Awful Idea Alert: UK Churches Rewrite 10 Commandments

As reported by The [UK] Telegraph, a recent revision of the 10 Commandments called just10 is getting rave reviews from hundreds of churches across the UK that have begun using the teaching program with their congregations.  As I read about the just10 series, visited their website, and considered what I saw, I was brought to a surprising but important question:  Just what is the purpose of the 10 Commandments?

“I like to use them for neck and shoulder stretches before I exercise!”

“Jordan, that may be the dumbest question I’ve ever heard.  Everybody knows what the 10 Commandments are for:  telling people what to do / not to do.”  Granted.  There is, however, much more to the matter than just that.  Rest assured, we aren’t merely splitting hairs today–quite the contrary, in fact.  This is important stuff.  Using the New Testament as our standard and church tradition as our model, we are led to conclude that just10 is a woefully inadequate reconstruction of the 10 Commandments due to its failure to point people to Christ.  This I will now attempt to demonstrate.

Naturally, our first step will be to familiarize ourselves with the material in question–in this case, the recast commandments of just10 and the commentary offered by its own creators and supporters.  So let’s begin our discussion by comparing the original 10 Commandments (ESV translation) with their just10 counterparts:

1)   You shall have no other gods before me.
1)   Live by priorities.

2)   You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
2)   Know God.

3)   You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
3)   Take God seriously.

4)   Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
4)   Catch your breath.

5)   Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
5)   Keep the peace with your parents.

6)   You shall not murder.
6)   Manage your anger.

7)   You shall not commit adultery.
7)   Affair-proof your relationships.

8)   You shall not steal.
8)   Prosper with a clear conscience.

9)   You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
9)   Hold to the truth.

10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
10) Find contentment.

As you can see, just10 attempts to extract and summarize the broader principles which underlie the specific injunctions of the 10 Commandments, and it does so with modest success.  Though the pithy principles often fail to strike the bull’s-eye of original meaning (e.g. numbers 2, 4, 5, and 8, to name a few), you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any of them are unbiblical or unrelated to their respective predecessors.  [Plus, the DVD comes with a “talk” on each commandment by J.John, the creator of just10, so we can assume that a fair amount of extrapolation comes in each those to make up for the relatively brief and imprecise titles.]  Most significantly, the ‘harshness’ of the 10 Commandments is completely done away with in just10; you will find nary a no or a not in the entire lot!  This, in fact, appears to be the primary thrust behind just10–a desire to present the 10 Commandments in a positive, non-abrasive light so that folks inside and outside the church will be better able to understand them and more inclined to embrace them in their lives.  Looking at The Telegraph’s article linked above, the purpose and function of just10 are on clear display:

“…rewritten to reflect modern values…”

“…modified to use up-to-date language and principles…”

“…praised by religious leaders for bringing practical advice to modern congregations…”

“…aimed at providing guidance…”

“Hey look guys, I found contentment!  I’m aiming at it to provide you guidance!”

“…J.John claims his commandments enable ‘everyone to understand God’s timeless principles on how we should live….  Along with a lot of people I think about the way that we live nowadays and what leads people to do the sort of things that happened in the riots–whether or not we have forgotten something about a good way of living….'”

“‘…It’s basically a way of presenting the Ten Commandments to help people connect with them in a positive way.  Rather than just seeing them as a list of things you shouldn’t do, it is meant to help people live as God intended for our good….  [T]he message is meant to be both a challenge and an encouragement….'” (Rev. Paul Roberts, quoted)

“‘…People now see these commandments not as a set of rules but as a template for living so that we experience God’s best for our lives….'” (pastor Wayne Dulson, quoted)

We can add to these quotes one of the main explanatory blurbs from the just10 website:

“Most people have heard of the Ten Commandments, God’s basic instructions for our lives that, when followed, help us live in freedom every day.  These core principles are designed to equip and guide us through life, keeping us on the right path, and helping us navigate through the tough times.

just10 breaks down the 10 Commandments into ten attractive titles….  J.John has found these titles attractive to both Christians and those seeking, with many realigning their lives to God’s blueprint.”

Again, I think we do well to affirm what is correct here before diving into what is amiss.  In the first place, people need to understand that the 10 Commandments (like all Scripture) are as relevant and applicable to our present moment in history as they have been since their original inscription–and relevant not just to murderers and adulterers but indeed to everyone.  Furthermore, since the 10 Commandments are the foundation for the entire moral law of the Old Testament, spoken aloud to the whole people of Israel and then written onto tablets by the very finger of God, they are indeed worthy of our special attention.  (To give you an idea, some scholars have ably argued that the entire book of Deuteronomy is a sequential exposition of the 10 Commandments.)  Additionally, the 10 Commandments are undoubtedly crucial to “[living] as God intended for our good” and to “[experiencing] God’s best for our lives.”  As the loving Creator of mankind, God gave us laws that reflect what He knows to be objectively good for us, such that any attempt to live contrary to His prescriptions will inevitably backfire and essentially become a punishment of its own.

But let’s assume for a moment that the original 10 Commandments as found in Scripture–and the other passages that directly relate to them (think Sermon on the Mount)–are somehow lacking in their ability to convey these points clearly or compellingly.  [For the record, they are not.]  Still, one problem remains.  just10 completely misses what is arguably the most important purpose of the 10 Commandments:  to expose man’s iniquity, convict him of sin, and point him to Christ Jesus as his only hope for escaping the just judgment of God.  Theologians have long understood this to be one of the three basic ‘uses’ of God’s moral law in the Bible.  (The other two are the general restraint of evil by civil authorities and the prescription of righteousness for God’s regenerated people.  just10 is basically operating on a conflated version of these two.)  Calvin speaks of this use of the law at length in his Institutes:

“By exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—[the moral law] admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him.  This is necessary, in order that man, who is blind and intoxicated with self-love, may be brought at once to know and to confess his weakness and impurity.  For until his vanity is made perfectly manifest, he is puffed up with infatuated confidence in his own powers, and never can be brought to feel their feebleness so long as he measures them by a standard of his own choice.  So soon, however, as he begins to compare them with the requirements of the Law, he has something to tame his presumption….  [A]fter he is forced to weigh his conduct in the balance of the Law, renouncing all dependence on this fancied righteousness, he sees that he is at an infinite distance from holiness, and, on the other hand, that he teems with innumerable vices of which he formerly seemed free.

“Thus the Law is a kind of mirror.  As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.  He who has no power of following righteousness is necessarily plunged in the mire of iniquity, and this iniquity is immediately followed by the curse….  All that remains for the Law, is to arm the wrath of God for the destruction of the sinner; for by itself it can do nothing but accuse, condemn, and destroy him.  Thus Augustine says, ‘If the Spirit of grace be absent, the law is present only to convict and slay us.'”  (source)

“Read this. Now look me in the eyes and tell me you’re righteous.”

Let’s take another look at the just10 versions of the commandments above.  Would you really call those commandments?  They’re so vague and mild… how do I even know when I’ve broken one?  Here’s something you’ll never hear:  “I don’t think I’ve ‘caught my breath’ recently; I need Jesus’ blood to atone for my sin and turn away God’s wrath!”  What God gave as laws for His people from the supreme Lord and Judge of the universe, just10 has softened into “guidelines” and “practical advice” from God the gentle grandfather who doesn’t want to see you hurt yourself.  Realizing that the 10 Commandments in their original form pierce like bullets, just10 has turned them into Nerf darts.  Compared to bullets, Nerf darts are comfortable; Nerf darts are unimposing; Nerf darts are safe.  But God did not intend for the moral law to be seen as “attractive” or an “encouragement,”* and the absence of the concepts of sin and grace from any just10 materials I’ve seen is downright scary.  (Believe me, I’ve looked.  Then again, maybe they’re saving the ‘condemnation sucker punch’ for the DVD.  At this point, I honestly hope so.)

Galatians 3 is a key passage for our understanding of the illuminating and convicting use of the law, which theologians commonly call the ‘pedagogical’ use.  After giving the people of Israel the law, God promised them abundant blessings for obedience to the law and severe curses for disobedience to the law; with this context in mind, Paul says that Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (vv13-14).  Later in v19 we read, “Why then the law?  It was added because of [i.e. in order to show] transgressions.”  Finally, Paul brings his point to a head in vv22-24:

“[T]he Scripture [i.e. the Old Testament] imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian [or ‘schoolmaster’ or ‘tutor’–Greek pedagogos] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”

The 10 Commandments point us to Christ!  Not just indirectly or coincidentally, either–it was built into them from the very start as their primary purpose.  As people who are utterly incapable of obeying God’s law and meeting His divine requirements for us, we have no choice but to look to someone who (A) can perfectly obey God’s law on our behalf and (B) can take the punishment for our disobedience on our behalf.  THAT’S MY SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST!!!

Paul sums it all up in Romans 3:21-22:  “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

“Go ahead, you can say it–my foreshadowing skills are AMAZING!”

So where does that leave just10?  In the best case scenario, just10 is simply unnecessary, because the ‘vintage’ 10 Commandments are more than capable of doing their job, especially when attended by the rest of Scripture.  (There’s a big difference between expounding a text and revising it, guys!)  Unfortunately, we must go further and say that just10 is also harmful in its incompleteness.  For people to think they’re getting the full scoop on the 10 Commandments from J.John and company is a grievous error.  Sadly, we must go even further and say that just10 runs directly counter to the true 10 Commandments in its suppression of their intrinsically demanding nature as unyielding requirements for man to be able to fellowship with God and avoid His just judgment.  The 10 Commandments are glass, not rubber; when you break them (and break them you do), they cut you.  And thank God that they do, because how else would you know you needed a Doctor otherwise?

To this end, the 10 Commandments are an invaluable resource for evangelism.  As one of my professors has repeatedly said, “The first step in any gospel presentation is to get the person ‘lost.'”  Christ’s offer of salvation falls on deaf ears if the person doesn’t realize he needs saving.  Jesus Himself took this exact approach–using the 10 Commandments, no less–when he met the rich young man.  In his excellent book on evangelism Tell the Truth, author Will Metzger presents a paraphrase of the 10 Commandments that spells out the true heights of their astronomical standards, thus driving home our utter inability to declare any of the following:

1)   I have never put anything else before God in my life.  I have always given God first place in my thinking, affections, and actions.

2)   I have never had any wrong conceptions of God nor worshipped Him in a way not recommended by Him.  I have always rejected any wrong imaginations or images of God that I’ve seen or thought and refused to remake God according to my liking.

3)   I have never slighted or abused the character of the true God by using His holy name as a swear word or using it in a thoughtless manner, such as by calling myself a follower of God yet not obeying.  I have always held the name of God, which signifies His character, in highest respect, invoking it with thoughtfulness and reverence.

4)   I have never done less than a full week’s work, and never done any of my normal work on the day set aside to worship God.  I have always worked hard and willingly at whatever task is set before me, seeing it as a God-given service each day, and consistently remembered to set apart one day weekly to worship God with others.

5)   I have never disobeyed nor dishonored my parents or any others in authority over me.  I have always respected and been thankful for my parents and given them honor and willing obedience, as well as other authorities over me.

6)   I have never murdered anyone nor had hateful thoughts or taken the slightest pleasure in seeing harm done to another human.  I have always thought more of others than I have of myself and practiced the highest regard for human life and justice.

7)   I have never practiced any sexual impurity, either physically engaging in sex before marriage or mentally having impure thoughts about someone.  I have always treated others’ sexuality with respect and dignity in both my physical actions and mental attitudes.

8)   I have never taken anything that doesn’t belong to me nor been deceitful in any attitudes or unwilling to work for my needs.  I have always respected the belongings, rights and creations of others and been completely truthful and fair.

9)   I have never lied nor slandered another person or group of people.  I have always told the truth in every situation regarding every person I have known.

10) I have never been greedy for something that wasn’t mine, nor jealous even of the abilities, looks, or status of others.  I have always shared and given of my possessions and myself to others and have been thankful in my heart for what they have and content with my possessions and situation.

That’ll get ’em lost!  And if you aren’t convicted afresh after reading those, then you, my friend, are nuts.  Praise God for His incredible over-the-top superabundant grace through Christ our Lord!  Amen.

“You can thank me later.”**


*To qualify this slightly, passages like Psalm 119 show that it is possible to rejoice in God’s law, in which case it can indeed be seen as “attractive” or an “encouragement.”  But the broader biblical witness makes it clear that such delight in God’s law is only possible for someone who has already been justified before God by grace apart from observing the law (i.e. through faith).  The joy of the law is only available to those who have been freed from the curse of the law.  Thus the pain of contrition and repentance must always come first.
**All images in this post are the original property of Paramount Pictures and Motion Picture Associates, Inc.


Hymn Awareness Bulletin–The Church’s One Foundation

It has been too long since the first Hymn Awareness Bulletin, and I’ve realized that, if we are ever to make any significant progress in learning these wonderful hymns together, I’ll have to quicken my pace a bit.  I have a more traditional/substantial post simmering on the back burner at the moment, but I suppose that’ll have to wait a few days more.  The problem of having too much to say and too many sources to consider is a good one, to be sure, but I’ll not suffer this hymn post to be delayed any longer because of some British shenanigans surrounding the 10 Commandments.  Thus we turn to the nineteenth century once again.

“The Church’s One Foundation” was written by Samuel J. Stone in 1866 and traces the salvation, perseverance, and glorification of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” by Christ Jesus:

The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is His new creation by water and the Word:
from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.

Elect from ev’ry nation, yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy Name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with ev’ry grace endued.

Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

The church shall never perish!  Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end;
though there be those that hate her, and false sons in her pale,
against or foe or traitor she ever shall prevail.

‘Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation of peace forevermore;
till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy!  Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with Thee. 

As is evident in the text, Stone was particularly concerned to declare the essential identity of the church in Christ, her unity in Christ, and the certainty of her success in Christ despite internal and external obstacles.

The Church's One Foundation

Image courtesy of

The verses have long been accompanied by Samuel S. Wesley’s “Aurelia” tune (1864), an appropriately strong setting with skillful drama both in its incorporation of accidentals and in its melodic arc through each verse.

The first of the two videos below is the best non-schmaltzy non-home-video vocal recording I could find (an unfortunately difficult task regarding hymns on YouTube), followed by a beautiful instrumental rendition of Wesley’s tune.

Oh man, you found the secret text!  Good going, gumshoe!

One of the most profound testaments to Stone’s call for unity is the hymn’s historically wide usage across traditions and denominations–from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist and everything in between.  May we always understand our life and our work together through the lens of our “union with God the Three in One” and our “sweet communion” with one another!  Amen.

The Joy of Righteousness

The following is a brief exposition of the biblical concept of joy, originally prepared for Dr. Julie Moeller’s ‘Biblical Ideas’ class in the spring 2011.  It may be a bit longer and more ‘academic’ than the typical blog post.  (If you are like me, then that should strike you as a good thing.)  I selected the topic because, as I have remarked elsewhere, “I am just really bad at joy most of the time.”  My study served both to inform my understanding of biblical joy and encourage my application of joy to the Christian life; it is therefore my hope that you might find similar profit in it.

[Note: Due to a quirk in the copying process from Word, the footnotes are marked with hyperlinks that lead to nowhere (though the footnotes themselves can still be found at the end of the post).  I have retained them for the simple reason that fixing them all would be super obnoxious.  My advice to you in this regard would be to deal with it. ;)]

For the average Christian, few biblical concepts are so simultaneously understood and misunderstood as joy.  Every churchgoer seems to have some idea of what joy is, but it appears that few of them are able to articulate their understanding in any comprehensive or definitive terms.  At times, the idea of joy can seem startlingly simple, and perhaps rightly so; however, other instances can lead believers to think of joy as something largely esoteric and impossible to grasp.  At the slight risk of overgeneralizing, one might venture to express the average Christian layman’s understanding of joy—or perhaps the “lowest common denominator” of joy definitions—as “a positive disposition of the mind and heart that we as Christians have, or at least can have and should have, because of Jesus.”  Outside of the proverbial armchair, of course, the question of what exactly joy is leads inevitably to the question of how the Christian is to actualize or experience joy in his everyday life:  “‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’[1]… but what about when I do not feel ‘joyful’?  ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’[2].…  So does that mean I can make myself experience joy?  That sounds great, but how do I do that?”

Granted, any earnest attempt at a summary account of the entire biblical witness regarding the idea of joy would require a much more extensive treatment than the present discussion allows, but nevertheless there is much to gain from a brief investigation into the character of biblical joy.  First, a survey of the potential sources or prompts of joy cited in the Bible points to the basic principle that true and lasting joy can only be found in and through God.  From this point, one can move into a study of man’s primary occasion for joy: his salvation at the hand of God.  However, though one’s acceptance of salvation in Christ marks the beginning of his relationship with God and even secures this relationship unto eternal life, one must yet consider the intricacies of the Christian’s experience of joy during his post-conversion sojourn in this present life.  It is here that one encounters a striking connection between joy and righteousness, as the Bible portrays obedience to God’s commands and the pursuit of conformity to his will as the constitutive means of experiencing true joy.

One of the most quickly-mentioned and oft-repeated assertions about biblical joy by those Christians who purport to take their Scriptures quite seriously is that “joy is NOT happiness.”  Such Christians might be surprised, then, to learn of the wide variety of normal “secular” objects and circumstances cited in the Bible as evoking joy.  There is nothing especially sacred or spiritual about enjoying a good wine or celebrating a birthday,[3] and one need not be a dedicated Christian to take delight in receiving a word of kindness or meeting with a loved one,[4] yet these and other common life scenarios appear alongside the Hebrew root for joy (transliterated samach) in the Old Testament.  In Acts, Paul and Barnabas describe the Lord to the people of Lystra as “he [who] provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”[5]  If the pagans receive joy from God, then it must be available to some degree through natural revelation and God’s common grace and given through “unspiritual” means.  Furthermore, joy is even associated in some instances with the experiences of those whose actions go against the will of God, such as Israel’s victorious enemies in Judges 16:23 and the foolish man of Proverbs 15:21.[6]  It is clear, then, that “joy” is not a sensation that is limited to explicitly spiritual contexts such as corporate worship or Bible study.

Without diminishing this fact of God’s giving “common joy” to common man through common means, one must note that the joys of creation are as insufficient and unsatisfactory as the rest of general revelation in that man was never intended to seek total fulfillment from the creation but rather from the Creator.  The Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes relates the frustration and failure of his pursuit of joy in earthly pleasures alone:

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure [Hebrew from samach].
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.[7]

Even if the created order and the hearts of men were not tainted by the blight of sin, men were never intended to seek abiding joy from material goods (though they are indeed good); by virtue of man’s design, and by virtue of the very nature of joy itself, there is only one wholly appropriate and truly satisfactory source of total joy: God, whom the psalmist calls “my joy and my delight.”[8]  It comes as no surprise that the Lord’s character of love and eternal disposition toward kindness would inspire rejoicing from those who call upon his name.

Here the issue of ultimate motivation is worth dwelling upon, for the implication of God’s being the source of joy in the “strong” or “full” sense is that one must seek him to get it, rather than simply seeking it.  The jealous God of Jacob is not interested in being anywhere but the center of man’s purposes and affections; setting one’s enjoyment as his primary goal is tantamount to idolatry, as God is consequently considered of secondary importance next to personal benefit.  Therefore joy is revealed to be a condition that cannot be attained by striving for it directly.[9]  Christ tells his disciples thus: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”[10]  Additionally, Christ promises his followers that the life he provides is abundant and instructs them to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [material blessings] will be given to you as well.”[11]  In a pleasant and ironic turn of providence, a proper valuation and enjoyment of God not only invites more “common joys” into the Christian’s life but also enables him to more fully enjoy them while keeping a right perspective.[12]  This perspective, as previously stated, centers always on the character of God and his divine works in history.

Of course, there is no event more central to the grand metanarrative of God, man, and indeed all creation than the redemptive work of Jesus Christ; it comes as no surprise, therefore, that the biblical idea of joy is repeatedly and intimately tied to God’s salvation of his people.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary so strongly emphasizes this point that its entry on joy begins thus: “The experience of deliverance and the anticipation of salvation provide the most significant occasions for rejoicing among the people of God in the OT.  The coming of the Messiah, who delivers his people and brings salvation, becomes the basis for rejoicing in the NT.”[13]  In fact, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament affirms that of all the reasons for joy given throughout the Bible, “The Lord and his salvation are cited most frequently.”[14]

The rejoicing of the people of Israel in the Old Testament features both gratitude for God’s past works of redemption and anticipation of God’s future eschatological redemption.  The Israelites were given yearly feasts and festivals to commemorate several critical occasions on which the Lord had delivered them from bondage, such as the Passover and Pentecost, and occasions when he had intervened to protect them from their enemies, such as Purim.[15]  In granting them to the people, God refers to the feasts as “your times of rejoicing,” thus affirming that his salvific work on their behalf should be met with joy.  In particular, their miraculous deliverance from Egypt becomes one of the key elements of their identity as a nation as well as the primary reference point for their relationship to God throughout the Old Testament.  As the prophets begin to speak of an eschatological redemption, these feasts continue to serve as regular reminders of God’s perfect faithfulness and encourage the people to continue to trust in the Lord.

Regarding the prophecies themselves, the intensity of the joy occasioned by salvation is nothing short of remarkable.  Several passages from Isaiah well illustrate this.  First, in Isaiah 44, the prophet calls upon creation itself to rejoice for Israel:

Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this;
shout aloud, O earth beneath.
Burst into song, you mountains,
you forests and all your trees,
for the LORD has redeemed Jacob,
he displays his glory in Israel.[16]

Later in the book, Isaiah personifies joy as if it were actively chasing down God’s people as a result of their salvation:

The ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.[17]

Finally, the Lord speaks through Isaiah about the glorious joy of his coming new creation, saying that the people themselves will be a joy:

“Behold, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.”[18]

Anchor notes that the angels’ announcement of Christ’s birth in Luke is a perfect continuation and indeed fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a coming joyous salvation: “‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’ (Lk 2:10-11).  The appearance of the Messiah providing salvation for all humankind permeates every NT book with the mood of joy.”[19]  Christ himself promises his disciples that after his death, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy….  Until now you have not asked for anything in my name.  Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”[20]  Later, the apostle Peter affirms that this joy extends beyond the original disciples unto all those who believe in Christ: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”[21]

Though many would be satisfied to contain their investigation of joy to the primary point of God’s redemption, and though a more thorough examination of this point could fill many papers, the questions of practical application raised at the beginning of the discussion demand that another step be taken—a step into the ongoing daily realities of those who believe in Christ and seek to live as his disciples in light of this redemption.  While resisting the temptation to treat one’s redemption as merely a past incident and not an abiding reality, one must acknowledge that the fact of his redemption does not automatically produce joy in all circumstances (even though one may well argue that it should) and that therefore the dynamics of Christian sanctification are deserving of attention as regards their potential import for the joy of the believer.  Throughout the Scriptures there can be seen a repeated linking of joy with acting righteously through obedience to the good laws of God.

Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion of the joy of righteousness is the Psalms.  Simply put, the psalmists express such immense delight in God’s laws that readers with modern sensibilities may be initially confused or offended by the authors’ eagerness to follow rules.  First, Psalm 19:8 says,

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.[22]

Psalm 119, an enormous alphabetical acrostic poem that almost reads like a love letter to God’s commandments, says similarly,

I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches….
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.[23]

Psalm 97 takes these sentiments and extrapolates the general principle that

Light is shed upon the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.[24]

From these excerpts two main points can be drawn.  The first is that God’s laws are a source of joy for the believer.  While most professing Christians would be reluctant to explicitly deny this claim, it must be admitted that many Christians struggle to identify with the attitude of the psalmist(s).  To some, it seems truly foreign.  The idea that laws, or forced restrictions of any kind, would be catalysts of joy runs counter to the basic sinful instinct as well as the prevailing Western zeal for maximal freedom from rules.  However, the testimony of the passages stands, and since they are Scripture, any who fail to seriously consider the truth of this principle do so to their own detriment and hermeneutical peril.  The second main point, as seen primarily in the latter passage, is that joy is a direct result of righteousness.  While this expression is probably slightly more palatable than the first point, they are really very similar; for what is righteousness if not right action, and what is right action if not obedience to the commands of God?

A number of other passages corroborate these points drawn from the Psalms and demonstrate an intimate relationship between righteousness and joy.  Galatians 5 lists joy among the “fruit of the Spirit,” alongside such characteristics as goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.[25]  Paul writes in Philippians that he will continue his ministry with them for their “progress and joy in the faith”—progress which would undoubtedly entail growing in conformity to Christ through acts of righteousness.[26]  Ecclesiastes 2 declares that “to the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness [from samach], but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God.”[27]  In his discussion of strong and weak faiths in Romans 14, Paul reminds his readers that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[28]  Jeremiah treats the words of God like a scrumptious morsel:

When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
O LORD God Almighty.[29]

Proverbs 10:28 claims that “the prospect of the righteous is joy”; in contrast, “the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.”[30]  John records Jesus telling his disciples, “‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.’”[31]  James exhorts his readers to receive their trials as “pure joy,” because the perseverance they develop from them “must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”[32]  The Apostle John writes in his third epistle that “it gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth.  I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”[33]  Finally, Paul tells the Colossians of his prayer for them: “That you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father….”[34]

Given the abundance and diversity of such references, it is but a small leap to propose that joy (in the “strong” sense rather than the “common” sense) is a constant companion of righteousness or, perhaps more generally, godliness.  Joy—like love, peace, goodness, etc.—is a gift of the Holy Spirit; as a divine attribute, it acts as a divine response to divine stimuli.  Wherever godliness manifests, joy results in the heart of God and in the hearts of the regenerated believers who are blessed to witness or experience it.

In conclusion, joy is the recognition of an object’s likeness to God, a recognition that characteristically stirs up delight in the Christian’s heart.  To such an extent that God’s righteousness is reflected in a given item, a circumstance, or an action, there may joy be found and experienced.  Obviously, then, God himself and our contemplation of his character and works are the most abundant sources of joy.  Unlike the partial and insufficient joys offered by the finite and fallen natural world, God’s redemptive activity in history on man’s behalf is an inexhaustible spring of joy for believers.  Having received the blessings of redemption in Christ, and keeping this redemption always before them as their most immediate and constant delight, Christians may further experience joy through the progressive alignment of their wills and actions with those of God, that their internal and external conditions may be conformed to his righteousness.  The righteous acts of an obedient life are not merely a means to joy but in fact constitute an essential part of the experience of joy, as the Holy Spirit and his regenerated vessels are naturally delighted by godliness itself.

Therefore, with caution not to oversimplify an admittedly complex issue, the Christian who is failing to experience or actualize joy in his daily living ought maybe to start as follows.  First, he must stop trying to manufacture emotions that are ultimately a flimsy substitute for joy.  Second, he must contemplate the righteousness imputed to him in Christ and the fact that the Lord God Almighty rejoices over his people.[35]  Third, he must begin to train himself to see the echoes and reflections of God’s attributes and especially his goodness in the objects, circumstances, and actions in his life.  Finally, he must commit to acting in righteousness and obedience to God—whether he initially sees the benefit or not—remembering that joy itself cannot be his ultimate goal but trusting that the promises of Scripture will be fulfilled as he “seeks first the kingdom.”

[1] Nehemiah 8:10, Holy Bible, New International Version, Biblica, 1984.
[2] Philippians 4:4.
[3] Friedman, David Noel et al, eds., “Joy,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, New York: Doubleday, 1992, p. 1023.
[4] Harris, R. Laird et al, eds., “2268, simha, joy, mirth,” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, Chicago: Moody Press, 1980, p. 14.
[5] Acts 14:17.
[6] Harris 15.
[7] Ecclesiastes 2:10-11.
[8] Psalm 43:4.
[9] Ryken, Leland et al, eds., “Joy,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998, p. 465.
[10] Matthew 16:25.
[11] Matt 6:33.
[12] Elwell, Walter A., ed., “Joy,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, p. 431.
[13] Friedman 1022.
[14] Harris 14.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Isaiah 44:23.
[17] Isaiah 51:11.
[18] Isaiah 65:17-18.
[19] Friedman 1023.
[20] John 16:22, 24.
[21] I Peter 1:8-9.
[22] Psalm 19:8.
[23] Psalm 119:14, 111.
[24] Psalm 97:11
[25] Galatians 5:22-23.
[26] Philippians 1:25-26.
[27] Ecclesiastes 2:26.
[28] Romans 14:17.
[29] Jeremiah 15:16.
[30] Proverbs 10:28.
[31] John 15:9:11.
[32] James 1:2, 4.
[33] III John 3-4.
[34] Colossians 1:10-12.
[35] Cf. Psalm 149:4; Luke 15:5-10; Zephaniah 3:14-17.