The Key to Our Victory over Sin
Taken from an Interview with John Piper
November 13th marked the birthday of Augustine. The church father was born on November 13, back in the year 354. He of course served as bishop of Hippo in North Africa. His story of conversion and spiritual awakening is laid out in a book under the title The Confessions, a classic memoir, enjoyed today in over a dozen available English translations. That book, and all of his books, have left a permanent impact on the Reformed tradition, and specifically on John Piper and this movement we call Christian Hedonism. When Augustine was in his seventies, he went toe-to-toe with a nemesis named Pelagius, a free-will theologian in Britain. Here’s the backstory, and why it matters today, from John Piper’s 1998 biographic message on Augustine.
My assumption is that too much Reformed thinking and preaching and worship in our day has not penetrated to the root of how grace actually triumphs through joy in believers’ lives. And therefore, our Reformed thinking and writing and preaching and worshiping is only half Augustinian and half biblical and half beautiful. It isn’t beautiful to people.
Everything Good a Gift
Pelagius was a British monk who lived in Rome. He was there when it was sacked. He had to leave. He taught that though grace may facilitate the achieving of righteousness, it is not necessary to that end. Grace is not necessary to making right choices. He did not believe in the doctrine of original sin, and he believed that human nature was, at its core, irreducibly good, and that we are able to do everything we are commanded to do. And therefore, Pelagius and Augustine were on a collision course, because when he read the Confessions, this sentence infuriated him: “Give me the grace, O Lord, to do as you command, and command me to do what you will. O Holy God, when your commands are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them” (Confessions, 245).
“Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over the joy of sin.”
Well, Pelagius went ballistic at this sentence because it was an assault on human goodness. It was an assault on the freedom of the will, in his judgment. It was, therefore, an assault on responsibility, and the whole moral fabric of the world would unravel if Augustine had his way in this assessment of his own conversion and experience with God. Well now, Augustine had not come to this conviction quickly — namely, that anything good he does is a gift from God. He had not arrived there quickly.
I walked into a bookstore at Hope College and saw the book by Augustine on the freedom of the will. I said, “Oh good, I’ve got to lecture on this in a year.” So I picked it up and started reading. I said, “Wow, what is this? I don’t want to lecture on this.” He wrote that book four years after his conversion and radically changed his mind from what that book says. So, be careful claiming what Augustine thinks about this or that.
Exchange Sin for Sovereign Joy
When he wrote his Confessions, he had settled the matter differently and deeply and unchangeably in his own mind. This paragraph that I’m about to read here, in my judgment, for me and my theology and my ministry and my life, is the most important paragraph I’ve ever read in Augustine.
During all those years, where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke? . . . How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose! . . . You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and you took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure though not to the flesh and blood, you who outshine all light yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation. (Confessions, 181)
There’s a theology in that quote. It’s called Christian Hedonism. I call it Christian Hedonism. Nobody else calls it Christian Hedonism, and you don’t have to call it Christian Hedonism. But I hope you believe it. “You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy.” Now there’s the missing piece in contemporary Reformed preaching.
Augustine’s understanding of grace is this: Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over the joy of sin. That’s grace in the thought of Augustine. Grace is God’s giving us a sovereign joy in God that triumphs over the joy in sin. In other words, God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God more than we love sex or anything else.
Joy Is the Essence of Love
Now here’s another problem with contemporary American Christianity: loving God in Augustine’s mind is never reduced to deeds of obedience or acts of willpower. How common that is in our day. “Love? It’s commanded, so it can’t be an emotion. Love is an act of will. Love is obedience for God.” Oh, how we need Augustine in our day. Here’s his definition of the love of God: “I call ‘charity’ the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for his own sake, and the enjoyment of oneself and one’s neighbor for the sake of God” (On Christian Doctrine, 88). Joy is the essence of love. And for American Christianity, it’s a caboose. No wonder our Reformed thinking and preaching is unappealing. We don’t get grace.
“Grace is the giving of a sovereign joy that triumphs over all competitors.”
Grace is the giving of a sovereign joy that triumphs over all competitors. Loving God for Augustine is always conceived essentially as delighting in God above all things and in other things for the sake of God. “He loves thee too little, O God, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake” (quoted in Documents of the Christian Church, 54). That is a revolutionary sentence. I read that years ago, and it just blew me away.
I like my wife. I like my daughter, Talitha. I could idolize my family. My four boys are a treasure to me. And better that they die than that I love them more than God or love them for any reason but for God’s sake. That’s Augustinianism at its core. Now, Augustine analyzed his own motives down to the root. He saw this as a universal. “Every man, whatsoever his condition, desires to be happy. There is no man who does not desire this, and each one desires it with such earnestness and that he prefers it to all other things; whoever, in fact, desires other things, desires them for this end alone. And this desire, this delight, this longing for happiness, governs the will” (Augustine on Prayer, 228). This is not John Piper. This is Augustine.
God Gives Delight
Now, here’s the catch: the delight that the will always follows, we do not determine. And Pelagius smelled it and hated it. Here’s the quote from Augustine:
Who has it in his power to have such a motive present to his mind that his will shall be influenced to believe? Who can welcome in his mind something which does not give him delight? But who has it in his power to ensure that something will delight him will turn up? Or that he will take delight in what turns up? If those things delight us which serve our advancement towards God, that is due not to our own whim or industry or meritorious works, but to the inspiration of God and to the grace which he bestows. (Augustine: His Thought in Context, 203)
In other words, converting, saving grace is God’s giving delight in God, holiness, Christ, Scripture, the beauty of holiness and glory. Suddenly, you see and love and cherish and revel and long for them. Where’d that come from? Now, the will moves with it, but before that’s given, the will is going back to the Internet and the magazine and the concubine and the television and the family.
“God works deep in the human heart to transform the springs of joy so that we love God.”
Now picture this. Augustine is 72. You’re supposed to retire at 65. You don’t take on Pelagius at 70, which he did. And Paulinus his friend said, “Augustine, why? You’re an old man. Lay it down.” That’s my paraphrase. But here’s a direct quote from Augustine on why: “First and foremost because no subject [but grace] gives me greater pleasure. For what ought to be more attractive to us sick men than grace, grace by which we are healed; for us lazy men than grace, grace by which we are stirred up; for us men longing to act than grace, by which we are helped?” (Augustine of Hippo, 355).
Now, what makes that answer so compelling and so powerful is that the healing, stirring, helping, enabling grace — I call it future grace — is the giving of a compelling, triumphant joy. Grace governs life — even the life of a 70-year-old man — by giving a supreme joy in the supremacy of God and his glory and his sufficiency and his beauty and his treasure, which triumphs over all other things. And when you see a Pelagius coming along, undermining that grace and that gift, even at 70, you go to battle.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.