The Joy of the Puritans

Puritan Conference | Sun Valley

According to Jesus in Mark 12:30, the first of all the commandments is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” What does that mean? It can’t be reduced to physical acts of compliance to the law. It can’t be reduced to acts of willpower contrary to the heart’s desire.

We know it can’t because Jesus said in Matthew 15:8–9, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” The lips are singing hymns and worship songs. The lips are preaching truth. The lips are advocating for justice. For the poor. For the unborn.

But these acts of the body and the will — these acts in themselves alone — are not love to God. They are a moral zero. “Their heart is far from me; in vain [empty, zero, for naught] do they worship me” — on Sunday with their singing, on Monday with their deeds. It is not love.

Heart of Love

Why not? Because the heart is far from God. Luke’s version of the first commandment gives us a clue as to the essence of love for God. It goes like this (spoken by the lawyer, approved by Jesus): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

But that translation is not exactly right. Translating each of these prepositional phrases identically (“with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind”) overlooks a crucial difference. One of them is different, the first one: “You shall love the Lord your God from all your heart.” The first Greek preposition means “from” or “out of.” The other three prepositions mean “in” or “with.”

So, more carefully, the first commandment in Luke 10:27 is, “You shall love the Lord your God from [out of, as a root or spring] all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” They move the muscles of their lips; they show their willpower; but their affections are not for me.

Why does that matter? Because it is a clue that the human heart has a unique role to play in loving God. The soul, the strength, and the mind are not peculiarly associated with the affections. But the heart is. Love for God comes first from the heart. “You shall love the Lord your God from all your heart,” because love’s essence is what the heart produces — not the motions of the lips, not the acts of willpower against the desires of the heart, but first the affections of the heart.

What the soul and strength and mind produce are ways of expressing love, ways of feeding love. But their work is not the essence. Heart-work is the essence. Which is why Jesus essentially said, “In vain do they worship me, in vain do they love me, for their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8–9).

What Are Spiritual Affections?

I’m using the word affections the way the Puritans did. For example, in John Owen’s book Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, he says, “Without spiritual affections we cannot be spiritually minded.” (See page 395 of The Works of John Owen.)

What’s he referring to — spiritual affections? He explains, “Spiritual affections [are the way] the soul adheres unto spiritual things [e.g., Scripture, salvation, Christ, heaven, God]” (395). And how do the affections thus adhere to these spiritual realities? He answers, “[By] taking in such a savor and relish of them as wherein [the soul] finds rest and satisfaction.” This, he says, “is the peculiar spring and substance of our being spiritually minded.”

So, spiritual affections are the Holy-Spirit-enabled savoring, relishing, resting in, being satisfied with spiritual reality, as opposed to carnal or worldly reality. And at the apex of that spiritual reality is God. Therefore, to be spiritually minded — that is, to love God with all your heart — is to savor, and relish, and rest in, and be satisfied with God above all other reality.

When John Owen says, amazingly, “All the designs of [God’s] effectual grace, are suited unto and prepared for this [one] end — namely, to recover the affections of man unto himself,” he means: God’s great end in redemption is to bring men to love him with all their heart (395). Or to be more complete: God’s great end is that his greatness and beauty and worth be magnified in our savoring, relishing, resting in, and being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.

Or to use more familiar language, God’s great end in redemption is that his glory be magnified by our enjoying him above all things forever. That is the essence of what the great commandment requires — the heart’s enjoyment of God above all things. To love God with all your heart means to savor him, relish him, rest in him, be satisfied in him above all things.

How Affections Authenticate

This is not reductionistic, as if Owen or I were saying that the grand aim of creation and redemption were reduced to, or limited to, the affections of the human heart. The roots of a tree and the sap it makes, which courses through every branch and every leaf, giving life to every living fiber, is not everything in the tree. The roots are not the branches. The sap is not the leaves. And the human heart is not the mind or the tongue or the legs or the arms. And spiritual affections are not the new heavens and the new earth.

But under God, they are the authenticating reality of all divine and human activity. Owen puts it like this: “Whatsoever we do in the service of God, whatever duty we perform on his command, whatever we undergo or suffer for his name’s sake, if it proceed not from the cleaving of our souls unto him by our affections, it is despised by him; he owns us not” (396).

In other words, whatever we do in the age to come in the new heavens and the new earth (which are vastly more than affections), whatever we think, whatever we build, whatever acts of creativity or worship we complete, they will be as nothing, and worse than nothing, if they are not coursing with the sap of delight in God, savoring God, relishing God, loving God.

“Spiritual affections define who we are, and where we belong in the last day.”

Which means that we won’t even be there without the spiritual affections of savoring and relishing and loving God. These spiritual affections define who we are, and where we belong in the last day. Owen puts it like this: “Whatever men pretend, as their affections are, so are they” (396).

They are not everything. But they permeate everything. They authenticate everything. They sweeten everything. They magnify God in everything. And they guide everything. “Affections,” Owen says, “are in the soul as the helm in the ship; if it be laid hold on by a skillful hand, he turneth the whole vessel which way he pleaseth” (397).

Widening Our Lens

Now, up to this point I haven’t mentioned the word joy, even though my title is “The Joy of the Puritans.” But I hope you have recognized that’s what I’ve been talking about. The spiritual affections of savoring, relishing, being satisfied, delighting — those are ingredients of joy in God. And that’s what I aim to focus on in this message: the joy of the Puritans in God.

It may help us grasp not only the meaning, but the importance, of what I’m saying about the affections if I open the lens a bit and say a more general word about affections in the Bible. Over the years I have found that there is a kind of Christian — I think they number in the millions — who reads the Bible through a lens that virtually blocks out the affections. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say, a lens that neutralizes or deactivates the significance of the affections in the Bible.

It’s as though the lens of their glasses puts a little note on the affections: “Unimportant, negligible, peripheral, caboose on the train, icing on the cake, optional.” Or, to say it another way, this lens is designed to make the Christian life look like a process of right thinking, right deciding, and right doing. Doctrine, decisions, deeds. Have right thoughts about God, make right decisions about God, and do right things for God — while the hundreds of biblical texts about the affections drop from view.

Deep-Seated Truth

That way of reading the Bible is another world from the way the Puritans read the Bible. Owen said, “[The affections] are the seat of all sincerity, which is the jewel of divine and human conversation, the life and soul of everything that is good and praiseworthy” (396). One view marginalizes the affections by making them optional. And one view makes them the “soul of everything that is good and praiseworthy.”

I don’t know where your roots are on this issue, but it may be helpful to pan out for a moment and see some of the vastness and indispensability of the affections in the Bible. I say “indispensable” because of how often they are commanded. Not suggested, commanded.

Negatively, we are commanded

  • not to feel covetous (Exodus 20:17),
  • not to fear those who kill the body (Luke 12:4),
  • not to feel anxious (Matthew 6:25),
  • not to give way to anger (Colossians 3:8),
  • not to lust (1 Thessalonians 4:5), and
  • not to love money (Hebrews 13:5).

Or positively:

  • Contentment is commanded (Hebrews 13:5).
  • Hope is commanded (Psalm 42:5).
  • Thankfulness is commanded (Colossians 3:15).
  • Zeal is commanded (Romans 12:11).
  • Brotherly affection is commanded (2 Peter 1:7).
  • Tenderheartedness is commanded (1 Peter 3:8).
  • Sympathy is commanded (1 Peter 3:8).
  • Contrition is commanded (Psalm 51:7).
  • Desire for the word of God is commanded (1 Peter 2:2).
  • Sorrowful sympathy is commanded (Romans 12:15).
  • Joy is commanded (Philippians 3:1).
  • Gladness is commanded (Matthew 5:12).
  • Delight is commanded (Psalm 37:4).

So, if you have been reading the Bible through a lens that turns all of this into optional icing on the cake of decisions and deeds, I urge you to take them off. I know it’s threatening. For at least two reasons.

Our Fears Behind Feeling

One is that all of us are emotionally handicapped. The range of our healthy affections is very narrow, and that list I just read is, with our emotional disabilities, totally unrealistic for us. We can feel a few things really strongly: anger, lust, disappointment, fear. That’s what our hearts are good at. But hope, and brotherly affection, and tenderheartedness, and delight in God? So many spiritual affections feel outside our range.

And the other reason it feels threatening to take off the affection-minimizing lens is that we know that affections are not the kind of thing you can turn on and turn off by an act of willpower. So, all of those commandments are impossible. They threaten my control. Even if I wanted to change and become that kind of person, I couldn’t.

How can you obey the command to be glad when you feel sad? How can you obey the command to be tenderhearted when you are angry and bitter? How can you obey the command not to fear when you are afraid? What should we do — become hypocrites? Fake it till we make it?

No. Jesus is not in the business of making hypocrites. He is in the business of helping us do the humanly impossible. Remember the rich young ruler? Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus for treasure in heaven. In other words: “Stop loving money, and start loving me.” But he couldn’t do it, and he walked away. (Unlike the dad in Mark 9:24 who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”)

Jesus commented to his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” — than for a person who prefers money to Christ (Matthew 19:24). They were stunned and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus did not say, “Nobody.” And he did not say, “His problem was that he was unwilling to become a hypocrite.” What he said was, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). In other words: “I came into the world to forgive sinful affections and create new ones.”

So, I understand why you might not want to take off your affection-minimizing lens — why you might want to hold onto a Christianity of right doctrine, right decision, and right deeds, untroubled by merely optional affections. That religion is comfortable, because it’s in your control. “I think through my doctrines. I make my decisions. I do my deeds. It’s my obedience.”

John Howe as Our Guide

The Puritans see the Bible and the affections and the reality of enjoying God in a radically different way. So what I want to do for the rest of this message is let the Puritan John Howe guide us into the biblical understanding of delighting in God as the essence of loving God — the greatest commandment, and the end for which God created the world. We’ll do this in four steps:

  1. The duty of enjoying God
  2. Strategies for enjoying God
  3. The glory of enjoying God
  4. The summons to enjoy God

John Howe was an English Puritan pastor who lived from 1630 to 1704. He served several churches and was a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. In 1674 he published a work titled A Treatise of Delighting in God — a 279-page meditation on Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Under the authority of Scripture, which he loved, John Howe will be our guide along the pathways of obedience to Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.”

1. The Duty of Enjoying God

First, let John Howe express his agreement with what we have seen so far — namely, that the great commandment to love God with all our heart is in its essence a commandment to savor, relish, be satisfied with God more than in anything else.

“Loving God as we ought is not less than experiencing him as our greatest pleasure.”

Howe uses the word pleasure to express this. He asks, “Can they be said to love him, that take no pleasure in him? That is, to love him without loving him.” (See page 561 of The Works of Reverend John Howe.) In other words, loving God as we ought is not less than experiencing him as our greatest pleasure. It is more than that, but not less.

Then Howe draws out the obvious implication not only from the great commandment, but also from the fact that Psalm 37:4 is also stated as a commandment (“Delight yourself in the Lord”) — the implication being, in his words: “It is plain that it is the common duty of all to delight in God” (479, emphasis added). Duty, obligation. If delight is commanded by God, delight is the duty of man. If delight in God is a command, delight in God is obedience.

Delight as Obedience

Now we need to linger here for a moment to get some clarity about the relationship between obedience to God and delighting in God, because there seems to me to be no end of confusion on this matter among Christians.

For example, about twenty-five years ago at a conference in England, I was on a panel with one of my heroes, Elisabeth Elliot. She knew about my Christian Hedonism, and so she prodded me with this: “John, I don’t think you should say, ‘Pursue joy with all your might.’ I think you should say, ‘Pursue obedience with all your might.’” To which I responded, “But, Elisabeth, that’s like saying, ‘Don’t pursue peaches; pursue fruit.’”

Peaches are fruit. And joy in God is obedience to the command, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). Delight in God is obedience to the command, “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). It causes no end of confusion to inculcate into believers the mindset that delighting in God and obeying God are alternative paths, that the pursuit of delight and the pursuit of duty are alternative pursuits. They’re not! John Howe is right: “It is the common duty of all to delight in God” (479, emphasis added).

“If delight is commanded by God, delight is the duty of man.”

Test yourself. How would you respond if someone said, “We should enjoy obeying God”? I would say, “Yes, indeed. The commandments of the Lord are not to be burdensome (1 John 5:4). His yoke is easy. His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). ‘In the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God’ (Psalm 40:7–8). Yes, we should enjoy obeying God.”

Delight to Obey

But there are at least two problems if that’s all you say. First, the average person who hears that will infer from what you say that obedience is one thing, and the possible enjoyment of it is another thing, but it’s not obedience. So, the confusion continues.

Here’s a worse problem: If we say, “We should enjoy obeying God,” but say no more about the relationship between obedience and joy in God, we will almost certainly confirm people in the widespread misconception that there is a holy obedience to God that may have no delight in God at its root.

The Puritans knew their Bibles better. We’ve already heard from John Owen that delight in God is the “soul of everything that is good and praiseworthy.” But now listen to John Howe:

As the law of love is the universal and summary law, comprehending all duty . . . so must disaffection to God be comprehensive of all sin. . . . Dost thou not see then how thou cancellest and nullifiest the obligation of all laws, while thou hast no delight in God? . . . Not to delight in God therefore, what can it be but the very top of rebellion? (605)

In other words, where the heart has not embraced God as its supreme treasure, all apparent obedience is rebellion. “This people honors me with their professed obedience, but their hearts are far from me. In vain do they profess to obey” (cf. Matthew 15:8). Savoring, relishing, being satisfied with, enjoying God in Christ as our supreme treasure is obedience, and it is the root of all other true obedience. It is our duty and the root of all other God-glorifying duty.

2. Strategies for Enjoying God

So, we may ask Puritan John Howe: If delighting in God, enjoying God, loving God, is so deeply essential and so pervasively transformative (as the root of all true obedience), how then shall we obtain and live in this delight?

Howe’s first answer, like Jesus, is: You must have a new heart — the heart promised in the new covenant, which Jesus bought with his blood (Luke 22:20). This is the new covenant. This is what Jesus bought for his bride, his sheep, his elect: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:26–27).

Then Howe makes this connection: “When it can once be truly said, ‘Thy law is in my heart,’ it will be also with the same sincerity be said, ‘I delight to do thy will, O God,’” like Psalm 40:8 (507). And since it is God’s will that we delight in him (not just his will separate from him), he himself will be the delight of our delight (cf. Psalm 43:4). That’s where it starts: We must be born again. We must have new hearts.

Second, Howe urges us to fight against all that obstructs delight in God. “Strive against all your spiritual distempers that obstruct it, in the power of the Holy Ghost” (590–591). And: “God hath in this matter no other rival than this world. It is its friendship that is enmity to him (James 4:4)” (620). Set yourself against God-diminishing thoughts, against entertainments that make your mind more worldly and less able to delight in God.

Third, Howe says, “If ever you will do anything in this great matter of delighting in God, you must arrest your thoughts for him, and engage them in more constant converse with him: and [mingling] prayers with those thoughts” (645).

He goes on: “God is out of your sight, and therefore how can it be expected you should find a sensible delight in him” (601). Then: “There can be no other way to be taken, but to behold him more in that discovery of him which his gospel sets before your eyes, and in that way seek to have your hearts taken with his amiableness and love, and allured to delight in him” (656).

In other words: We won’t enjoy him if we don’t engage to know him. And what is it about God that we should keep before our eyes? Howe gives us this taste:

[God] did invite thee to delight in him who hath always sought thy good, done strange things to effect it, takes pleasure in thy prosperity, and exercises lovingkindness towards thee with delight; who contrived thy happiness; wrought out thy peace at the expense of blood, even his own; taught thee the way of life, cared for thee all thy days, hath supplied thy wants, borne thy burdens, eased thy griefs, wiped thy tears. And if now he say to thee, “After all this couldst thou take no pleasure in me?” will not that confound and shame thee? (610–611)

In other words, devote your minds steadfastly to the unsearchable riches of God in Christ.

3. The Glory of Enjoying God

It is remarkable how many Reformed theologians are uneasy with the Puritan emphasis on the experiential nature of the Christian faith rooted in the duty of delighting in God. One of the possible reasons behind this uneasiness is the preeminence of the objective reality of the glory of God in Reformed theology. It is thought that elevating the subjective experience of delighting in God will somehow dislodge the glory of God from its objective preeminence.

But ironically it was the very fact that the Puritans shared this zeal for the preeminence of God’s glory that they insisted on the indispensable duty of delighting in God. Jonathan Edwards, with his little echo in John Piper, was not the first to see the revolutionary truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. John Howe put it like this:

We are to desire the enjoyment of [God] for his own glory. And yet here is a strange and admirable complication of these with one another. For if we enjoy him, delight and rest in him, as our best and most satisfying good, we thereby glorify him as God. . . . It is his glory to be the last term of all desires, and beyond which no reasonable desire can go further. (559)

It is his glory to have [needy] souls satiating themselves in him. . . . And if you should say you love him, but . . . you care not to be happy; it would sound like a hollow compliment. You are not to deal with God upon such terms. (655)

What does John Howe think about any effort to minimize the greatest commandment — the commandment to delight in God above all else, and thus to glorify him as the most excellent of all beings? What does he think of the aversion to delighting in God that would attempt to extol the glory of God without delighting in him? Here is what he thinks, and it may be the most amazing paragraph in his entire book:

Is not aversion to delight in God a manifest contrariety to the order of things; a turning all upside down. . . . How fearful a rupture doth it make! How violent and destructive a dislocation! If you could break in pieces the orderly contexture of the whole universe within itself, reduce the frame of nature to utmost confusion, rout all the ranks and orders of creatures, tear asunder the heavens, and dissolve the compacted body of the earth, mingle heaven and earth together, and resolve the world into a mere heap; you had not done so great a spoil as in breaking the primary and supreme tie and bond [that is, delight in God] between the creature and his Maker. (603–604)

4. The Summons to Enjoying God

Therefore, since God will not be supremely glorified in his people apart from his people being supremely satisfied in him, let us give heed to John Howe’s closing summons.

Awake, and make haste to get your heart fixed [to delight in God]; lest “the heavens rejoice, and the earth be glad, the world and all that dwell therein; lest the sea roar, and the fulness thereof, the floods clap their hands, the fields and the hills be joyful together, and all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord” — while you only are silent and unconcerned (650).

Make haste. Do you not have a promise? “In [his] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Pursue this with all your might. Make this “the business of your life” (608).