A MISSING THREAD IN REFORMED THEOLOGY
Less mature Christians may grimace at the so-called “doctrines of grace” like children frown at sushi. They do so, however, only because they haven’t yet come to know its deeper joys. The mature grow into a rigor and depth and seriousness about doctrine, and knowing that doctrine produces joy, not boredom.
For many, a kind of “coming of age” spiritually — from the “simple truths” of the gospel, to the massive theological realities that feed, undergird, strengthen, and arise from those truths — means coming into the furnace room of Christianity that some have called “Calvinism.” It is a bizarre term. The truths emphasized in the “system” were not new 500 years ago with John Calvin. The absolute sovereignty of God in all things, salvation included, is present (often shockingly so) in the Old Testament Scriptures, and then pervasive in the New. Then, after the Dark Ages, a great season of rediscovery came with the Reformation. Before Calvin taught the bigness of God in the second generation, Luther did in the first. And long before Luther, Augustine reckoned earnestly with the sovereignty and God-ness of God.
“Calvinism” is a kind of nickname, as Spurgeon called it, for the “strong old doctrines . . . which are surely and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus.” So also, Jonathan Edwards confessed no dependence on Calvin but was willing to go by the term if it helped the faithful distinguish between God’s timeless truth and the incursions of unbelieving thought. Edwards writes in his preface to The Freedom of the Will,
I should not take it at all amiss to be called a Calvinist, for distinction’s sake; though I utterly disclaim a dependence on Calvin, or believing the doctrines which I hold, because he believed and taught them, and cannot justly be charged with believing in everything just as he taught.
When it comes to theology, one danger we face is to so emphasize a doctrine’s truthfulness that we undersell its goodness — and delightfulness. “We need to rethink our Reformed soteriology,” John Piper pleads in his biography of Augustine, “so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of Augustinian delight.”
Augustine, more than most, wrote not only of truth but of joy. Famously he claims in his Confessions that human hearts find no rest until they find rest in God, and he writes of God as not only sovereign in power but also the “sovereign joy” — the universe’s supreme treasure (Matthew 13:44; Philippians 3:7–8), the Joy above all joys and in all joys, and God as the “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4).
So, what, then, might it sound like, and how might it taste, to the maturing palate, to talk not only of the truth but also the goodness and joy of the so-called “doctrines of grace”? The five points of Calvinism (summarized as TULIP, as responses to five specific theological errors) moves from man’s inability to obtain real joy, to the Father’s and Son’s and Spirit’s parts in securing it, to man’s part, and now ability, even surety, of enduring in it. Consider those five famous petals, and taste the sap of delight in each limb and branch of the tree.
“Total depravity,” says Piper, “is not just badness, but blindness to beauty and deadness to joy.” Depravity in us does not produce delight in the long run but misery, a self-chosen misery and a misery God imposes in righteous retribution. Even in the short run, as sin holds out its deceitful promises of pleasure, we are not genuinely happy in our depravity. No one sins out of duty, but neither does sin make anyone deeply and enduringly happy. We sin for the sake of some pleasure, and then find it empty, again and again and again.
Total depravity means we are totally unable, on our own, to escape the prison of our misery, totally unable to secure the joy our hearts ache for. Our native condition, punctuated with thin and hollow thrills, is no happy one. Apart from Christ, we are dead to real joy (Ephesians 2:1, 5; 4:18) and blind to true beauty (2 Corinthians 4:4). And yet it is the “weak,” “the ungodly,” “sinners,” his “enemies” that God reconciles to himself in Christ (Romans 5:6–10), ushering them into true rejoicing (Romans 5:11).
“Unconditional election means that the completeness of our joy in Jesus was planned for us before we ever existed.” The Father chose his people, to share with them his infinite joy, even before they existed, not to mention before they had done anything good or bad. How might it change our talk of such divine election to focus more on the gift of everlasting bliss and less on the loss of perceived autonomy? The Father was not, in Christ Jesus, going about robbing mankind of its ability to choose. Rather, from a race of incapable rebels, he chose a people, in sheer grace and mercy, to share with him in the infinite bliss of the Godhead.
If you are in Christ, God chose you for joy, before you had any choice, or could meet any conditions. He “blessed us in Christ . . . even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:3–4). The sovereign God, who is the sovereign Joy, “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), and his will for his people is to make them indomitably, unassailably happy forever.
“Limited atonement is the assurance that indestructible joy in God is infallibly secured for us by the blood of the covenant.” The Father did not just snap his fingers, flip a switch, or wave a wand to make the everlasting joy of his people certain. The real world is more complicated than that, and real joy is far better. God is both unimpeachably just and teeming with love and mercy. To pay the penalty of the totally depraved, he gave his own Son, who embraced the mission and went willingly. And the gift of God’s own Son made final joy not only possible but certain. For God’s people, our final joy is as certain as the death and resurrection of God’s Son.
Jesus bought our joy at the cost of his own pain and sorrows. Real joy is costly, not cheap. And for his people, his sheep, his bride, he has not only secured the offer of salvation but also effects it for us and in us.
“Irresistible grace is the commitment and power of God’s love to make sure we don’t hold on to suicidal pleasures, but will set us free by the sovereign power of superior delights.” Not only does the Father plan, and the Son accomplish, but God the Spirit applies the Son’s work invincibly, in his perfect timing, to the Father’s chosen people. Precisely when he wills, the Spirit breaks into depraved lives unwittingly hellbent on eternal misery through sin, and he changes hearts irrevocably. He overcomes our slavery to the miseries of sin, and sets us free for the superior joy available only in God.
As he allows, we may indeed resist for a season — but only so long as he permits for his good purposes. When he is ready, he lovingly breaks the back of our resistance. He opens our eyes to the truth, and beauty, and superior worth of Jesus Christ as the Joy of all joys.
“The perseverance of the saints is the almighty work of God to keep us, through all affliction and suffering, for an inheritance of pleasures at God’s right hand forever.” Finally, from the misery of man in our sin, to the Father choosing joy for his yet-to-be-created people, the Son securing it, and the Spirit applying it, we return to man, in Christ. God works in us so that we endure in the joy of faith through the ups and downs of life in this age. Jude famously closes his short letter, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy . . .” (Jude 24).
Perseverance doesn’t pretend straight lines or lives without suffering. Perseverance promises final protection, eternal safety. In Christ, the promise of perseverance says, “Your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20) and “No one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
God is the great storyteller. He doesn’t draw with thin straight lines from conversion to glory. He’s the master of ups and downs, and ups again. He’s not so fragile as to be allergic to suffering any seeming defeat. In fact, in this fallen and sin-sick age, he thrives on the comeback story. His people are often down. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous” (Psalm 34:19). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
God as our sovereign Joy doesn’t mean that every moment of our lives in this age will be pleasant and uncomplicated. But it does promise that there is always a joy that is deeper and greater than any pain and suffering we encounter. It doesn’t mean our troubles are insignificant. But it does mean that our sufferings, in Christ, do not have the final say. Joy will speak the final word. Joy will sound the final note.
Which is why all of us, like Spurgeon and Edwards, who are willing to go by the name “Calvinist,” for distinction’s sake, would do well to show the world, and church, not only our drive for the truth but also the joy and grace that such truths produce.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Churchin Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.