Hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure; self-indulgence.
Recently, a well-known pastor suggested we should obey the commandments in Scripture in order to experience a level of joy we cannot tap into any other way. The theological system that creates statements like this is commonly referred to as “Christian Hedonism.” To be clear, that is not the name critics have given it. It is the name given and used by its theological subscribers. There are many problems with the statement and the theology that produces it, but today, let’s focus on three.
No Neighbor In View
No doubt some will assume this is only a negative reaction to the subject of obedience. This is not the case. Admittedly, I do believe Scripture speaks of obedience much differently than would a Christian Hedonist. Jesus affirms that to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is an accurate summary of the Law. This means there is no obedience that does not have its eyes on either God or neighbor. An obedience that is motivated by what we will get out of it is no obedience at all.
There is no obedience that does not have its eyes on either God or neighbor. An obedience that is motivated by what we will get out of it is no obedience at all.
Imagine if you heard a story of a man who, risking his life, ran into a burning building to save a child. The grateful community then honors him with a citizen of the year award. Few people would have a problem with this. The man is a hero. Now imagine he gives a speech at the award ceremony and says, “I’m glad the family was saved, but when I saw that fire I knew that was my chance to get this award.” Does that change your view of the act? Does the motivation matter? Of course, it does.
In truth, all our obedience and good works play out exactly like the story described above. But that is something to be repented of, not promoted. All our obedience is tainted with the hedonistic sin of “how will this be good for me?” Our own joy is an impure motivation for obedience because it is rooted in selfish gain as opposed to selfless love. The biblical fuel for obedience and good works is the love we have first received from God. This love then produces love of God and neighbor (1 John 4:19). This is impossible for sinners to do perfectly. It's doubly impossible to do with our eyes on ourselves or what we will get on the other side. Real obedience comes from being loved by God and only has eyes for God and neighbor.
There is no intention here to undermine joy. Gospel joy is entirely biblical. The good news of all that God has done to save sinners results in them "leaping like a calf from its stall" (Malachi 4:2). It’s the joy of a prisoner set free or a blind man receiving sight. This joy is entirely rooted in everything God has done in Christ. It springs from His work, not ours. There is a very real danger in delighting in our obedience.
“When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).
We don't need any help reveling in our perceived goodness. That is our default position. The moment we believe we have done a righteous thing is the moment we trust in it. We are explicitly told to downplay our obedience because we cannot be trusted with it. We are indeed "unworthy servants," and that confession is given to us to protect us from our inner Pharisee.
Obedience motivated by obtaining a joy or delight in that obedience creates fertile ground for self-righteousness to grow. What is self-righteousness if not delighting in your own perceived obedience to God's commands? Real Gospel joy is the jubilation of your prison doors being unlocked. Real obedience is a freed man acting for the sake of his neighbor, in the name of Christ, and nothing else.
Real obedience is a freed man acting for the sake of his neighbor, in the name of Christ, and nothing else.
The pursuit of personal pleasure is an odd thing to Christianize. Hedonists are baptized every day, but baptism is where hedonism itself goes to die. The Christian life, as described by Jesus, is one of death to self, taking up your cross and suffering. Joy in all these things is promised, but this joy is found in God’s proclamation of forgiveness and the hope of eternal life, and not in our sin-riddled good deeds. The strength to die to ourselves and live for our neighbors is not found in our joy of law-keeping but instead in the unexpected joy that God has in giving us everything we require as a gift.
“Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10b)
When all is said and done, we’ll have said too much and not done enough and be joyfully welcomed into heaven anyway. So die to yourself and your hedonism. Love your neighbor because they are your neighbor and Jesus died for them. Joy is not a carrot on the end of the stick of obedience. The joy of salvation in Christ is already yours. It cannot be added to or surpassed.
God is most glorified when sinners are most died for by Christ.