How Can a Holy God Have Pleasure in Sinners?

Godward Life Conference | Minneapolis

I want to begin with a story that I hope encourages the younger people among us, putting within you a passion to do something significant with your life for the glory of God — and to do it soon, while you are young. Because you may never be old.

The theme of this first Godward Life Conference — the pleasures of God — has its roots first in the Bible, because of how many times God tells us what pleases him. But its roots are also in the life of a pastor and professor in Scotland who died in 1678. His name was Henry Scougal, and he died when he was 27 years old. I draw attention to his age because he was so young when he died, and yet the impact of his life has been amazing.

He wrote one lasting work, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, but he didn’t write it as a book. He wrote it as a long letter to friend — a 100-page letter that begins, “My dear friend.” That friend began to circulate the letter, and it proved so powerful in the lives of others that Gilbert Burnet published it the year that Scougal died. It has been serving the church for over three hundred years now.

Scougal wasn’t the only person who lived a short but hugely significant life:

  • David Brainerd, the missionary to American Indians, died in 1747 at the age of 29, and his journals shaped the early modern missionary movement.
  • Henry Martyn, a missionary to India and Persia, died in 1812 when he was 31, his memoirs inspiring generations to this day.
  • Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Scottish pastor whose Bible reading program we are still using today, died in 1843 at the age of 29.
  • Jim Elliot, missionary to the Huaorani people of Ecuador, was matyred alondside four other men in 1956 at the age of 28. In fact, all five of the martyrs that day were under 33.

And to broaden out the lens: Alexander the Great died at 33. Martin Luther King Jr. at 39. Mozart at 35. Emily Brontë at 30. John Keats at 26. Anne Frank at 15.

May God give you a passion, young people, to make your lives count for the glory of God — and to do it soon, while you are young. Because you may never be old.

“Make your lives count for the glory of God — and do it soon, while you are young. Because you may never be old.”

And if you are old like me, or somewhere in between, pray like I do: “God, make every remaining day count.” If you have seventy years in front of you, don’t waste it, even now in your teen years. And if you have seventy years behind you, don’t waste what’s left. One of the reasons for creating this new fall conference as an intergenerational conference is to share some of the passions of this school with those who might come to the school and with those who, like me, wish we could sit in on every class.

What Makes a Soul Excellent?

But back to Henry Scougal and the theme of this first Godward Life Conference, the pleasures of God. One sentence in his long letter has shaped this theme. He wrote, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.”

You can see into the excellence of a soul by what that soul loves. And by “loves,” he doesn’t mean merciful love for what is unlovely; he means the love we have for what delights us and gives us pleasure. He says, “The most ravishing pleasures, the most solid and substantial delights that human nature is capable of, are those which arise from the endearments of a well-placed and successful affection.” That’s what he’s talking about when he says, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love,” by its well-placed affection.

Now Scougal said that about the human soul — how to see the excellence of a human soul. But what struck me in 1987 was that this is also true of God. We can see into the worth and excellency of God himself if he reveals to us the object of his well-placed affections — his solid and substantial delights and pleasures.

In other words, this first conference theme is rooted in one of the passions of Bethlehem College and Seminary. Namely, we want to know God. We want to know what is great and beautiful and excellent and worthy about God, because you can’t enjoy God or love God or trust God or honor God if you don’t know him. If you don’t really know what he is like.

So Henry Scougal gave us a fresh pathway into the knowledge of God. We might say, The worth and excellency of God is to be measured by the object of his love — his delight, his pleasures.

God’s Pleasure in His People

My assignment under this theme is to think with you about God’s pleasures in human responses — that is, our responses to God in what he is and says and does. Or to say it another way: Does God take pleasure in his people, in who we are and what we do?

The biblical answer is plainly yes:

  • Isaiah 62:4–5: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken . . . you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you . . . as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
  • Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God . . . will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
  • Colossians 1:9–10: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you might . . . walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:9: “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”
  • Philippians 4:18: “I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
  • Hebrews 13:16: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

So, the answer is yes. God can and does take pleasure in his people — in who they are and what they do. As C. S. Lewis puts it in the Weight of Glory: “To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”

Deserving of Displeasure

Now the question becomes, How can this be? “You are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). But all human beings are sinners. Paul writes:

Both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; . . . Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:9–10, 19–20)

That means, Paul says, that by virtue of our sinful nature, human beings are not children of God. They are children of wrath. He adds in Ephesians 2:1–3: “You were . . . following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

All mankind are children of wrath. The wrath of God — not the pleasure of God, but the displeasure of God — is coming to us like the inheritance of a parent comes naturally to a child: “Children of wrath.” Or as Jesus put it, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). Remains. It was ours by nature. And without rescue it remains — forever (Revelation 14:10–11).

So how can it be that there would ever be a people in whom God could delight, a people in whom he would feel pleasure, rather than the displeasure of wrath? How can that be? And if there were a way that it could be, that God could actually be pleased with sinners, how could he then be holy and righteous? It’s one thing to be merciful to the unlovely; it’s another thing to delight in the ungodly.

Called to Life by Christ

Christianity exists, the church exists, Bethlehem College & Seminary exists, because God answered this greatest of all problems with Christ.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Romans 5:6–9)

That is the greatest event and the most glorious news in all the world: “Having been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from wrath.” God’s love in Christ saved us from God’s wrath. God saved us from God. “He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Who then is not under the wrath of God? Answer: All who are justified. “Having been justified by his blood, much more shall be saved by him from wrath.”

And who are the justified? Romans 8:30: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” All those who are predestined to be God’s sons are called. All the called are justified, which means that all the called are brought to faith, because only by faith is anyone justified. Romans 5:1: “[Having] been justified by faith, we have peace with God.” Therefore, all the called believe.

That is what the call of God does — it creates life and faith. Therefore, we may fill out Romans 8:30 like this: “Those whom he predestined he called, and those whom he called believed, and those who believed he justified, and those whom he justified he glorified.” It is so sure that it is as though the whole process is finished.

Double Imputation

So the foundational key to how sinners can please God and become an actual ingredient in the divine happiness is justification in Christ by faith. How can that be? Justification includes two things. In union with Jesus Christ, it includes the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of God’s righteousness.

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:5–8)

In Christ, first, the sins of all who believe are nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). They are punished, condemned (Romans 8:3). By trusting Jesus, by embracing him as our treasured Savior, we receive forgiveness because of that once-for-all transaction on the cross. That’s one aspect of justification: our sins are not reckoned against us. They were laid on Jesus. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

The other aspect of justification is that God reckoned his own righteousness in Christ to be ours. He counted us righteous in union with Christ. As Paul says, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8–9).

Or as he says in Romans 5:19, comparing Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience: “As by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Or once more in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

By Grace Through Faith

In sum, then, God’s love rescues us from God’s wrath by giving his only Son as a substitute for us. By Christ’s perfect obedience unto death, he bore our sins, and he provided perfect righteousness, which is then imputed to us — counted as ours — in justification.

Christ alone is the sole ground, foundation, basis of our justification. We do not add anything to his justifying suffering and death. We do not add anything to his justifying righteousness. None of our deeds, none of our thoughts, none of our feelings add anything to the righteousness that God takes into account as the basis of our justification. It is all Christ’s. God is one hundred percent for us forever because of justification.

Our forgiveness and our imputed righteousness, to use the words of Paul in Romans 3:24–25, are “by his grace as a gift . . . to be received by faith.” Faith is not part of justifying righteousness. Faith receives forgiveness, and faith receives righteousness — because faith receives Christ. Faith welcomes Christ, embraces Christ, as a supremely treasured Savior and Lord.

So! Does God now look upon us with delight, pleasure? Are justified sinners in this life pleasing to God, even before the final sin-obliterating glorification? Yes. God said when he looked upon Christ at his baptism and at his transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). To put it another way: “I have much pleasure in beholding my Son.” Therefore, since we are united with Christ, and counted as righteousness with his righteousness, we are God’s treasured, loved, delighted-in children.

Perfected, Loved, and Disciplined

But you say, I still sin. Is he not displeased with my sin? Yes, he is. But this does not cancel out his delight in you, as you are in Christ. Consider these words, which the writer to the Hebrews quotes in Hebrews 12:5–6 from Proverbs 3:11–12:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
     nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
     and chastises every son whom he receives.

In the very act of disciplining his son for displeasing behavior, he has never lost his delight in his son. So when you experience suffering as the child of God, remember two things about God’s treatment of you.

  1. My Father disapproves of the remaining corruption in me and is loving me enough to refine my faith and my holiness through discipline.
  2. My Father is doing this discipline on the unshakeable, unchangeable basis that I am totally forgiven for all my sins, all my displeasing behavior, and totally righteous in Christ, and totally pleasing before my Father, as he sees me in union with his perfect Son Jesus.

Now that may appear to you as a paradox, that God would discipline those whom he regards in Christ as perfect. But listen to Hebrews 10:14: “By a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Our perfection, in one sense, is finished. “By a single offering he has perfected [us] for all time . . .” God sees us as perfected in our union with Christ, forgiven, justified.

But in another sense, we are not yet sinlessly perfect. He has perfected those who are being now, little by little, sanctified — gradually made holy. We know this all too well. In our daily, earthly lives we are embattled and imperfect.

“We seek to please God in daily life because we are already perfectly pleasing to God in Christ.”

And the absolutely crucial essence of Christian ethics, which sets Christianity apart from all other religions, is that we pursue our daily, earthly holiness precisely on the basis that we are already holy. We pursue daily, earthly righteousness on the basis that we are already righteous. That’s why Paul says things like, “Cleanse out the old leaven . . . as you really are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:7). And we seek to please God in daily life because we are already perfectly pleasing to God in Christ.

God’s Pleasure in Our Daily Lives

Can we succeed? That’s our one last question, and we ask it to the Lord.

Father, with profound thankfulness in my heart for what Christ did in dying for me, and for bringing me to faith in him, and for the forgiveness of all my sins, and the imputation of his perfect righteousness to me, so that in him I am pleasing in your sight — with profound thankfulness for all that glorious gospel reality, I now ask you, Can I in my daily life on this earth please you by the way I think and feel and act? Can my thinking and feeling and acting become an ingredient in your pleasure?

Father, I am not asking that you replace Christ’s obedience with my obedience as the basis of my justification. God forbid! I’m not asking that my imperfect growth in holiness replace Christ’s perfect holiness as the basis of your being one hundred percent for me. I’m taking my stand there and asking: Can you find pleasure in my imperfect efforts to think and feel and act in holiness, in love, in justice?

God’s answer to this question in the Bible is yes.

  • Paul prays for the Colossian Christians, “[May] you walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10).
  • He says to the Philippians, “The gifts you sent, [are] a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
  • He says to the Corinthians, “Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9).
  • He urges the Ephesians, “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).

It is possible for imperfect, justified sinners to please God — to be an ingredient in the divine pleasure — not only by union with Christ in justification, but also by depending on Christ in sanctification — in transformation. Not only because we stand perfected in his righteousness, but also because he empowers us for our righteousness.

Six Pieces in Paul

Why is that the case? How can the all-holy, perfect God be pleased with my imperfect thoughts and feelings and actions as a Christian? The answer is found in two amazing verses in 2 Thessalonians. There are six pieces to the answer. I’ll point them out as I read it:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling [which would be pleasing in his sight] and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12)

Let’s put the pieces together.

  1. First, at the bottom, at the root, of our action, our work, our behavior, is the grace of God and of Christ. Grace — absolutely unearned, undeserved favor.
  2. That grace is manifest in God’s power in us for good works.
  3. We experience that power in us by faith. We look away from ourselves. We admit we can do nothing without him. We look to grace. And we embrace grace. And we trust grace as our treasured hope for holiness.
  4. In that faith we do good works. We do righteousness. We do mercy. We do love. We do justice. Paul calls these “works of faith,” and in other places he calls them “obedience of faith.”
  5. Jesus gets the glory for our works of faith because his grace and his power were decisive in bringing about the works of faith.
  6. In this way you walk worthily of your calling, so that your walk, your behavior, is pleasing to God.

I’ll read it again:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling [which would be pleasing in his sight] and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“God is pleased with our works of faith because they are his works of power — of grace.”

In short, God is pleased with our works of faith because they are his works of power — of grace. Or to say it another way, God is pleased with our works done in dependence on his grace, because then his grace gets the glory. The giver gets the glory. And that’s the reason he created the world — for “the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

Repeated in Hebrews

Here’s the way the writer to the Hebrews makes the same point with the same six pieces:

Now may the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20–21)

  1. At the bottom is Jesus Christ, with his sovereign grace: “Through Jesus Christ.”
  2. He works in us. That is, his grace is manifest as power in our lives for good works.
  3. We do his will by that power.
  4. Jesus gets the glory.
  5. So, our obedience is pleasing in God’s sight.

And the piece that was not mentioned from 2 Thessalonians is the link between God’s power and our obedience, namely, faith. But the writer had already made crystal clear in Hebrews 11:6 how essential faith is for obeying and pleasing God: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

Pardoned and Empowered to Please

In summary, then, the same faith that unites us to the pardon of Christ for justification, unites us to the power of Christ for sanctification. The same faith that makes us perfectly pleasing to God by the imputation of his righteousness, makes us progressively pleasing to God by our righteousness.

You will not be perfect in this life. But you can be pleasing to God in this life — perfectly pleasing because of justification, and progressively pleasing because of transformation. You can become, beyond all expectation, an ingredient in the divine pleasure.

The glory of God in Jesus Christ overflowing in grace is God’s supreme delight. When we embrace the grace of God in Christ as our only hope for imputation and transformation, he is pleased. Or as we like to say here at Bethlehem College & Seminary, we are his pleasure when he is our treasure.