There's a Problem with American Christianity, But It's Not What You Think


In the last 200 years, Christianity in America has been distorted, or to put it more seriously, ravaged, by the dominant teaching that decisions for God are more basic in defining a Christian who delights in God.

The upshot of the dominance of this viewpoint is the emergence of thousands and thousands of professing Christians who have made decisions about God and joined churches, but have no new gladness in God — and, therefore, are not Christians.

The effort of this dominant viewpoint in American evangelicalism to define saving faith apart from the spiritual affections is biblically futile. To define saving faith apart from feelings of dependence, thankful trust, fervent admiration, pleased submission, contented resting, thrilled treasuring, eager reverence, heartfelt adoration is futile.

You cannot strip away all those adjectives — glad, thankful, fervent, pleased, contented, thrilled, eager, heartfelt — from faith and have any saving faith left. What you have left is what the devil can do. Or mere oxymorons — like unthankful saving trust. But there is no such thing.

Conversion Is a Miracle

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One of the reasons that this viewpoint holds so much sway over the American church is the belief that at the moment of conversion man, not God, must be in decisive, final control of whether saving faith happens. And since the view says we do have control over the decisions of our will, but we don’t have control over the affections of the heart, therefore affections of the heart are not allowed to be basic or essential to what a Christian is. For that would mean that in the moment of conversion a miracle must happen to awaken spiritual affections that don’t exist. And sinful man would lose control. The miracle-working God would have decisive, final control at the moment of conversion.

And we would have to confess the biblical truth that what we most need in the moment of conversion is not sinful, human autonomy, but the miraculous, divine gift of a new nature, with a new gladness, in a new God, through a new gospel. Which, the Bible says over and over, is what actually happens in conversion. A new nature is created with a new thankful trust, and a new fervent admiration, and a new pleased submission, and a new contented resting, and a new thrilled treasuring, and a new eager reverence, and a new heartfelt adoration. A new gladness, in a new God, through a new gospel is created by God.

God Creates New Life

Whatever you call this moment of conversion, it is decisively the work of God — a new creation of God, a new birth by the wind of God’s Spirit, a mighty call of God out of the tomb of spiritual death, a divine choice of God out of the darkness of the world, in a divine union between us and the dying and rising Christ so that we walk in newness of life. Whatever this moment of conversion is called, it is the gift of a new nature, with a new gladness, in a new God, through a new gospel.

If God waited for us to bring this about by our so-called free will, it would never happen. Sinners do not create new life. Sinners do not bring themselves to birth. Sinners do not call themselves out of the tomb. Sinners do not choosethemselves out of the world. Sinners do not forge a union with Christ so that his death and his life are ours. This is the work of God bringing into being a new person.

And my point is that the most basic, most essential distinction between that new person — that new nature — and the world is not new decisions, or new deeds, or new doctrines. These are all necessary traits of our new nature. But they are not most basic and most essential. Most basic and most essential is new gladness in a new God through a new gospel.

God Gives More Joy

Now, with that introduction, I invite you to turn to my text; namely, Psalm 4:6–7,

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?”
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.

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This is “a Psalm of David” according to verse 1, but who are the others in the second half of verse 7? “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Who are “they”?

Earlier in the psalm, in verses 2 and 3, we read about them:

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

There is David on the one side, and there are those who love vain words and seek after lies and try to turn David’s honor into shame. These are not the godly. They are not covenant-keeping lovers of God. They are the world. For “the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” And those who love vain words and seek after lies are not included.

Nevertheless, they often prosper, as they certainly do in verse 7. Their grain and their wine are abounding. Wine is made out of grapes, not grain. So this is a reference both to a bountiful harvest to provide the sustenance of food, and a bountiful vintage to provide for the refreshment of wine.

These are the gifts of God, which we see in Isaac’s blessing over Jacob:

May God give you of the dew of heaven
and of the fatness of the earth
and plenty of grain and wine. (Genesis 27:28)

These good gifts of God are meant to awaken thankfulness and joy in the bounty and the refreshing sweetness of God himself. But as David looks at the unbelieving world enjoying the bounty of its grain and wine, he says to God in verse 7, “You have put more joy in my heart.” More joy than that. More joy than bountiful food can give. More joy than bountiful wine can give. That is, more joy than having every basic need met, and more joy than having the overflow of superadded pleasures of taste and gladness.

God Gives Better Joy

But we have to be careful here. Both the Hebrew and the context, for those of you who don’t read Hebrew, show that more is being contrasted here than quantity. The way the Hebrew communicates distinction is with the preposition “from” (min). For example, in Genesis 3:1, when it says, “The serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field,” it is literally, “The serpent was crafty from any other beast of the field.” And we are left to decide from the context: Is the craftiness of the serpent distinct from the other beasts in the quantity of its craftiness, the frequency of its craftiness, the subtlety of its craftiness, the wickedness of its craftiness?

And so it is here in Psalm 4:7, “You have put joy in my heart from the time of their abounding grain and wine.” And we are left to decide from the context whether this joy that David has is distinct from the joy of harvest and wine in quantity, in source, in kind. And so we are thrown back on the context where all of us English readers can do very serious thinking.

The closest contextual clue we have for how our joy is distinct from the world is in verse 6, immediately preceding. There is the prayer, “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” So in verse 7a, you have David’s affirmation, “You have put superior joy in my heart” — superior in some way, in kind, in source, in amount? And on one side of this claim you have the hope of the light of God’s face shining on David, and on the other side you have abounding grain and wine.

And I ask, Why would David put it together in this way if he didn’t want us to contrast the joy that comes from grain and wine with the joy that comes through the shining of God’s face? Almost everyone who has lived has tasted the pleasure of food and drink. And some societies like ours have a stunning abundance of food and drink. We enjoy these pleasures morning, noon, and night.

But David is claiming that there is another joy that is not necessarily attached to having food and drink. It is a joy that comes from being in the light of the face of God. This is a new joy, a new gladness. Verse 3: “The Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him” (Psalm 4:3). And what the godly call for in verse 7 is this: “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” Because this gives a different joy, a greater joy, than the world has when their grain and wine abound.

John Piper is founder and teacher of 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 “Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.”

A version of this article previously appeared on the website. This excerpt is from a message John Piper preached at Together for the Gospel 2018. Find the full message here.

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Desiring God produces God-centered resources from the ministry of John Piper. Its mission is to produce and distribute resources that spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.