finger got stuck in the grate, and it wouldn’t come out.
I pulled and I pulled and I pulled. And I mean, I was dead. I was a goner. And I would have bitten off my finger I think in another five seconds if it hadn’t pulled out. And when I got to the top, air was infinitely valuable. It’s air. We breathe it all day long. And if I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t have loved air. And I had another experience where I was with my dad at Daytona Beach and I was about five and had no idea about currents. And I was about up to my waist and, whamo, off I went. My feet were gone and I just went right under. I thought I was in the middle of the ocean, could have been in the middle of the ocean as far as I’m concerned. I was five years old. And I didn’t know which way was up. The waves were taking me everywhere. I was a goner.
And then, whoosh, I felt my dad’s arms. I just held him. I held him for an hour, I think, and I wouldn’t let go. And we will never hold God like that until we get taken under by the current of sin in hell. So, I just think we have to preach it, otherwise, we’ll never hug God.
It seems as if the function of preaching here then is to help people sense that miraculous, that glorious joy of knowing God, and conversely, that revulsion of sin and evil.
Hell stands totally in the service of heaven. It does theologically. If you ask why it ultimately exists, I think Edwards would say, “To throw heaven into starker relief.” But if you bring it down to the personal level, the only reason to preach negative things is to make our joy stronger. And people who say that the only way you’re going to help people be psychologically healthy and full of joy is to leave out guilt-producing, fear-producing images, take a short circuit and it backfires on them. You get churches that, if they’re happy, are happy in a fleshly non-spiritual way, but probably they aren’t all that happy. The churches that I’m aware of are just blah. They’re not really ecstatic with joy because hell has been avoided.
I can imagine the response of some people to Jonathan Edwards would be to say, “Well, that’s fine, Jonathan. It just wouldn’t cut the mustard today.” In other words, people might say, “If we preached your kind of content, this kind of message of stark judgment, nobody would come to listen.”
Well, my first response would be, “We’re called to be faithful to the truth, not to attract an audience.” But having said that, I just don’t agree with it. I think you can attract an audience, number one, because there are enough saints in the world who are hungry for the truth and who rejoice in it if it’s preached in its balanced biblical proportions.
And number two, I frankly think there are a lot of marginal people and even unbelievers who almost stand in awe of someone who takes something seriously. They come to a church and they might want to say, “Yuck” to the thing said, but they see that there is somebody who seems to take something with infinite seriousness, and that kind of intensity wins people.
So, I just don’t think it’s true. And then I would say judgment doesn’t stand out as something for its own sake. If you preach it right and well, it is always that which is throwing grace into sharp relief, and therefore, people want grace. Therefore, they’ll want that. So as long as the black is always the thing that highlights the golds and reds and yellows of the mosaic of grace, it will be tolerated. In fact, it will be valued.
What are some of the differences in your own preaching that have come as a result of your study of Jonathan Edwards? How has it affected you?
It’s really hard for me to know what was affected by Edwards and what was affected by Paul and Jesus and Daniel Fuller and Bill and Ruth Piper, my dad and my mother. I mean, it’s hard for me to know what’s made me the way I am. Maybe the easier way to answer the question would be, what are the things I strive after that I see modeled for me in Edwards?
And I think right at the top of the list, I put intensity. Edwards just took reality so seriously. And it seems to me that today, a homiletical maxim must be to tell as many jokes as you make references to the text. I’ve never told a joke in a sermon that I can remember and I never intend to.
And you don’t apologize for that?
No. Now, humor and joke telling are two different things. There are a lot of funny things in the Bible. There are funny things in Jesus, like a camel going through the eye of the needle. I think people smiled when he said that, although he turned it with a rapier thrust. You see, humor is one thing, but joke-telling, levity, flippancy is another. I don’t think you need to start your sermons with a joke to get people’s attention. I think what you communicate when you start your sermons with a joke is that not much important is going to be at stake here.
Now, a lot of people disagree with that. Goodness, they must because they do it all the time. When I go to my own denominational conference, everybody starts with a joke. I just go right at it. And I think people like that. We get down to business. Don’t try to cozy up to us, just get down to business. So, intensity would be right at the top of my list.
What else? What other influences have there been?
I suppose that whole issue of the affections. I really believe that we ought to preach to go for people’s affections. And that means trying to find style, language, images, and analogies that move people. And maybe I should add to that immediately the counterpart to it that I really believe you ought to move the affections by enlightening the mind. So, my sermons tend to be really argumentative. That is, I give reasons and grounds for what I argue for.
Another thing would be I try to make my sermons full of Bible. I try not to just read a text and then talk about ideas. I try to read a text and then explain that text with other texts, and unfold a truth from Scripture and find lots of my examples and analogies and images from other parts of the Scripture. And I think that really creates a sense of authenticity and power that you’re not going to the newspaper at a Time Magazine always to get your illustrations. The inspired word of God is just replete with images and illustrations.
So, you’re talking about something different than merely having a sermon that’s based on Scripture?
Right. Everybody that I’ve ever talked to says they do expository preaching. So nobody knows what anybody means. I use the phrase that a sermon needs to be saturated with Scripture, it needs to ooze Scripture. I’m reading John Flavel right now for my own soul. I have a spiritual theological shot in the arm almost every day. Well, right now, my physician is John Flavel in the book The Method of Grace.
I read the other Saturday night. I had a half an hour and I said, “I need something here.” So, I opened it and I read this sermon. Reading John Flavel and Edwards is like reading the Bible with a few sutures thrown in between. And the sutures are crucial because they reveal a passionate belief in this and a profound understanding.
And what happens is that the Bible comes alive. I’ve read the Bible so many hundreds of times that it’s very hard for me to experience the Bible firsthand as living, often. I just admit I’m a dead man often when I open the Bible. But if I take a Puritan, I can read that same text that I just read all by itself in the context of his experience of it and his application of it and, whamo, the thing comes to life. So, I want to preach like that. I want to preach in a way that there’s Scripture just woven through my messages and that God’s word is seen, not just back at the beginning when I started, but right on through.
I think some of the more popular preachers today would say that they have to work very hard at applying the text. One of the reasons for the jokes, one of the reasons for the yarns, telling story upon story, is to apply it so that people can relate it to their own lives. Have you discovered that to be a problem with a more content-oriented, objective style of preaching?
I preached in the Wheaton Chapel yesterday. There was one point in that sermon where I said, “We don’t like businessmen who tout their ability to get in low and out high in the stock market. And we don’t like students who dress to get the approval of their peers. And we don’t like scholars who are always talking about where they lectured last.” I think that’s what I mean by application. You’re taking real life situations and students are starting to go, “Aha, yeah, we don’t like that kind of person.” And then you ask, “Why don’t you?” And you try to get inside the human heart and say it’s because of an inauthenticity. But as you describe what inauthenticity is, I would hope a student would start to say, “It’s like me. I’m in one of those categories.”
So, I really believe in application with all my heart. It’s just that there’s probably a deeper way to go for the human heart than just storytelling or finding a quote in Time Magazine, although I don’t want to write that stuff off because I have found some remarkable illustrations in magazines that I’ve used. If I had more time in that chapel and somebody had had the objection, “Why should God be so taken up with his all sufficiency when he should be meeting the needs of others?” do you know what I would’ve used as an illustration? Flying down here on Metrolink. The stewardess always stands up at the front. She drops this little cup for oxygen down and she says, “When this flop out, or when we need them, put it over your face.” And then she says, “Parents, if you have young children, cover your face first and then cover your children.”
And I would’ve said, “Now, is that a loving thing to do?” And that stewardess would’ve said, “You bet it is, because you’ll pass out trying to put it over your child’s face if you don’t. And it doesn’t matter if your child passes out as long as you can get it on your face and then on his.” Now, that’s the kind of thing we preachers ought to be alert to all the time. There are illustrations just ringing around us of deep theological truth. So, I don’t want to fail to be a preacher who works hard at application. We need to.
And some of the great themes of sovereignty and the majesty of God, can they be applied?
Well, my experience is that they don’t need much application to do amazing work in practical ways. And I can think of two examples this year from my own church. In the beginning of the year, I preached two sermons under the title Going Hard after the Holy God. The first Sunday was The Holy God. And I just talked from Isaiah 6 about God’s holiness and didn’t say a word about our going hard after him or our worshiping him or our doing anything to or for him, but just talked about who he was in his holiness.
And then the second Sunday, I talked about going hard after him and what that means. I didn’t know it at the time, but a couple in our church discovered that week that their three little girls had been sexually molested for two to three years by an uncle that they had trusted with babysitting. They were devastated. The little girls had venereal warts. They were in just turmoil psychologically. And they were working all this through. Eventually, the guy got 30 years in jail. That was the sentence. And he was a family member.
Well, the most gratifying thing of all was when I talked to them and the husband came to me about a month or two later. He said, “John, you know what got me through that first week in those early days? Your New Year’s Day sermon on the holiness of God.” It just blew my mind away because I hadn’t applied it to a family going through the problem of child molestation. And as I probed his statement, what he meant was, “What we needed was a rock. We needed a big, strong sovereign God to hold onto. We needed to know that something in our life was stable.”
And then a few months later, this fall, one of the men in my church, his wife left him last May. And I’m still praying that they’ll be back together because the divorce isn’t finalized and she’s still open to reconciliation, hopefully. This has been awfully hard for him. He has two little children. He brings them to church.
I’ve been preaching this fall on the names of God, like, “I am jealous,” and, “I am holy,” and, “I am who I am.” These are just magnificent names, and I have done minimal application. I have just been majoring on God’s magnificence. And this man came to me the week before I came down here, just a week ago I think, and said, “It’s this series that’s keeping me going this fall.” He said, “I can’t wait to get here on Sunday morning just to meet God.”
So, my experience has been, and this is my own personal experience, that what I need in my life as much as anybody giving me a practical one-two-three on how to get along with my wife and deal with my children and deal with criticism and handle depression, is repeated big visions of God and experiences of God. And I think we are selling our people short with what you might call “friendly” worship services that are very horizontally oriented in the hopes that they’ll go away happy and helped and healed when in fact what they need just one hour out of the 168 each week is a staggering picture and experience of God. I don’t think we can imagine how many psychological, personal, family business problems get solved before they arise by a proper experience of God.
Talk to me a little bit about the sermon that you preached titled Is God For Us or For Himself? Where did the idea for that sermon originate?
It was either in a class I took from Dr. Fuller at Fuller Seminary or it was in a book he recommended, namely, A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards. That book poses the question, “Why did God create the world?” And he answers it for his own glory, to preserve and to display his glory. I remember reading that and it commended itself as absolutely right because Edwards assembled hundreds of passages of Scripture. It was saturated with Bible. But I tend to be a really analytical person and I’m always thinking of objections to things. I thought of objections to it right off the bat. I thought, “I don’t like people like that.” I mean, if I have students like that or parishioners who are always seeking their own glory, I would say, “Who wants to be around them?”
And then the second thing I thought of was that the Bible says, “Love seeks not its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5). And here God is seeking his own all the time, so he can’t be a loving God, right? So, those are the two objections that came to my mind first, and I think they arise in most thoughtful people’s minds. So, the way I phrased the question was this: is God for us? Is he loving, or is he for himself?
The key text where I hit upon the solution was Ephesians 1:6, Ephesians 1:12, and Ephesians 1:14. They all say the same thing. It says that God predestined us to the praise of the glory of his grace. Now, the word “praise’ has become really important. What God is after in the world is to glorify himself so that his creatures behold it, delight in it, and praise it. And so, I started thinking, “Well, now if God were a loving God, he would have to make me maximally happy for all eternity if I were his, if I believed and trusted in him.”
And then I asked, “Well, how can he do that? How can he make me maximally happy?” And I have in mind Psalm 16:11, which says:
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
I want to be happy, maimally happy, and I want it never to end for all eternity. How can he do it? And Psalm 16:11 says “in his presence” and “at his right hand”. He has got to give me himself to enjoy. If he gives me money, health, family, and a job and doesn’t give me himself, I’m a loser and he’s not loving.
And so, all the things that people are after and they say, “God is not loving because I’m sick,” or, “He is not loving because . . .” They’re missing the point. Can they have God? Well, as soon as I thought of that, I said, “Well, that sounds proud too.”
It’s a trickle-down theory of glory.
Yeah. “He has to give me himself in order to be loving” means he must have a pretty high view of himself, and in fact, he does. He has an infinitely high view of himself. And then I read a section called “A Word on Praise” in CS Lewis’s book Reflections on the Psalms. It was a fateful day, and I found it in pages 92 and 93. And he said in there something I’d never thought of before, that praise is something we do with everything we delight in. What person has a masterful collection of glass elephants, brings people into their house, and doesn’t show it to them, going from elephant to elephant? They say, “Look at this one. This one came from so-and-so,” or whatever.
We always praise things. We praise our favorite ball teams. The most skeptical, grungy teenager who hates church praises all day long, whether it’s a rockstar or a movie star or a sports star. They praise people. Praise is a natural response to what we delight. And what Lewis showed me that I had never seen before besides that was that praise is not just tacked on at the end of an act of joy; it completes it.
No event is complete until you’ve talked about it with your friends afterwards, sort of?
I remember experiences like this from my own life. I used to watch Jonathan Winters on TV as my favorite comedian, and I’d be laughing there and I’d look around and there was nobody to laugh with. I’d say, “Mom, come on in here, look at this.” And if mom was there sharing the laughter, I’d laugh harder. I can remember reading the jokes in New Yorker Magazine in the library of Fuller Seminary and if you had to be quiet and you couldn’t point to anybody and say, “Look at this joke. This is a funny joke,” you didn’t laugh as hard. A shared joy is a doubled joy.
Well now, if that’s true, then for God to be maximally loving, he must also seek to have me praise my highest delight, which is himself. God pursuing his own glory is one with his pursuing the highest pleasure of his people. That has been a revolutionary discovery for me, because what it does for me is that it enables me to preach hedonistically. Christian Hedonism is the series of sermons a year ago that caused a great missions awakening at Bethlehem. I preached seven sermons on what it means to be a Christian Hedonist. And all I mean by that is somebody who believes that the main goal in life is to be happy in God.
That’s not a threatening thing to say anymore because now you see that God has ordained it, that that’s the highest way to glorify him. And I use illustrations from my own family. If my wife asks me, “Why do you like to go out with me on Thursday nights?” and I say, “Because you make me happy,” she doesn’t say, “Oh, you’re so selfish. You’re just a hedonist. I can’t stand it when you talk like that.” She just says, “Thank you.” The highest honor I can pay my wife is to tell her I love to be with her because she makes me happy, and the highest honor we can pay to God is to say, “I love to be with you because there’s nothing in all the universe that fulfills my needs like you do.”
Why is that message important for us? Why did you feel the need to preach that to your people?
Well, there are different ways to answer that question. I thought it was strategic at the place I preached because I think we live in an extraordinarily self-centered age. That is, I think we tend to put ourselves at the center of God’s universe and we need to adjust things so that we can see that God is at the center of his universe. And I think, strategically, we have been told a hundred times that it is morally inferior to seek your own joy. Jesus says, “He would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). So people think, “You should deny your desire for happiness.” That’s wrong because the rest of the verse says, “Because he who seeks to save his own life will lose it, and he who loses it for the gospel will save it.” So, it moves right into a hedonistic motivation.
So, I wanted to say to students, if you have a deep desire to be happy, you will never be able to deny it. You shouldn’t deny it. You should glut it on God. So, I wanted both sides to be heralded. I wanted to say that God is being dragged down by me-centered culture and joy in God is being dragged down by evangelicals with a misunderstanding of self-denial teaching. If we get God back up to where he belongs, our pursuit of pleasure can be put back up to where it belongs.
I know that a lot of people misunderstand me right off the bat when I say that you ought to pursue your own pleasure because they think I’m immediately right into the camp of the “me generation”. But I always say the biggest way to lose your pleasure is to start seeking it in yourself — my pride, my money, my health, my prestige. What you need is to turn yourself out and pursue God. He’s the object and the source of pleasure. If you go into a museum and stand in front of a great painting and look down at your stomach and say, “Well, where are these feelings of appreciation? Come on, come on, come on. Rise up here,” you’ll get nowhere. But if you forget about your stomach and your heart and your mind and just look at the contours, the texture, the balance, something will start welling up inside.
So, a good Christian Hedonist knows where joy is to be found, not in himself as the object of his joy, but in God. So he goes for God. And that’s why the objectivity of God’s exaltation goes hand in hand with a very hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. And I think that’s crucial to herald to Wheaton students and churches. So that’s why I preached that message.