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What Harm a Little Hedonism?
Copyright © 2002, 2006 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Introduction

If one is vocal or public with one’s critical findings from having studied the doctrine of Christian Hedonism, one should anticipate the following question, "Why do you care; what harm could the philosophy of Christian Hedonism possibly cause?"

What harm indeed.

Salvation May be at Stake

Christian Hedonism instructs that before one can be saved, or prior to coming to saving faith, one must first find within their heart the "joy of Christ" and therefore be motivated to give his life to Christ out of sheer happiness and joy. Though a noble-sounding sentiment, such a prerequisite for salvation is not biblical. Jesus warned potential followers that if they approached salvation on the basis of, or from the motivation of, joy alone, they may not be saved.

Jesus made the pointed argument that to come to the decision of "faith" simply out of the desire to obtain joy can create a shipwreck to one’s future faith. In the parable of the sower (found in Mathew, Mark, and Luke) the Lord instructs: "Those 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 8:13)

"What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. 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 10:27-28)

Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. (Proverbs 3:7)

Contrasting the view which Jesus holds, that the fear of the Lord is a key motivation behind salvation, and the one that Christian Hedonism advances, that joy is the key motive behind repentance, an obvious dichotomy emerges. Christian Hedonism, when it calls for all men to come to God motivated first and solely for the joy ("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, 1996 edition, bold emphasis added) it creates a pre-condition for salvation that the Bible, that Jesus, does not establish. Christian Hedonism sets up new converts of joy so that they can fall away from the faith due to lack of grounding, or as Jesus phrased it, "these have no firm root."

Salvation is granted (to the elect) by the process of faith (Ephesians 2:8). Faith itself being a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is imparted by the hearing of the Word of the gospel (Romans 10:17). Faith causes sinners to recognize their sinful state, to understand with holy fear that they are deservedly going to Hell, and this holy fear prompts sinners to repent, confessing to God the renunciation of their sins (Romans 10:9). Such faith is then tested, and the faith that is grounded in this knowledge of the fear of the Lord endures (James 1:2-4).

Since Christian Hedonism establishes such radical changes to the doctrine of salvation, this may be reason enough for marking this doctrinal error as the worst of the harms realized by this movement.

Christian Hedonism Causes Quarrels and Divisions in the Church

"Quarrels" are defined in Scripture by Paul as being the splitting of people into factions that follow specific teachers, as if such teachers had some superior way of life or teaching that differed from all other Bible teachers. "For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I am of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’" (1Corinthians 1:11,12).

Since the movement has called itself "Christian Hedonism" and since the movement has a nameable human founder/inventor, and since this movement declares that only its adherents will be saved ("Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist he cannot see the Kingdom of God" -- Piper, Desiring God, page 55), and since this movement calls all men to become hedonists (by definition this would make them followers of Dr. Piper’s teachings), then this movement can legitimately be called "a faction."

As a faction, it divides this splinter-movement from other Christians, and potentially other churches, on the basis of whether or not they follow these extra-biblical books and philosopohies that espouse Christian Hedonism. If someone should object to the teachings in the books, such as the teaching that "Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist he cannot see the Kingdom of God" on the basis that such teachings violate God’s Word, they themselves become labeled as "divisive" to the movement and are shunned by the hedonists.

This should not be true. God calls His disciples to be like minded, only calling attention to those who teach falsely and so divide the churches, and only then calling attention to them so that they might repent and rejoin the body. Dividing the church on the basis of growing a constituency around a new philosophical movement can only be harmful to the unity of the Spirit. When hedonists shun those who expose the errors of their books they remove themselves from the counsel and help of sincere Christians, causing the divisions to become deeper and more prolonged.

Christian Hedonists Pursue a Knowingly Unbalanced Life

The word "hedonism" (Gk. hedone) means "to pursue pleasure," usually to the exclusion of all other physical or moral considerations. Pleasure is the goal or motive behind everything a hedonist thinks or acts upon. If a thought or a deed is unlikely to generate pleasure, the hedonist will reject it. To adopt "Christian Hedonism" as one’s philosophy would by definition involve committing oneself to only participating in deeds, actions, or thoughts which would bring pleasure. Of course, the Christian life often calls us to put our pleasures on hold and endure much hardship and unpleasant circumstances for the sake of the gospel (Matthew 5:10). "For even Christ did not please Himself" (Romans 15:3a) for the sake of God and for the sake of the gospel.

For the sake of the gospel. Christian Hedonism states that all acts of virtue are really just motivated by the pursuit of pleasure ("the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God." Piper, Dangerous Duty, page 39). So is working for the sake of the gospel the same as working for the sake of pleasure? The gospel says, "do nothing from selfishness" (Philippians 2:3a). Can one serve pleasure and God?

When two courses of action present themselves, does the Christian Hedonist choose the one that is best for the sake of the gospel, the sake of the saints, or the one which he feels will bring him the most pleasure? If an action is chosen to maximize pleasure, when is that reward of pleasure expected to be experienced, now or in heaven? Yet, hedonism fails to ask the better question, "Are all choices really designed to be just a matter of finding the one that on balance is coldly calculated to be most pleasing to the individual?"

What of considering the best course of action for another person even if it causes me loss? Both Moses and the Apostle Paul attempted to trade away their salvation (their eternal pleasure) in exchange for the salvation of the Jews. Neither Moses nor Paul were "hedonists" for they intended to accept eternal unpleasantness so that others could have eternal pleasure in their stead.

On the next day Moses said to the people, "You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the LORD, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.". Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, "Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin--and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!" (Exodus 30:30-32)

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)

What of considering between two or three courses of action? The Christian Hedonist might well answer, "I choose the one that God will most richly reward." And which one is that? What criteria does one use to know which act God "most richly" rewards?

Ordinary believers (those who are not hedonists) would likely argue, "I choose the course of action that is best for my brother, best for the gospel, or best for my neighbor." God will compensate His faithful for their losses in this world (through fellowship with uncounted brothers and sisters in Christ) and with eternal life in the next (Mark 10:28-31), this is true and emboldening. But He also cautions that all a man’s "works" will be tested with a fire. If a man has any work left, he will receive some kind of a reward. If a man’s work is all burned, he will be saved, but his work will not be rewarded (1Corinthians 3:15). What works will be consumed; those performed for the sake of the gospel or those performed for the sake of pleasure, maybe neither, maybe both? How could one ever know how to make a decision based on which action God will choose to more richly reward given that God often states that His criteria are to evaluate whether the motives behind the act are selfish or selfless?

A question for the Christian Hedonist, are you really working to get the largest bag of gold crowns in heaven so you can have the pleasure of boasting, or, are you working for God's kingdom, for His sake, all the while knowing your greatest reward is actually eternity with Him? Hedonist and non-hedonist alike will answer, "the greatest reward is actually eternity with Him." Both expect the same ultimate outcome, that is not the difference between the two. Rather, the difference lies in this: the Christian Hedonist works with all his might to earn pleasure for himself whereas the non-hedonist works with all his might to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1). One works to receive pleasure, the other works to give away pleasure.

The non-hedonist is not distracted with finding the most rewarding and pleasurable works because he knows God will very generously reward him for his obedience--obedience to the gospel, obedience to endurance, obedience to be selfless, obedience to put the good of his neighbor above his own good. Do good and the rewards will come some day, from God's abundant grace. The non-hedonist is just as motivated by his genuine concern for the lost as he might be with the rewards God will some day give to the obedient (2Timothy 2:10). The hedonist, on the other hand, is motivated primarily by his love of the reward and the pleasure it brings to him, which begs the question: "Will this create an unbalanced spirit in the heart of the man?"

Christian Hedonists Have a New Standard by Which to Judge Other Christians

Using those writings which proselytize on behalf of Christian Hedonism and drawing upon anecdotal life evidences, a disturbing pattern of hedonists judging and accusing the global church emerges. Not judging the actions of the church against Scriptural absolutes of sinful practice or righteous practice, but judgment on the basis of invisible motives of the heart. The Dangerous Duty of Delight, a short primer on Christian Hedonism, freely and sweepingly labels the worship of "traditional" churches as services which "belittle worship and God" (Piper, Dangerous Duty, page 58) on the premise that the author has glimpsed their heart motives and attitudes. In numerous conversations with self-professing Christian Hedonists, there is most often the same attitude of superiority displayed, "you need more heart joy, like the kind I have," or, "all other churches are filled with cold, dead, emotionless Christians whose worship is in vain."

How does one measure one’s own level of joy? Given that no known objective system of joy measurement exists, perhaps one could be creative and use "happiness units." A smile might be worth two happiness units while a belly laugh is worth five? Perhaps a happy thought is worth ten happiness units. A sad thought or experiencing a sobering event will require you to deduct six happiness units. At the end of the day, one could add up one’s total "happiness units" and compare their final "joy score" with their daily average to determine if they have become more joyful or hedonistic? Perhaps one could compare their joy scores and happiness point totals with their fellow hedonists to see who wins for the week?

Given that it is impossible enough to evaluate one’s own level of joy and happiness, consider the insanity needed to think one can judge whether another believer is joyful enough? Walk into a church service, is the service joyful enough? And by what standard does one use to judge this? Should the number of praise songs be counted? Would one put a stopwatch to the amount of solemn prayer time (is that a positive or negative in happiness units)?

What a waste of time and energy it takes to judge the hearts and motives of all the churches in this world! This planet’s population is falling away from God and Christians are preoccupied with judging the level of joy the church appears to have on a Sunday morning. How very sad indeed.

You, oh man, you do not know how joyful another man is. You do not know whether God is pleased or not with that man’s level of happiness. So why do you pretend you can judge the entire church? If you wish for someone to be more joyful, try encouraging them by spurring them on to good works instead of judging them against a private and unbiblical standard of "sufficient levels of joy." That man will stand as a servant of the living God regardless of whether he meets anyone’s personal evaluations of his happiness units (Romans 14:4).

Christian Hedonism Is a Poor Model for Exegetical Teaching

Since many of the writings that espouse Christian Hedonism use as their source material secular philosophies, denominational creeds, Bible passages pulled out-of-context, half-quoted verses, and misinterpreted Scripture, use of these writings creates a very poor role model for the church. This model teaches the following poor habits:

Conclusion

What harm can a little Christian Hedonism do to the church? It has the potential to:

What harm hedonism? One last challenge. Try speaking up and ask public questions about where the verse of Scripture is that states, "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.", or, "Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist he cannot see the Kingdom of God"? The reception one receives at the hands of the "Christian" hedonists may be all the answer one needs to the question, "What harm hedonism?"

For more explorations of the exegetical practices used to support Christian Hedonism or the biblical motivations for coming to a saving faith in Christ, you are invited to read the online article: Christian Hedonism--A Wake-up Call to the Church.



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Copyright 2002, 2006 - all rights retained
Page First Posted: 2002
Page Last Revised: February 22, 2006