The Joy of God's Salvation

In the American Declaration of Independence, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ was listed along with ‘Life’ and ‘Liberty’ as one of three ‘inalienable rights’ common to all people. It is a striking and curious inclusion. But, whatever lay behind its place in this history-making document, it recognises that joy lies at the very heart of our humanity.

Around 130 years earlier another distinguished group, the men of the Westminster Assembly, enshrined joy in a very different document: the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Answering the question, ‘What is man’s chief end?’ they not only stated: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God’; but added, significantly, ‘…and to enjoy him forever.’ This too, in the deepest possible way, acknowledges that to be joyful is of the essence of what it means to be human.

The Westminster divines were simply recognising the fact that joy is woven deep into the tapestry of God’s revelation in Scripture. From the pristine joy of Eden to the incomparably greater joy of heaven, it can be traced – even through the worst of times – through the history of redemption.

It is strange, therefore, that joy so often seems to be missing from Christian experience and, more so, even from worship. Even where Christians do seek to incorporate it into their life and worship, it often feels synthetic and comes across as a cheap imitation of the deep, enduring joy in the Bible.

This theme could hardly be more relevant to the world we live in. The American dream of ‘happiness’ seems further away than ever. The world at large appears to be sliding ever more deeply into a joyless existence. Yet the yearning for joy lives on, no matter how unattainable it may be.

So, in terms of gospel opportunity, for those who, in Adam, ‘have been subjected to a life of toil and misery’, Christ’s declaration, ‘I have come that they may have live and have it to the full’ (Jn 10.10) should be shouted loud and clear. But for that to happen, those who supposedly have this new life should display it in their own lives in order to commend it to others.

All of this gives good reason to explore the theme of joy in Scripture more seriously than perhaps we do. Indeed, nowhere should this be more so than in churches that claim to be ‘Reformed’. The Westminster Shorter Catechism was not compiled by men who treated doctrine lightly; yet they chose to embed joy in the very first line of the summary of all they believed. So, all who claim this heritage should be marked by joy in all its rich dimensions.

For this reason, it would seem there is a place in Place for Truth for a series of articles on joy.

From the outset we need to note a key marker the Bible itself lays down to understand the joy of which it speaks. However noble the ideal of ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence may have been, it is undefined. So, almost universally, those who have pursued it have sought a version of happiness that is a merely human construct. People see wealth, success, sex and more besides as the key to pleasure, only to be painfully disappointed when they actually get what they want. The joy presented in the Bible is something very different.

Interestingly, this comes out most clearly in words penned by King David when he had all but lost this precious commodity. Ironically, it was at a time when he had pursued pleasure in the wrong way. Instead of finding deeper satisfaction, he allowed the joy he already had to slip through his fingers. In a moment of unrestrained lust he thought that sex with Bathsheba would take his enjoyment of life to new levels; but it had the opposite effect. It sank him into the lowest depths of misery he had ever known.

So, in his prayer of repentance and plea to God for help he cries out, ‘Restore to me the joy of your salvation’ (Ps 51.12). It is the combination of ‘joy’ bound up with ‘salvation’ that is ‘your’ [God’s] gracious gift that defines the uniqueness of the joy found in the gospel.

What we need is not ‘joy’ in some vague sense, or even a ‘joy’ that comes from ‘salvation’ in the multitude of ways this has been construed. Rather, the joy we need and the only joy that truly satisfies the human spirit is that which God alone can give, through his gracious salvation. In it God deals with the one thing that has plunged our race into misery – our sin, its guilt and its consequences – through the atonement he provides. But simultaneously he restores the joy that was lost to our race in Adam’s first sin: the joy of communion with God. The heart of God’s salvation is reconciliation: of God to sinners and sinners to God.

David knew the joy of communion with God, but tried to improve on it through his union with Bathsheba. The misery he brought on himself was more painful than he could have imagined: hence his longing to be restored. He discovered the hard way that there is nothing in the entire universe that can compare to the joy of God’s salvation.

We will explore this joy more fully in ensuing articles. The joy this world needs and unwittingly longs for is the joy that only God can give us through his Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Mark Johnston