The following is a lightly edited transcript.
Jonathan Edwards has had a massive influence on my life and theology, but I want to make very clear that his work and the Bible are not coordinate authorities in my life. The Bible is on top and his work is underneath. All you pastors, live in the Bible. Or you laypeople, live in the Bible. So what’s the point of a book like the collected sermons of Edwards? The point is that God has ordained, according to Ephesians 4:11–12, that there be teachers in the church. And it would be chronologically snobbish, as C.S. Lewis says, of us to only listen to teachers of our own generation.
And we will become the poorer for it if we only read books in our own century. We must go outside our century, or we will become chronological snobs. And lived from 1703–1758. So he’s 250 years old. So there’s a good place to go every now and then. And what you find when you go to the best of God’s teachers throughout the centuries, is that you find Bible distilled through a holy soul, and there’s something very empowering about that.
Because frankly, if I ask, Why did God ordain that there be human teachers alongside the Bible? Why didn’t he just ordain that everybody goes straight to the Bible without a preacher? Why did he ordain that there be pastors and teachers? Isn’t the written word of God sufficient? Why do you need pastors and teachers? And it just seems as though the Lord ordained that this word be fleshed out in various personalities and various speaking types, in order that it has an extra punch coming through a Holy Spirit filled person or writer.
And so whatever the reason, I just encourage you to live in the Bible, and then to dip into other books and speakers and do some them outside your own century. And maybe I’ll come back and quote Edwards again, but I brought him along just to say that he is one of the people that for me has become a Bible mediator: a dead teacher that has opened my heart to the Bible again and again. But we will speak from the Bible this morning, not from Edwards.
God’s Righteous Pursuit
So let me bring this up to date on where we are and where we’re going. Last night’s point was that God does everything he does with a view to magnifying his glory. So God is radically God-centered. And then we asked, at the end: Is that loving of God to be that way? Is it a loving thing for God to be so self-centered as to always do everything he does to magnify his glory?
And we answered the question: yes, it is loving, and we explained it this way: that our highest joy as creatures is to know God, and to see his glory, and to be caught up into his glory, and to delight in his glory. That’s our highest joy. Nothing that he has made — not that beautiful sunshine, not any member of our family, not any degree of health, not any sexual intimacy, not any kind of food nor friendship, not any kind of success in business or ministry — can measure up to the joy that there is in knowing Christ.
“I count everything as loss,” Paul said, “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Now if that’s true, to know God and to be with God and to delight in God — “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11) — if that’s true, then for God to be loving, he must continually exalt himself in our lives. He must continually draw us to him and away from those other competing values. He must continually be self-exalting in our presence. And so God is the one being, I said, for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the greatest loving act. So the answer is: Yes, he is loving to be self-exalting. God is the one being who has to be self-exalting to be loving. You can’t be that way. You have to be God-exalting to be loving.
If you want people to experience their highest joy, which is what love is, you must direct them to the source of their highest joy, not to yourself. So that prayer that was just prayed a minute ago is absolutely right: it’s the heartbeat of the Holy Spirit because he came into the world to glorify himself and not John Piper. And if I fail, and have you only wondering about my message, and not the God that I preach, I fail because I haven’t been loving; I haven’t directed you to the one who can satisfy your soul.
So when God says, “Imitate me,” or when you think “I’m in the image of God,” you should not be thinking “God pursues his glory. I will imitate him because I’m in his image, and I will pursue my glory,” there’s a glitch there. And the glitch is this: when God says, “I pursue my glory; now imitate me,” the way to imitate that is to pursue his glory. If God pursues his glory, you should pursue his glory, and then you will be loving the way he is loving. That’s the way to clarify last night.
Far Too Easily Pleased
Now here’s the implication for this morning: if that’s true, that God is most magnified and most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him, it follows that I should, for his sake and gloriously also for my sake, pursue my joy all the time, without exception. So that’s the point this morning that I want to try to demonstrate from the Scriptures. It seems to me, and I learned this from C.S. Lewis, from that page in The Weight of Glory. He said that our problem is that we are far too easily pleased. Our problem in the Christian church and in the world is not that people are seeking their own pleasure. That is not the problem, pastors. Do not stand up and say that the problem with our worship services is that people are coming here to seek their own pleasure. That’s not the problem.
The problem is they have stuffed their faces with the white bread of the world, so that they’re not hungry when they come to worship. You spread a banquet for them, and their bellies are full of television. The problem is not that they come to get pleasure, the problem is that they don’t come to get pleasure because they’ve sought their pleasure everywhere else and found inadequate satisfaction, but they don’t know it yet.
And we need to awaken them to the fact that the real issue is: Are you going to come to this service to eat the bread of heaven, drink at the fountain of life? “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, “I am the living water.” I mean, just imagine anybody saying to Jesus, “Well, we really shouldn’t come thirsty, should we? We really shouldn’t come hungry, should we? We really shouldn’t come to get our soul satisfied in you, should we? That would be very selfish of us, wouldn’t it, to come to get our soul satisfied in you?” Can you imagine anybody responding to Jesus like that, and the look that would come over his face?
We have been taught these kinds of heresies as though you should come to Jesus to give and not to get, as though you should make him the beneficiary and you the benefactor, so that you get the praise and he gets the help. I mean, that is what 1 Peter 4:11 says we should not do.
Whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The giver gets the glory. Therefore, if you come to God to give, you blaspheme. You come to God as an empty vessel. You come to God desperate, you come to God needy, you come to God bankrupt, and God is the glorious, all-sufficient, gracious giver, and therefore, God gets the glory; God gets the praise. “We are far too easily pleased,” Lewis says. “We are like children,” he said, “fooling around with drugs and drink and sex, like children making mud pies in the slums because they cannot imagine what a day at the sea is like or what a holiday on the coast is like.” That’s God.
So we have shriveled up in our hearts so much in our preoccupation with secondary, two-bit, low-yield pleasures in the world, that our hearts have just grown smaller and smaller and smaller in their capacities for joy, until we now justify our own small-heartedness by turning the gospel into a call for duty religion rather than delight religion. We say, “Oh, Christianity is not about our joy. It’s not about our pleasure. It’s not about our satisfaction. It’s not about a heart explosive with delight in the living God. It’s about doing right things and making right decisions and exerting right willpower to get right commandments performed.”
And we can manage that with small hearts. You can manage a willpower religion with a shriveled-up capacity for joy, but you can’t manage Christianity that way. Christianity is not a willpower religion. It is not a decisionistic religion. It is a profoundly supernatural, transforming religion that has to do with the heart and its joy and where it finds its pleasures. And if your capacity for pleasure has shriveled to the point where you can only justify it by turning Christianity into a willpower religion, you better check whether you’ve got the real thing or not.
Objections to Christian Hedonism
So here’s what I want to do this morning. All kinds of objections arise in people’s minds when I go around commanding people to pursue their joy. And here I’ll just give you some of the sample objections. And I’m going to try, in the thirty minutes or so that I have left, to answer these objections biblically.
1. Is this taught in the Bible? This sounds interesting. It sounds like there’s a logical connection here to all this stuff you’ve said, but really now, just be faithful exegetically. Is this taught in the Bible? I mean, is it taught? Is it not just kind of inferred from the Bible, from logical presuppositions? But can you find sentences that say these things in the Bible? We are a Bible people.
2. What about self-denial? Don’t you believe Jesus called for self-denial? What happens to the glorious teaching of self-denial and crucifixion of self and mortification? What do you do with those texts?
3. Isn’t this going to lead to emotionalism? Aren’t you focusing too much on emotion? Isn’t there another way of doing Christianity? What becomes of commitment and the will?
4. What becomes of the concept of serving God? This doesn’t sound like serving God. This doesn’t sound like a servant and a master. It sounds like something else. What becomes a duty? Do you think duty is a bad thing? I mean, duty in the history of the Christian church has been a glorious thing. What’s wrong with duty?
5. How can you keep this from being self-centered? It sounds very self-centered when humans do this. What about God-centeredness? Haven’t you shifted? You said last night that everything should be God-centered, and now you’re telling us to pursue our joy?
So those are the kinds of objections that my mind raises up, and that I would hear. So let me answer them one at a time from the Bible.
1. Does the Bible really teach Christian Hedonism?
Does the Bible really teach this — that I am to pursue my joy relentlessly because therein is God most glorified? And if I turn from pursuing my joy, I will not be able to worship God as I ought and I will not be able to love people as I are? Does the Bible teach that I should pursue my joy? I want to give you four ways that the Bible teaches this.
The Bible Commands Our Delight
The Bible teaches this by simply commanding it over and over again. Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” That’s a command, not a suggestion. Don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t covet, and delight yourself in the Lord. It’s a commandment. I remember one time I was on a platform with a well-known evangelical speaker, who didn’t like me giving the topic of the seminar on the pursuit of joy. And this person wrote me a note and said, “I think we ought to put the accent on obedience, not the pursuit of pleasure.” And I wrote back and I said, “The problem I have with that is it’s like saying we should put the accent on fruit, not apples.” Obedience and the pursuit of joy relate to each other as fruit and apples, because obedience means doing what God tells you to do. And in Psalm 37:4, God tells you to pursue your pleasure in him. So if you’re going to be obedient to Psalm 37:4, you must delight in the Lord.
This is not icing on the cake of Christianity; this is Christianity. Not to delight in the Lord is not to be a Christian. Does it make you tremble to come to the end of 1 Corinthians, for example, and read, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). Does that make you tremble? And you say, “Well, wait a minute; I thought I was saved by faith.” And you’re accursed if you don’t love Jesus. And the word there is phileō: love him, love him, love him.
We have really dumbed down the word faith to get converts. We have really evacuated it of its New Testament richness. It includes delight; it includes love. For a person to be saved, they must be born again, and to be born again is to have a new heart with new affections. That’s answer number one: we are commanded all over the place to delight in the Lord.
- Psalm 32:11, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous.”
- Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
- Psalm 100, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” This is not an option. Serve the Lord with gladness.
If you don’t feel it, repent. People always ask me (and this I will talk about tomorrow morning), always ask me, “I hear you, I hear you, I hear you. But what if you don’t? What if you don’t?” And my answer is to say, “Do not say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter because feelings are the caboose on the end of the train, and you can let a caboose go and still get the freight there.’” That’s not the answer. The answer is: repent, and plead with the living God the way David pled, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). Pray and pray and pray until it comes. Beat on the doors of heaven until the joy is restored because you are in mortal danger if you don’t delight in God. It’s not a caboose; it is power. And there are many other texts that command it.
Refusing to Delight in God Leads to Terror
It is biblical because you see it in the threats of the Bible. I read one time from C.S. Lewis that Jeremy Taylor said, “God threatens us with terrible things if we will not be happy.” And I thought, that’s clever, but is it biblical? And then I found it in Deuteronomy 28:47–48, and I’ll read it to you:
Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.
Because you did not serve the Lord your God with gladness and joyfulness of heart, you will serve your enemies. That’s a threat. God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy in him. So it’s true from the threats of the Bible.
Faith Believes God Rewards
Thirdly, it is true, given the New Testament teaching about the nature of faith, that we should pursue our joy. I have in mind Hebrews 11:6, which says,
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.
Now think about this. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. And then he gives you two things that constitute faith. For he who comes to God must believe (1) he is, and (2) in coming to him, you are rewarded. You must believe that to please him. Now just work with that in your mind for a moment. Meditate on this for a moment. Think about this, and you’ll become a theologian. Just meditate for a moment. Everybody’s a theologian; you’re either a good one or a bad one, a superficial one or a deeper one. Now this text says that to please God you must believe, and the two things you must believe are that he is, and when you come, you get reward. If you come to God, not craving the reward of God, you don’t please him, and it isn’t faith. That’s good news. That’s really good news.
I mean, isn’t it good news to have the fountain of the universe command you to come not with buckets of your labor, but with empty vessels to drink at his sufficiency? Isn’t that good news? Unless you want to make an impression on God and other people, then it’s not good news. If you want to be self-sufficient, if you want to be the benefactor of God, if you want to be seen as anything other than broke, naked, blind, bankrupt — that’s bad news. But if you’re already broke and naked and blind and empty and thirsty and hungry, that’s good news: to be told God is not pleased by anybody except those who believe who he is and who come to get reward from him.
And so we should be pursuing our delight in God continually because it pleases him; it shows him to be the fountain and us to be empty and thirsty, and that’s the best of all possible worlds.
Sin Forsakes True Pleasure
And the fourth way the Bible teaches it is by the nature of sin. What is sin? Jeremiah 2:13 says,
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.
That’s the essence of evil. The essence of evil that should cause the universe to be dismayed and shocked when it is performed is when human beings taste the fountain of living waters in God and say, “No, thank you,” and turn to money, fame, success, sex, drugs, power, influence, and carve out these cisterns, put their mouth to them, and they’re all broken, and they can’t hold any water, and they spend their whole lives sucking on this dirt; that’s evil.
Do you see what the problem is in the world? The problem is that it’s not that we are hungry or thirsty; it is that we’ve turned away from the fountain. That’s evil. So what is virtue then? Virtue is to wake up by the wonderful grace of the Holy Spirit, through regeneration, to say, “Yuck, what is it that I’ve been eating all my life?” I used this illustration one time: that in the dark where the world lives, they go and they find their mistresses in all these various sins, and the mistress puts over their head this beautiful pendant. It’s ebony, it’s dark, beautiful, and you’re feeling it. It’s smooth. It’s shiny. And then when you get saved, the light comes on — and you see it’s a roach. It’s just broken cisterns, they hold no water. And to be born again is to wake up to that. It’s to flip from TV station to TV station to TV station, and not want to stay, and want to stay and want to stay, but to say, How could the world live here? How can the world live here when we have seen the living God? And we will spend eternity with the God who doesn’t just make days like that. But those are very dim reflections of the kind of God he is with whom we will be spending eternity forever.
And so it is sin to turn away from the fountain and it is virtue to pursue your joy, not in the broken cisterns, but in the fountain of living waters all your life. So there’s my answer to the first objection.
2. Doesn’t Jesus teach self-denial?
What about self-denial, John? Don’t you know that Jesus said in Mark 8:35, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” This teaching just sounds like you don’t believe that, or you minimize self-denial somehow. It doesn’t really have a place in your system, which makes me think that your system is a little bit out of whack here. It’s not quite biblical at the point of Mark 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” And you’re saying that to be a disciple, you must be pursuing self-gratification, the joy of your own self.
My answer to that objection, as with most objections, is: read on in the Bible. And the rest of the verse, after it says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it,” says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Now what’s the logic here? How is Jesus arguing? How was he moving them? How was he wooing them? Isn’t he wooing them by saying, “You don’t want to lose your life.” Whatever you do, you don’t want to lose your life. That’s the bottom-line argument: Don’t lose your life. Keep wanting life. Want life. Want life so much you will die to get life. Want life so much you will leave husbands and wives and children to go to the hospital. You will leave everything to the mission field, or you will leave anything to have life. Really want life.
In other words, Jesus’s doctrine of self-denial is not a call to ultimate self-denial; that is, it is not a call to choose hell in order to have heaven. That’s a contradiction. It’s not required of you anywhere in the Bible to choose hell to have heaven. The Puritans, some of them were wrong to ask candidates for ordination: Are you willing to be damned for the glory of Jesus? Edwards argued against that question with all his might because it put those being ordained in an absolutely unbiblical position: to contemplate a reality in a God who does not exist — namely, a God who would require of us damnation in order to go to heaven. Anybody who loves the glory of God so much could never contemplate being damned, because God would never damn somebody who loves his glory that much, and put them in an impossible position, nor are you ever asked to be in that position.
On the contrary, you are over and over again given models of another sort. For example, in Matthew 13:44, there’s a one-verse parable, and it goes like this:
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.
That’s self-denial; that’s the meaning of self-denial: his wedding ring, his car, his house, his computer, his library, his real estate, all of his portfolio, is gone to get this treasure, who is Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. He sells everything. And so when Jesus says, “Unless you would take up your cross and deny yourself, you can’t be my disciple,” Or in Luke 14:33, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple,” he then follows it with, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He says that to the rich, young ruler.
Do you remember what he said to Peter? After talking to the rich young ruler, he turns the rich, young ruler away. And in Mark 10:26–31, the disciples say, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). And he says, “Getting saved as a rich man is like a camel going through the eye of a needle.” And it blows their minds because they thought riches was the sign of blessing. And he says, “No, it’s in the way. You’ve got to strip down your simple wartime lifestyle, or it’s going to be very, very hard for you to get into the kingdom of heaven.” And they are boggled, and they say, “Well, who can be saved?” And he says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
And then Peter pipes up and he says, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). And I think Jesus hears in Peter’s words a little bit of self-pity, a little bit of sacrifice. “We’ve sacrificed.” And so, how does he respond to Peter? Do you remember what he says? He says,
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29–30).
Get off this sacrifice kick. Do you see the point? It is no sacrifice to follow him.
Joy in Suffering
Now I stand here as a very healthy (I think) 53-year-old who’s never known very much suffering. A few key points in my life have been hard. And so I find myself fearing that I speak with a little bit of inauthenticity when I say things like this. So what I’ve done is I’ve read sufferers to see if they talk like this. And you know what I find? I that those who have suffered most, talk in the most hedonistic terms. You read missionary biographies mainly; that’s where you find it.
Read Hudson Taylor; read David Livingston. Both of them came to the end of their lives after Hudson Taylor, losing two wives, walking through unbelievable suffering. And he wrote in his spiritual autobiography, “I never made a sacrifice.” What does he mean? Of course, he made sacrifices. Of course, he denied himself. It cost him tremendously. What he meant was: the doctrine of self-denial in the Christian life means: let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.
Let’s go to China, where life is to be found, where joy is to be found. Yes, pain, pain, pain. The Calvary road is a painful road, but did you read the lyrics in “How Great Thou Art”? Did you see the word in the second verse, the third line? “On the cross, my burdens gladly bearing. I don’t think most of you sang that song, or didn’t really feel the force of it when you sing it. “My burdens gladly bearing.” The cross is the most exquisite form of torture anybody has ever developed. Three hours of unbelievable agony, not to mention what led up to it. Did the songwriter make a mistake — “my burden gladly bearing” — or is there a profound thing about suffering in obedience to the Father? Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross.”
So I believe in self-denial. I believe in denying myself tin to have gold. I believe in denying myself sand, so that I can stand on a rock. I believe in denying myself brackish water, so that I can have the wine of heaven. I do not believe in ultimate self-denial; I believe in biblical self-denial.
3. Does God really command our emotions?
What about emotions? Isn’t this called to pursue your pleasure and your delight and your satisfaction in God just way too emotional? I mean, doesn’t it elevate our emotions to a level where they don’t belong? I remember in college reading Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. It was a bad book. And one of the arguments he made, that many evangelicals buy, because there’s a partial truth in it, is that love cannot be an emotion because it is commanded in the Bible. And you probably have in this church library a book called Love is a Choice, a popular evangelical book. Well, that’s true; it’s about thirty percent of the truth, but not the whole truth, and it’s not the main truth. Love is more than a choice.
I can remember I was a junior at Wheaton College. And I remember the room I was sitting in when I read it in Blanchard Hall in 1967. And I read that it cannot be an emotion because it is commanded. The assumption is that you can’t command the emotions because you don’t have immediate control over them, but you can command decisions because you have immediate control over them. I didn’t know much theology when I was twenty; I didn’t know much, but I had grown up in a Christian home, and been saturated with the Bible from my dad. And the wonderful thing about laypeople, who are not theologians but are saturated with the Bible, is they can smell bad doctrine before they can explain bad doctrine; that’s good. Which is why many lay people are way out in front of high-classed, educated, liberal theologians because they have a better nose. They can smell bad doctrine. They can’t say it, but they just kind of back off from it, which is so wonderful. They gravitate towards a church where it smells better.
Well, what smelled bad, I now understand to be an absolutely wrong biblical presupposition. It’s not true that the Bible does not command emotions. It commands emotions everywhere. I’ll give you a few examples.
- Joy is commanded — Philippians 4:6: “Rejoice in the Lord.”
- Hope is commanded — Psalm 42:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God.”
- Fear is commanded — Luke 12:5: “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”
- Desire is commanded — 1 Peter 2:2: “Long [earnestly desire] the pure spiritual milk.”
- Tenderheartedness is commanded — Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.”
- Brokenness and contrition and tears are commanded — James 4:9: “Be wretched and mourn and weep.”
- Gratitude is commanded — Ephesians 5:20: “[Give] thanks always and for everything.”
Everywhere the emotions are commanded. All of those are emotions; those are not decisions. You cannot decide to be thankful. You can decide like a child, who had just received for Christmas a pair of black socks from his grandmother, instead of the fiery red engine that he wanted. You can obey the command from your mother: “Johnny, say thank you to your grandma.” “Thank you for my black socks.” That child can say, “Thank you for my black socks.” He cannot feel gratitude if he doesn’t feel gratitude. But he is commanded to feel gratitude to God.
God has the right to command you to feel what you ought to feel, whether you can feel it or not because of your deadness. That’s why I’m a Calvinist. That’s the essence of Calvinism. If you’ve ever wondered: What’s the difference between a Calvinist and Arminian? It’s that God has a right to command dead people to do things only living people can do. You ought to be alive. You ought to love God. You ought to be thankful to God. You ought to delight in God. If you don’t because you’re dead, that does not get you off the hook from God’s commandments. The commandments are everywhere, and therefore, I do not buy the argument from Joseph Fletcher that God cannot command the emotions or that love is not an emotion. Love is very much an emotion and a choice, and therefore, I don’t think I’m making too much out of emotions.
And I’m going to stop here and pick it up tonight. And we’ll let the first part of tonight be finishing the last two objections. They’ll go fairly quickly. And then we’ll move into the question: If it’s right to pursue my joy, is that a loving thing among people? I’ve tried to make a case: it’s loving toward God and it’s loving from God to us. The vertical hedonism is right and loving. But when I do something nice for you to make me happy, is that love?