Fifteen Dreams for the Future of Christian Hedonism

Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis


The original title I was assigned, “Gulping at the River of God’s Delights” was based on a combination of a text from the Bible and a text from Jonathan Edwards. The biblical text is Psalm 36:7–8.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

And the text from Edwards comes from a sermon in 1743 on Song of Solomon 5:1, which says,

I came to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gathered my myrrh with my spice,
I ate my honeycomb with my honey,
I drank my wine with my milk.
Eat, friends, drink,
and be drunk with love!

Edwards states the doctrine like this: “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.”

Hence the title of the Seminar, Indulge. And the original title for this message: “Gulping at the River of God’s Delights.”

Edwards expands on the doctrine:

There is no such thing as any Inordinateness in holy affections. There is no such thing as excess in Longings after — the discoveries of the beauty of Christ Jesus or Greater degrees of holiness or the Enjoyment of Communion with God.

Men may be as Covetous as they Please (if I may so speak) after spiritual Riches. As Eager as they Please to heap up treasure in heaven. As ambitious as they Please of spiritual and Eternal honor and Glory. And as voluptuous as they Please with Respect to spiritual Pleasure.

The Heart of Christian Hedonism

This is the heart of Christian Hedonism. Not just the permission, but the duty — the obligation — to pursue the maximum enjoyment of God. “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.”

So the definition of Christian Hedonism I would propose is this:

Since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, therefore, in everything we do, we should always be pursuing maximum satisfaction in God and striving to take as many people with us into that satisfaction as we can, even if it costs us our lives.

I know that there are other definitions of the word hedonism and its historic uses, like the philosophy that says we determine what is right by what gives us pleasure. But that is not what we mean. And it is not what the term must historically mean.

My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of 1961 defines hedonism as “a living for pleasure.” And the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition has as its first definition: “pursuit of or devotion to pleasure.” And www.dictionary.com gives as its second definition, “devotion to pleasure as a way of life.”

That is precisely what I mean by the term. And I insist upon the radical position that the only pleasures that oblige us to seek them — the only one morally obligated by God — are ones that you cannot feel unless you are born again — spiritual pleasures made possible by the creation of a new heart.

It seems to me that anyone who agrees with the Westminster Catechism that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever,” would have to agree that this enjoyment of God can be nothing less than an ultimate duty. That is, we are duty-bound to pursue maximum pleasure in God.

Christian Hedonism says that this is not optional. It is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian — to be saved. Christian Hedonism goes so far as to say that if you don’t pursue your maximum pleasure in God, you can neither worship God nor love people. In other words, essential to God-glorifying worship is the experience of God as your greatest treasure and most-satisfying pleasure. And essential to truly loving people is the passion to expand your joy by including them with you in it.

So we are not talking about something marginal when we talk about Christian Hedonism. We are talking about the very heart of being a Christian. And it is very radical, and very threatening to nominal Christians, because it says: We must experience a miracle from God before we can taste the pleasures that we are required to enjoy. If you don’t have God-given spiritual taste for spiritual pleasures, you won’t feast on them, and you won’t be a Christian.

Regenerated to Joy in God

There are two reasons why no one can be a Christian Hedonist without a supernatural intervention of liberation and regeneration. The reasons are Satan and sin.

1. Satan is real, and really blinds us to the beauty of Christ that we were created to enjoy.

Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:3–4)

Christian Hedonism says that the glory of Christ, revealed in the gospel, is beautiful and desirable above all things. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

But Satan blinds the eyes of our heart (Ephesians 1:18) to keep us from seeing this beauty. And until we see it, we will not delight in it. You cannot savor what you don’t see. And Satan’s main aim is to keep you from seeing that the glory of Christ is more to be desired than a thousand worlds. And he is supernatural. Next in power only to God. We do not have any chance to defeat him on our own. Only God can do it.

2. There would be no Christian Hedonists without a supernatural intervention because of the blinding effects of our own sinfulness.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)

What we are by nature is so opposed to the reality and the preciousness of “the things of the Spirit of God” that they appear foolish, insipid, unreal, unattractive, boring, tasteless — or worse — disgusting. And so we do not and cannot see them and savor them for what they are. The picture is even worse in Romans 8:7–8.

The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7–8)

The point here is not just that we can’t taste the reality of God as sweet, but that we are deeply hostile to God. We do not like him. He is our enemy. His authority is offense to us. And therefore he is anything but satisfying!

So because of the massive realities of Satan and sin, there is no hope of seeing God as supremely desirable and savoring him above all things.

Heaven and Hell in the Balance

We are not playing language games. We are not dealing with marginal matters. We are dealing with life and death, heaven and hell, the very heart of Christian living when we talk about Christian Hedonism.

The new birth is the creation of new spiritual appetites for God and his word and his ways. New capacities to see the beauty of Christ as more desirable than anything, and new capacities to enjoy that beauty and be satisfied by it.

Immediately after saying that we are born again by the living and abiding word of God in 1 Peter 1:23, Peter says, “Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3). That is what happens in the new birth: You have tasted that the Lord is good. More to be desired than all the world can offer. The new birth is the creation of a Christian Hedonist.

Therefore, only those who are born again and have new spiritual appetites for God can fulfil the obligation to pursue maximum pleasure in God in all that we do.

Duty-Bound to Delight

But is this duty to indulge our spiritual appetites really biblical? Are we duty bound as Christians to seek to maximize our joy in God? Yes. And here are eight reasons from the Bible.

1. We are commanded to pursue satisfaction.

Serve the Lord with gladness! (Psalm 100:2)
Rejoice in the Lord always. (Philippians 4:4)
Delight yourself in the Lord. (Psalm 37:4)

2. We are threatened if we don’t pursue satisfaction in God.

“Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart . . . therefore you shall serve your enemies.” (Deuteronomy 28:47–48)

3. The nature of saving faith requires the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

If you don’t come to God as rewarder, you don’t come in faith. If you don’t come expecting in him to find the satisfaction of your soul, you don’t have faith.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Believing in Jesus means coming to him to quench the soul-hunger and soul-thirst of your life. There is no saving faith that does not cleave to Jesus as its supreme and all-satisfying treasure.

4. The nature of evil teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:12–13)

What is evil? Evil is turning away from God as the fountain of all-satisfying living water, and trying to dig it out of the world. This is an appalling evil. This is the evil in all evils. This is what makes all horizontal evil among men a vertical outrage against God. We wrong each other because God and his ways are not our delight.

5. The nature of conversion teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

Conversion to Christ — becoming a Christian — is waking up, by the miracle of the Holy Spirit, to the infinite value of King Jesus. The coming into being of a Christian Hedonist is the creation of a new taste for the Treasure of Christ over the treasure of the world.

6. The call for self-denial teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:34–36)

The reason we have to take up our cross and deny ourselves is not because we are liable to have too much pleasure in God, but that we are so liable to find our pleasure elsewhere. And that bent must be crucified and denied over and over. Many people who start to like Christian Hedonism, fail to see this side of it.

Flannery O’Connor described self-denial and the quest for joy like this:

Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. . . . Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy — fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest. (126)

Indeed it is. It may cost you your life, and everything you have. “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). If someone offers you eighty years of pleasure in this world, then eternal misery, you better hate your life in this world, or you will not be a Christian Hedonist. You will be a fool.

7. The demand to love people teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

The Christian Hedonist has discovered that only when you take hold of full and everlasting joy in God will you have the ability to endure the cost of love in this world. That’s the point of Hebrews 12:2, “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.”

And Christian Hedonists have discovered that even in the very act of giving there is more pleasure than getting. Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

And Christian Hedonists have discovered how joy gives rise to love from the example of the amazing Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2, where Paul describes how love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy [in God’s grace, verse 1] and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”

Where did this generosity — this love — come from? Paul calls it the overflow of joy. And he makes clear that the joy is in spite of affliction and in spite of poverty, so the joy cannot be the joy of comfort or wealth. It is joy in God. And if we abandon the pursuit of all overflowing joy in God, we will not be able to love people.

8. The demand to glorify God teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

It is my eager expectation and hope that . . . Christ will be [glorified] in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain [final and total satisfaction in him]. (Philippians 1:20–21)

This means that the way Paul saw Christ being glorified in his death was that his death would be experienced as the gain of satisfaction in Christ in heaven. Christ would be glorified in Paul’s death, because in Paul’s death he would be satisfied in Christ.

So my answer is, yes. It is biblical to say that we are duty-bound as Christians to pursue our maximum joy in God in all that we do. We dare not set any bounds to our spiritual appetites. We dare not think that we can worship God or love people if we abandon this pursuit.

So here again is my definition of Christian Hedonism:

Since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, therefore, in everything we do, we should always be pursuing maximum satisfaction in God and striving to take as many people with us into that satisfaction as we can, even if it costs us our lives.

Fifteen Convictions for the Future of Christian Hedonism

One of the purposes of this seminar is to explore the future of Christian Hedonism. What I would like to do by way of conclusion and application is state fifteen things that I think the future of Christian Hedonism depends on, and thus, perhaps, stir up some energetic and thoughtful minds to respond with your own God-given initiatives.

When I speak of Christian Hedonism having a future, I mean more and more people understanding and embracing Christian Hedonism as true, and being gripped by it deep in their souls, and building their lives on it. And I mean more and more churches and other institutions being informed and shaped by these convictions.

1. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if those who embrace Christian Hedonism embrace it because they see it in God’s inerrant and authoritative word, not because it appeals for other reasons.

Therefore, the future must be one of unceasing rigor in showing the roots and implications of Christian Hedonism from Scripture.

2. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it is increasingly recognized that it has been believed and embraced over the centuries by wise and faithful Christian thinkers and servants of the church.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must be one of expanding historical study to show that this is so and to show how these truths have borne fruit wherever believed.

3. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it moves people to feel a burden for perishing sinners, entering an eternity of misery, not joy, and stirs up the saints to share the best news in the world.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must be marked by leaders who draw out its empowering impulses for fruitful evangelism.

4. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if the greatness of its vision of God liberates the Christian mind from provincialism to see the global implications of God’s purposes and to settle for nothing less than a life that counts for the least reached nations of the world.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must show that God will use it to create and sustain churches with unwavering global vision.

5. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if God uses it to create and sustain a self-denying, risk-taking mindset that empowers people to do uncomfortable or dangerous things for the good of others.

Therefore, the Christian Hedonism of the future must be heralded by those who see and expound the radical nature of cross-bearing for the greater joy.

6. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it doesn’t fall prey to the distortion of being a soft prosperity teaching that softens the cushion of the rich, rather than empowering the poor.

Therefore, the Christian Hedonism of the future must not be the special privilege of the wealthy, but widely embraced across cultures and classes.

7. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it proves to be the bulwark and the balm for individuals and families who must endure unremitting misfortune or suffering in this life.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must be shown, with insightful and sensitive biblical thinking, to be God’s wise and strong and tender way of giving meaning and hope and perseverance to those who suffer.

8. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it empowers young adults to be unashamed of personal holiness and the rejection of worldliness and the embrace of spiritual disciplines.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must show that such counter-cultural pursuits are radically gospel-rooted, joy-driven, non-legalistic, and socially beneficial.

9. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it doesn’t go off the rails in the other direction of demonic asceticism (as Paul calls it in 1 Timothy 4:1) in which joy in God sought only in abstaining from such pleasures as food and marital sex, rather than mingling feasting and fasting.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must think deeply about the way sin and Satan turn innocent pleasures into deadly detours from joy.

10. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it is used by God to create Christ-exalting community rather than isolating Christians in their silos of private contentment with God.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must show the biblical foundations of the truth that God intends joy in Christ to be expressed and sustained by Christian camaraderie.

11. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it serves to make clear the radically supernatural nature of becoming and being a Christian.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must be marked by biblical efforts to make plain the deadness of the human spirit and the bondage of the human will apart from sovereign grace, with all that implies about the supernatural creation and continuance of Christ-exalting joy.

12. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it proves to provide the theological and spiritual and ethical categories for a deeper diagnosis of cultural disintegration and corruption, and a wiser remedy for our intractable problems.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must have its share of culturally and politically minded thinkers who can see the profound relations between God-centered personal joy and God-ignoring social dynamics.

13. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it proves to be a widespread antidote for nominalism in the Christian church around the world.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must be so biblically and clearly taught that it is seen to be the same as what true Christianity is, rather than one option among many.

14. The future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it provides life-giving focus and energy for tens of thousands of pastors who see in it a clear and compelling focus for a lifetime of never-boring, supernatural ministry.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism must dig deeper into the truth of Hebrews 13:17 that a begrudging pastor is not good for his people.

15. Finally, the future of Christian Hedonism will be advanced if it makes the people of God desperate for a great revival and brings them to their knees in continual prayer for what only God can do in freeing millions from their bondage to pleasures that will not satisfy.

Therefore, the future of Christian Hedonism will be led by people of unceasing prayer.


The Indulge seminar was a part of the 2016 Preview Days of Bethlehem College & Seminary in downtown Minneapolis. Students are equipped for joyful lives of high-impact, helping other people be eternally happy, by learning and sharing that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.