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Christian Hedonism--A Wake-up Call to the Church
Copyright © 2002, 2006 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Awake the Sleeper
When "Christian Hedonism" was introduced in 1986, it was billed by its conceiver, Dr. John Piper, as a "wake-up call" to the believers in every church so that their "slumbering hearts be stabbed broad awake" (Piper, page 55, Desiring God, 1996 edition). Broad awake to the "radical implication … that pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling." (Piper, page 21, The Dangerous Duty of Delight, 2001 edition) Converts to this nouveau philosophy sincerely feel that the acquisition of personal pleasure (sensations of good feelings) is a higher order obligation and better pursuit than any other command or pursuit, such as pursuing love for others.

Indeed, by simple definition of the word hedonism, if pleasure is not the foremost objective--the greatest priority in life--then hedonism has no meaning at all. Hedonism cannot exist as a concept without pleasure as the chief motive and principle preoccupation, for how else could it be called "hedonism?" If pleasure is not one's first goal in life, the very thing for which they live, then they become merely another ordinary person, driven by a host of motives; they simply are not a hedonist.

As the visionary behind the concept, Dr Piper’s proposition is that God made men to desire pleasure, so hedonism must be the good and normal state of a man. He surmises that when an unbeliever converts into a believing Christian, that person becomes a "Christian Hedonist" and his desire for pleasure becomes sanctified with the addition of Christ to his life, for no one and nothing gives more pleasure than Christ. Therefore, since God gives man the most pleasure, men innately seek a relationship with God motivated by their good and natural desire for the fullest life of pleasure. Hence, the name "Christian Hedonist." As hedonists, or more precisely, as "Christian Hedonists" whose preoccupation is the pursuit of their pleasure in God, it is thought that such a person will be happier and more full of holy affections than the lives experienced by Christians who have not adopted this philosophy. In the economy of hedonism, "Christian duty" and "obedience" are considered morbid, ineffectual, and unspiritual.

Unhappily, however, there are serious biblical issues and doctrinal concerns with this philosophy. When one examines closely the books that first introduced and defined "Christian Hedonism" (Desiring God--Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and The Dangerous Duty of Delight) the careful student of God's Word will find the entire foundation of this new theology is predicated on sundry philosophies, abridged creeds, and is largely propped up by misquoted and abbreviated Bible verses, snatches of verses taken out of context, and an unnerving redefinition of the historic understanding of the doctrine of salvation. The true wake-up call for the church really did sound twenty years ago, but where were the sleepers who failed to arise and address the errors of Scripture espoused by this new theology? Do they sleep even still?

Does Salvation Take More Than Faith?
Among the most serious of the issues surrounding the "Christian Hedonism" movement is that salvation is no longer held to be fully dependent on faith in Jesus Christ alone, but also on whether a person adheres to this recently unveiled philosophy.

 

"Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John Piper, Desiring God, page 55)


"Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion is not, 'Believe in the Lord,' but, 'Delight yourself in the Lord'?" (John Piper, Desiring God, page 55)

"The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an 'extra' that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit, your 'faith' cannot please God. It is not saving faith." (John Piper, Desiring God, page 69)

"Not everybody is saved from God’s wrath just because Christ died for sinners. There is a condition we must meet in order to be saved. I want to try to show that the condition…is nothing less than the creation of a Christian Hedonist." (John Piper, Desiring God, page 61)


According to this philosophy, all faith in Christ is invalid and is irrelevant because it is "not saving faith" until one has met the condition of becoming a "Christian Hedonist," which carries the same weight and place of prominence in salvation as does conversion itself. And before salvic conversion itself is possible, one must become a "Christian Hedonist" by having satisfied the precondition to salvation by first finding Christ to be a treasure chest of joy.

"We are converted when Christ becomes for us a Treasure Chest of holy joy." (John Piper, Desiring God, page 66)

"Something has happened in our hearts before the act of faith. It implies that beneath and behind the act of faith which pleases God, a new taste has been created. A taste for the glory of God and the beauty of Christ. Behold, a joy has been born!" (page 67, bold emphasis added)

"Before the decision comes delight. Before trust comes the discovery of treasure." (page 68, bold emphasis added)

Such invention of a new precondition on the historic doctrine of salvation (the very doctrine which was so courageously defended by the reformers) is troubling. Nor should it be taken lightly that conversion (faith-driven repentance) is now equated with and supplanted by the novel notion of "creation of a Christian Hedonist."

We must appeal to the Scriptures for clarity. Do such preconditions make themselves plainly and clearly evident in the Word?

 

"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1)

It would seem that the Bible directly and forcefully contradicts "Christian Hedonism" on this very point because God informs us through the apostle that we are justified by faith alone, we are not justified by the "pursuit of joy." Whether one is examining Romans 5:1 or a wealth of other sacred passages on salvation, hedonism is shown to play no part whatsoever in the process or act of salvation.

Salvation, the gospel, is the call from God (2 Timothy 1:9) to present us the free gift of saving faith regarding the knowledge of Christ’s finished work (Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8) and which call and gift are irrevocable (Romans 11:29) for they of necessity result in repentance from sin (Luke 5:32, Acts 2:38, 3:19) and the renewing of one’s heart and mind so that one may love God (Titus 3:5, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 4:16, Ephesians 4:23,24, Colossians 3:10, 1 John 5:2,3).

Salvation, as defined throughout Scripture, is the call from God to faith and repentance. Nowhere in the biblical evidence is portion given to Christian Hedonism as either the precondition for salvation, the mechanism of salvation, nor the end result thereof. As stated, hedonism plays no part whatsoever in the process, call, or act of salvation. The claim that Christian Hedonism is a prerequisite for, or is coequal to, biblical conversion is wholly without Scriptural precedent or merit.

Christian Hedonism tells us that "pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling" and must come "before the act of faith" making salvation dependent on this pursuit of pleasure. To pursue anything is an activity. Activities are works. Therefore, if the "pursuit of pleasure" is the actual requirement for salvation then it encroaches onto the territory of a philosophy of salvation-by-works that has long been discredited. However, the Word of God puts to shame the very notion of the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of joy, or the pursuit of anything else, as a work which precedes salvation:

 

"nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified." (Galations 2:16)

"Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." (Romans 3:27,28)

But what of the hedonistic assertion that "joy" and the "pursuit of pleasure" cannot be grown into after salvation, for until those pre-qualifiers are satisfied "it is not saving faith" (John Piper, Desiring God, page 69)? To the contrary the Bible teaches that first comes faith (Romans 5:1), then comes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (James 4:5), and with Him comes the enabling to put on the "fruits of the Spirit" that God will spend a lifetime growing within us. "Joy" is just one such fruit of the Spirit, and it claims no special place of prominence ahead of the others. It was not necessary for any sinner to put on all the other fruits of the Spirit prior to coming to salvation, and God has likewise not required anyone to put on the one "special" fruit of joy before salvation. Joy, which hedonists claim is the linguistic equivalent to pleasure, is neither given special treatment within the lists of fruits, nor is it even given first place.

 

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit." (Gals. 5:22-25)

Love occupies the place of honor among the fruits of the Spirit.

Pursuing Joy: Greatest Command or Lesser Command?
Joy (assuming one accepts for the moment that it is in fact the linguistic equivalent of pleasure) is just one of the fruits of the Spirit. As such, joy is important. But joy, and the pursuit of joy, is very much a lesser command of God and inferior in stature and rank to certain other commands. Without contest, the most important pursuit of man is to love God. Man's second most important pursuit is to love his neighbor. This knowledge is the very answer to two whelming questions: "What is the meaning of a man's life?" and "What is the summary meaning of God's Word?"

 

"'What commandment is the foremost of all?'
Jesus answered, 'The foremost is,
'Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord; and 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.'
The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
There is no other commandment greater than these.'"

 

(Mark 12:28b-31, bold emphasis added)

 


...for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, 'You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet', and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'...therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 3:8a-10)


So what is God's definition of "love for God", love being our greatest duty and biblically speaking our highest calling? Love is the intentional use of the mind, the heart, and the body to do good to God, to seek to please Him, for the purpose of giving Him holy pleasure (1 Corinthians 13:5, Colossians 1:10, 1 Thessalonians 2:4, 4:1, Ephesians 6:5,6, Philippians 2:13, 4:18, Hebrews 13:15,16).

Love does not seek to get its own pleasure from the one loved--that is the very definition of selfishness. Rather, love seeks to give good to others, to give pleasure to others, to ensure the welfare of others.

Hedonism makes its ambition to receive pleasure. Hedonism jealously craves pleasure for itself. Love seeks to give; to give good to others, to give away pleasure.

Regarding hedonism, this is perhaps the single most important understanding one can take away. Hedonism seeks to get pleasure for itself. The getting is the priority. The getting of good feelings and sensations is the purpose behind living. On the other extreme is love; love seeks always to give.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. (James 3:14-17)

The pursuit of one’s own pleasure is self-focused ambition. The good to be obtained is for self. It is selfishness. Selfishness leads to disorder because the very philosophy is earthly, natural, demonic. Hedonism is always focused internally on self.

Love is always focused externally, outward toward others. Love is selfless because it reaches outward to do good to others and for one’s neighbors.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13)

Love for God is generated from His mercy and love toward us. In the proportion to which we ourselves understand how much we have been forgiven, we will love God.

"For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Luke 7:47)

"We love, because He first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Such is the contrast between selfishness and selflessness that it should be nearly impossible to overstate the difference. James understood the concept of this love so well that he used this striking expression: "And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments." Ordinarily people think of obedience as the result of loving God. But James saw the truth of genuine whole-hearted love for Christ. He knew that the very definition of love is the pursuit of giving to others, of being pleasing to others. James knew that love for Christ is indistinguishable from doing what He commanded. Love is selfless. No one can please God except that He obey God. No one can love except that he seek to please God.

To love God is to obey God's commandments. To love God is to walk according to what He has commanded; to observe and keep His commandments with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength.

Paul did not even consider joy (the alleged linguistic equivalent of pleasure), or the pursuit of joy for oneself to be important enough to be named along with "faith, hope, and love" (1 Thes.5:8, 1Thes. 1:3, 1 Corinthians 13:13). Joy, and the pursuit of joy, is biblically a lesser commandment, and subordinate to "love God" and "love your neighbor".

Here too "Christian Hedonism" makes an uncomfortable doctrinal misstep. "Christian Hedonism" elevates the "pursuit of joy" to be the most important work of man, and presumably the most important commandment of God.

 

"To that end this book aims to persuade you that 'The chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever'." (Piper, Desiring God, page 15)

"The radical implication is that pursuing pleasure in God is our highest calling." (Piper, page 21, The Dangerous Duty of Delight)

"Maximizing our joy in God is what we were created for." (Piper, page 16, Dangerous Duty)

"The aim of life is to maximize our joy." (Piper, page 19, Dangerous Duty)


In spite of the biblical evidence to the contrary, "Christian Hedonism" calls out for man to make the self-focused pursuit of his own joy his "highest calling," his "chief end," the reason for his very creation, and his "aim of life."

 

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others." Philippians 2:3,4

Is Biblical Worship a Feast for Hedonists?

Worship is a "feast" for Christian Hedonists. That is how Chapter Three of Desiring God describes worship. Why a feast? A feast implies satisfying one’s personal hunger at a table set before him for that very purpose, and so this is consistent with the hedonism theme. Again, the focus is on pleasing self. The individual worshipper becomes the one "getting," filling themselves up on pleasant feelings, sensations, and emotions.

"Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when it makes the joy of worship its goal." (Piper, Desiring God, page 85, 1996, bold emphasis added)

"I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in him." (Piper, Desiring God, page 16, 1996 edition, bold emphasis added)

What an extraordinary picture this is compared with authentic worship as described in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul explains that worship is where everyone comes fully prepared to give; to give a prophecy, to call sinners to repent, to give a teaching, a revelation, a psalm, and all things spoken in the service are to be verbally edifying. What a distance lies between the statements "getting joy from worship is worship's true goal" and "the worship you give is to be verbally edifying." Which goal is authentic? "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship." (Romans 12:1)

But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:25,26)


Without a Biblical Mandate: Even the Name is Meaningless
Without salvation being dependent on one becoming a "Christian Hedonist," and understanding that the "pursuit of joy" is a lesser command of God (while the command to "pursue pleasure" does not even exist), "Christian Hedonism" loses all legitimate meaning. Christians are not commanded by God or the Scriptures to dedicate their lives to pursuing joy as their highest calling since that alone is reserved for the commandment to love God and secondarily to love our neighbors. Since "pursuing pleasure in God" is the whole point and focus of "Christian Hedonism," Christians err gravely when they declare their allegiance to that which is not a precept of God, but is rather a precept of men.

Consider this seemingly harsh rebuff that the Lord gives to the Pharisees when they replaced the genuine Law with their own home-spun edicts and precepts.

 

"You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying,
'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'"
(Matthew 15:7-9, bold emphasis added)

Contextual Conflicts

All followers of Christ are to be workmen who fearfully and properly open, read, teach, and interpret the Scriptures with as much accuracy as can be mustered so as not to warp the understanding of any given text and therefore to not be ashamed of one’s efforts. As will be shown below, Christian Hedonism has not always been so careful with the texts of Scripture as might be desired of workmen.

Below are some examples where hedonism appears to be implied in the text of Scripture, but only due to the verses being used out of their context, and, very often key phrases have been removed. In both cases, the damaged text results in a meaning for the passage which is changed in such a way as to imply that hedonism might have a biblical basis.

Misquotation of Jeremiah 32:40-41 (on pages 53 and 54 of Desiring God)

‘I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to themI will rejoice in doing them goodwith all my heart and all my soul.’ (Jeremiah 32:40-41)

The words which were deliberately omitted from the passage are:

"and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. And"

"and I will faithfully plant them in this land"

These two omitted fragments dramatically represent the true purpose of the covenant being established in Jeremiah 32--to put the fear of the Lord in the hearts of the Jews so they will not turn away from God, and, to allow God to establish the nation of Israel in the promised land. There is no hint that God’s intent is to create a covenant of hedonism with Israel, though that is what the misquoted version of the passage is meant to imply.

Misquotation of Psalm 147:11 (on page 54 of Desiring God)

" ‘The Lord takes pleasure in those whohope in him.’ (Psalm 147:11)"

The words which were deliberately omitted from the passage are:

"in those who fear Him"

"unfailing love"

Again, these two phrases which were removed do not lend support to the notion that Psalm 147:11 is an endorsement of hedonism. Rather, the intact passage demonstrates that God is pleased by those who fear Him and hope in His love. This passage does not support the notion that God is pleased by those who pursue pleasure.

Misquotation of Psalm 37:4

Similar treatment is given to Psalm 37:4 throughout the book, Desiring God. Fragments of this verse are often "quoted" as if they were a stand-alone command which orders man to "Delight yourself in the LORD." Yet, the meaning of Psalm 37:4 cannot be fully perceived until the complete thought is presented from verses 3 through 6.

3. Trust in the LORD and do good; Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.
4. Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.
5. Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, and He will do it.
6. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light And your judgment as the noonday.

Delight is not a command. It is actually part of a conditional promise, as illustrated by this paraphrase:

If we cultivate faithfulness toward God,
And if we do good,
And if we trust in the Lord,
And if we delight in Him,
Then He will give us the desires of our heart (which are desires to grow in righteousness)
And He will also give us discernment as enlightened and penetrating as the noon sun.

By isolating the phrase "delight in the Lord" undue emphasis is given to the word delight. Worse, the context of the passage is lost. Instead of being an explanation of how to become discerning, it becomes an odd sort of apologetic for a call to hedonism.

A more full explanation of the proper rendering of Psalm 37 may be found in the article: Delight Yourself In the Lord: Command or Promise?

Misunderstanding Psalm 115:3 and Psalm 135:6

Adding a new attribute to God’s nature is achieved by Christian Hedonism through referencing Psalm 115:3 and Psalm 135:6 out of context. The proposal is made that God is a hedonist. Though such an attribute of God’s character or such a description of His divine nature are absent in virtually any systematic theology (for the good and proper reason that such descriptions are absent in Scripture) this label is unabashedly affixed to God.

The article, Is God a Hedonist?, will take the reader though a contextual study of the passages which are wrongly cited as "proof" that God is a hedonist, and, the article will provide Scripture which demonstrates that God is not, nor cannot be, a hedonist.

Misrepresenting C.S. Lewis’ Letter 17 to Malcolm

Similarly, Christian Hedonism makes improper claims regarding the writings of C.S. Lewis by selectively quoting excerpts from his manuscripts which imply he supported the concept of the pursuit of pleasure. Yet, in Letter 17 of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis decries pursuing pleasure as being greedy and potentially leading to pride and arrogance. Lewis noted that pleasure should merely happen to one and that a person should be content with that.

For a more detailed look at what Lewis wrote regarding the pursuit of pleasure in Letters to Malcolm, please consider reading the answer to the Final Question in: Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Hedonism.

 

The Harm of Hedonism

Aside from becoming distracted from God's most important priority for our lives (to love and obey Him), what harm is there in practicing and preaching "Christian Hedonism"? When one comes to God merely for the joy of it, Jesus warns that he may miss entirely his place in paradise.

 

"Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. … And those [seeds that fell] on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away." (Luke 8:11,13)

Joy alone is an invalid motivation for seeking out God or salvation as it generates no firm root of faith. Until one sees that the God of the universe is holy and intends to judge all sin, and has the authority and power to condemn one’s spirit to an eternal hell, only then can one appreciate the sense of Jesus’ words: "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)

Conclusion
As Christians we are under compulsion by God to put aside empty and misleading philosophies that do not originate from His Word, such as the proposition offered by "Christian Hedonism." While appealing on many levels of emotion and senses, it is after all a mere precept of men.

Pursue love for God (taking note that obedience claims a sizable and healthy participation in the definition of love) as one's most important duty and highest calling. Keep attentive to the fact that hedonism is preoccupied with "getting" while love’s occupation is "giving." Answer the wake-up call, spare the future spiritual children of the gospel the agony of having the seed of the Word fall on the rocky soil of "Christian Hedonism."


"Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." (Eccl.12:13 NIV)


To explore many more questions regarding the claims and implications of Christian Hedonism, you are invited to read the online pages: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Christian Hedonism.



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Page Originally Posted: September 10, 2002
Page Last Revised: October 22, 2011