Is It Right to Seek More Joy Than We Have Through Justification?
Bethlehem 2019 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis
In the first message, I said that Christian Hedonism is a life devoted to experiencing Christ himself as our supreme treasure with as much satisfaction as possible in this life and the next. And I argued that such a life is essential — necessary — for the human heart to glorify Christ as he deserves. Because Christ is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
The entire emphasis in that message was on vertical Christian Hedonism, not horizontal Christian Hedonism. That is, the focus was on the fact that experiencing joy in Christ is key to glorifying him (vertically) as we ought. The focus was not on the fact that experiencing joy in Christ is the key to loving people as we ought. I call that horizontal Christian Hedonism.
So, putting the two together, I would say that Christian Hedonism — a life devoted to maximizing our joy in Christ — is the key to glorifying God the way we should, and the key to loving people the way we should. Experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure is essential for true worship and for true virtue. If you cultivate a way of life that ignores or opposes the pursuit of joy in Christ as your supreme treasure, you will not worship him or love people as you ought.
Seven Decades of Joy
Now, the reason I bring up horizontal Christian Hedonism in this message is that it relates so closely to the topic that I was assigned, namely, “Reflections on the Fight for Joy Throughout Seven Decades.” I don’t have time to talk about all seven decades. The third decade was the all-important decade of discovery. That’s the decade (my twenties) when the sprouts of Christian Hedonism sprang up in my mind and heart. And for the last fifty years, I have been trying to see and savor and show the supremacy of God in Christ. Everything I have written relates to this quest, more or less.
So, instead of trying to walk you through the developments of all those years, what I think will be most helpful, and manageable, is to bring you into some clarifying discoveries about horizontal Christian Hedonism, and the way it relates to my fight for joy, and the way it relates to the gospel, and to gospel-centered preaching in our day.
Two Levels of Love
So, let’s begin by stating the relationship between the joy of vertical Christian Hedonism and the biblical command that we love each other and love our enemies. The way I usually describe it is like this: genuine love for people — Christ-exalting love for people — is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. Or, sometimes, I get more precise and I say: Christ-exalting love for people is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.
“Experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure is essential for true worship.”
The difference between those two definitions of horizontal love is that, while both of them are rooted in the new-birth miracle of experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure, one of them is stated more passively as the overflow of that joy that meets the needs of others, and the other is stated more actively as the effort to increase that joy by including others in it, which would also involve meeting their needs.
If that second definition of love is true, is biblical, namely, that love involves active effort to do the things that help people share my joy, so that my joy increases in their joy — if that is what love involves — then my fight for joy happens at two significantly different levels.
The first level is the foundational experience of fighting for joy in Christ — the fight to see him as he really is, and savor the greatness and beauty and worth of Christ, so that I treasure Christ above all, so that there is, in fact, a joy in me that can now overflow, or be extended to others.
That’s the first level of the fight for joy. I call it an ongoing fight, because even though that foundational experience of seeing and savoring Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit — a miracle of new birth — nevertheless that experience is not static. It must be preserved. Sustained. Intensified decade after decade. It is a fight to the end. That preservation and intensification is the first level of the fight for joy.
The second level of fighting for joy is the conscious effort (battle!) to do the practical acts of love which the Bible says will, in fact, increase our joy in Christ. Now at this point, things have gotten muddy in recent years.
There is, even in the gospel-centered movement — which I am happy to be a part of — significant confusion about how to respond to the hundreds of New Testament commandments that we should do certain things, and not do certain things, as we seek to increase our joy in Christ by loving people. Commandments like:
- Outdo one another in showing honor.
- Do not be slothful in zeal.
- Be patient in tribulation.
- Be constant in prayer.
- Contribute to the needs of the saints.
- Show hospitality.
- Bless those who persecute you.
- Live in harmony with one another.
- Repay no one evil for evil.
- Never avenge yourselves.
- Put away falsehood.
- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
- Let the thief no longer steal.
- Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.
- Put away all bitterness and wrath.
- Be kind to one another.
- Sexual immorality must not even be named among you.
- Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking.
- Don’t get drunk with wine.
- Children, obey your parents in the Lord.
How do these commandments (from Romans and Ephesians, and hundreds more) relate to the gospel? How do they relate to love? How do they relate to joy? And commandments is what they are called, not suggestions or guidelines.
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments [entolas]. (1 John 2:3)
Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 3:24)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:2)
Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God [entolōn]. (1 Corinthians 7:19)
Are We Asking the Wrong Question?
So mainly, what I want to do this message is take you into my struggle, my fight for joy, at this second level — the fight, or the effort, to increase my joy in Christ through doing the acts of obedience to God’s commandments, which the New Testament calls me to do.
And I can see some gospel-centered people cringing as they hear me describe the fight for increased joy in Christ as a fight for obedience to commandments. To them, the only proper strategy for fighting for joy is to send people back to rehearse the gospel — that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are loved, accepted, and forgiven, but that we should never say, “Pursue obedience to the apostolic commandments in order to find fullest joy in Christ.” That sounds too much like legalism — like you are earning something from God by your obedience.
“Christ-exalting love for people is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.”
So, is that even a right way to pose the question about how to fight for joy? Isn’t striving just the opposite of resting in the gospel so that love can be a fruit of the Spirit, not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:22)? Isn’t that obvious, Piper, that you are posing the question all wrong? Isn’t it obvious that joy is a gift that precedes and enables acts of love, not the other way around, as if doing good deeds produced joy? If that were true, then how could those good deeds be a fruit of the Spirit? Isn’t it obvious that you’re setting this up all wrong?
No, it’s not obvious. As you will see. That’s where we are going.
Intensify Your God-Given Joy
So, there are two levels at which I fight for joy, and I want to talk mainly about the second one. But let me throw some light just briefly on the first level and establish it as something I’m not calling into question by the second one.
Blinded by the Darkness
The first level is the fight to preserve, sustain, and intensify the initial, God-given joy in Christ that comes with the new birth and with our first faith in the justifying work of Christ. Before we were born again, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Our experience of that deadness was that we were blind to the all-satisfying brightness and beauty of Christ in the gospel.
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 4:4)
Then the Spirit blew where he willed and a miracle happened in our souls (John 3:8). We were made alive (Ephesians 2:5). God opened the eyes of our hearts to see Christ for who he really is (Ephesians 1:17–18).
God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Made Alive in the Light
What we could not see as bright and beautiful and satisfying to our souls, we now see. This is the treasure that we have found and will not trade for anything (Matthew 13:44). That’s what Paul calls it in the next verse: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
This treasure — the all-satisfying greatness and beauty and worth of Christ — is now our heart’s satisfaction. This is the foundational joy that overflows in love to meet the needs of others, as Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia [so, things start with an outpouring of God’s grace. This is the ultimate source of God-exalting human joy], for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
There it is: abundance of joy, by grace, overflowing in generosity. The joy is not in the removal of poverty. It is not in the removal of affliction. It is in the God of grace seen in Jesus. Our sins are forgiven. Our guilt is removed. God is no longer against us, but one hundred percent for us.
Everything will work for our good. He will keep us for himself forever. Leap for joy! This is what the grace of God in Christ does — before we have kept any commandment, except receive Christ for who he is. In the midst of affliction and poverty they experienced an “abundance of joy.”
And that joy overflowed in generosity to the poor. This foundational joy in Christ severs the nerve of greed. It severs the nerve of fear. It severs the nerve of insecurity. It severs the nerve of pride that needs applause. It is a mighty power! And it is rightly described not as pulled up with a bucket of obedience, but as gushing up like a spring. It overflowed in a wealth of generosity. And so, I define love in this text as the overflow of joy that meets the needs of others. And it is rightly called a fruit of the Holy Spirit, not a work of the flesh.
That is the way I have most often spoken of horizontal Christian Hedonism and how joy in Christ relates to loving people. And I don’t take any of it back. And the fight for joy at this level is the fight to preserve and sustain and intensify that “abundance of joy” mainly by fixing our eyes on Jesus again and again in his word, and reminding ourselves of the greatness of our inheritance that he purchased with his blood, and praying that God would open our eyes to see the wonders of Christ and his work.
That foundational fight for joy in Christ is never-ending to the last conscious moment of life — “I have fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7). Next stop: heaven. No more fight.
Striving Against Sin — and for Joy
Now the question is, are we only going to revel in that constellation of glorious truths, and sing that song for the rest of our lives? Or are we going to revel in the whole counsel of God revealed in his infallible word, and be open to more glory? Are we going to stay on continual quest for all that the Bible has to reveal for our joy, or are we going to be content with the magnificence we have seen?
I don’t say that smugly. Discovering the joys of level one is like discovering an endless range of mountains in the Himalayas that you had never seen. And it really is endless. There are wonders and glories to be seen in the foundations of joy in the work of Christ that we will never exhaust. But my plea is that you not let your ever-so-proper ecstasy over the joys of this range of joy-awakening mountains keep you from seeing another range of joy-awakening mountains, from which you may see even greater wonders than the first range.
We don’t have a lot of time, but let me at least point you to the mountains I am referring to. This is the second level of our fight for joy: namely, the conscious effort — even striving — not to do sinful acts that grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), wound the conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12), displease God (1 Thessalonians 4:1), and diminish joy (Acts 20:35); but to do acts of love which in fact bring us more joy in Christ himself — indeed bring us safely home to glory.
Can I Obey My Way to Joy?
If it is true that the sinning of a Christian diminishes joy in Christ, and Christian acts of love increase joy in Christ, then the fight for joy is the fight to kill sin and pursue obedience to the commands of love. So the question is this: Does the New Testament teach that there is not only joy in Christ before and underneath obedience causing an overflow that we call love — joy as the root producing the fruit of love — but also that there is more joy in Christ himself in and after acts of love because we obeyed?
In other words, does the New Testament teach that we should approach acts of love motivated not just by joy in Christ that we already have because of the gospel, but also motivated by the expanded joy in Christ that we could have if we killed a particular sin, or did a particular act of love?
Enjoy the Narrow Path
Here’s my answer, and then we will look at texts from the New Testament. Yes, there is more joy in Christ in and after acts of love than we had experienced before that obedience. Yes, there is expanded joy in Christ himself that comes from killing sin in our lives (Romans 8:13), and from walking in obedience to the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2).
And the reason for this is that when Christ shed the blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20) he secured, at infinite cost, not only the forgiveness of our sins (Jeremiah 31:34), but also God’s writing of the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). He secured infallibly for all the elect the new covenant promise “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
And he did this not by giving us his Spirit and removing all commandments from the New Testament and replacing them with the Holy Spirit. He did it by giving us hundreds of commandments that describe the narrow path of love that leads to life, and then giving us his Spirit so that we would love these commandments, and they would not be burdensome (1 John 5:3), but his yoke would be easy (Matthew 11:30), indeed, more joyful than if there were no commandments at all.
Approved Through Testing
Look with me at several texts that show us why it is that there is more joy in Christ in and through obedience than there was before. Start with Romans 5:2–5:
We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
First, there is rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God (verse 2). That is a gift from the very first breath of the Christian life. To be born again, to be justified is to have the hope of the glory of God. That joy is first and foundational.
Then Paul says we also rejoice in suffering in the Christian life. This is a subsequent joy. And the explanation of why we rejoice in suffering is all-important. There are three steps in Paul’s explanation.
Because suffering produces patience — patient endurance (hupomenēn), endurance without bitterness or rebellion.
This endurance through suffering with patience and without bitterness produces “character” (dokimē) — the quality of passing a test and being found true, approved, real.
That sense of passing the test of suffering and being found real produces hope. It reinforces the hope of glory.
So where does the added joy in suffering come from? It comes from seeing the keeping power of Christ preserve and confirm that we are real. We lived through a test of our faith and we passed. In real, undeniable experience of pain, we went from patient endurance, to approvedness, to hope.
Happiness in Holiness
And this he says is why we are experiencing this added joy. This is a joy that comes from tasting — in real experience — the power of the blood-bought grace of God killing the sin of impatience and bitterness, and creating the obedience of patience and trust. This is a joy that is more than the joy of seeing Christ justify us. This is the added joy of seeing Christ sanctify us.
“God opened the eyes of our hearts to see Christ for who he really is.”
This is not only the joy of tasting the sweetness of the blood-bought sovereign imputation of Christ’s obedience, but also the joy of tasting the sweetness of the blood-bought sovereign creation of our obedience.
Christ intends to be enjoyed and thus magnified not only in his justifying work, but also in his sanctifying work. Not only by imputing his obedience, but by empowering ours. The imputation of his obedience is the foundation of our acceptance, and the empowering of our obedience is the confirmation of our acceptance — and oh, the sweetness of these repeated confirmations of his presence. This is more joy.
A New Dimension of Contentment
Or consider 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 where Paul argues in the same way with an even clearer focus on the centrality of Christ in the joy of our obedient sufferings. Christ said to Paul as he submitted to his thorn in the flesh:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Then Paul says, “therefore” — that is, because I can see your grace and your power in action in my life — “I will boast all the more gladly.” This is an added joy, an expanded joy — there was already joy in the grace and power of Christ to justify and forgive, but now there is more of Christ to see, more grace, more power.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (episkēnoō ep eme).
Oh, how precious are such tastes of the power of Jesus touching us, tenting with us, living in us.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content [a new dimension of contentment, a new joy] with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Worthy to Suffer
Here’s a glimpse of this joy in the lives of Peter and the apostles. They were commanded in Acts 5 not to teach in the name of Jesus.
They responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). For this obedience they were beaten and released. Then Acts 5:41 says,
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
This is a new joy — an added joy, an expanded joy in Christ. Who are we that Christ would set his favor on us as suitable objects of such a privilege — to be shamed for the name of Christ? To share with him in his sufferings. To know him in terrible and wonderful ways.
Give to Receive
One more illustration that does not relate to suffering. Jesus is quoted in Acts 20:35. Paul says to the Ephesian elders,
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed [makarion] to give than to receive.”
So, the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:2 were so “blessed” — so joyful — in the grace of God that they “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” Joy preceded and enabled giving. But now we learn that is not the whole story of motivation for generosity. Paul says, not only is there blessedness before giving that overflows, but there is more blessedness in and after giving. “It is more blessed to give.”
This is why I defined love in two ways from 2 Corinthians 8:2. Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. And: Love is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.
Two Weaknesses in Gospel Preaching
What all of this shows is that there is a twofold weakness in some gospel preaching today.
1. Forgiveness Without Obedience
First, there is a preaching that almost never highlights the truth that Christ died not only to secure our forgiveness but to secure our sin-killing obedience to the commandments of the New Testament.
[Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24).
The beauty and power of the cross of Christ is seen and enjoyed in the blood-bought experience of obedience to Christ’s commands. Experiencing this is a dimension of joy that can be had no other way. A Christian Hedonist won’t be satisfied without it.
2. Trust and Obey
Therefore, second, these preachers tend to shrink back from the apostolic intention of “the law of Christ” unfolded in hundreds of New Testament commands that define the path of love that leads to life (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). And instead of calling for obedience like the apostles do (1 Thessalonians 4:1), they only use the commandments to say, “You can’t do that. Christ did it for you. Trust in the imputation of his obedience. End of sermon. Celebrate grace.”
“Jesus secured, at infinite cost, not only the forgiveness of our sins, but also God’s writing of the law on our hearts.”
That’s a half-gospel based on a half-grace, offering a half-joy. By all means say, “You can’t obey these commands in your own strength. Christ obeyed them perfectly on your behalf. Trust in the imputation of that perfect obedience as the ground of your happy acceptance.” Yes!
And then look to the rest of what he purchased for you at the cost of his life. He purchased the Holy Spirit and gave him to you. He purchased the writing of the law on your heart so that you love his commandments. He purchased the sovereign promise, “I will . . . cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
This is the grand achievement of the blood of the new covenant. And the commandments of the New Testament are not given merely to expose our sin. They are given to show us the kind of life Christ died to create in his church. They are given to us so that by doing them by faith in Christ’s blood-bought power — gospel power! — we might have more joy as his power is perfected in our weakness — that we might have more joy in Christ himself.
Snapshot of the Fight
Let me close with a snapshot of what this second-level fight for joy looked like for me recently. A homeless couple was living in their car for weeks on the street outside our house. This situation caused me a deep struggle with how to be a Christian Hedonist — and how to fight for joy.
Do I struggle only for level-one joy — joy over my forgiveness and my acceptance with God, waiting for it to overflow within a spontaneous inclination to do more for this couple? Or do I look at the commandments to love my neighbor as I love myself, and to practice hospitality (the love of strangers), and do I then ponder the added joy that would come through practical, obedient helpfulness, and then make a specific effort to expand my joy by including them in it and seeing Christ’s sin-killing grace active in my obedience?
During those weeks, those two motives combined to move me to take the husband to connect them with Jericho Road for transitional housing, to help get their car fixed, to provide them with two nights in a hotel with special means over Christmas. To share the gospel with them and give them a Bible. But all to no avail. They turned down the housing and last week were there again in the bitter cold, fifty feet from our door living in their car.
It was six degrees outside. I had work to do. And this couple was probably touched with some measure of mental illness. At that point, my joy in Christ was not overflowing in some wise and caring next step. But I had the commandments, and I had a promise of greater joy through obedience (and I had a gracious wife).
I put on my coat and went and tapped on their window. “It’s really cold tonight. Would you want to come in and spend the night with us?” He talked it over with his wife, and turned and said, “No thanks.” I said, “There are places for you.” He said, “We’re still looking.” I said, “If you change your mind, knock on the door.”
As I came back into the house, there was sadness at these broken lives and this broken world. And there was a surge of joy. The crucified and risen Christ had conquered some of my selfishness and fear. His reality was near. He was precious. Joy went deeper. I hope you will join me in this fight for joy.