It’s a unique week on the podcast. We’re featuring three episodes on Christian Hedonism. Today, in a longer-than-normal episode, we’re going to look at the relationship between Christian Hedonism and Reformed theology. On Wednesday, we’ll look at Pastor John’s fears and expectations for Christian Hedonism after he’s gone. And we end the week looking at the name Desiring God and some alternatives. It’ll be an important week.
But first up, Pastor John, in your book Desiring God, you have called this thing Christian Hedonism “a philosophy of life.” That’s pretty sweeping. In other places, you’ve called it Reformed Christian Hedonism. So is Christian Hedonism an alternative way of conceiving Reformed theology? Is it a different theology in the sense that it rejects some tenets of Reformed theology, and replaces them with better tenets? Can you help us get some clarity on this? In your mind, what is Christian Hedonism’s relationship to historic Reformed theology?
Well, I’ll try. It’s really big and yet so helpful for me to think about this. Before I do that, there are no doubt some listeners who don’t know the central ideas of either of those terms — Reformed theology and Christian Hedonism. So let me give you just a word about each.
“Where Christ’s intrinsic worth and beauty are not enjoyed supremely, Christ is not suitably exalted.”
The central conviction of Christian Hedonism, as I’ve tried to develop it biblically over the years, is that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or another way to say it would be that we magnify God as our supreme treasure when we cherish him more than anyone or anything else. That’s the central contention of Christian Hedonism, with the implication that therefore, we should pursue our satisfaction in God and our cherishing of him above all things.
The central conviction of Reformed theology, I would say, is that the glory of God is the greatest reality in the universe, and that God upholds and communicates this glory by saving sinners through Christ, in such a way that his sovereign grace is the ultimate and decisive cause of all faith and obedience. That would be the central idea of Reformed theology, as I use the term anyway.
Now, as I’ve thought about how to clarify the relationship between Christian Hedonism and Reformed theology, it reminded me of what I was reading recently in volume one of John Owen’s works. This is the volume that contains his two catechisms.
I noticed that Owen, like most Reformed theologians, unfolds the sovereign, saving work of Christ by referring to his three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King.
It occurred to me that it might be illuminating to ask, Do Christian Hedonists add a fourth category — a fourth office? Do Christian Hedonists say that Reformed theology needs to be altered, revised, so that we now have the work of Christ being unfolded around four offices — Prophet, Priest, King, and Treasure?
Now the answer to that question is no. No, we don’t need a revision. We’re not proposing a redefinition, restructuring, or revision of Reformed theology so that Christ now has four offices — Prophet, Priest, King, and Treasure. Here’s why.
Christ Is Supreme
The offices, as they’re often called, are to distinguish Christ’s person from the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. They are categories of Christ’s actions. As Prophet, he speaks with absolute authority. As Priest, he suffers and dies for his people. As King, he rules over all things. In the exercise of each of these offices, he does all that needs to be done for the ultimate aim of exalting God’s glory in saving his people.
“Christian Hedonism is really there in historic Reformed theology, at least implicitly.”
Treasure, on the other hand — used as a noun, like Prophet, Priest, and King — refers to Christ in a different way than Prophet, Priest, and King. It is not a category of action. It’s a category of value.
Calling Christ the highest treasure in the universe does not imply that he does any new acts not done as Prophet, Priest, and King. Rather, it asserts that, in all the acts that he does as Prophet, Priest, and King, he proves himself to be supremely valuable.
He is supremely valuable as Priest in his suffering and dying because he covers our sin and removes God’s wrath so that all legal barriers to eternal bliss are removed. Also, the sanctifying, glorifying power of the Holy Spirit is purchased and secured.
He’s supremely valuable as King in ruling because he subdues all our foes, removes all our defilements, transforms us into the likeness of Christ, and works all things together for our good.
He is supremely valuable as Prophet in his speaking because saving and sanctifying faith live by hearing the word of God.
Intrinsic and Extrinsic
Now, to clarify how Christian Hedonism deals with these offices, rather than adding to them, and specifically Christ’s value in performing them, we need to distinguish between intrinsic value and experienced value. It is so important to get this.
Christ is intrinsically valuable in the objective excellence, beauty, and perfection of his person and work. This intrinsic value exists whether there are any other beings in the universe to see it and respond to it or not. God knows his own worth and the worth of his Son. “He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). That’s his intrinsic value — whether we see it, experience it, or not.
But the reason God created things in creation, the reason he became a God-man in the incarnation, and the reason he died and rose again to save a people is that God willed that the supreme intrinsic value of Christ, the radiance of his own glory, become an experienced value.
Intrinsic value is there whether anybody experiences it or not. But he willed that it become in his people an experienced value. That is, he willed that there come into being an elect, redeemed, transformed people who would experience Christ in a way that suitably exalted his supreme, intrinsic beauty and worth.
Root of Christian Hedonism
Here is where Christian Hedonism comes to the fore. Christian Hedonism draws out of Scripture, and out of the historic Reformed catechisms and confessions, this implicit truth.
“Christian Hedonism is saying that this experience of the value of Christ in the hearts of his people is essential to glorifying the worth of Christ.”
Hear me — I’m saying that Christian Hedonism is really there in historic Reformed theology, at least implicitly. What I’m doing, what Christian Hedonism is doing, is simply drawing out the implicit truth that this experience of the value of Christ in the hearts of his people is essential to glorifying the worth of Christ.
Christian Hedonism argues that this heart experience, which suitably exalts the intrinsic value of Christ, includes joy, delight, satisfaction, cherishing the excellencies of Christ. In other words, a Christian’s delight in the worth of Christ is essential to glorifying his worth as it ought to be glorified.
Where Christ’s intrinsic worth and beauty are not enjoyed supremely, above all other realities, Christ is not suitably exalted. That’s the fundamental insight and assertion of Christian Hedonism.
Where the glory of Christ is not enjoyed as the soul’s supreme treasure, the supreme, intrinsic value of Christ — the pearl of great price — will not be honored, glorified, magnified as it ought to be. So the foundational imperative of Christian Hedonism follows.
The Spirit-empowered, word-sustained pursuit of joy in Christ is therefore mandatory for all human beings — divinely mandatory for all human beings — because it is essential to the full glorifying of God in a way that accords with his beauty and worth.
Now, what does all that imply about the relationship between Christian Hedonism and Reformed theology? Six things, very briefly.
1. Not a Replacement
Christian Hedonism is not a replacement of historic Reformed categories of theology, such as Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King.
2. Latent Assumptions
Christian Hedonism is a bringing to the fore the implicit and latent assumptions about the value dimensions of the reality behind those historic biblical categories.
For example, Christ as Prophet is supremely valuable in his voice. Christ as Priest is supremely valuable in his suffering. Christ as King is supremely valuable in his ruling. Christian Hedonism forces that issue. It brings that to the fore.
3. Ultimate Goals
Christian Hedonism is a clarifying of the ultimate goal of all God’s Trinitarian work.
“Christ covers our sin and removes God’s wrath so that all legal barriers to eternal bliss are removed.”
Christian Hedonism makes explicit that the ultimate aim of all God’s works, the praise of the glory of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:6, 12–14), is only authentic and God exalting where that praise is glad in the glory of God. Thus, Christian Hedonism presses home the truth that the ultimate goal of all things is the God-glorifying gladness of Christ’s blood-bought people. Short of that, he doesn’t get his full glory.
To say it one more way, Christian Hedonism contends that if the final state of humanity is not exuberant in the glory of God, then the glory of God is not exalted in redemption.
4. Diagnostic Test
Christian Hedonism is therefore a diagnostic test of how all biblical and theological categories, as they are written and preached, are being handled. It is a diagnostic test of whether we’re handling biblical truth, and historic Reformed categories, in a way that helps listeners see the reality behind the category for what it really is, including its value. Only then will it help us respond with feelings suitable to that value.
5. Fighting the Lukewarm
Christian Hedonism moves beyond point four, our diagnosis. I said it was a diagnostic test. Now I’m saying it moves beyond diagnosis of failures to attain a faithfulness in theology and preaching. It moves beyond that.
It becomes proactive, lukewarmness-preventing portrayals of biblical and theological reality. That’s what I consider myself called to in this life: portrayals of proactive, lukewarmness-preventing biblical reality.
In these portrayals, Christian Hedonism affirms the historic Reformed confessions and draws out of them (and out of the Scriptures behind them and under them) the beauty and worth inherent in the realities these affirmations describe. It draws attention to the Holy Spirit-given human affections that correspond to that beauty and worth. Without which these glories, these beauties will not be glorified as they ought.
Christian Hedonism expresses the ethical implications of these five observations by showing that without the pursuit of maximum joy in all that God is for us in Christ, worship toward God and love toward people that fully honors Christ is not possible.
I hope that goes part of the way in clarifying how Christian Hedonism relates to Reformed theology.