Adapted from a Sermon by John Angell James
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Romans 5:1-2
This morning we will consider a topic intimately connected with our present happiness as Christians; That is, "spiritual joy," which follows justification; for, as the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans in the opening verses of chapter five, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God."
Before justification, we have no right to joy; and after it, we have no reason for misery. The spirit of true religion is essentially a spirit of pure and elevated joy, and this is one of the ways it is so different from superstition, which is as essentially a spirit of gloom, and fear, and abject sorrow. Situated as the believer is between one paradise lost by sin, and another restored by grace—he may be expected to combine in his experience, the seemingly opposing states of mind described by the apostle, where he says, "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing," (2 Cor 6:10) and the tears which he sheds for his transgressions, however many and penitential, should still glow with a predominant smile of delight, and appear like dew-drops sparkling in the sun.
The most superficial acquaintance with the Bible must teach us that it is a book to make us happy—as well as holy. The two Testaments are like two ministering angels sent down from heaven to lead the child of sin and sorrow—to the fountain of peace! The Old Testament contains innumerable exhortations to the people of God, to rejoice and be glad; yes, to "shout, and sing for joy." (Is 12:6) And if a believer when placed amidst the clouds and shadows of the Jewish dispensation, where he could not but be awed by the thunders of Sinai, and pressed in no small measure with the spirit of bondage, was called upon to rejoice, how much more may such a frame of mind be expected in the Christian, on whom the Sun of righteousness has risen, and poured the noon-tide brightness of his glory!
The Christian, then, ought to be both a joyful, as well as a righteous man. His religion should not only instil in his character the beauties of holiness, but also his expression with the smile of peace. Yet how few seem to rise to this privilege. If we look into the Bible, we might expect to see all who really believe it, and live under its influence, as so many happy spirits, carrying about with them the springs of their own blessedness, independent alike of the joys and sorrows of mortality; neither greatly elevated by the one, nor much depressed by the other—and yet when we look at the great majority of professors of religion, we are sadly disappointed, and even in reference to their happiness as well as to their conduct, are led to ask, "What do you have, more than others?"
This joy we are considering is that joy produced by true religion. It is that holy peace which is the result of Divine truth—understood, believed, and contemplated. It is not mere exhilaration of earthly emotions, the joyousness produced by good health, worldly prosperity, friendship, or gratification of taste. Much of the Christian's enjoyment upon earth is produced by those susceptibilities and possessions which belong to him as a man—and this portion of his gratification is perfectly innocent; but this is not properly speaking spiritual joy. True it is that his spiritual delight may blend itself, and does, with his more common pleasures, sweetening, sanctifying, and elevating them all; and may indeed itself be somewhat modified by them—but still it is of a different kind. It is the joy of faith, of hope, of love—it is joy in God, in Christ, in holiness, in heaven.
It all begins when the trembling sinner, after a period of unrelieved anxiety and oppression on account of his sin, loses the burden of his guilt at the cross—and in that case it is altogether the joy of faith; it continues to increase as he advances in holiness, and is then the joy of love, united with that of faith; it is sustained amidst all the trials of earth, by the prospect of heaven, and then it is swelled by hope, adding its influence to that of faith and love. This is spiritual joy, that agreeable and comfortable state of mind, which is produced by the believing contemplation of the great object of revealed truth of God, in his nature, attributes, providence, and covenant relations to his people, of Christ—in his person, work, faithfulness, and grace—of the promises of Scripture; and all this strengthened by the joy resulting from the testimony of a good conscience, the consciousness of growing holiness, and the assurance of hope.
Such is spiritual joy—not necessarily a state of great excitement. Occasionally, indeed, it does rise into a strong and elevated emotion; it is more than peace, it is delight; more than delight, it is ecstasy. The saints have sometimes experienced seasons of intense joy in devotion far above the ordinary attitude of religious experience. But the physical nature of some scarcely allows for this excitement at all, nor can any bear it long. It should be realised that the differences of our mental temperament and constitutional susceptibility will much modify even our spiritual feelings. The joy of some believers, as to the emotion itself, will be much stronger than that of others, without supposing there may be any clearer understanding of the objects that produce it, any stronger faith in them, or any greater practical influence of them; but simply because there is a stronger physical susceptibility of excited emotion.
And therefore the necessity of the following remark—that emotion alone is a very uncertain and deceptive test of personal piety. Spiritual joy is ordinarily a calm, unruffled feeling; a composed and serene state of mind. It is usually characterised by peace, and though unspeakable and full of glory, because it is produced in part by the hope of heavenly joy, it is still a tranquil river, and not a torrent, that flows through the soul, noiseless in proportion as it is deep.
Or, changing the metaphor, it is a sweet rest, diffusing a feeling of joyful calm over the heart, rather than filling it with the tumultuous exhilaration of a festival. It is that peace of which the Savior spoke, when being about to leave the world, and wishing to comfort his sorrowing disciples, he said, 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;' (John 14:27) his peace, the sweet serenity of mind which he enjoyed himself, and in the enjoyment of which he went forward in the performance of every duty, and met with such calm dignity, such entire self-command, such cheerful resignation to the Divine will, the overwhelming trials he had to endure.
From all this it should be evident that spiritual joy is a very different thing from what some people would wish to represent it, who, imagining that religion has been disparaged, as it certainly has been, by the gloom and sourness of some of its professors, swing to the opposite extreme, and attempt to justify a lamentable degree of triviality, amusement, and lightness, by the excuse, "that pious people ought to be cheerful; and that this is the way to win the people of the world to piety."
So indeed they should be cheerful; but then it should be by the joy of their religion. Nothing dark in appearance, nor depressing in tone, nor austere in habit, nor cynical in spirit, should characterize a Christian; he is a child of light, and should live, and act, and speak as such; he should be like one of the sons of the morning dropped from paradise, and bending his way back to it again, and bearing the trials of earth, with the recollection of his happy destiny, and the prospect of his future glory—he should have something of the bliss of heaven, and much of its seriousness too.
Let us now look into the reasons why so little of this joy is experienced by the majority of Christian professors.
It is to be feared that the multitude have far less than they might or should have. Look at the prosperous among them, and from where does their joy arise? From their religion? Or from their good spirits, their health, their family, their friends, their success, and home enjoyment? Look at the afflicted—how oppressed with care; how tortured with anxiety; how overwhelmed with sorrow; how cheerless for the present, and how hopeless for the future, do they seem to be! How few appear to have the peace that passes all understanding, the joy which is unspeakable and full of glory! The bible tells the world that the springs of true happiness gush out from the hill of Zion, at the foot of the cross—and so they do—but how little do many who profess to have drank the living water, appear as if they had been at the crystal stream, and were satisfied with it.
Why is this? Is there in reality, not enough in the objects of spiritual truth to yield this joy? Yes, for they have comforted millions in the valley of tears, in every variety and degree of human woe; they are the rejoicing of spirits made perfect; the bliss of angels, and the joy of God's own heart.
Is it that the sources are inaccessible to them? No—they are open to every child of God. Is it that God is unwilling to impart this joy to them; that in a way of sovereignty he has withdrawn it? No—it is a mistake to suppose that God, by any positive act of his own, hinders our peace, or extinguishes it; that in a way of sovereignty, and not as a chastisement for sin, but for the purpose of trying and exercising the graces of his people, he withdraws from them what is usually considered physical comforts, and causes them to experience darkness and despondency.
There are some hidden dangers in this view. It is too much calculated to make believers well pleased and satisfied with themselves, in circumstances which ought to excite them to self-examination, and searching of heart. It seems much safer, and more spiritual, to regard the lack of peace and joy as arising invariably (except where there is some physical medical cause) from, and indicating something wrong in—the spiritual temperament of our minds—some sin, or some defect in ourselves. It is essential for us to be impressed with the conviction that if we are destitute of peace and joy, the cause is in ourselves—uniformly and exclusively in ourselves. It is not that God has withdrawn from us—but that we have withdrawn from God. (Ralph Wardlaw)
The true causes of the lack of spiritual joy in professors, are the following—
Some are professors only, and though they have a name to live, are dead; and being destitute of faith, are destitute, of course, of all joy and peace in believing. Let the joyless professor search himself, and ask if he is anything more than 'a Christian in name'.
Many do not desire this joy, at least they do not greatly covet it. They certainly would have some kind of enjoyment; they want to be gratified; but it is only the joy of friendship, of health, of success in business, of a comfortable home, and a quiet fire-side that they long for; not the peace of believing, not the pleasure of communing with God, not the delight of holiness and hope, not the joy of a sense of pardoned sin, and the gratification arising from the exercises of devotion. They never go to God in prayer, saying, "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; (Ps 4:6.7) For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light." (Ps 36:9)
Great mistakes are made by many in reference to spiritual joy. Some imagine it is only a privilege to be hoped, waited for, and expected in a way of sovereign favor; but not a duty to be performed. That it is a duty is evident from the frequency with which it is enjoined, as well as promised. We are commanded to "rejoice in the Lord," (Phil 4:4) and nothing hinders us but our lack of faith. If it is our duty to believe, it is equally our duty to rejoice. It is a sin to be cheerless, as well as to be morose. True, joy is a work of the Spirit, a gift of God; but so is faith, and love, and holiness.
Some imagine that though it is both a duty and a privilege for others—yet it is not for them. Why not? The source of joy is in the promise, not in yourselves, and it is to be drawn out by faith. And is not the promise as much to you as anyone? Some are waiting for what, perhaps, they will never have; a degree of enthusiasm, of which their natural disposition is scarcely susceptible. They are supposing that spiritual joy means something ecstatic, almost mystical; some overwhelming emotional disposition which leaves them at a loss to determine whether they are in the body or out of the body. They are not contented with the calm, sweet, serene enjoyment of peace. Some have not attained to the full assurance of hope, have not received the witness of the Spirit, and because they do not have the joy of assurance, reject that of faith; or because they have not the joy of a strong faith, spurn that of a weak one.
Some are waiting to rejoice until they have attained a sinless perfection, forgetting that if they are never to rejoice until then, they will never have peace until they get to heaven; and thus show by such a delay that they are rather looking to rejoice in themselves, than in the Lord. Oh! how many are the machinations of Satan to keep God's people from being happy, when he cannot keep them from being holy—how many and how subtle are the methods by which he causes the children of light to walk in darkness!
Limited knowledge of the scheme of redemption, and the great truths of the gospel, is a common hindrance to spiritual joy. Since the source of spiritual comfort is in the truth, we can receive that comfort only in proportion as the truth is understood and believed. In the minds of many godly people there is much confusion of thought; much mixture of law and gospel; a lack of clear discrimination between justification and sanctification; and an equal lack, of course, of discrimination between grace in God and merit in man. They are ever looking for marks and evidences in themselves, instead of looking to Christ; and find more to distress and harass them in the least discernable imperfections in themselves, or in a single dull season of prayer—than in all the fullness of grace in the Savior to comfort them!
By in so dwelling continually upon himself in gloomy despond thoughts, the Christian is apt to take on a sickly, feeble, morbid sort of piety. It is not humility, penitence, and an aim at something better, (of which the believer cannot have too much,) but discontent, wretchedness, and a hopeless sorrow. And so, believer in Christ, study as well as read the gospel. Endeavour to understand the system of salvation by grace through faith. Get to the bottom, as far as possible, of that wondrous word grace; and especially grow in the knowledge of that glorious union between justice and mercy, which is established by the death of Christ!
Christians are kept back from joy, sometimes, by being afraid to let their religion make them happy. Even though they do not deny in words that they have some right and reason to q rejoice, and that it would be no presumption in them to be glad in the Lord; yet they seem afraid to go to a high degree of spiritual delight, lest it should "exalt them above measure." There are times when most Christians have a more vivid and delightful sense of Divine truth, when they have an unusual clearness of soul, through which the 'eye of faith' discerns spiritual objects with particular clearness, and when the soul seems instinctively to exult. The note of praise is struck with new strength, and the heart is beginning to swell into a fullness of delight. At that moment a doubt creeps over the soul, "I have to restrain these feelings—they will endanger my humility, inflate me with pride, and expose me to Satan's temptations!" All spiritual joy is now extinguished—and the mind which was invited to soar, cowers down, and dooms itself to creep!
Sin damps spiritual joy—and ought to do so! This is not to speak of immorality, for this destroys it completely; but the lesser workings of our corruption—the sins of the heart, the sins of the tongue, the sins of the character. Sins known only to God and conscience. Sins of omission and of defect. Sins that do not make us non-Christians, any more than they excommunicate us from the church. Such sins unopposed, un-mortified—do, and must, prevent or diminish our joy. They may not put out the light of our piety altogether—but they surround it with an impure atmosphere, a thick fog, which prevents its light from shining on the heart.
And then connected with this, it is a sad fact that the piety of many is too feeble altogether; they are too worldly, too lukewarm, live too far from God, to derive much joy and peace from their piety. Spiritual joy, is joy in God, in Christ, in holiness, in heaven! And when, therefore, the professor who lives so little in the private devotion, communes so little with his Bible, pays so little attention to the frame of his own mind, lives so far from God, and neglects so much the company of the godly, that he doubts himself, and others doubt for him, whether he loves God or not—it can be no wonder that his religion does not make him happy.
The religion of some people is just enough to make them miserable. It spoils them for the world, without fitting them for the church. Their religious profession is an encumbrance to them, and is in the way of their worldly enjoyment. These are the men who are so taken up with the world, that they do not want the joy of true religion, and are unwilling to cast out a single earthly care or enjoyment, though it were to make way for all the consolations of the Spirit.
But let me now entreat you to avoid these hindrances, and to seek after more of that heavenly, holy, happy frame of mind. Pray for it, for it is a fruit of the Spirit. Devote yourselves to reading your Bibles, for it comes in the way of understanding, believing, and feeling the truth. Find time for private, silent meditation, for the truth will not be seen, so as to affect the heart, by a quick glance. Seek to have your faith strengthened, for your joy must ever be in proportion to your faith. Watch against sin, for sin is like water to the flame of joy. Cultivate all the branches of holiness; for holiness is happiness. Keep company with those who have learned to sing the Lord's song, and are going on their way rejoicing. You must have eminent piety, if you would have spiritual joy. True religion is life; and it is a vigorous life--not sickly, declining life. True religion is light, and you know a mere spark will not enliven a room, but a flame. True religion is water to the thirsty, and it is not a drop, but a fountain, that will please and satisfy. Be diligent, yes, give all diligence to make your calling and election sure.
Do you need motives for this? How many are at hand!
Think of your own happiness. You are not to be indifferent to this. God wills you to be happy, and has most abundantly provided means to make you so. You must enter into his design and strive to be joyful. God loves to see his children happy, and does not allow them to be indifferent to their own peace.
Think of the aid your joy will be to you with respect to all your other duties. It will influence everything. It is this that will make you welcome the Lord’s day with delight, that will draw you to the throne of grace with boldness, enable you to read the Scriptures with pleasure, and make your times of devotion seasons times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. The sanctuary, private meditation, the Bible, and the Lord's table—will all be in shadow, and appear gloomy—if joy is absent. But spiritual joy will shed light on all of these means of grace—and place them in sunshine.
Joy will assist you in the pilgrimage of the Christian life, and cause you, like the traveler who sings on his journey through the forest and the plain—to overcome the tediousness of your way, by the songs of the Lord. "The joy of the lord is your strength," (Neh 8:10) said Ezra, the scribe, when he restrained the sorrows of the Jews, and laid down a principle as applicable to the Christian life as to any other enterprise—and what great or good thing under the sun was ever achieved without joy? In the working out of our salvation, there must be not only "fear and trembling," (Phil 2:12) but hope and joy. Spiritual joy is the oil to the wheels of obedience. It is this which braces up the soul for action, and carries it forward through difficult and self-denying duties.
How can we best vanquish the world, that ever present, and everywhere present foe, which comes in so many forms, and with such alluring pleas? How, but by a heart already well pleased with its own happiness in Christ. Spiritual joy is the world's vanquisher! And how easy, how perfect in its triumph! The heart by holy joy rises above the world, sees it below, covered with smoke and dust, and finds itself in a brighter, purer, happier region, with the cloudless sun above, and all around filled with his glory. What has the world to offer comparable to that which a rejoicing faith has found in Christ? What has 'worldly ambition' to offer that can compete with this? He may spurn the favor of the crowned prince, and put his crown aside as a trinket, who is rejoicing in hope of an incorruptible crown of life and glory!
And then think of the importance of this spiritual joy in the dark season of affliction. One day you may have no other earthly joy—will you not covet this spiritual joy? If piety does not shed its light upon your spirit, you are in total darkness. And this can illuminate the darkest scene of human woe—it has irradiated the darkness of poverty, the gloomy ward of affliction, the desolate home of the widow, the dreary dungeon of the captive, and made the martyr sing on the scaffold, or at the stake. Habakkuk's exulting strain, our opening verses this morning, has been uttered by multitudes and amidst ruined harvests, and empty stalls, they have rejoiced in God, and rejoiced in the God of their salvation. Mourners, dry your tears, and hush your sobs—and dissipate your fears at the cross, and before the eternal throne! With nothing else to rejoice in, you have God, Christ, and salvation! And is this nothing?
You are called, in this extraordinary age, to the great enterprise of the world's conversion; and in order to achieve it, you must make sacrifices of time, money, and ease. And how is this to be done? A happy church will be a working church. Nothing great was ever yet achieved under the sun, but by a heart glad and free. It is the joyous mind that aims at great things, expects great things, and accomplishes great things. The apostles and first disciples, though persecuted men, were joyous men. They counted it all joy even to fall into divers temptations. They astonished the world with the spectacle of moral heroes, who could smile at chains, imprisonment, and death, and who could go singing to meet the stake and axe, and to encounter the lions of the amphitheater. Religion appeared in all its power and glory as a superhuman principle, a something heavenly and divine, in such a scene, and many were converted to the faith by the martyr's joy as well as by his testimony.
Believer in Christ, imitate these examples. Do not tell the world you are happy, but appear so. Verify the assertion by your own experience, so often made, and so often expressed by Christians themselves, that the church of Christ is the seat of blessedness. Be a living denial of the world's slander upon religion that it is a sour, unhappy, gloomy spirit; a specter coming from the place of tombs, and cruel superstition to haunt and infest the dwelling places of the living.
A happy church would, almost by its very appearance, without its labor, convert the nations. The mountain of the Lord's house, towering above the hills, radiant with peace as it reflected the beams of the Sun of righteousness, and fertile with holiness, would attract the eye, and guide the feet of the weeping, wandering tribes of the earth to itself, as to the place of rest.
Therefore be happy Christians as well as holy ones. Be examples in this, as in every other respect, of the spirit of the gospel. Be like your Divine Master, in the purity, simplicity, and joyfulness, with which you devote yourselves to the service of mankind. Bring more of his serene and happy spirit into your work. Let your piety be seen by all to be a perennial fountain of peace and joy to your own soul, under the various appointments of Divine Providence here. Anticipate the blessedness of heaven here below. You stand at the very gates of heaven—appear like people who not only hear the songs within, but expect soon to see the everlasting gates thrown open to admit you to God's presence, where there is fullness of joy, and to his right hand, where there are pleasures forevermore!