Right with God, Right with Man

The Power of Superior Pleasure

Kingdom Advisors Conference | Orlando

I would like to begin by reading two verses (Psalm 43:3–4), which we will focus on in a few minutes.

Send out your light and your truth;
   let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
   and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
   O God, my God.

Under the banner that is flying over this conference, namely, the call to be prepared, what I want to argue, and to show from Scripture, is that

  • the key that prepares us for heaven is the same key that prepares us for earth.

  • Or, to be more specific, the key to experiencing forgiveness from God is the same key for experiencing fruitfulness in life.

  • Or, the key to pardon for our sins is the same key that unlocks the power to love people.

  • Or, if you prefer theological language, the key that unlocks justification is the same key that unlocks sanctification.

And I’m going to argue that the lens through which you can see that truth — namely, that these two keys are one key — the lens through which you see that is the lens called Christian Hedonism. And I do hope and pray that I might persuade all of you to be Christian Hedonists — as risky as that term may sound. I don’t care if you use the term. But I care very much if you embrace the reality.

“God does not justify those who measure up. He justifies the ungodly.”

The reason all of this matters is because, as we go forward, some of you may discern that you have not used the true biblical key to justification, but some other key, and others of you may discern that you are not using the biblical key to sanctification, but some other key. And my prayer is that all of you will be justified before the righteous bar of God’s courtroom, and that all of you will lead lives of Christ-exalting, mission-advancing, risk-taking, sacrificial love.

‘God, My Exceeding Joy’

So let me describe what I mean by Christian Hedonism and then show you how, through this lens, you can see that the key to being forgiven by God is the same key to being spiritually fruitful in your calling as financial planners — and every other way.

This year, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of two of the three most important events in my life. I married Noël Henry. And I became a Christian Hedonist. The first happened in a little country church in Barnesville, Georgia. The second happened in a seminary class with Daniel Fuller in Pasadena, California.

I think I can shed light on Christian Hedonism best with an illustration from my marriage. But before I do, let me give the biblical context and foundation. And here we circle back to Psalm 43:4:

Then I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
   O God, my God.

What I would argue from this verse is that authentic praise is the expression of our experience of God as our “exceeding joy.” Authentic praise is not the mere movement of the vocal cords and lips, stating the fact of God’s worth, or even asserting the claim that we value that worth. It is the expression of the joyful heart, or it is nothing. Jesus said,

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” (Matthew 15:8–9)

In other words, “worship” is “vain”— empty, zero, meaningless, non-praise — if the heart does not find God to be its exceeding joy.

Then I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
   O God, my God.

And we know that praise is designed by God to be the means by which we magnify him, glorify him, call attention to his value above all other things. To praise God is to make much of God — glorify God, show him to be our supreme treasure. That’s what praise is. I don’t think that’s controversial. What may be controversial is showing the biblical connection between authentic praise to God and authentic joy in God; namely, there is no true praise to God when there is no joy in God.

Devastatingly Wonderful News

And the reason it can be controversial is that the implications of it are devastating and wonderful. They can be devastating because you may have formed the habit of going through the motions of praising God when, in fact, God is not your joy, he’s not your supreme treasure. And suddenly you hear Jesus say that’s empty, that’s nothing, that’s in vain. It’s devastating.

“Pardon for our sins will always be followed by power to love people.”

But on the other side of that devastation and repentance, it is wonderful to be told that God is praised when he is prized. That God is glorified in us when we are glad in him. That God is honored by our praise when we are happy with his presence. What could be more wonderful than the God of the universe telling us that the purpose for which we are made — to glorify him — happens not by some great, heroic performance, but rather by our being happy in him, exceedingly happy in him, as our supreme, all-satisfying treasure? What could be better than that? God’s purpose to be glorified and our longing to be satisfied are not at odds, but united in the life of happy worship.

The summary of Christian Hedonism is this: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which carries the radical implication that the pursuit of your deepest and longest happiness is not optional, but mandatory, because you can’t glorify God from the heart without that happiness. Mere duty-religion is over. It is ended. Thinking that we can glorify God by reading the manual of religious duty and using our willpower to perform the God-appointed tasks — that kind of Christianity is finished. Because it isn’t Christianity.

Which is why over and over again the Bible commands us, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). Why? Because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And the glorification of God is the purpose of the universe. Isaiah 43:7 says that God created us for his glory.

Your Happiness Reveals Your Treasure

Now, I don’t know whether you have thought this way as you have read your Bible. I don’t know if you are already Christian Hedonists without the name. But my guess is that, if you are married, you have thought this way when it comes to experiencing a very special evening together with your spouse, say your 50th wedding anniversary. So let me take you forward to December 21, and let’s imagine a scene at the Piper front door.

Out of Duty?

Of course, it’s bitter cold outside — it’s Minnesota — which makes all the more unlikely what I’m about to do, and take Noël off guard. I am going to arrive home early and surprise her at the front door with fifty roses in a bouquet behind my back. And I am going to announce to her that I have a very special plan for our evening. Ready?

Here we go. I ring the doorbell, which of course I never do at my own house. Ding-dong. She opens the door and looks puzzled. I show her the flowers and say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” She laughs, the way she does, and blurts out, “Oh, Johnny, they’re beautiful! Why did you go to all that trouble?” And suppose I hold up my hand, with a noble expression, and say, “It’s my duty. I read the manual, and this is what good husbands are supposed to do on their anniversary.” Now that is emphatically the wrong answer to her question, “Why did you go to all that trouble?”

Out of Delight?

So let’s rewind the scene and try this again. I ring the doorbell, she looks surprised, I show her the flowers, I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël,” and she says, “Oh, Johnny, they’re beautiful! Why did you go to all that trouble?” And this time I say, “Well, I just couldn’t help myself. It makes me so happy to get flowers for you. And I want you to go put on something very nice because I have a plan for this evening and nothing will make me happier than to spend it with you.”

“The only way the power of sin can be broken is by the presence and the promise of a superior pleasure.”

Do you think that Noël would respond by saying, “Nothing would make you happier! It makes you happy to get flowers for me. Why don’t you try thinking about me sometime”? No. She would not respond like that. But why not? I did say — and I meant it — “It makes me happy to get flowers for you, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend the evening with you.” Why does she not hear an offensive selfishness on my part? Why does she not feel that this is self-centered?

For this reason: she is glorified in me when I’m satisfied in her. She feels honored when she is the treasure that makes me glad. She knows intuitively — just like you do — that I am not making a treasure out of my happiness. I am showing by my happiness where my treasure is.

Better Than Life

And what I am doing with Christian Hedonism is drawing attention to the fact that this deep intuition that you all have about how to glorify and honor someone by experiencing them with joy as your treasure is, in fact, built into the very structure of the universe as to the way we honor and glorify God. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The principle at the heart of the universe is God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. That is the essence of Christian Hedonism.

And what the Bible shows is that this vertical Christian Hedonism that glorifies God produces a horizontal Christian Hedonism that loves people. In other words, when this happens — when God becomes our exceeding joy, when we experience him as our all-satisfying treasure — our joy in God spills over to meet the needs of other people (see 2 Corinthians 8:1–2).

Or, to say it another way, built into the very nature of joy in God — that God revealed in the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ — built into the very nature of that joy in that God is an impulse to expand and increase by drawing other people into it, even if it costs us our lives. Because the psalmist says, “The steadfast love of the Lord — enjoying God’s favor — is better than life” (see Psalm 63:3). Which means that Christian Hedonism not only is the key to glorifying God. It is the key to loving people.

The Great Exchange

Now, with that understanding of Christian Hedonism, we turn to the questions: What is the key to justification? And what is the key to sanctification? Are they the same? Or, what is the key to experiencing forgiveness from God, and the key to experiencing fruitfulness in life? Do pardon for sin and power for a life of wise, loving sacrifice and service to your family and your clients and even your enemies get unlocked with the same key?

“Forgiveness from God will always be followed by fruitfulness of life.”

One of the most precious truths of the Bible is the truth that we are justified by faith alone, not by faith plus any good works of our own. All of us are guilty because of our sin before the holiness of God. We are under a just sentence of condemnation. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves innocent before God. The only way justice can be done, it seems, is for us to be punished to a degree that corresponds to the infinite magnitude of an offense against an infinitely holy being. The biblical name for that is hell.

Jesus Bought Your Righteousness

But God, in his mercy, planned from the beginning that he would give his Son as a substitute for us, so that our sin and condemnation would be borne by Jesus and not us. Second Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The great and glorious exchange. Our sins on him. And in union with him, God’s righteousness on us! This is the unshakeable ground of our justification. God counts us just for Christ’s sake.

And what is the key into that relationship? Not good works. But faith alone. God does not justify those who measure up. He justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). Listen to Galatians 2:16 and be amazed:

We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Or here’s the short statement in Romans 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Reformation Rediscovery

This was the great rediscovery of the church 500 years ago during the Reformation: that in order to get right with God, a sinner does not do meritorious works, but trusts in Christ’s meritorious work. And when the question came up: Then won’t Christians just go on living in sin, since they are justified by faith and not by good works? The Reformers responded No. Even though faith alone justifies, the faith which justifies is never alone, but is always followed and accompanied by good works.

In other words, the Reformation taught — for indeed the Bible teaches — that justification will always be followed by sanctification. Pardon for our sins will always be followed by power to love people. Forgiveness from God will always be followed by fruitfulness of life. The blood-bought hope of heaven will always be accompanied by Spirit-wrought holiness on earth.

But here’s the problem: The Reformers did not put much emphasis on making clear how it is that justifying faith would produce a sanctified life. They said it would. And indeed it does. And the Holy Spirit is the divine power behind it. That’s what the Bible teaches. But they didn’t go into the actual conscious experience of how the faith which lays hold on pardon from sin actually produces power over sin. How does it actually happen in the human mind and heart? They didn’t describe the nature of justifying faith in such a way that we could see how it not only unites us to Christ for acceptance with God, but also becomes a power for loving even our enemies.

And what I want to do in the last step of this message is show that Christian Hedonism is the lens through which you can see how this happens: how saving faith both justifies by uniting us to Christ, and sanctifies by killing sin and empowering love.

How Do We Receive Christ?

Let’s start with a definition of faith that probably most of us would agree with, namely, it is a receiving of Christ. It’s not a work; it is a welcoming of one who works for us. Here is the familiar identification of believing and receiving in John 1:11–12.

He [Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Justifying faith — believing on Jesus — means receiving Jesus.

Received, but Not Treasured

Now, Christian Hedonism presses in and asks this question: “What is this experience of receiving Christ really like? Is it like receiving a blow? Is it like receiving a gift you need, but don’t want? Is it like receiving help you like from someone you don’t like? Is it like receiving a package from the postman you scarcely know or even care to know?

“We don’t receive Jesus in a saving way when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven.”

Christian Hedonism presses into the actual experience of believing and receiving Christ, because it knows from the Bible that there are many ways to “receive” Christ that are not saving ways. The people in John 6 received Jesus as king, and Jesus escaped them (John 6:15). The brothers of Jesus received him as a miracle-worker, and Jesus said they had no saving faith (John 7:3–5). The people at the feast “believed” on Jesus in some sense, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them (John 2:23–24). Simon was ready to receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter told him, in essence, to take his money and go to hell because he thought he could purchase the power (Acts 8:20).

Received and Saved

Therefore, Christian Hedonism presses into the actual experience of receiving until it discerns what this receiving of Christ really is. And what it finds is that receiving Christ is a saving receiving if Jesus is received not only as a rescuer and a master, but as an all-satisfying treasure.

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

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)

Saving Faith Is Preferring Faith

In other words, receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. But what he is. It means being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. We don’t receive Jesus in a saving way when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we would be satisfied with a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him — we use him.

Saving faith means receiving Jesus as our supreme treasure. That kind of affection for Jesus is not a peripheral add-on. That’s what saving faith is.

The Power of Superior Pleasure in God

I wonder if you see now why such faith, which alone justifies — unites us to Christ so that we are counted perfectly righteous in God’s courtroom — is also the power that kills sin and produces love.

Sin’s Fleeting Pleasure

Why does sin have power over you or your family, or your clients and the use of their money? Nobody sins out of duty. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I have an obligation to sin today.” So why do we sin? Because sin makes promises to us — to you, to your children, to your clients.

It promises that the fleeting pleasures it offers (Hebrews 11:25), now or later, are better, more satisfying, more enjoyable, more hope-giving, than Christ. The only way the power of sin can be broken is by the presence and the promise of a superior pleasure. There is a willpower path to holiness, but to the very degree that it succeeds, it fails, because it replaces the sins that it defeats with the sin of self-righteousness.

Joy in Jesus Severs the Root of Sin

The reason the faith which justifies also kills sin is because this faith is that superior pleasure in Jesus — it is a receiving of Jesus as a supreme treasure. It is being satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus. It is a welcoming, an embracing, a cherishing, a treasuring of Jesus as our “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). And therein lies its power. It severs the root of the promises of sin by the power of a superior pleasure. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Sin can offer nothing to compare with Christ!

And if we are united to Christ for justification by receiving the all-satisfying Jesus in this way, and if the selfish power of sin is broken by receiving the all-satisfying Jesus in this way, how is love produced in you and in those you are trying to help steward their resources? It too is produced by receiving the all-satisfying Jesus in this way. Love — that is, lavish, sacrificial generosity — is the overflow of this joy in Jesus that meets the needs of others.

Joy Overflows in Love

And here is one of the most beautiful pictures of it in the Bible in 2 Corinthians 8:2, where the Macedonians are pouring out their resources for the poor in Jerusalem. Where does this love come from? Not from comfort and security. Not from riches. It comes from exceeding joy in all that God is for us in Jesus.

In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity.

The grace of God had been poured out on them (verse 1). They had seen Christ as the foundation of everything: their sins had been forgiven, their guilt was covered, their condemnation was gone, God’s wrath was replaced with a smile, they stood justified, accepted, adopted into God’s family — by one means: faith alone. And that faith was a receiving of Jesus as their all-satisfying treasure. And what was the result? That faith — that joy — overflowed with generosity in the midst of great hardship:

In a severe test of affliction and in extreme poverty, their abundance of joy overflowed in a wealth of generosity.

So, I conclude that once Christ has paid the price for sin and provided the righteousness we need, there is one means of getting right with God and one means of killing sin and loving people. And they are the same means: receiving and enjoying Jesus as our all-satisfying treasure. That’s the heart of Christian Hedonism. That is the reality at work in Jesus’s commission to Paul and to us.

“I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17–18)