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!