Archive for August, 2011

I know it sounds nuts, but stay with me.

First, however, let me say that Piper’s renewal of emphasis on the affections has been very significant. It touches a nerve for people. It gives expression to something that we desperately need. It gives voice to something that some strands of evangelicalism have neglected. So don’t mishear me when I say that it is as important to locate the affections correctly, as it is not to neglect them.

So what do I mean?

Roman Catholic doctrine is that we are justified by faith and love. Make sure you hear this. As my theology lecturer at Moore college stressed, Roman Catholicism is not rankly Pelagian; it knows better than to say we simply earn our salvation. It is more subtle – and more dangerous – than that. It holds that salvation is by grace (the grace of Christ, received sacramentally), but that what unites us to the grace Christ is not bare faith, but faith plus love. In this, as in so many things, Augustine is their teacher.

It was precisely this that the Reformers objected to. The reason is, of course, that faith plus love gives us a boast before God, we can point to something worthy about ourselves, our love.

So here’s the rub. For Piper, is faith one of the affections? Because if it is, then it seems to me that it is dangerously close to being a faith+love complex, a real quality in me. On the other hand, it seems to me that Scripture teaches that faith is ‘bare’.

The key text is Jn 3.14. ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ Faith here is depicted not as a thing but, you might say, as a vector; not a real quality in me, but merely the direction of my gaze towards Christ, like Israel in the wilderness – bare faith. If you’ve ever asked the question, ‘Why isn’t faith a work?’, you’ll know something like this is the only answer.

Of course, I may have misheard Piper, and he wouldn’t say faith is an affection like this. Although if that’s the case, then the stress on the affections seems ungrounded.

Faith – bare faith – faith as a vector, a direction of gaze, quite apart from any quality in me – faith is what unites us to Christ.  It is through this faith, therefore, that we are justified by Christ; and it is through faith that we are sanctified by Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, including the affections.


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Like 2299 others, I was at Oxygen yesterday, and heard the magesterial John Piper. He is a terrific communicator, passionate about Jesus, mission and above all, God’s glory. Refreshing!

At the same time, I’ve always been slightly troubled by his Christian hedonism. Yesterday, I got a little more troubled.When I first read Desiring God in the late ’80’s, I remember thinking the whole project suffered a problem of believability. Of course, it’s true that our joy and satisfaction is to be found in Christ; to place it anywhere else is idolatrous. But calling that specifically ‘happiness’ (and therefore making comments like ‘we never need choose between our happiness and God’s glory’)  has always seemed to me to be a stretch. I guess the purpose is to engage in provocative redefinition, but pulling off something like that is always difficult. Is it not better to say, ‘choose holiness over happiness.But that’s a tactical decision. Something else clarified for me yesterday.

You see, I think there is an unexpressed premise. ‘God is most glorified by us when we are most satisfied (read ‘happy’?) in him’, is one thing; but when added to the idea that we have an absolute duty to seek God’s glory, ends up meaning we have an absolute duty to be satisfied, to be happy.

And that’s a difficult pill to swallow.

It’s one thing to say that you can find true joy and satisfaction in Christ; it’s a different thing to say you must find true joy and satisfaction in Christ, because if you don’t you are diminishing the glory of God. It’s true that we are commanded to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4.4); but whether those commands are intended to bear quite this freight is another question. In a strange way, I wonder whether it runs the rick of taking the joy out of joy. It just seems to get further and further away from the simple ‘Love the Lord your God … and your neighbour as yourself’ of Jesus, without inserting a command to happiness in the middle.

I’m looking forward to today – perhaps I’ll get past these hangups?

PS for those who want to engage Christian hedonism at a more theological level, I was sent an article yesterday that I have started reading and found very stimulating. It’s the top page (scroll down, right hand column).

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