A listener named Lindsey from Memphis would like to call Pastor John to the witness stand. She asks, “Do you think John Calvin would have considered himself to be a Christian Hedonist as you define it?”
Yes, I would like to think he would. “As I define it” means I get to spend an afternoon with him. I get to talk to him and we sit over the Bible for three or four hours. I haven’t had time to do the research to know what the word “hedonist” meant in the 1500s. I might have a stumbling block there. I might not. I don’t know.
John Calvin: “As soon as we raise our minds to heaven, we there behold vast grounds of joy which dispel sadness.”
But if I said to him, “Now, Mr. Calvin, there are people who want to know if you agree with my view. Here’s my view: I think that it is right to pursue happiness, to pursue joy, to pursue pleasure in Christ, in God because I think it helps us honor God, and I think it helps us love people. Do you agree with that?” I think he would pause and he would say, “Well, I can think of some verses that go in that direction.” Then, he might ask me some questions about what I think about suffering and what I think about sacrifice and persecution and self-denial, and I’d give him all my standard biblical answers to that. My own conviction is I think he would say, “Yes, I don’t know if I like your name, but that surely is what I believe.”
I did have the time to look up some places where he says something that gives me hope that he might agree. Let me give you a couple of those. He says, “We must therefore constantly recall to our minds this truth, that it can never be well with us except insofar as God is gracious to us, so that the joy we derive from his paternal favor towards us may surpass all the pleasures of the world.”
In another place he says, “We have all a natural desire to pursue happiness; and the consequence is that false imaginations carry us away in every direction. But if we were honestly and firmly convinced that our happiness is in heaven, it would be easy for us to trample upon the world, to despise earthly blessings (by the deceitful attractions of which the greater part of men are fascinated), and to rise towards heaven.”
Here’s another one: “Rejoice ye, and leap for joy” — this is his commentary on Matthew 5:12 — “The meaning is, a remedy is at hand” — a remedy for being crushed under persecution — “that we may not be overwhelmed by unjust reproaches: for, as soon as we raise our minds to heaven, we there behold vast grounds of joy which dispel sadness.”
One other place: one of my favorite passages is Hebrews 10:34, where the Christians are identifying with those in jail and, when they do that, their goods get plundered. And it says they look back on the plundering and “joyfully [accept] the plundering of [their] property.” Here’s what Calvin says: “There is no doubt but as they were men who had feelings, the loss of their goods caused them grief.” He’s a realist. He knows that if you see your house burning or people trashing your car, it’s going to hurt. Then, he add this:
John Calvin: The joy we derive from God’s fatherly favor towards us surpasses all the pleasures of this world.
But yet their sorrow was such as did not prevent the joy of which the Apostle speaks. As poverty is deemed an evil, the plunder of their goods considered in itself touched them with grief; but as they looked higher, they found a cause for joy, which allayed whatever grief they felt. It is indeed thus necessary that our thoughts should be drawn away from the world by looking at the heavenly recompense; nor do I say any other thing but what all the godly find to be the case by experience. And no doubt we joyfully embrace what we are persuaded will end in our salvation; and this persuasion the children of God doubtless have respecting the conflicts which they undertake for the glory of Christ. Hence, carnal feelings never so prevail in overwhelming them with grief, but that with their minds raised up to heaven they emerge into spiritual joy.
Every place I go in Calvin, looking for how he deals with the relationship between joy and motivation through suffering, he talks the way I want to talk. Therefore, I think we’d wind up in the same place with regard to what I mean by Christian Hedonism that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Calvin loved the glory of God. I can’t help but think that he wouldn’t see that a glum, sad, oh-poor-me obedience does not glorify our Master like a joyful one.