Augustine counsels us, “Say with the psalmist: ‘One thing I ask of the Lord, this I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple’ (Psalm 27:4).”
Then he says, “In order that we may attain this happy life, he who is himself the true Blessed Life has taught us to pray.” He shows us the way he prayed for the triumph of joy in God:
“O Lord, that I may love you, for I can find nothing more precious. Turn not away your face from me, that I may find what I seek. Turn not aside in anger from your servant, lest in seeking you I run toward something else. . . . Be my helper. Leave me not, neither despise me, O God my Saviour.”
But alongside prayer, the remedy for people without passion and without hunger and thirst for God is to display God himself as infinitely more desirable – more satisfying – than all creation.
Augustine’s zeal for the souls of men and women was that they come to see the beauty of God and love him.
“If your delight is in souls, love them in God . . . and draw as many with you to him as you can.” “You yourself [O God] are their joy. Happiness is to rejoice in you and for you and because of you. This is true happiness and there is no other.”
So Augustine labored with all his spiritual and poetic and intellectual might to help people see and feel the all-satisfying supremacy of God over all things.
But what do I love when I love my God? . . . Not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace.
It is not these that I love when I love my God.
And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace; but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away on the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfillment of desire.
This is what I love when I love my God.
Few people in the history of the church have surpassed Augustine in portraying the greatness and beauty and desirability of God. He is utterly persuaded by Scripture and experience “that he is happy who possesses God.” “You made us for yourself, and our hearts find no peace till they rest in you.” He will labor with all his might to make this God of sovereign grace and sovereign joy known and loved in the world.
You are ever active, yet always at rest. You gather all things to yourself, though you suffer no need. . . . You grieve for wrong, but suffer no pain. You can be angry and yet serene. Your works are varied, but your purpose is one and the same. . . . You welcome those who come to you, though you never lost them. You are never in need yet are glad to gain, never covetous yet you exact a return for your gifts. . . . You release us from our debts, but you lose nothing thereby. You are my God, my Life, my holy Delight, but is this enough to say of you? Can any man say enough when he speaks of you? Yet woe betide those who are silent about you!
If it is true, as R.C. Sproul says that today “we have not broken free from the Pelagian captivity of the church,” then we should pray and preach and write and teach and labor with all our might to break the chain that holds us captive. Sproul says, “We need an Augustine or a Luther to speak to us anew lest the light of God’s grace be not only overshadowed but be obliterated in our time.” Yes, we do. But we also need tens of thousands of ordinary pastors like you and me, who are ravished with the extraordinary sovereignty of joy in God.
And we need to rediscover Augustine’s peculiar slant – a very Biblical slant – on grace as the free gift of sovereign joy in God that frees us from the bondage of sin.
We need to rethink our Reformed soteriology so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of Augustinian delight.
We need to make plain that total depravity is not just badness, but blindness to beauty and deadness to joy;
and unconditional election means that the completeness of our joy in Jesus was planned for us before we ever existed;
and that limited atonement is the assurance that indestructible joy in God is infallibly secured for us by the blood of the covenant;
and irresistible grace is the commitment and power of God’s love to make sure we don’t hold on to suicidal pleasures, but will set us free by the sovereign power of superior delights;
and that the perseverance of the saints is the almighty work of God to keep us, through all affliction and suffering, for an inheritance of pleasures at God’s right hand forever.
This note of sovereign, triumphant joy is a missing element in too much Reformed theology and Reformed worship. And it may be that the question we should pose ourselves in conclusion is whether this is so because we have not experienced the triumph of sovereign joy in our own lives. Can we say the following with Augustine?
How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.
Or are we in bondage to the pleasures of this world so that, for all our talk about the glory of God, we love television and food and sleep and sex and money and human praise just like everybody else? If so, let us repent and fix our faces like flint toward the Word of God in prayer: O Lord, open my eyes to see the sovereign sight that in your presence is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11).
—The Swan is Not Silent, Sovereign Joy in the Life and Thought of St. Augustine, a sermon delivered on February 3, 1998 by John Piper at the 1998 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors.
Full sermon preview:
Read the rest of this zeal kindling message on a greater manifestation of the joy in God and battle against lust, here, for mp3, here. I personally found much spiritual help in this message on the life of Augustine of Hippo. O, that we all may be ravished by the surpassing beauty of the God that loved and saved us! O, that we may grasp a greater conception of the wonders of His sovereign grace! May we be crushed by such a vision of the deadness of our own souls and cling to him in all our might that He may be our only purpose and joy!
Note: Let it be understood that when Dr.Piper speaks of “rethinking” Reformed soteriology, he does not mean to reinvent it and make away with the historical Biblical claims of the reformed faith. Rather, it is Dr.Piper’s conviction, as well as it is mine, that Reformed thinking should stretch out more and be seen in the root of contentment in God. Wherein it is an exemplification that all joy and all passion are to come from Him. And in the absence of peace with God, all that is left is utter despair and abominable depravity. That being said we should not just stop in exposing the radical preposterousness of sin, but rather, we should labor as well in exposing the surpassing measure of the sovereignty of joy in God.