How Jesus Secures Your Highest Joy
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Christian Hedonists aim to make the pursuit of joy in God our life’s work. Which is not at odds with devoting our lives to God’s glory — because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
But Christian Hedonists must, in time, say more about the object of our joy than simply “in God.” Not any so-called “God” will do. Our souls will not be deeply and enduringly happy, and our purpose in this life (and forever) will not be fulfilled, if we do not find our heart’s satisfaction in the true God, the God who is, the God who has revealed himself as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; 11:31; Ephesians 1:3, 17; Colossians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3).
But how do we know this God’s defining features? What is it about the Christian God that distinguishes him from the false gods to which billions globally bow the knee? Does our God, the true God, have a defining mark or a defining moment?
God’s Defining Moment
For Christians, our defining mark is a particular person: Jesus Christ. We believe that God himself, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, lived among us as one of us. He took on our flesh and blood and full humanity. The eternal Word, the second person of the Trinitarian Godhead, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
“The defining moment of Jesus’s life — from Good Friday to Easter Sunday — has become for us God’s defining moment.”
But the true God gives us not only a defining person but also a defining moment. The four Gospel accounts bear witness to a clear climactic moment in the 30-plus-year life of Jesus of Nazareth: he died an excruciating death on the cross for sins not his own and rose three days later vindicated. The defining moment of Jesus’s life — from Good Friday to Easter Sunday — has become for us God’s defining moment. Because in the death and resurrection of his Son, God secured for us at least three priceless realities essential for real, deep, and enduring joy.
Omnipotent Wrath Removed
Without the cross of Christ, there is no Christian Hedonism. Because we are miserable sinners, and God is the indestructibly happy God, we will never taste real joy unless God acts to remove what we cannot: the barrier our sin erects between us and him. The very nature of sin is insurrection against God’s joy and our joy in him. Because the highest and deepest grounds of God’s own joy is himself (he has no other gods before him), sin is not just a barrier; it’s an assault.
So, the first priceless reality that God himself must secure, if he is to make possible for his people their full and lasting joy, is the removal of his righteous wrath against us because of our sin. Which he does through his own Son supplying “the blood of the covenant” (Hebrews 10:29).
On the night Jesus died, he took a cup, gave thanks for it, and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; also 1 Corinthians 11:25). In ancient times, formal agreements (covenants) often were ratified by both parties pledging their faithfulness through shedding (animal) blood, and applying it to themselves, to portray the gravity of the arrangement. The ritual communicated, in essence, “May my blood likewise be shed if I do not keep the terms of this covenant.” The Mosaic covenant is Scripture’s signature example of such a two-party covenant, with shed blood sprinkled on both the people and on the altar, to represent God (Exodus 24:3–8).
But not all covenants were inaugurated by both parties shedding (symbolic) blood. When God made a covenant with Abram, for example, God alone took to himself the blood of the covenant as he passed through the sacrificial pieces, while Abram slept (Genesis 15:7–21). In doing so, he said, in effect, “As surely as I am God, my promise to you will come to pass. It is not conditional on you. I will surely do it.”
“At the cross, Christ secured the joy of the new covenant and became the most glorious object of our joy.”
The new covenant, inaugurated by the shedding of Jesus’s blood, is like the covenant with Abram, not like the covenant with Moses. God himself, in the person of his Son incarnate, alone spills the blood of the covenant to remove his righteous wrath against his people and utterly secure, for those who are his, his eternal favor. The blood of the covenant has already been spilled. The removal of God’s wrath against those who are in Christ is certain.
However, more is required, and more is included, in Jesus’s costly purchase.
New Heart Given
The cross of Christ, and the shedding of the blood of the covenant, not only purchased the possibility of joy but also the heart of joy. Under the terms of the covenant, a new heart is not only available; it is essential. The problem of our sin is not only external (requiring the removal of God’s wrath), but also internal (requiring in us a new heart). Sin has poisoned our souls. To enjoy God, we need new hearts, which we find to be the explicit promise of the new covenant in Christ. Six hundred years before Christ, God promises, through Jeremiah,
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. (Jeremiah 31:33)
Then through Ezekiel, he declares,
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
The reality of the cross cannot be peripheral in the pursuit of our joy, because without Christ’s purchase for us of “a new heart” (and the replacing of our “heart of stone” with “a heart of flesh”) we may be saved from eternal misery, but we have not yet been ushered into full and lasting joy.
One more vital reality, beyond our new heart, was also purchased by Christ at the cost of his life.
New Glory Revealed
We need not only a ground of rejoicing (in wrath removed and a new heart given) but also a glory to rejoice in. In the cross, two simultaneous things happened: Christ both secured the joy of the new covenant (by his own blood) and, in the very act of purchasing our joy, he became the most glorious object of our joy.
“Where do we look to see the glory of God? In the crucified (and risen) face of his Son.”
The apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that the light to which God opens the eyes of our (new) hearts is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” The Christian gospel — as the gospel of the glory of Christ — is not just the mechanism and means of obtaining our fullest and richest joy, but also the object and focus of it. Christ, the crucified God-man, lifted up in glory as he offered himself for sinners at the cross (John 8:28; 12:32) is the visible “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
The cross is God’s defining moment, as he puts forward his crucified (and risen) Son to be the conscious focus and object of our everlasting joy. Or, as Paul puts it again, just a sentence later, God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Where do we look to see the glory of God in its climactic expression? In the crucified (and risen) face of his Son. We look to Jesus. We turn our eyes to the one who, in the very act of securing our joy, became our greatest treasure.
Joy of the Cross
To “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) is to rejoice in the God-man who gave himself to the slaughter to come into his glory. This is what it means to “glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3). God made the human heart to be satisfied not only in the divine, but in the divine who became human. And not only in the divine-human, but in the God who, as one of us, gave himself for us. The glory of God in which Christian Hedonists rejoice (both now and in the age to come) is the glory of God himself revealed to us in the person and work of his Son.
It is infinitely precious that the costly purchase of the cross includes the removal of God’s righteous wrath and the provision of a new heart capable of deep and enduring joy. But the cross accomplished even more: it brings us to God himself. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And as we come, whom do we find “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3)? Whom else but the one God has seated at his right hand, his own glorified Son, who has become for us the object and focus of our everlasting joy.
On its own, the cross was the most horrible, unjust event in the history of the world. But Christian Hedonists, in our unashamed pursuit of joy, do not avoid the cross. We cannot. Rather, we turn precisely to the cross, seeing how fitting it was for God, in the world of sorrow and death we inhabit, to secure our joy through the gruesome death of his own Son.
In the cross, we find God’s defining moment, when he not only removed the ultimate obstacle of our joy and secured for us a new heart of joy, but also when, in the very act of purchasing our joy, he became the most glorious object of our joy. Only in and through Christ can we say with the psalmist, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.