The Doctrinal Book Most Significant to Me

Determining the single most pivotal theological work on my life and doctrine is rather easy. It was also my introduction to Jonathan Edwards. And while it took me three reads and about 18 months (2003–2004), with the help of lots of handwritten notes and drawings (including an upside down tornado inside the back cover, drawn from the bottom up), the connections finally came together, and my life and theology was forever changed.

The book, immodestly titled The End for Which God Created the World, was published posthumously in 1765. John Piper read it in his 20s. “Oh, man,” he recalled to me, “that book simply blew me away with the God-centeredness of God’s purpose in this universe.”

I felt the same thing. Eventually.

Accurately, the Yale editors later packaged the book with Edwards’ other ethical writings (yes, ethical writings), published in the works (vol. 8 [Yale, 1989], pages 403–536).

For me, fifteen years ago it providentially became the first book I read by John Piper, packaged together with Edwards under the newer title: God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Crossway, 1998). In those years, Piper (along with David Wells), was helping me see through the pressures and demands for short-cut pragmatics and felt-needs in ministry, to patiently trudge up into the mountains of divine revelation for a glimpse of the stunning glories of what Edwards’ beheld in Scripture as he contemplated God’s aims in making creation and us.

I bring it up today because I just discovered a paraphrased version of the work, something I could have made good use of fifteen years ago! If you make this essay the focus of your life and ministry, it’s not the only version of the work you’ll want, but The End for Which God Created the World: Updated to Modern English (2014), edited by pastor Jason Dollar, is a very good place to start, and a worthy attempt to simplify Edwards’ life-changing and virtue inducing treatise for a broader audience.

Made in Joy, Made for Joy

Karl Barth has 99 problems, but ignoring the affections ain’t one. Likely the most joy-centered systematician in church history, Barth is easily the most joy-centered theologian of the first half of the 20th century. In Church Dogmatics alone the reader finds 2,000 references to joy, happiness, and the affections.

And while those mentions are well scattered throughout every volume, there’s a noticeable concentration of the language in his doctrine of God (vol. 2, part 1, §31.2), specifically on the eternity and glory of God. He knew any discussion of God’s glory was also a discussion of God’s joy because these two realities are indivisible (see 1 Tim 1:11). In this section Barth argues, akin to Edwards, that every creature finds its origin in “the movement of God’s self-glorification and the communication of His joy.” You and I exist because God’s self-glory calls forth an interaction with his happiness. We are not accidental products of this joy, like a pot over-boiled. Each life is made with intention. And each life derives its life from the eternal being of God. Thus, in turn, “God wills them and loves them because, far from having their existence of themselves and their meaning in themselves, they have their being and existence in the movement of the divine self-glorification, in the transition to them of His immanent joyfulness.” God’s love for man is grounded in the potential he/she has to experience divine joy in his glorification, in this life and eternally.

Furthermore, in the joy of God we find our vocation. “It is their destiny to offer a true if inadequate response in the temporal sphere to the jubilation with which the Godhead is filled from eternity to eternity. This is the destiny which man received and lost, only to receive it again, inconceivably and infinitely increased by the personal participation of God in man’s being accomplished in Jesus Christ.” Our union to Christ opens new levels of divine joy for us and more levels of divine glorification than if our eternal flourishing did not require the blood of Christ. In Christ, our affectional lives are tuned to the frequency of God’s song of self-glorification, though our response and vocation of worship, in this life, will always remain an “inadequate response.” Regardless, we are caught up into the joy of the Father in the Son.

Now, all of this is readily found in the works of Edwards, as if Barth is just paraphrasing. It’s in the next turn that gets interesting when he immediately introduces the context of eternal judgment. “The reaction of God even against sin, the meaning even of His holiness, even of His judgment, the meaning which is not extinguished but fulfilled even in damnation and hell, is that God is glorious, and that His glory does not allow itself to be diminished, to be disturbed in its gladness and the expression of that gladness, to be checked in the overflowing of its fullness.”

Because all creatures exist in the God-centered expression of God’s joy, any creature that impedes the joy of God, any creature who refuses to be a channel of divine joy into the world — namely, the self-centered creature — meets the wrath of God on the basis that he/she/angel has forever failed to be what he/she/angel was designed to be. In other words, hell is reserved for the God-designed creature who has refused, in sin, to participate in the joy of God in his self-glorification. Eternal judgment meets the one who chooses to thwart his vocation, who refuses to serve as a conduit of the current of God’s joy manifested into creation with the intention of being returned to him in Godward praise. In other words, to “check,” or to reject, the joy of God, is to act contrary to design and thereby to warrant eternal separation.


Source: Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Volume 2, Part 1: The Knowledge of God; The Reality of God (T&T Clark, 2004), 647–8.

New Discussion Guide to The Joy Project

Two years back I wrote a little book to tell the story of redemptive history in a way to highlight and feature God’s plan to give us his joy. I titled it: The Joy Project: A True Story of Inescapable Happiness. You can download the entire thing free of charge online (pdf, epub, mobi), or buy a POD paperback from Amazon.

The book was fairly well received, and became surprisingly useful in church discussion groups and in “getting started” classes, as an approachable introduction into the glories of reformed soteriology.

Since the release, readers and pastors have been asking for a study guide to make the book even more useful in a church context, and pastor Benjamin Vrbicek stepped up and delivered, this week publishing God’s Joy Project: A Short Introduction to Reformed Theology & A Discussion Guide to Tony Reinke’s Book The Joy Project.

He’s given me permission to post the digital files online for free (pdf, epub, mobi). And a POD paperback can be purchased through Amazon.

Thank you, Benjamin, for your labors!

 

How Joy Dies

pss-1Psalm 16:4 —

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names on my lips.

James A. Johnston, The Psalms, Volume 1 (Crossway; 2015), page 178 —

Being happy in God starts with saying no. You cannot be happy and satisfied in God if you are riding the fence. Some people wonder why they cannot find joy in Christ, but they have a foot in each world. They want God to bless them, but they are living for themselves too. They hedge their bets.

David knows better. He will have nothing to do with pagan sacrifices. He will not worship by pouring out the blood of their sacrifices, and he will not pray to their gods. Finding joy and satisfaction in God starts by saying no.

The Elephant of Desire in the Kayak of Our Imagination

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (HarperOne; 2001), page 149:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.

Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (Ignatius; 1989), pages 43–44:

Take an hour or so to do this experiment, not just read about it. (The simple act of taking an hour away from external diversions for inner confrontation with your heart, no matter what comes of it, may he the hardest part of the experiment — and also the most valuable and desperately needed in your hectic life.)

Ask your heart what it wants. Make a list. The sky’s the limit.

Now imagine you are God; there is no limit to your power. Design your own heaven and then give it to yourself.

First imagine what you want. Then imagine getting it all. Finally, imagine having it for eternity. How soon do you think you would grow bored or restless?

Suppose your first list wasn’t very profound. Try again. Go deeper this time: not pleasure and power and fame and money and leisure, say, but good friends and good health and intelligence and a good conscience and freedom and peace of mind. That might take a few more millennia to bore you, perhaps. But aren’t all imaginable utopias ultimately boring? In fact, aren’t the most perfect ones the most boring of all? Doesn’t every fairy tale fail at the end to make “they all lived happily ever after” sound half as interesting as the thrills of getting there?

Can you imagine any heaven that would not eventually be a bore? If not, does that mean that every good thing must come to an end, even heaven? After eighty or ninety years most people are ready to die; will we feel the same after eighty or ninety centuries of heaven? Would you have to invent death in your ideal, invented heaven? What a heaven — so wonderful you commit suicide to escape it!

But if we don’t want death and we don’t want boredom in heaven, what do we want? If heaven is real, what real desire does it satisfy? And even if it is unreal, only wishful thinking, what is the wish? What do we want?

We want a heaven without death and without boredom. But we cannot imagine such a heaven. How can we desire something we cannot imagine?

Our desires go far deeper than our imagination or our thought; the heart is deeper than the mind.

Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

The Pain of Life, the Supreme Goodness of God, and the Joy of the Psalmists

From Stephen Westerholm’s little gem, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans (Baker, 2004), pages 33, 87–88:

The psalmists of the Bible found joy in the presence of God: an overwhelming sense that, wherever one found oneself, and whatever one’s circumstances, God is there — and God is good. The joy may be expressed, as the Psalms frequently enjoin, with music and dance and boisterous shouts. It may find voice in a quiet prayer of assurance: “When I awake, I am still with thee.” In any case, the psalmists repeatedly speak of discovering in the Eternal not only their provision and protection but also their heart’s delight:

Thou hast put gladness in my heart,

more than in the time

that their corn and their wine increased.

In thy presence is fullness of joy;

at thy right hand

there are pleasures for evermore.

Delight thyself also in the LORD;

and he shall give thee

the desires of thine heart.

Not incidental to the pleasure was the belief that the enjoyment was mutual:

He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse:

he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.

The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him,

in those that hope in his mercy.

The psalmists’ joy is rooted in their conviction that, circumstances notwithstanding, life is good, and that they have a share in its goodness, loved by the One who matters most. Praise, for them, is the natural, appropriate venting of joy: to praise the Lord is “fitting” and “good.”

And yet,

The psalmists who found such satisfaction in God’s “face” were fully aware of the darker aspects of life: is there anywhere a literature that more profoundly probes the lot of the despised, the slandered, the despondent, those ravaged by disease or war? God’s ways are often disturbingly mysterious even for the psalmists. They feel that at times he has “hidden” his “face,” and they cannot understand why.

Nonetheless, what prevails in the end is the unshakable faith in their bones, whatever the fate of their flesh, that underlying all is goodness, beyond human understanding but deserving of human trust: a goodness not only worth clinging to when all else fails, but more precious by far than anything else one might desire.