February 21, 2014

The Flower and Life of True Religion

by Mike Riccardi

Joy - DefinitionThere are few topics that are more worthy of the Christian’s study and attention than the topic of Christian joy and rejoicing. Gordon Fee hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Joy…lies at the heart of the Christian experience of the gospel; it is the fruit of the Spirit in any truly Christian life, serving as primary evidence of the Spirit’s presence” (The Epistle to the Philippians, 81). He goes onto say that, “Unmitigated, untrammeled joy is . . . the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus” (ibid., 404). The great British expositor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote that, “Nothing was more characteristic of the first Christians than this element of joy” (Life of Peace, 143). Elsewhere he said, “The greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful church” (Spiritual Depression, 5). And perhaps the great Puritan Richard Baxter said it best when he said, “Delighting in God, and in his word and ways, is the flower and life of true religion” (The Cure of Melancholy, 257).

This teaching absolutely permeates the entire New Testament and is everywhere confirmed by it. Take in this staggering emphasis on the centrality of joy in the Christian life as revealed in Scripture.

  • The kingdom of God itself is said to consist in joy. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
  • Joy is atop the list of the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy….”
  • The Gospel is good news of great joy (Luke 2:10).
  • The Gospel itself—the work of the Lord Jesus Christ—was fueled by joy.  Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus “endured the cross” “for the joy set before Him.”
  • Joy characterizes the very beginning of the Christian life. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus describes conversion as a man finding a treasure hidden in a field, “and from joy over it he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.” (See also Acts 13:48.)
  • Joy also characterizes the end of the Christian life. In Matthew 25:21, Jesus describes the welcome of His faithful servants into heaven with the phrase, “Enter into the joy of your master.
  • Joy is the great end and purpose of prayer. In John 16:24, Jesus commands His disciples, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.
  • Joy is the great end and purpose of Jesus’ teachings. In John 15:11, He tells the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” And again in His high priestly prayer, He said, “these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves” (John 17:13)
  • Joy was the distinctive mark of the early church. Acts 13:52: “And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit
  • Joy is the true consequence and companion of saving faith. In Romans 15:13, Paul prays: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.
  • Joy is the dominating characteristic of all true believers. 1 Peter 1:8: “And though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.
  • Joy is the inevitable result of serving the Lord. Luke 10:17 records the great joy of the seventy disciples Jesus sent out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
  • Joy is also the very goal of ministry for those ministered to. In 2 Corinthians 1:24, Paul describes his ministry to the Corinthians by saying, we “are workers with you for your joy.” And in Philippians 1:25, he tells the Philippians he’s convinced that he’ll remain on in the ministry “for your progress and joy in the faith.
  • Joy is what sustains suffering Christians in the midst of affliction. 1 Thessalonians 1:6, Paul says: “You . . . received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit.
  • Joy is the result of true Christian fellowship. In 1 Thessalonians 3:9, Paul asks his dear friends, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account?”
  • And finally, joy is the very occupation of heaven itself, as we learn in Luke 15:10 that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

There simply cannot be any doubt as to the centrality of joy in the Christian life. Any thought of joy as being the “icing on the cake” of the Christian life, or a “take-it-or-leave-it” fruit of the Spirit, falls woefully short of the biblical testimony. The kingdom of God, the fruit of the Spirit, the Gospel itself, the beginning and the end of the Christian life, the goal of prayer, the goal of the Word, the goal of ministry, the result of fellowship, the strength to endure suffering, and the occupation of heaven. Joy absolutely saturates the pages of Scripture.

And in the same way, it must saturate every fiber of our soul and of every aspect of our Christian lives. It is to be the distinctive and dominating characteristic of the Christian life. It is, as Baxter said, the flower and life of true religion. May God give us grace to pursue our greatest and highest joy in Him through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Tom

    Thanks Mike. What a great way to start my day.

    • Amen, brother. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called joy the Christian’s heritage. We would all do well to open our day meditating on our birthright and on the Father who bequeaths it to us by making His own Son’s joy full in us.

  • There are few topics that are more worthy of the Christian’s study and attention than the topic of Christian joy and rejoicing

    So true! It’s too easy to forget the Joy we posses in Christ, I think partly because “happiness” is often confused with joy. Happiness has a temporal quality, joy is eternal. My “happiness” should flow from the joy of my salvation, and the constant reminders that these scriptures bring to our fallen minds.

    Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. -Psa 51:12

    Thanks for this, Mike.

    • I think you raise a valid point, Suzanne. If we equate joy with a mere feeling — an emotion built on top of emotion rather than an emotion founded solidly upon the facts and the truth of God’s Word — we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

      At the same time, I think just as much damage has been done, if not more, by totally distinguishing joy from happiness as conflating the two. People who suppose that they can be gloomy, morose, depressed, and cheerless, and yet nevertheless have the joy they’re commanded to have because they define it as wholly objective, also fall short of the biblical command to rejoice always. It’s true that the reasons for our joy are objective and eternal, but joy itself is the affection that arises from the subjective experience of the gladness that is engendered by those objective truths. If we miss this, we face the danger of being those people whose “joy” is so “down in my heart,” as the song says, that no one ever gets to see it!

      I think I’ll write more about this next time. Thanks Suzanne!

      • Hm, I wonder what that might look like to define/ live-out joy merely as “wholly objective” ? Like a kind of asceticism? A person who claims Christ while at the same time carries themself as “gloomy, morose, depressed, and cheerless” would be a great concern indeed! Not at all product of genuine believers joy.

        In my comment I was thinking more along the lines of people (particularly newer believers) who experience lifes disappointments (great and/or small) and miss this part, the joy that transcends “happiness”, (we all have at some point) and need encouragement toward the real Joy that is found soley in being known and cared for by an omniscient, all sovereign God – like you’ve presented here.

        The distinction I do think is important to maintain between “happiness” and “joy” is between the general happiness that ebbs and flows throughout our waking hours; and the genuine Joy we must constantly lay claim to as believers, no matter our circumstances. Not always easy (!) but of course, God gave us ‘gifts’ 🙂

        Thanks for making us think about these things!

      • Jerry Wragg

        And yet, Mike, there is a movement today that is seeking the ‘subjective experience of gladness’ without striving to strengthen their faith in the objective truths of Scripture. I talk to many who are trying to make feelings of gladness the ground of their obedience. Many are actually concluding that if they aren’t ‘experiencing’ feelings of joy their spiritual life has gone terribly wrong. Does the grieving Christian mother who’s just birthed her dead daughter need to fret because she’s not feeling joyful emotions even though her faith and trust in God is robust? Did Abraham experience, in the moment, subjective joyful emotions as He fully believed His God enough to drive a stake into Isaac’s heart? In the garden, was Christ’s deeply troubled heart overwhelmed with subjective gladness as He yielded His will to the Father’s in triumphant faith? Joy, both of conviction and of experience, is always the result of faith and not the other way around.
        I completely understand your well-articulated concern over the damage done by hard distinctions between inner affections and subjective gladness. People who imagine they can believe God while not ever being viscerally affected by gladness simply aren’t believing the texts you cited. But as you pointed out from Romans 15:13, joy is the consequence and companion of faith. I’ve met so many today who are trying to stir up and sustain an overwhelming sensation of emotional joy (usually something they felt deeply at one time when they finally understood the sovereign grace of the Gospel) as if visceral affections were the best and highest means for becoming like Christ. And the irony is that the faith which produced their early convictions, resulting in an experience of overwhelming joy, is now upstaged by a vigorous attempt to repeat those emotional experiences without faith. I’ve always loved the Bible’s ‘joy’ language. But I also love Scripture’s ‘faith’ language, which is always the exclusive instrument of every supernatural and visceral experience we have as believers (Heb 11:1,6). When joy language begins to precede faith language, people become confused and begin to ground their beliefs in their subjective experiences and human evaluation of spirituality. That’s precisely what’s happened to so many young people today who’ve already largely abandoned the notion of objectivity. They live for emotional highs and are generally skeptical of a Christianity where visceral sensations are not paramount. In fact, many have come to equate faith with visceral experience, and they simply cannot see themselves as truly believing/trusting God until they emote sensations of joy.
        God promises that His joy (produced by the Holy Spirit) is made full in us when we believe His word and yield in obedience (Paul’s “obedience of faith”). When we speak of joy, faith should not be the assumed but unmentioned backdrop. Therefore, we should encourage a robust and growing “walk by faith,” through which the Spirit produces love for Christ and joyful obedience. The pulse of our spiritual condition is therefore not ultimately determined by what I’m feeling or not feeling, nor is emotional gladness about God always a sign of real faith. All kinds of people feel happy about God while singing their favorite hymn but their view of truth is shallow and their obedience missing. Our fixation should be on the nature and effects of faith as the instrument through which we know truth and ‘experience’ its joyful fruit. I fear that today’s generation has it the other way around—that the nature and effects of visceral experience are the instrument through which we come to know and believe.
        Sorry for the lengthy comment, Mike. I always appreciate your insights!

  • kevin2184

    Thanks, Mike, and very convicting actually. I need to be more vigilant and resolved to not let the mundane things and trials of this life crowd out the joy of living in Christ.

    • Amen, brother. Given the presence of sin remaining in our flesh, and living in a world that parades before us the lusts of deceit, our pursuit of joy is indeed a fight. May our pursuit of the fullness of our joy in Christ be relentless, so that we might show the world that even in the midst of the pain and darkness of this life, we have a Savior who genuinely makes the heart glad.

  • Terry

    “Lord, Stamp Eternity on my Eyeballs” – Jonathan Edwards

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  • The test of whether we possess the joy that is spoken of in scripture and you nicely laid out for us is if it remains with us when trials, difficulties and adverse circumstances come upon us. These often reveal whether we truly have the joy of the Lord or if it’s a “joy” based on agreeable circumstances. I would say that joy is definitely a characteristic of the most mature Christians I’ve known. But I can also say that they usually have experienced a great deal of hardship and difficulties.

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  • Watch it, the prosperity gospel people will start accusing you of preaching a, “joy” gospel, just joking. I loved the article. I have had joy for so long that it puzzles me when people I know don’t. I take it for granted, until I see how ill my oldest daughter is. She suffers with depression and bi-polar disorder. I know that without the Faith, she would be in a far worse boat. I wonder to myself how people dealt with mental illness before medications. I’ve heard stories from my Italian mother, about how some of the kids in her family were kept in the attic at the ranch, because they were too ill to be with the rest of the family. My daughter needs her litium. Without it, during episodes of her manic or depressive state, her mind is too tormented to make rational decisions consitently. I know there is a chemical problem that is from the fall. Sin is the root of these problems. It is hard as a father. I just want to think that she is fine, and doesn’t need meds, but the truth is, I don’t think she could keep it together without the lithium. I can see the effect of her faith. She is in her senior year at a Christian University. She gets good grades, and manages to keep her problems to herself around people. She wants to get a Dr. in theology, and go from there. I was Arminian in my younger years, and raised the kids that way. My theology changed over the last six years or so, and I am now reformed. My trust in God’s sovereignty has only served to increase my joy, and peace. Meanwhile my daughter is tormented over the idea that God made people, knowing that some would go to Hell. I have sat with her while she cried over this, and felt suicidal because of the seeming pointlessness of it all. She was tormented with the thought of, “What kind of god would do such a thing?” She intellectually understood my answers, but couldn’t justify them with her fealings, or her own theology. At the end of the day I guess I can see her joy in Christ, but it is clouded by the illness. Thanks again for the article. Cripplegate is a great resource keep up the good work.

  • Dianne

    Always look forward to your input on Cripplegate. There is a quote I enjoy: “Joy is the flag raised in front of the castle to let everyone know The King is at home.”

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