– Learning the Secret of Gutsy Guilt –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
Nothing is more foundational for the joy of undeserving people than
the cross of Jesus Christ. The fight for joy is a fight to grasp and
marvel at what happened in the death of Christ—and what it reveals
about our suffering Savior. If it were not for the death of Jesus in our
place, the only possible joy would be the joy of delusion—like the joy
on the Titanic just before it hit the iceberg. Without the cross, joy could
be sustained only by denying (consciously or subconsciously) the
inevitability of divine judgment. In fact, that’s the kind of joy that drives
most of the world—a joy that preserves the power of its pleasures by
being oblivious to the peril just ahead. If the passengers were suddenly
made aware that in a matter of hours most of them would drown in the
icy ocean, all their merrymaking would cease. Their joy depends on their
However, if the passengers knew that the ocean liner would sink,
but that a great armada of utterly dependable ships and sailors was
already on the way and would arrive and save everyone who followed
their instructions, something very different would happen. To be sure,
the lighthearted merrymaking would cease, and a great seriousness
would spread over the Titanic; but there would be a different kind of
joy—a deep sense of gratitude for the rescuers, and a deep sense of hope
that, though much would be lost, life would be saved. Some may panic
in unbelief, doubting the promise of rescue. But others would rise in the
strength of hope and do great acts of love in preparation for the coming
TITANIC: WE ARE CORRUPT AND WE ARE CONDEMNED
Jesus Christ came into the world as the divine Son of God in order to
die for our sins and rescue us from the wrath of God, the burden of guilt,
the condemnation of justice, the bondage of sin, the torment of hell, and
the loss of all that is good—especially the loss of God. Our problem is
not merely our own corruption but, more seriously, God’s condemnation.
To be sure, we are corrupt, or as the old theologians said, depraved.
Paul’s way of saying it is that “all . . . are under sin. . . . ‘None is righteous,
no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10).
This corruption is a massive obstacle to everlasting joy. We desire
the wrong things, and we desire right things in the wrong way. And both
are deadly—like eating pleasant poison. But our corruption is not our
main obstacle to joy. God’s wrath is greater. God is infinitely valuable,
and we have offended him infinitely by valuing other things more. We
have “exchanged the glory of . . . God” (Rom. 1:23). Or as Paul says in
Romans 3:23, we all “fall short of the glory of God.”
Therefore, God’s holiness and justice will move him to settle
accounts with us in his wrath. “Whoever does not obey the Son shall
not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). “Cursed
be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the
Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10). The consequence of this curse and wrath
is eternal misery apart from the glory of God. “Those who do not obey
the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal
destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of
his might” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). The iceberg just ahead is no happiness forever,
We are on a doomed Titanic because of our sin—all of us without
exception. “Every mouth [is] stopped, and the whole world [is] held
accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). The sinful ship of our lives is headed
for everlasting ruin because of God’s righteousness and wrath. Without
a Savior, that’s the reality we must keep out of our minds in order to be
happy on the Titanic of this world.
JESUS CHRIST IS A GREAT SAVIOR FROM EVERYTHING THAT DESTROYS JOY
But we are not without a Savior. Jesus Christ has come. And he is a great
Savior. Every need we have, he supplies. And his death on the cross is
the price that purchases every gift that leads to deep and lasting joy.
Is there wrath and curse hanging over us?
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for
us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”
Is there condemnation against us in the courtroom of heaven?
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died. (Rom.
Are there innumerable trespasses mounting up against us?
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness
of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.
Is righteousness required that we cannot produce?
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him
we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). By the one
man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5:19)
Are we cut off from eternal life?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that
whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Are we trapped in the dominion of sin that ruins our lives?
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to
sin and live to righteousness (1 Pet. 2:24). He died for all, that those
who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their
sake died and was raised. (2 Cor. 5:15)
Will all the follies and failures of our past drag us down with irrevocable,
We know that for those who love God all things work together for
good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)
Have we lost all the good things God planned for his children?
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how
will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:32)
Is there any hope that sinners like us could spend an all-satisfying
eternity with God? Can I ever come home to God?
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous,
that he might bring us to God. (1 Pet. 3:18)
Oh, what a great salvation Jesus Christ accomplished when he died
and rose again! All that, and more, Christ purchased by his death.
Therefore, Christ crucified is the foundation of all honest and everlasting
joy. No self-deception is necessary to enjoy it. Indeed all deception
must cease in order to enjoy it to the full.
THE TASTE AND HOPE OF JOY SUSTAINED CHRIST IN HIS SUFFERING
Christ himself connected joy and the cross in his own soul. Hebrews
12:2 tells us, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the
cross.” So in his own heart the unshakable hope of joy with the Father
sustained him through his final suffering. Christ knew from experience
the joy that he had with the Father before creation. He prayed the night
before he died, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory
that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5).
But Jesus also knew this prayer depended on his obedience to the
Father. He would have to complete the great work of salvation by deliberate
death. Paul said that Jesus was “obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross,” and “therefore God has highly exalted him and
bestowed on him a name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:8-9). The
word “therefore” means that his obedience unto death was the reason
God exalted Christ and gave him the glory he had with the Father before
creation. He had come to save sinners. When the price was paid, the
work was decisively done. “It is finished,” he cried (John 19:30). And
God rewarded him with great glory.
CHRIST DIED FOR HIS JOY AND OURS
So in a sense Christ died for his own everlasting life and joy. He had done
no sin and so did not need to be saved from guilt. He had none. But the
Father had sent him to die, and not to do so would have been disobedient.
And if he had been disobedient to God, neither his nor our eternal
life would have been achieved. Therefore, the death of Jesus was the
means by which he regained his place of glory with the Father and came
into the fullness of his own everlasting joy. His joy was blood-bought at
the price of his own obedient death.
The reason this matters to us is that Jesus planned for his joy to be
our joy. He said in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that
my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” When Jesus
bought his own joy at the price of his obedient death, he also bought
ours. He said it again in John 17:13, “But now [Father] I am coming to
you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy
fulfilled in themselves.” The very joy that Jesus would have in the presence
of the Father is the joy he died for us to have.
In the Parable of the Talents Jesus, the master, says to his faithful
servant, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of
your master” (Matt. 25:23). It is his joy first. Then he welcomes us into
it. While he was on earth, the unwavering confidence that his joy would
soon be made full sustained him in his suffering. And by his obedience
he obtained everlasting joy for himself and for us.
THE FULLNESS OF HIS JOY AND OURS FLOWS FROM HIS GLORY
The joy he died to obtain for himself and give to us is joy in the glory
of God. We know this because, after praying that his joy would be
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fulfilled in them (John 17:13), he prayed, “Father, I desire that they
also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see
my glory that you have given me” (v. 24). Because of his obedience,
God elevated Jesus, the God-Man, to his right hand and acclaimed
him as both God and Savior—triumphant Lion and sacrificed Lamb,
omnipotent Lord and obedient Servant. Thus Christ regained the
fullness of the divine glory that he had with God from the beginning.
But now it was more fully displayed through his redeeming obedience
and death. This glory from the Father was the ultimate ground
of Jesus’ joy.
And he prayed that we would be with him to see this glory. This
would be our entrance into “the joy of the Master.” This would be our
joy fulfilled in his joy. The aim and achievement of the cross of Christ is
the everlasting, ever-increasing2 joy of his people as they see and savor
the glory of Christ. That is what Jesus died to obtain for us—even while
we were still sinners. Therefore, nothing is more foundational for the joy
of undeserving people than the cross of Jesus Christ.
THE GOSPEL IS CENTRAL IN THE FIGHT FOR JOY
Therefore, in the battle for joy we must take this truth and preach it
to ourselves. The gospel of Christ crucified and risen is meant to be
preached to the soul—both in corporate worship where we hear it
week after week, and from hour to hour as we preach it to ourselves
in the daily fight for joy. The message of the cross has a central and
unique place in the fight for joy. Paul put the gospel in a class by itself
when he said, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our
Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14), and when he said, “I decided to
know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”
(1 Cor. 2:2).
These are sweeping statements. No boast except in the cross! And
no knowledge that is not a knowledge of Christ and him crucified! Every
boast we make in any good thing must include the boast that, without
the cross, we would have hell and not this good thing. Everything we
know must include the knowledge that we do not know it rightly except
in relation to Christ crucified.
DO BELIEVERS NEED TO HEAR THE PREACHING OF THE CROSS?
Therefore the cross must be central in the fight for joy. We must put ourselves
under its preaching on the Lord’s day, and we must preach it to
ourselves all day every day. Don’t neglect the corporate hearing of the
word of the cross preached. I stress preached because I do believe that
God has ordained that the word of the cross—and all things in relation
to the cross—be preached and not just taught or discussed.
This may not mean much to some of you, since you may have had
little experience of true preaching. That was J. I. Packer’s experience, he
said, until he heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the Westminster Chapel in
the school year of 1948-1949, when he was twenty-two years old.
Packer heard Lloyd-Jones preach every Sunday evening. He said that he
had “never heard such preaching.” It came to him “with the force of
electric shock, bringing to at least one of his listeners more of a sense of
God than any other man.” Packer said it was through this preaching that
he learned about “the greatness of God and the greatness of the soul.”
“Listening to Martyn Lloyd-Jones,” he said, “was like hearing a whole
orchestra perform after a single piano.”3
I don’t mean that you must find a Martyn Lloyd-Jones to hear each
Sunday in worship. There was only one Lloyd-Jones. The point is not
personality; the point is depth and earnestness and a sense of the weight
of glory. The point is heartfelt rigor in the unfolding of Scripture, which
is heralded (not just discussed or analyzed) with a worshipful sense of
exultation over the beauty of God’s truth.
When Paul exhorts Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), two
things make me think he would encourage us to hear the Word preached
in the setting of gathered worship. One is that the context
of the passage relates to the church being “trained in righteousness” (2
Tim. 3:16), not mainly to evangelism among unbelievers. In other
words, Paul means, “Preach the word to believers.” The other point is
that the word for “preach” here is a Greek word (kÓruxon) that means
“to herald.” It was the work of one who made public proclamations for
government officials before there was radio or television or print media.
This kind of speech has a spirit of exultation and seriousness about it.
It is part of worship. When it is done in the power of the Holy Spirit, it
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is worship. It is expository exultation. The preacher worships over the
Word that he proclaims. There is Spirit-given truth, and there is Spiritgiven
passion. And the effect on God’s people is to awaken aspects of
joy in Christ that may not come any other way.
Please do not picture a fine, well-lit sanctuary with oak pews and a
white pulpit. Don’t even picture a flat multipurpose room with carpet
and chairs and a keyboard. Picture a mud-walled room with a zinc roof,
or a cave with torches, or a thatched roof on poles with no walls, or a
living room with all the simple furniture removed, or a patch of grass
under a tree. And don’t picture thousands of hearers and the finest
acoustics. Picture eight or twenty or forty worshipers. Even in small settings
with small numbers, preaching can happen. The preacher will use
his voice differently, but all the essentials of passion, and seriousness, and
expository exultation can be there. They should be there. The word of
the cross is the kind of news—incomparably good news—that calls for
this kind of heralding, even for a dozen saints.
WHAT IF TRUE PREACHING IS NOT AVAILABLE TO ME?
Surely the question will be raised: How shall I fight for joy with this
weapon if I do not live in a place with this kind of worship gathering?
What if the preachers do not believe the Bible? Or what if they do not
preach the word of the cross but only human experiences? Or what if
all the weightiness and seriousness is missing and the leaders seem bent
on being mainly jocular? Or what if I am homebound and cannot get
out to worship services? In answer to these questions, please do not take
me to mean that hearing the word of the cross preached is the only
arrow in your quiver. It is good. It is important. God brings churches
into being with preaching as one of his purposes. Over the long haul, it
hurts us not to have it.
But God is merciful and can supply our needs when we have no
access to a church that preaches the word of the cross. He will meet you
in your meditations on the Word. He will meet you in family worship.
He will meet you in small groups where the Word is discussed and
applied, even if no one there is called and gifted to preach. He will meet
you through preaching on the radio or television or Internet or tapes and
CDs. These are not the same as the living voice in the context of wor-
78 = When I Don’t Desire GOD
ship and community. But they are good, and God can make himself
known powerfully through them.
Nevertheless, it is a biblical goal and norm for Christians to be a part
of worship gatherings where the word of the cross is preached. God ordains
this for our joy. Studying the Word is good. Meditation is good. Discussion
is good. Analyzing and explaining is good. But preaching is also good, and
God calls us to enjoy the blessing that comes to us when the word of the
cross explodes in the heart of a godly preacher and overflows in exultation
to the minds and hearts of a worshiping people. The fight for joy loses one
of its weapons when it does not regularly hear the gospel preached. God
can make it up to us in other ways. But preaching is one precious gift of
God to the church. When it exults over “the word of the cross,” it becomes
“to us who are being saved . . . the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
FIGHTING FOR JOY WITH THE BREAD AND THE CUP
Let’s not overlook that eating the Lord’s Supper with God’s people is a
kind of preaching that is also meant to feed the joy of Christ’s people.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the
Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The death and resurrection
of Christ are being proclaimed in the act of serving and eating
Communion. This proclamation is the means of our nourishment with
the bread and cup.
Christ has appointed that we feast spiritually on the benefits of the
cross as we eat the bread and drink the cup. “The cup of blessing that
we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that
we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).
We participate in the cup and the bread by feasting on what the blood
and body of Christ obtained for us when he died, especially the forgiveness
of sins, the gift of righteousness, and never-ending personal fellowship
with Christ and his Father. This is why regular presence at the
Lord’s Table is a great weapon in the fight for joy.
PREACHING FOR JOY, AND PREACHING FOR THE GLORY OF GOD
Preaching the word of the cross is designed for our joy, because it’s
designed for the glory of God. Jonathan Edwards saw more clearly than
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most that preaching for the glory of God had implications for the role
of preaching in the fight for joy. One of his great insights was that “God
is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced
in.”4 He concluded, therefore, that the aim of preaching must be joy in
the glory of God. So he described his preaching like this: “I should think
myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high
as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth,
and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they
are affected with.”5 Truth and affections. Doctrine and joy. Both are
essential. When the word of the cross is preached like this, a great blow
is struck against the joylessness of God’s people. And that is a blow for
the glory of God.
BECOME A PREACHER AND PREACH THE GOSPEL TO YOURSELF
But now we must go back to the other preaching that I mentioned. We
should not only be preached to; we should become preachers and
preach the word of the cross to ourselves every day. We must not rely
only on being preached to, but must become good preachers to our own
soul. The gospel is the power of God to lead us joyfully to final salvation,
if we preach it to ourselves. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981)
emphasized this truth. He was the senior minister at Westminster Chapel
in London from 1943 to 1968 and preached a series of messages that
were published in 1964 as one of his most helpful and popular books,
Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures. I recommend it highly. He
writes out of the conviction that
the greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful Church. . . .
Nothing is more important . . . than that we should be delivered from
a condition which gives other people looking at us, the impression
that to be a Christian means to be unhappy, to be sad, to be morbid,
and that the Christian is one who ‘scorns delights and lives laborious
days’. . . . Christian people too often seem to be perpetually in the doldrums
and too often give this appearance of unhappiness and lack of
freedom and of absence of joy. There is no question at all but that
this is the main reason why large numbers of people have ceased to
be interested in Christianity.6
His book is an exposition of Psalm 42, especially verse 5: “Why art
thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope
thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance”
(KJV). Among the many things Lloyd-Jones sees in this verse is that the
psalmist is preaching to himself. He applies this to us:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the
fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?
Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in
the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to
you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking.
Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this
man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self
to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down,
O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him.
So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to
DO NOT SURRENDER TO THE VICTIM MENTALITY, BUT DEFY YOURSELF
This is a profound lesson. Far too many Christians are passive in their
fight for joy. They tell me about their condition of joylessness, and I ask
about the kinds of strategies they have pursued to defeat this enemy, and
they give the impression that they are a helpless victim: “Joylessness is
just there. What can I do?” Well, God does not mean for us to be passive.
He means for us to fight the fight of faith—the fight for joy. And
the central strategy is to preach the gospel to yourself. This is war. Satan
is preaching for sure. If we remain passive, we surrender the field to him.
So Lloyd-Jones gets specific and gets tough:
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle
yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address
yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. . . . You must turn on
yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and
say to yourself: “Hope thou in God”—instead of muttering in this
depressed, unhappy way, and then you must go on to remind yourself
of God, Who God is, and . . . what God has done, and what God
has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great
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note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the
whole world, and say with this man: “I shall yet praise Him for the
help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance
and my God.”8
The word of the cross—“the Gospel of the glory of Christ”—is the main
source for truth about “Who God is,” and “what God has done,” and
“what God has pledged himself to do.” These are the great discouragement
slayers. They are all in the gospel. In the final analysis, it is the cross
of Christ alone that can kill the joy-killers in our lives.
Of course, the “self” is not the only one who talks to us in our head.
So does the devil, and so do other people as we replay their comments
in our memories. Therefore, when Lloyd-Jones tells us to preach to ourselves,
he knows we must be addressing all these joy-killing messages.
That’s why he talks about defying self, Satan, and other people. When
we preach the gospel to ourselves, we are addressing every word of every
enemy of every kind.
THE DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION AND THE FIGHT FOR JOY
So let’s consider a great example of this preaching that has helped me
through many dark seasons. It comes from an unlikely place: the
prophet Micah, who preached seven hundred years before Christ and
gave one of the most practical applications in all the Bible of the great
truth of justification by faith alone. This doctrine is at the heart of the
gospel. It is the essence of the word of the cross. So before we consider
Micah’s application of the doctrine to his dark and miserable condition,
let’s clarify what justification is. We will come back to Micah
The doctrine of justification says that the remedy for my alienation
from God is first a legal one, and only then a moral one. First, I have to
be legally absolved of guilt and credited with a righteousness that I don’t
have. That is, I have to be declared righteous in the courtroom of heaven,
where God sits as judge, and where I stand condemned by his law. That’s
what the word justify means: not make just, but declare just. We can see
this in Luke 7:29 where the people “justified God” (RSV)! That is, they
declared that he was just. They didn’t make him just. The difference is
that we are sinners and do not have a righteousness of our own. We
should, but we don’t. That’s why we are guilty and destined for eternal
To make a way for us to be saved, God sent Christ to live a perfect
divine-human life and die an obedient death. In this way Christ
became both the substitute punishment for our sins (Matt. 26:28;
1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Pet. 3:18) and the substitute performer of our righteousness
(Rom. 5:19; 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Therefore, in the
courtroom of God, my guilt for sin is removed by Christ’s blood (“In
him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our
trespasses” [Eph. 1:7]); and my title to heaven is provided by Christ’s
obedience (“By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”
[Rom. 5:19]). I am declared just—freed from the punishment
of sin and now possessing a title to heaven. This is what we mean by
THE JOY OF SEEING THAT JUSTIFICATION IS BY FAITH ALONE
And the capstone of its joy-producing glory is that justification is by
faith alone apart from works of the law. Paul said, “We hold that one
is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Then
he contrasted two ways for sinners to try to get right with God. One
is by working to deserve acceptance; the other is by trusting in the
purely free act of grace that gives acceptance to those who will simply
receive it as a precious gift. “To the one who works, his wages are not
counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work
but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
For “the ungodly”—who know that they are riding the Titanic to
destruction—the best news in all the world is the news that God will, by
faith alone, count them as righteous because of Christ. This is the great
ground of joy in the word of the cross: Justification is by grace alone (not
mixed with our merit), through faith alone (not mixed with our works),
on the basis of Christ alone (not mingling his righteousness with ours),
to the glory of God alone (not ours).
CONFUSING JUSTIFICATION AND SANCTIFICATION WILL KILL JOY
Then, and only then, on the basis of this forgiveness and this declaration
of righteousness, God gives us his Holy Spirit to transform us
morally and progressively into the image of his Son. This progressive
change is not justification but is based on justification. This change
is what we call sanctification. “Now that you have been set free from
sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification
and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). First the legal issue
must be settled. In the courtroom of heaven, an ungodly sinner is
declared righteous by faith alone! Christ’s righteousness is imputed to
him. He does not have a righteousness of his own when God accepts
him (Phil. 3:9). His faith is all receiving. He has not yet become loving.
Christ’s faithful life of love, which perfectly fulfilled the law of
God, is imputed to the ungodly. This is justification. This is the settling
of the legal issue first.
When that is settled—and it is settled in the twinkling of an eye—
then the moral progress goes forward (sanctification). Both are gifts, and
both are bought by the blood of Christ. They are inseparable but different.
Both are by faith alone. Justification is by faith alone because only
faith receives the declaration that the ungodly is counted righteous.
Sanctification is by faith alone because only faith receives the power to
bear the fruit of love. It is crucial in the fight for joy that we not confuse
or combine justification and sanctification. Confusing them will, in the
end, undermine the gospel and turn justification by faith into justification
by performance. If that happens, the great gospel weapon in the
fight for joy will fall from our hands.
BECOME WHAT YOU ARE
One of the ways the Bible talks about our action in relation to our
standing in Christ is to command us to become what we are. For example,
using Old Testament ceremonial language Paul says, “Cleanse out
the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened”
(1 Cor. 5:7). In other words, become what you are. You are
unleavened (sinless in Christ); therefore become unleavened (sinless in
Perfect sinlessness does not happen in this life, but we move toward
it. Paul was clear on that: “Not that I have already obtained this or am
already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus
has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12). “I myself serve the law of God with
my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom. 7:25). But the
principle is clear: Fight for joy, not by doing things that establish your
identity with God, but by becoming what your identity already is with
God in Christ. Become what you are.
We are justified by grace through faith alone because of our union
with Christ whose righteousness is counted as ours. Because of this
union with Christ, we are already dead and raised and holy and light.
The secret of rugged joy in the battle with sin is to fight to become what
we are in Christ. You have already died with Christ (Rom. 6:5-6); therefore
“consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”
(Rom. 6:11). You have already been made alive together with Christ
(Eph. 2:5); therefore, “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3:1). You
are already holy in Christ (Col. 3:12); therefore “be holy in all your conduct”
(1 Pet. 1:15). You already are the light of the world in Christ
(Matt. 5:14); therefore, “let your light shine” (Matt. 5:16).
All of that is another way of saying, live as a justified sinner. Don’t
make peace with the sin in your life. If you make peace with sin and settle
down with it as an accepted long-term partner, you show that you
are not united with Christ. In union with Christ two things happen: His
righteousness is imputed to us, and, because of that, a new impulse is
given to become what we are. The great gospel weapon in the fight for
joy is the rock-solid reality that we are counted righteous in Christ by
faith alone. This imputed righteousness is because of his performance
alone, not ours. By our behavior we gradually become what we are in
him and because of him.
That gospel weapon is powerful only to the degree we keep the
basis of our justification free from our own performances. God accepts
us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. To be sure, our progressive
sanctification—our all-too-slow growth in Christ-likeness—
matters. It is the necessary evidence that our faith is real.9 But, oh, what
a difference it makes to be assured, in the discouraging darkness of our
own imperfection, that we have a perfect righteousness—namely,
JOHN BUNYAN: “NOW WENT I ALSO HOME REJOICING”
This was John Bunyan’s experience. He tells his story to encourage us
to rejoice in the doctrine of justification—that there is a perfect, objective,
external righteousness imputed to us that is not our own but
Christ’s. Bunyan is the one who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has
sold more copies than any book besides the Bible. He was a pastor in
the seventeenth century who spent over twelve years in prison because
he refused to stop preaching the word of the cross. The greatest Puritan
theologian and contemporary of Bunyan, John Owen, when asked by
King Charles II why he went to hear an uneducated tinker preach, said,
“May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s ability for
preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”10
But Bunyan was not always so bold and full of gospel power. In his
twenties there were terrible struggles.
A whole flood of blasphemies, both against God, Christ, and the
Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and
astonishment. . . . My heart was at times exceeding hard. If I would
have given a thousand pounds for a tear, I could not shed one. . . .
Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart. . . . I feared that this wicked sin
of mine might be that sin unpardonable. . . . Oh, no one knows the
terrors of those days but myself.11
Then came the decisive moment of triumph over despair and joylessness.
It was an awakening to the magnificent truth of the imputation
of Christ’s righteousness.
One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my
soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And . . . I saw with the eyes of
my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness;
so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God
could not say of me, he [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just
before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of
heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that
made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ
himself, “The same yesterday, today, and forever.” Heb. 13:8. Now
did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions
and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that
time those dreadful scriptures of God [about the unforgivable sin]
left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace
and love of God.12
He went home rejoicing. This is the effect of the word of the cross,
when one sees, with the eyes of the heart, the glory of God’s grace in justification.
As he walked home from the field, Bunyan was breathing the
same air as Martin Luther, who made the same discovery in a monastery.
As the light dawned, Luther said:
I began to understand [that] the righteousness of God is that by which
the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the
meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely,
the passive righteousness with which [the] merciful God justifies us
by faith. . . . Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had
entered paradise itself through open gates.13
HOW MICAH FOUGHT FOR JOY WHEN HE HAD SINNED
Bunyan and Luther describe the joy of discovering the truth of justification
by faith alone. But the prophet Micah shows us how a person who
already believes the doctrine can preach it into the face of the enemy
(whether self or Satan or other people) and use it to fight for joy. So now
we have finally returned to the example of Micah that I promised earlier.
Even though he only knew the doctrine of justification in its Old
Testament form, his application of it is a powerful illustration of how
we can preach it to ourselves or to any enemy who tries to kill our joy
with counsels of despair. This passage has proved to be a great help to
me in many times of darkness.
Here is what Micah said:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit
in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. 9 I will bear the indignation
of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads
my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the
light; I shall look upon his vindication. (Micah 7:8-9)
I like to call Micah’s attitude gutsy guilt. On the one hand he is guilty
Fighting for Joy Like a Justified Sinner < 87
of real sin. In verse 9 he says, simply, “I have sinned against him.” Micah
knows it and is not trying to hide it. He is sorry and broken and is not
trying to sweep anything under the rug. “I will bear the indignation of
the LORD.” So not only is there real guilt, there is real divine indignation.
God does not like what Micah did. He is angry. Micah does not
protest that this can’t be—that God doesn’t get angry at his children. He
does not short-circuit the discipline of his God by sentimental talk about
God’s mercy. The mercy will have its place soon enough.
Micah is ashamed and accepts God’s anger. “I sit in darkness.” He
puts his hand on his mouth and accepts the sorrow and gloom that hang
over him. No quick fix here. There are many times in the Christian life
like this. It is foolish of us to make light of them, or trivialize them, or
try to deny that they exist. God is holy, and he disciplines the children
whom he loves. There is a fatherly anger that is no longer the wrath of
a judge (Heb. 12:5-11).
HOW WAS MICAH’S GUILT GUTSY?
But I said that this text describes gutsy guilt. Astonishingly, in all his
contrition and gloom under God’s anger, Micah gets in the face of his
enemy and says, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall
rise.” The enemy is rubbing it in. The enemy is saying that the sin of
Micah cuts him off from his God. The enemy is lying and trying to
make Micah hopeless. This is a major battle against Micah’s joy in God.
And Micah fights well—he preaches the gospel of justification by faith.
He gives us an example of how to fight for joy with the weapon of the
He says, “When I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me.”
Remember, this darkness is the Lord’s discipline. God’s indignation
burns. And in the midst of the darkness imposed by God, Micah says,
“God will be my light.” He counts on God’s light in the darkness that
God himself has sent. That is gutsy. That is what we must learn to do
in our darkness—even the darkness we have brought on ourselves
because of our sin. Yes, I am under the gloom of failure. Yes, God has
put me here in his displeasure. But no, I am not abandoned, and God
is not against me. He is for me. Even in the darkness that he imposes,
he will sustain me. He will not let me go. Though he slay me, he will
save me. We must learn to preach to ourselves like this in our fight
Then, even more astonishingly, Micah says, “I will bear the indignation
of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads
my cause and executes judgment for me.” In the midst of his guilt, and
in the gloom of its consequences, he knows that a limit has been set to
the darkness. God will come. “And when he comes, he will come pleading
my cause.” He will be my advocate, not the prosecuting attorney.
The one who has thrown him in the jail of darkness will pay his bail and
plead his case in court and make sure that he goes free to live in joy
He goes even further and says that when God comes to him in the
darkness, he will “execute judgment” for him. Micah’s enemies are saying
that he has fallen and that this means God is against him. “Isn’t it
clear, Micah? You yourself admit that you sinned. You yourself say that
God is angry. You yourself say that the darkness and gloom are from
the Lord. There is only one reasonable explanation: God is executing
judgment against you. You may have once called him Father, but no
longer. Now he is Judge. You are guilty, and the judgment is falling—
against you.” That’s what the enemy says.
Against all this “reasonable” accusation (from self, Satan, or others)
Micah preaches the doctrine of justification by faith. If he had
lived on this side of the cross of Christ, he would be making the ground
of God’s mercy explicit, namely, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He
says, “Watch out all you who speak thus. My God—my covenant God
who declares me righteous by faith and not by works—is about to execute
judgment for me. That means you, my enemies, will be the ones
judged. Take heed, and learn from my rising hope and gutsy guilt the
doctrine of justification by faith alone.” If you do not learn this, your
joys in this life will all be based on an illusion—that your ship is
Micah’s words are an utterly crucial illustration of how to preach
the gospel to ourselves when discouragement and darkness threaten to
overwhelm us as Christians. Micah’s way—the biblical way—is very different
from the quick fix that tries to deny the seriousness of sin and the
pain of God’s discipline. We must not think that God only sends us to
this painful school because of blatant sins. Paul accepted every calamity
in life as from the disciplining hand of God. Even those that made him
say, “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we
despaired of life itself”—even these he accepted as from God’s sovereign
hand. He explained that in all these things God’s purpose was good,
namely, “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the
dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
GUTSY GUILT IS THE OPPOSITE OF CHEAP GRACE
In the fight for life-supporting, love-sustaining joy, we must learn to
preach to ourselves with gutsy guilt. This is very different from “cheap
grace.” Do you remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young German theologian?
He was hanged on April 9, 1945, by a special order of Himmler
at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. He wrote a little book that
was read by many in the radical days of the late sixties when I was in
college. It is called The Cost of Discipleship. I bought it when I was a
senior in 1967. It cost me $1.45. I thank God when I look at my underlining
in this book as a twenty-one-year-old student in search of a cause
worth living for.
What Bonhoeffer attacks in this book is the opposite of what Micah
did. People refuse to go with Micah into the darkness and bear God’s
reproach. Bonhoeffer calls such refusal “cheap grace.” Here is the way
he described it. We need to hear this, lest we confuse the fight for joy
with cheap grace. The fight for joy is not cheap grace. It is Micah’s gutsy
guilt. It is the power of preaching justification by faith in the darkness
of God’s real indignation.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,
baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession,
absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace
without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus
Christ, living and incarnate. . . . The only man who has the right to
say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to
follow Christ. . . . We . . . have gathered like eagles round the carcass
of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which has
killed the life of following Christ.14
Things have not improved since Bonhoeffer’s day in the church of
the West. Today cheap grace is common among evangelicals in the
unpersecuted church. It is the wrong way to lean on grace in the pursuit
of joy. There is another way to fight for joy—the way of Micah, the way
of bold brokenness, the way of gutsy guilt.
In the battle for joy, the difference between Micah’s gutsy guilt and
“cheap grace” is that Micah takes sin so seriously. There was a reprehensible
fall. There is real and terrible indignation from God. There is
a time in awful darkness. There is brokenness, contrition, and remorse
as we bear patiently the chastisement of our God. But in the ashes of
our regret, the flame of boldness never goes out. It may flicker. But
when self or Satan taunts us that we are finished, we lay hold on
Micah’s faith—indeed we lay hold on Christ and his righteousness—
and say, “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. . . . He pleads
my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the
THE CENTER OF THE FIGHT FOR JOY
Hearing the word of the cross, and preaching it to ourselves, is the central
strategy for sinners in the fight for joy. Nothing works without this.
Here is where we start. And here is where we stay. We never outgrow
the gospel. Here we see the glory of Christ more clearly than anywhere
else. Indeed the gospel is “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the
image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). If seeing Christ is the key to savoring
Christ—and it is!—then here is where we must linger. The word of the
cross is the revelation of the glory of Christ.
And here in the cross is where every enemy of joy is overcome:
divine wrath, as he becomes a curse for us; real guilt, as he becomes forgiveness
for us; lawbreaking, as he becomes righteousness for us;
estrangement from God, as he becomes reconciliation for us; slavery to
Satan, as he becomes redemption for us; bondage to sin, as he becomes
liberation for us; pangs of conscience, as he becomes cleansing for us;
death, as he becomes the resurrection for us; hell, as he becomes eternal
life for us. And here I resist the desire to go on with dozens of ways that
the cross defeats the enemies of our joy. Instead I send you to the place
where I gathered fifty of them, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons
Why Jesus Came to Die.15
Through the cross God purchased and secured every possible blessing
that could ever be needed to make us happy forever. “He who did
not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also
with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). The answer to that
question is not uncertain. God will—signed in blood—give us all things
with Christ, because of the death of his Son. That is, he will give us all
things that are truly good for us. We must preach this to ourselves every
day, because Satan is preaching the opposite. What could stop our joy
if we really believed this truth: Everything we need to be satisfied in God,
the cross has made certain. It cannot fail.
THE CROSS, THE JOY, THE SACRIFICE OF LOVE, AND THE GLORY OF GOD
Jesus, in his obedient death, has become our righteousness with God.
He has become, therefore, the ground of our unshakable joy. And therefore
the ground of our most radical, risk-taking acts of love. When the
famous five missionaries to Ecuador—Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Ed
McCully, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian—made their last attempt in
1956 to take the love of God to the Waorani people, among their final
preparations before they were killed on the river beach was to sing
Edith Cherry’s hymn, “We Rest on Thee.” At the heart of this hymn is
the verse with the heart of the gospel—the imputed righteousness of
Yea, in Thy Name, O Captain of salvation!
In Thy dear Name, all other names above;
Jesus our righteousness, our sure foundation,
Our Prince of glory and our King of love.
Where do missionaries (who, like all of us, are sinners) get the
courage to face the spears of those they love and not use the firearms in
their hands, but rather die? They get it from the superior satisfaction that
they have in Christ above all that this earth can offer. “He is no fool who
gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”16 Yes, especially
if what we cannot lose is the all-satisfying glory of Christ.
And underneath this superior satisfaction in Christ is the gospel of
justification by faith alone. Christ was their righteousness. Christ was
their sure foundation. Therefore their joy was invincible. And their love
for people was greater than their love for life. Oh, that we might learn
the secret of gutsy guilt and how to fight for joy like justified sinners.
When the gospel of Christ has that effect, our joy will be full, and his
glory will shine.
The LORD revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of
1 S A M U E L 3 : 2 1
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
P S A L M 1 9 : 1 0
The cross of Christ he gloried and rejoiced in; this his heart was
set upon; and these were the effects of it—it crucified the world
unto him, made it a dead and undesirable thing. The baits and
pleasures of sin are taken all of them out of the world. . . . If the
heart be filled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirableness
upon them all; it leaves no seeming beauty, no
appearing pleasure or comeliness, in them.
J O H N O W E N
On Indwelling Sin in Believers1