We are “Reformed” Christians which means that we understand our place on the family tree of Christendom as a branch descended from the Protestant Reformation and specifically, an English strand of the Reformation represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith. One of the most central, distinguishing features of the Reformed faith is our celebration of the exhaustive sovereignty of God and His eternal decrees, what is sometimes referred to in shorthand as “Calvinism,” or the doctrine of predestination. “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF III.1) This is based on passages like Eph. 1:11: “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…”
Sometimes, within the Reformed tradition, predestination and the eternal decrees of God are spoken of as though they are not relevant, as though even if the doctrine is true, its truthfulness has no particular usefulness to us in history. Since we don’t have access to the decrees of God, it doesn’t seem important for us to discuss them. Others go even further suggesting that they are even somewhat dangerous to discuss or unhelpful to preach or emphasize. Perhaps it will only cause undo speculation, introspection, or fear. Am I really saved? Am I predestined? Perhaps it will cause Christians to become apathetic about their own salvation or mercy work or evangelism or missions. If God has chosen how the story will go and who will be saved, does it matter what I do? Perhaps it turns history into an impersonal machine; perhaps it encourages a dour fatalism.
Add to these suspicions the fact that our English Fathers in the faith have managed to get a pretty bad rap with the name “Puritan.” To be known as a puritan or puritanical is generally no compliment. It is to be known as cranky, dour, severe, impersonal, prudish, tyrannical and so on. The English Puritans were the ones who authored the Westminster Confession and celebrated the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees, but the idea that they were grumpy or apathetic or prudish is a slander that C.S. Lewis among others worked hard to correct. Lewis writes of the Puritans: “But there is no understanding of the Reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and especially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries.” In another place he writes this: “Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes… whatever they were, they were not sour, gloomy, or severe, nor did their enemies bring any such charge against them… Protestantism was not too grim, but too glad, to be true… Protestants are not ascetics but sensualists.”
Though it is frequently challenging to argue for causation (e.g. just because a wicked man seems very happy about his wickedness, we shouldn’t conclude that wickedness makes people happy). In the same way, we should be cautious about concluding that the doctrine of God’s exhaustive sovereignty and eternal decrees generally produces this kind of glad and joyful people. At the same time, we have reason to suspect this since they themselves claimed it to be the case.
“The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.” (WCF III.8)
The Westminster Fathers warn that these doctrines should be handled with special prudence and care, but we should not miss the fact that they also insist that the right kind of attention to this doctrine produces assurance, praise, reverence, and admiration of God. Far from making people proud, lazy, apathetic or fearful, they said it makes men humble, diligent, and gives them abundant consolation. But someone might say, well that’s all fine and good for a bunch of white guys in funny hats from the 17th century to claim, but can you prove that God’s sovereign plan is actually meant to make people joyful and live life to the fullest? Yes, actually we can.
Ephesians 1 is arguably one of the most enthusiastic eruptions of joy in the New Testament. Paul is ecstatic; words can barely communicate the joy He wants to express to the Ephesians. This is the theological equivalent of a touchdown dance. Paul is shouting, whooping, dancing with joy. And what is he talking about? He’s talking about God’s eternal decrees, His predestination, His working all things according to the counsel of His will. And this isn’t just Paul having a funny personality quirk: Paul as a pastor leads with predestination. He writes the Ephesian Christians and isn’t three verses out the gate before he starts pointing the Ephesians to God’s plan from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Far from Paul thinking that this is a side doctrine, perhaps a rather unfortunate but necessary bit of mysterious theology, Paul is rallying these early Christians with the flag of God’s eternal decrees. Paul and the Reformed Tradition seem to think that predestination preaches, and not only that, but the point seems to be that the eternal decrees of God summon up a particularly powerful explosion of joy – a kind of holy indulgence in the world, a celebration of the marriage bed, a Chestertonian gladness, a God-honoring sensualism.
How does that work? Paul is trying to explain that very point in Ephesians 1.
The Text: Ephesians 1:3-14
He launches into the letter blessing God the Father because He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Jesus (1:3). Not some, not many – but every spiritual blessing. Every good thing that exists is ours in Jesus. But He immediately adds that this was in the cards before the foundation of the world – since He chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him in love (1:4). Notice that being holy and blameless runs parallel to every spiritual blessing – in other words, holy and blameless people are the kinds of people who can handle the kind of fun God likes to have, the kind of joy He bursts with. And He secured our share in His joy by predestining us to be adopted as sons in Jesus Christ because this would be really pleasing to Him (1:5) and it would magnify the glory of His grace when He made us accepted in His Beloved Son (1:6). In Jesus, we have the redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, and this was a result of the riches of His grace found in His wise and prudent will, his “good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (1:7-9). God was having blast being God; and out of that good pleasure, out of that deep joy came the plan to add us into the mix. That good pleasure came to expression in Christ, in whom God is gathering all things in heaven and earth together (1:10). It is this same overarching plan that landed us with an inheritance of inestimable glory (1:11-12). And this is an inheritance that cannot be lost because it has been sealed with the Holy Spirit who was given to us when we first believed and guarantees our share in the purchased possession of His surpassing glory (1:13-14). From before the foundation of the world, God’s eternal joy overflowed in a plan to create a world and though it would stray and be marred by evil, He would triumph over that evil through His Beloved Son and draw the world back into His endless glory and joy by the power of His Spirit.
The Trinity of Pleasure and Glory
Glory is not a super spiritual glow. Glory is the joyful display of what you were made for. Glory is the radiance of delight, the display of deep pleasure in something profoundly good. Glory is a lovely woman coming down the aisle to be given away. Glory is medium rare steak and cold beer at the end of a hard, hot day. Glory is winning an Olympic race, the World Series, the Super Bowl. Glory is discovering a new galaxy, inventing a new tool, inspiring hope in the downtrodden. Glory is doing what you were made for with such joy and pleasure that it incites joy and praise in others. Glory is the overflow of joy, the overflow of delight and pleasure.
Think of Eric Liddell the Scottish Christian who won gold in the 1924 Olympics in the 400 Meter race. He was known for his unorthodox running style, which is portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, where he runs with his head back and his mouth wide open, arms clawing at the air. Once when a visitor was watching him, he remarked that Liddell was a long way behind the leaders of the race at the beginning of the last lap, but a fellow Scot merely replied, “His head’s no’ back yet.” And a moment later, Liddell threw his head back and with mouth wide open caught and passed his opponents to win the race. Liddell is remembered as saying, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Glory is like that. Glory is head back, mouth open, feeling the pleasure of God.
Paul’s point, His enthusiasm is that God Himself is full of this kind of pleasure, this kind of delight, this kind of joy. Sometimes talking about this kind of joy can be incredibly depressing. It can be depressing because it doesn’t seem real. It seems so awfully rare. It can seem like have only brief, momentary experiences of this kind of joy. And then sometimes hearing about this joy in others can make it a bit worse, can’t it? Do you ever feel that way? Do you see the way a dad plays with his son, and do you wish you could have that with your son, with your dad? Do you see the way a woman dotes on her man, and do you wish you might have a woman like that, a man like that? Do you see the glory of professional athletes or accomplished musicians and is there a sinking sensation in your gut because you are quite sure that you can never have that kind of glory? Or do you simply long for that kind of pleasure, that kind of joy? Of course we can call that envy; we can call that covetousness – and surely there is some of that going on. But you know even deeper than that is a hunger for glory, a hunger for pleasure, a desperate desire for joy, for satisfaction, to delight in good things. Everybody wants it. Everybody is born hungry for this.
And that desire, that hunger was put there by God. The problem is not with the hunger. The problem is not with the desire. The problem is thinking that can fulfill it yourself. The problem is thinking that you just need a little bit more and then you’ll arrive. If I have a little more money, a little bit bigger house, a little more success at work, then I’ll be happy, then I’ll feel that pleasure. Or, perhaps the desire just feels like a tease, like a hunger that nothing ever seems to satisfy and you conclude that you just weren’t given that particular glory and therefore it must not be in the cards for you. You were dealt a different hand than other people, and it just doesn’t seem to be nearly as good as what they got.
But Paul says that’s not true because this pleasure you are seeking, this deep delight, this Niagara of joy is found in God Himself from all eternity. This is what God is expressing at the baptism of Jesus, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In God’s presence is fullness of joy; at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). When Jesus rose from the dead, where did He go? The end of Mark’s gospel says that He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God (Mk. 16:19). Hebrews says that we are to look unto Jesus who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2). Or Stephen when he was being murdered, gazed up into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). What does Stephen see? He sees the glory of God. What is the glory of God? It’s the delight of the Father in His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. It’s the delight of the Beloved Son in His Father. The glory of God is the joy of God, the delight of God in Himself, in being an eternal community of love and laughter and goodness.
But this is the point: Paul is jumping up and down, Paul is ecstatic and whooping at the Ephesians because he says that a huge part of this joy is precisely in the plan to save the world. It’s the flood of God’s delight that is driving God to share His joy with this world, to share His joy with you.
Think about this. What do you do when you discover something new? Something wonderful? Something so good? What’s the first thing you do? You tell someone. You share it. Because there is something inherent in joy that multiplies when it is shared. You may laugh occasionally all by yourself, but it isn’t much more common to find yourself drawn into the laughter of others? Isn’t this the whole point of studio laughter for sitcoms and talk show hosts? Laughter is infectious; joy is seductive. And not only has the Son been the source of God’s good pleasure from all eternity, and not only has the Spirit been the constant seal of that joy, the constant guarantee of this pleasure – but the gospel is that God’s joy is an intentional, purposeful, thoroughly personal conspiracy of to share this life, this joy, this laughter, this delight with people.
Paul says that we’ve been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and that’s not an overstatement. That isn’t just a statement expressing a vaguely large quantity. He means that the inexhaustible pleasure of God, His eternal delight and joy as Father, Son, and Spirit is now ours through Christ. Not only is the plan to forgive, not only is the plan to wash clean, the plan all along was for the fallen men and women and children of this world to be accepted in the Beloved, to be well pleasing in His sight, to be adopted as sons in the Beloved Son – to effectually draw millions into the dance of His delight, His joy, His pleasure.
Far from being a sterile, mechanistic fatalism or determinism – the doctrine of predestination is the sovereignty of God’s infectious joy. What drove God to create the world, what drove Him to allow sin and darkness, what drove Him to write the story He has written? It’s His eternal joy, His eternal Fatherly delight in His Son, His inexhaustible childish pleasure in being the eternal Son of the Father, and together their rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.
This is why Paul keeps saying words like good pleasure and beloved and riches, and to the praise of His glory, to the praise of His glory, to the praise of His glory. It’s all about God’s pleasure, His joy in being God, in being Father, Son, and Spirit – to the praise of His glory.
God the Father delights in the Son like Eric Liddell ran. He eternally runs to His Son with head thrown back, mouth wide open, feeling the pleasure of the Spirit in the very fiber of His Being. But this is the thing that overwhelms Paul, and what He wants to overwhelm the Ephesians with. He goes on to say in Ephesians 1 that his prayer has not ceased to be that the Father of glory would give them the Spirit of wisdom and knowledge of Him, that the eyes of their understanding would be opened, that they would know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints (Eph. 1:17-18).
Unlike every other glory in the world that has the potential to promise more than it can deliver, seem like it’s just out of reach, the glory of God, Paul insists is for us. In fact just as His glory is in His Beloved Son, if we are in His Beloved Son, then His glory is now in Us. He takes pleasure in us. He delights in us. He runs with His head thrown back, mouth wide open for us. We are His treasure, His glory — His inheritance is in us. Did you get that? His inheritance is in us. And His Spirit is as much His guarantee, His confirmation, His assurance of our delivery to Him as it is our guarantee that He will deliver what He has promised to us. In other words, when you place your trust in Jesus, when you surrender your life to Him, He claims you in the love of His Son and by the power of His Holy Spirit with the very same delight and pleasure that holds the Being of God together in all of eternity. The same force of delight, the same gladness that unites Father, Son, Spirit is shared with you. This is why elsewhere Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Can anything separate the Father from the Son? Can anything break the delight of the Father in His Son? Then you cannot be lost. You are safe in Him. He holds you with the same eternal delight.
And this also means that all things must work together for our salvation and blessing. The good things, the fun things, the hard things, the heart-wrenching things, the wine, the water, the laughter, the sorrow, the blood, the tears, the pain – for even though we will not be able to connect all the dots here and now, we have the down payment, the guarantee of God’s joy. The story God is telling is the story of His determination to share His glory, to share His joy, to share His good pleasure with all creation.
This is not a downer story. This is not a grim doctrine. This is the proclamation that all things must work together for good. This is the proclamation that He is working all things according to the counsel of His good will and pleasure. This is the proclamation that God’s sovereign joy is working out the most fabulous and hilarious story in the history of the world. It’s the proclamation that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus all that is dark, all that is broken, all that is wrong with this world must in the end become right because the same potent pleasure that the Father has in His Son has broken out in this world, and now we are infected with it. And there’s no cure, there’s only peace, consolation, eternal gladness.
And this is why the legacy of these doctrines has been and ought to continue to be a legacy of delight. Christians who know these doctrines, who love these doctrines should understand deep in their bones that the holiness we are called to is a holiness of pure delight. It’s a holiness that spills out in delighting in our children, in delighting in our spouses, in delighting in our work, in delighting in the good gifts of God because not one of them is an accident and every single one of them has been hand wrapped with love from the God of all pleasure. If God is working all things for good, if God is working all things according to His good pleasure – that means all things are for our pleasure, our delight, our joy in Him. God gives children, God gives spouses, God gives friends, God gives work, God gives hobbies and arts and sports and music and dancing and exploration and discovery and chocolate. God gives beauty and glory and joy. We must not mistake the glory of these gifts, as though there is no Giver. But we must enjoy the good gifts knowing that they are merely previews of the coming glory that no eye has seen, no ear has heard, goodness far beyond what we can think or imagine. God is running toward you, head back, mouth open, full of pleasure, delighting in you.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.