Last evening, I spoke over at Lanier Theological Library on the topic “What Made Jonathan Edwards a Christian Hedonist?” The day before, we had a panel discussion titled “Christian Hedonism, Self-Denial, and the Enjoyment of Creation.” So, I am brimming with Christian Hedonism, and thought to myself, not only would I like to keep on talking about Christian Hedonism this morning, but it is one of the most important things in the world I could say to you. And it is at the heart of the message of the Bible.
Christian Hedonism Isn’t Cute
I realize that the word hedonism may cause some of you to think, “Piper, don’t you know what happened 180 miles west of here in Sutherland Springs last Sunday? And you still want to be cute with your little pet phrase Christian Hedonism?” No. Under the call to preach the word of God this morning, and in the context of God’s people gathered for corporate worship, I don’t do cute. I am aware that 26 or our brothers and sisters — from infants to the elderly — were murdered in the house of God.
And I am aware that between then and now 7,000 people have died in America every day — hundreds of them in excruciating pain, and most of them probably without any hope of heaven. And that Hurricane Harvey may cost your region $190 billion, and massive hardship on the lives of thousands. The Sonoma County wildfires in California caused damages of $2.8 billion, ruined 14,000 homes, and killed over 40 people. I know that President Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un go back and forth with provocative warnings, and put us on the brink of nuclear war.
And I am aware that Charlottesville has pulled a thread on the fabric of racial harmony that, if God doesn’t stop us, could unravel what we have worked toward so hard for decades. And I know that in a room with this many people, the sorrows are incalculable: cancer, divorce, a runaway teenager, a lost job, perhaps your first Sunday back after the most painful season of your life.
This is our world, our life. I don’t do cute. And I get angry at churches that do.
Our Good, His Glory
I’m going to talk about Christian Hedonism this morning, not to be cute and clever, but because it gave me a biblical answer to one of the most difficult problems in my life almost fifty years ago, and has shed more light on God’s word in God’s world than anything else in the decades since then.
And I am going to talk about Christian Hedonism because if, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it took root in your life, it would change everything for the better — for your good and God’s glory.
So, let’s take those two reasons one at a time.
First, Christian Hedonism gave me a biblical answer to one of the most difficult problems in my life almost fifty years ago. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina in a Southern Baptist Church, in a happy, gospel-saturated home. And I am deeply thankful. But when I went off to college, there was a tension deep in my soul I could not resolve. I knew two things.
I knew from the Bible and from my father that God intended me to live for his glory. My dad would say, “Whatever you do, son, ‘whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).”
I knew that John Piper wanted to be happy. I could no more not want to be happy than I could not hunger if I skipped two days of eating.
The first truth was part of what it means for God to be God. The second truth was part of what it means for me to be human. And I could not fit the two together.
“The Christian life is a struggle to see and savor Christ as an all-satisfying Savior.
There seemed to hang in the air the assumption that, if I did something good in order to be happy, the God-centered morality of it was compromised. All I could remember were the preachers who said, when they summoned me to live for God’s glory, things like, “Put your will on the altar and do God’s will.” In other words, there’s always tension between my desire to be happy and God’s desire to be glorified. One of them has to go.
And then, when I was 22 years old, over the course of several months, my professor in seminary, Daniel Fuller, together with C.S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards, conspired to make me a Christian Hedonist and rescue me from a terrible misunderstanding of how God is glorified. They pointed me to the Bible in a way I had not noticed.
Even Death Is Gain
I invite you to open your Bibles to Philippians 1:20–21. And I will try to condense into a few minutes what took me months to grasp.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored [or magnified] in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Notice in verse 20 that Paul’s all-consuming passion in life is that Christ would be magnified. That’s what my father had taught me. I saw that in the Bible. I knew that’s why I should live. I wanted to live that way. I wanted Christ to be seen and known as a magnificent Savior and a magnificent King and a magnificent Friend through my bodily life, whether I lived or whether I died.
But I had never followed Paul’s logic in verses 21–23. Follow it with me. As soon as he says in verse 20 that Christ can be magnified in my life or my death, he adds verse 21 and gives the basis for how that can happen. And notice how “to live” in verse 21 corresponds to “by life” in verse 20, and how “to die” in verse 21 corresponds to “by death” in verse 20. So, he’s explaining in verse 21 how it is that Christ will be magnificent in Paul’s body both in dying and in living.
So, how does that work? If you see this, and if it penetrates to the center of your soul, you’ll never be the same again. How does it work that Paul’s dying will make Christ look magnificent?
Paul’s answer is, “My death will make Christ look magnificent because ‘for me to die is gain.’ I want you to see this for yourself, and not take my word for it. Leave out, for the time being, the issue of how your life makes Christ look magnificent. Collapse verses 20 and 21 to just explain how death works: “Christ will be magnified in my body by death, . . . for to me to die is gain.”
Now when you die, your spouse is gone, sex is gone, the children are gone, the dream retirement is gone, hobbies are gone, and until the resurrection, the body, with all its pleasures, is gone. So, what does Paul mean that all this loss can be called gain? He gives the answer in verses 22–23,
If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
When Paul compares all the pleasures that are confined to this physical world with the pleasure of being with Christ face-to-face, he calls death, which takes all those pleasures and gives him Christ, gain. Just like he says in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Duty-Bound to Delight
So, according to the logic — the flow of thought — from verses 20–23, how is Christ shown to be magnificent in your dying? Paul’s answer is that Christ is shown to be magnificent in our dying when we experience him as more satisfying than all the pleasures that life in this world could give. Or to state it as my life motto: Christ is most magnified in me when I am most satisfied in him, especially through suffering and death. That is what I mean by Christian Hedonism.
“Becoming a Christian not only means believing truth. It means finding a treasure.”
And you can see immediately how it solved the ache of the tension in my heart. All too slowly, I came to realize that God’s passion to be glorified and my passion to be satisfied were not alternatives. Paul said, Christ is magnified not instead of my being satisfied in him, but by means of my being satisfied in him.
My satisfaction in Christ above all this world, at the point of suffering and death, is what makes him look magnificent. Therefore, my pursuit of satisfaction — my pursuit of happiness — is not just permitted. It is mandatory, because glorifying God is mandatory. And you cannot glorify God in your heart if your heart does not find God more satisfying than everything else.
This Changes Everything
Which brings us now to my second reason for talking about Christian Hedonism. Not only did it resolve one of the most difficult tensions in my life with the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, but the flood of implications that flows out from this truth changes everything.
1. Christian Hedonism changes death.
Like we’ve just seen, if you want to make Christ look great in your dying, you don’t have to worry about some big performance or achievement or heroic sacrifice. There is simply a childlike laying yourself into the arms of the one who makes the loss of everything gain. Oh, there’s a battle to be fought. But it isn’t a battle to perform or to achieve or do anything. It’s a battle to see and savor Christ as an all-satisfying Savior.
2. Christian Hedonism changes how we think about conversion.
Matthew 13:44: “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.” Becoming a Christian not only means believing truth; it means finding a treasure.
So, evangelism becomes not only persuasion about truth, but pointing people to a Treasure that is more valuable than everything they have. And conversion is the miracle that the Holy Spirit works in your life so that you taste and see that Christ is more to be desired than anything in this world. That’s what the new birth is. Getting new spiritual taste buds.
3. Christian Hedonism changes the way we think about the good fight of faith.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes (has faith) in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). So, what is faith? Faith is a coming to Jesus so as to have the deep thirst of our souls satisfied in him. The one who believes will never thirst. His quest for final soul-satisfaction is over.
John said, “To all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Believing Jesus is receiving him. As what? Savior? Yes. Lord? Yes. But also as the infinitely valuable Treasure that he is. Faith is seeing and savoring Christ as your supreme Treasure. And so, the lifelong “good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12) is a fight for joy — a fight to see and savor Jesus as more valuable than anything in the world.
4. Christian Hedonism changes how we see and how we fight evil in our lives.
Jeremiah 2:13 gives the Christian Hedonist definition of evil: “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.”
Evil is the suicidal preference for the empty wells of the world over the living waters — the mountain spring — of God’s fellowship. We fight evil by the pursuit of the fullest satisfaction in the river of God’s delights.
5. Christian Hedonism changes the way we think about self-denial.
Oh, it is really there in the teachings of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). So many people stop there. But the real Christian Hedonist meaning of self-denial comes out in the next verse: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). Now the meaning becomes,
- Deny yourself the wealth of the world so that you can have the wealth of being with Christ.
- Deny yourself the fame of the world to have the joy of God’s approval.
- Deny yourself the security and safety of the world to have the solid, secure fellowship of Jesus.
- Deny yourself the short, unsatisfying pleasures of the world so that you can have fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand.
Which means, there is no such thing as ultimate self-denial, because to live is Christ and to die is gain.
6. Christian Hedonism changes the way we think about handling our money and the act of giving.
- Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
- 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
The motive to be a generous person is that it expresses and expands our joy in God. And the pursuit of that joy is the pursuit of giving not getting.
7. Christian Hedonism changes the way we worship corporately.
Corporate worship is the collective act of glorifying God. But God is glorified in this service when you the people are satisfied in him. Therefore, the worship leaders — musicians and preachers — should see their task primarily as breaking open a fountain of living water and spreading a feast of rich food. The task of the worshipers is to drink and eat and say a satisfied, “Ahhh.” Because God is most glorified in those worshipers when they are most satisfied in him.
8. Christian Hedonism changes the way we experience disability and weakness.
Stunningly, paradoxically, Jesus says to the weak and thorn-pierced Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” To which Paul responds, almost beyond belief, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly [yes this is the voice of the thorn-pierced Christian Hedonist] of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So, a paraplegic for 50 years, the reason Joni Eareckson Tada makes Christ look magnificent, is because she sings.
9. Christian Hedonism changes the meaning of love.
Paul describes the love of the Macedonians like this: “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2).
Abundant joy in severe affliction and extreme poverty overflowed in loving generosity. Still poor. Still afflicted. But so full of joy that it overflowed in love. Therefore, Christian Hedonism defines love as the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. If you really want to do others the greatest good, overflow onto them and draw them into your eternal joy in God.
10. Christian Hedonism changes the meaning of ministry.
What is the aim of the ministry of the great apostle Paul? Second Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” All ministry, one way or the other, is a working with you for your joy.
“My pursuit of happiness is not just permitted. It is mandatory, because glorifying God is mandatory.”
Back in Philippians 1, when Paul finally realized he was not going to die yet, but remain and minister, he said, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). Ministry always aims at the deepest, highest, and longest joy of those we serve. And that means joy in God because Psalm 16:11 says,
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
That is why I have come to Houston and to this church. Not that I would lord it over your faith, but I would be a worker with you for your joy. Not your joy in me or this sermon. Not your joy in your great church. Not your joy in your family, or your job, or your friends. But your joy God.
This is why Christ died for you, according to 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” And why would he want you there? Because in his presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.
In other words, there, and there alone, will you be fully and eternally satisfied, and God fully and eternally glorified.