Real Protestants Keep Reforming
The Reformation began in 1517, but you will search in vain for an end date. The work continues as each generation, standing upon the shoulders of others, comes to drink for themselves at the headwaters of God’s own word.
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By Obbie Tyler Todd — 2 years ago
ABSTRACT: Due to his shameful death at the hands of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton is not typically remembered for his religion. But Hamilton appeared to exercise a genuine faith during his lifetime, including in the final hours following the duel. While a number of America’s founding fathers questioned or rejected the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, Hamilton, the grandson of a French Huguenot, remained within the bounds of historic Protestantism and was no stranger to the Bible or the church. Without these broad theological convictions, his immigration to America and his own political achievements likely would not have been possible. Despite his seemingly authentic faith, however, Hamilton was a man between two churches, shaped by both but finding fellowship in neither.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Obbie Tyler Todd (PhD, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, to explore the faith of Alexander Hamilton.
When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton through the liver in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton clung to life for another 31 hours after the duel. Although his illustrious career and ignominious death have not typically been remembered for their piety and devotion, Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.
Hamilton was no stranger to the Bible or the church. As a child on the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he was born across the street from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, he attended a small Hebrew school and learned to recite the Decalogue in its original language. At Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey, he wrote commentaries on the books of Genesis and Revelation. At King’s College in New York, he attended chapel and began “the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning.”1 In fact, Hamilton owed his passage to America largely to the Presbyterian church through the patronage of Rev. Hugh Knox, who inspired the teenager to record his thoughts about God and who likely sponsored the subscription fund that sent him to America to be educated.
By the time Burr’s bullet settled in his vertebra and left him withering away in a second-floor Manhattan bedroom, however, Hamilton’s relationship to the church was much less promising. Alexander Hamilton, the West Indian immigrant who became the principal architect of the new American government, was still without a church home. As a result, coupled with the egregious circumstances of his death, he was twice denied communion in his final moments.
Shortly after crossing the Hudson River wounded and being transported to the home of his friend William Bayard, Hamilton called for Rev. Benjamin Moore, the rector of Trinity Church, the Episcopal bishop of New York, and the president of Columbia College. In 1788, the Hamiltons had their three eldest children baptized simultaneously at Trinity Church. Since 1790, when the church was rebuilt after the great fire of 1776, they had rented pew 92. Therefore, to ask Moore to perform last rites was not totally unexpected. On one hand, Hamilton appeared to ascribe some efficacy to the sacraments and wished to be buried at Trinity Church. On the other hand, Hamilton was only nominally Episcopalian.
“Hamilton’s beliefs about God, Christ, sin, and salvation came to the fore in these last excruciating moments.”
No amount of legal work he supplied for the church or religious fervor on the part of his wife, Eliza (who was unaware of the duel), could atone for the fact that Hamilton had never actually been baptized an Episcopalian. Hamilton had neither attended Trinity Church regularly nor had he taken communion. Therefore, despite a dying plea from one of the nation’s founding fathers, Hamilton was to Bishop Moore a lawless duelist without access to the Lord’s Table. Moore’s refusal to administer the Lord’s Supper to a non-Episcopalian would only foreshadow the high church theology of the next bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, whose Apology for Apostolic Order and Its Advocates (1807) was aimed at the second clergyman who visited Hamilton that day: Rev. John Mitchell Mason.
Although Mason was less exclusivist than the Episcopalians, he likewise was bound by his own theological convictions in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. When Hamilton pleaded with his dear friend to administer communion to him, Mason replied that, even though it gave him “unutterable pain” to decline such a request, “it is a principle in our churches never to administer the Lord’s Supper privately to any person under any circumstances.” After Mason explained that the Supper was only a sign of the mercy of Christ that is “accessible to him by faith,” Hamilton responded softly, “I am aware of that. It was only as a sign that I wanted it.”
Alexander Hamilton held to a basic understanding of the gospel, to be sure. Nevertheless, in the face of Hamilton’s shameful and imminent demise, Mason proceeded to quote from a barrage of scriptural texts, including Romans 3:23, Acts 4:12, Hebrews 7:25, Ephesians 1:7, 1 Timothy 1:15, and Isaiah 43:25 and 1:18. When the preacher reminded him “that in the sight of God all men are on a level, as all have sinned, and come short of his glory,” and must take refuge in the righteousness of Christ, Hamilton answered, “I perceive it to be so. I am a sinner: I look to his mercy.” Upon Mason’s insistence that the grace of God was rich, Hamilton interrupted, “Yes, it is rich grace.” Indeed, few presentations of the gospel could have been clearer than the one delivered to Alexander Hamilton on his deathbed. Still, perhaps the most compelling testimony from Rev. Mason is his account of Hamilton’s reaction to Ephesians 1:7. After hearing of the “forgiveness of sins according to the riches of his grace,” Hamilton finally let go of Mason’s hand, clasped his own hands together, looked up to heaven, and cried, “I have a tender reliance on the mercy of the Almighty, through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.”2
Hamilton the Christian?
Were these the words of a true believer? At first glance, Hamilton’s confessions appear as if they were uttered in genuine faith. In his final hours, the Major General claimed that the promises of Scripture were his “support.” Years earlier, in a renowned legal case, Hamilton had referred to the Jews in the Old Testament as the “witnesses of [God’s] miracles” who were “charged with the spirit of prophecy.”3 Even though Hamilton was influenced by deism during his lifetime, he was never suspicious of biblical revelation to the degree of Franklin, Jefferson, or Madison.4 Hamilton once confessed that he could prove the truth of the Christian religion “as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.”5 His abolitionism and his capacity for lasting friendship set him apart from many of the other founders. His view of human nature, demonstrated best in the Federalist Papers, often bordered on the Puritanical.
However, like Washington (who actually joined the Episcopalian Church), Hamilton was reticent to discuss his Christian faith. Ironically, the man who, to rescue his financial integrity, printed an entire account of his own affair in the first major sex scandal in American history had seemingly less to say about his relationship with Jesus Christ. Episcopal Bishop William White refused to publicly drink a toast to Hamilton due to his indiscretions with Maria Reynolds, and evangelicals today have also been reluctant to honor an adulterer.6 Although he had once opposed dueling “on the principles of religion” and seemed not to intend to actually kill Burr, a duelist he was nonetheless.7
“Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes.”
As many scholars have noted, Hamilton was a paradoxical figure whose sins were just as public as his successes. By examining the complexity of Hamilton’s faith, Christians today are confronted with the conflict that inevitably arises when the authority of the local church is subordinated to personal ambition and when the teenage fire of Christian zeal is slowly cooled by professional aspirations and the desires of the world. In such a relatively brief life, one encounters the danger of building earthly kingdoms without seeking first the kingdom of God, the grace and encouragement of a believing spouse, and the fleeting nature of even the most astonishing career. In order to better understand Hamilton’s theology, his aversion to church membership, and his own Christian practice, the best place to begin is on the small Caribbean island from which he came.
Grandson of a French Huguenot
As a boy, Alexander Hamilton was raised in a religious, albeit savage and precarious, world. His mother’s store in St. Croix was next to St. John’s Anglican Church on Company’s Lane. The Hebrew school in which he was instructed left him with a lifelong affection for the Jewish people. In fact, Protestantism was the very reason that Hamilton’s family had arrived in the West Indies. In a letter to William Jackson in 1800, in which he fumed over criticisms of his ignoble birth, Hamilton wrote, “My Grandfather by the mothers side of the name of Faucette was a French Huguenot who emigrated to the West Indies in consequence of the Edict of Nantz and settled in the Island of Nevis and there acquired a pretty fortune. I have been assured by persons who knew him that he was a man of letters and much of a gentleman.”8
Huguenots were Protestants in France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who held to the teachings of John Calvin, a French-born theologian in Geneva. While the Edict of Nantz in 1598 granted religious toleration to Protestants for the sake of civil unity, the French Reformed Church would endure severe persecution when the Edict was revoked in 1685 by Louis XIV.9 The result was a Huguenot diaspora throughout the western world, including the West Indies. John Faucette had arrived at the shores of Nevis as a French immigrant seeking religious freedom from the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Not surprisingly, his grandson would carry an aversion to popery all of his life.
Indeed, Hamilton may very well have thought of his grandfather when he denounced the Quebec Act of 1774, a measure that extended the border of Quebec to the Ohio River and guaranteed full religious liberty to French-Canadian Catholics. In A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, Hamilton opined, “The affair of Canada, if possible, is still worse. The English laws have been superseded by the French laws. The Romish faith is made the established religion of the land, and his Majesty is placed at the head of it. The free exercise of the protestant faith depends upon the pleasure of the Governor and Council.” He then asked, “Does not your blood run cold, to think an English parliament should pass an act for the establishment of arbitrary power and popery in such an extensive country?”10
Shown by his friendship with Marquis de Lafayette and his proficiency in the French language, Hamilton never lost touch with his French heritage. But an abiding hostility toward Catholicism and French “infidelity” always remained. In a letter to Edward Carrington in 1792, Hamilton warned that Thomas Jefferson had “drank deeply of the French philosophy, in Religion, in Science, in politics.”11 Although the rationality of deism appealed greatly to Hamilton, he never strayed from a Protestant outlook of world events. He was, after all, also the grandson of a Scottish laird on his father’s side.
Nevertheless, despite his rich family heritage, there was also a darker side to the religious world he inhabited. As the illegitimate son of a bankrupt merchant, Hamilton was likely barred from being instructed at an Anglican school.12 In addition to the many losses and rejections that he and his brother James suffered at a young age, this would certainly have influenced his religious consciousness. Alexander Hamilton was, in some sense, disinherited by his own family and by the church. As Ron Chernow observes, “As a divorced woman with two children conceived out of wedlock, Rachel was likely denied a burial at nearby St. John’s Anglican Church. This may help to explain a mystifying ambivalence that Hamilton always felt about regular church attendance, despite a pronounced religious bent.”13
Hamilton’s affiliation with the church thus became not unlike his own American citizenship, being at once insider and outsider. The hierarchical West Indian system that bred in him a hatred of slavery and an indomitable ambition may also have fostered a rather conflicted view of the church. Hamilton, the architect of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s first banking system, was a believer in institutions. Yet as demonstrated in his last moments, he also had difficulty submitting himself to that very authority.
Under a Sovereign God
Hamilton’s life changed when he met Rev. Hugh Knox. Ordained by Princeton president Aaron Burr, the son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards and the father of the man who killed Hamilton, Knox believed that illegitimate children should be baptized. His combination of evangelical Calvinism and intellectualism attracted young Hamilton to the things of God. Soon after the Presbyterian minister arrived in St. Croix in 1771, Hamilton began regularly attending his revival services and reading from his extensive library (Knox graduated from Yale in 1751). According to one historian, “At seventeen Alexander Hamilton may have undergone a powerful religious conversion. At least that is the impression he gave that spring, as the Great Awakening swooped down on St. Croix.”14
Although Hamilton probably read sermons and devotional tracts from his mother’s book collection as a child, this was the first time he thought freely and deeply about the Bible, consuming bound sermons from his mentor’s library. Knox even inspired his young protégé to compose his own religious epistle! After a hurricane demolished St. Croix in 1772, Knox delivered a sermon to his congregation to lift their minds and hearts heavenward. Eventually published in a pamphlet, the sermon seemed to have a profound effect upon Hamilton, who wrote a graphic letter to his father describing the ferocity of the storm and drawing from Knox’s themes. After showing the letter to Knox, the minister persuaded him to publish it in the Royal Danish American Gazette. The letter illustrates that, even as a teenager, Hamilton believed in a Creator who intervened powerfully and personally in his creation. He wrote,
See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. How sweet, how unutterably sweet were now, the voice of an approving conscience; Then couldst thou say, hence ye idle alarms, why do I shrink? What have I to fear? A pleasing calm suspense! A short repose from calamity to end in eternal bliss? Let the Earth rend. Let the planets forsake their course. Let the Sun be extinguished and the Heavens burst asunder. Yet what have I to dread? My staff can never be broken — in Omnipotence I trusted. . . . He who gave the winds to blow, and the lightnings to rage — even him have I always loved and served. His precepts have I observed. His commandments have I obeyed — and his perfections have I adored.15
After recounting the horror of the hurricane to his father, Hamilton added, “But see, the Lord relents. He hears our prayer.” The themes of judgment, mercy, and human dependence in the letter reflected Hamilton’s belief in an all-controlling God who ordered the cosmos and who ultimately could be trusted in an unstable and cruel island world. Remarkably, Hamilton’s letter about God’s providence became his ticket to America when a number of benefactors read the piece and began a fund to send the young man north to be educated.
Before leaving, Hamilton almost certainly penned an unsigned hymn that his future wife, Eliza, would cherish for decades after his death as an example of his Christian piety. Published in the Gazette on October 17, 1772, as an imitation of Alexander Pope’s “The Dying Christian to His Soul,” it reads,
Hark! hark! a voice from yonder sky,Methinks I hear my Saviour cry,Come gentle spirit come away,Come to thy Lord without delay;For thee the gates of bliss unbar’dThy constant virtue to reward
I come oh Lord! I mount, I fly,On rapid wings I cleave the sky;Stretch out thine arm and aid my flight;For oh! I long to gain that height,Where all celestial beings singEternal praises to their King.
O Lamb of God! thrice gracious LordNow, now I feel how true thy word;Translated to this happy place,This blessed vision of thy face;My soul shall all thy steps attendIn songs of triumph without end.16
While Alexander Hamilton did not frequently express his thoughts about Jesus Christ, he was, at times during his youth, capable of eloquent meditations on the Son of God. After arriving in America, he continued his religious instruction and even developed spiritual disciplines. But the Revolution and his own personal ambition made it difficult for him to settle upon one denomination.
Between Two Churches
By the time Hamilton disembarked in Boston in 1772, the political frenzy in the colonies had already begun to erupt in the churches. At Elizabethtown Academy, Hamilton studied under Presbyterian teachers who would later serve under his command, including headmaster Francis Barber. Hamilton listened to three-hour sermons on Sundays next to men possessed by the spirit of liberty. As a training ground for Princeton (the College of New Jersey), Elizabethtown introduced Hamilton to Presbyterian orthodoxy and patriotism. In some ways, he was being catechized in the Westminster Confession and in republicanism. After all, Princeton’s president John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and the first clergyman at the Continental Congress.
On one hand, its combination of evangelical Calvinism and Whig principles made Princeton the logical choice for a college education. Hamilton was accepted at 18 years old after passing Witherspoon’s examination. On the other hand, Hamilton’s insatiable drive to achieve was greater than his desire to ground himself in the Presbyterian faith. As a result, when Witherspoon denied his bold request to complete his schooling in three years instead of four, Hamilton looked to New York — to the Church of England.
As he would later prove in his writings, Hamilton’s departure from Princeton was not a sign of any Tory sympathies (although he often feared the rising mob mentality in the colonies). However, upon his passing an examination into Princeton by one of the most anti-Episcopal figures in America, that Hamilton then chose to attend King’s College in New York City, a bastion of Anglicanism and loyalism in the colonies, is perhaps the clearest sign that Hamilton’s affiliation to the church was only as strong as his professional aspirations.
“Hamilton was a man between two churches.”
Still a teenager, Hamilton was no more loyal to the Church of England than the Church of England had been to his family as a child. The only difference was that Hamilton, the illegitimate son from Nevis, was now in seeming control of his political destiny and itching to receive his education from the fastest bidder. While this apparently did not hinder his personal Christian devotion, it certainly did not strengthen his ties to the local church. Indeed, Hamilton was a man between two churches. A Presbyterian from Princeton had helped thrust him to America, and yet another inadvertently forced him to Manhattan to study under Anglican Myles Cooper, one of the most outspoken loyalists in the colonies.
Nevertheless, Hamilton’s ecclesiastical turnabout did not hinder his efforts to develop his own spiritual disciplines. At King’s College, his roommate Robert Troup recalled,
Whilst at college, [he] was attentive to public worship and in the habit of praying upon his knees both night and morning. I have lived in the same room with him for sometime and I have often been powerfully affected by the fervor and eloquence of his prayers. [He] had [already] read most of the polemical writers on religious subjects and he was a zealous believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.17
Although Troup may have been guilty of a bit of hero worship, Hamilton did attend chapel services routinely and exhibited an interest in theological study. As to his reading of polemical works, these may have led Hamilton to lean in the direction of deism as the war began, as the Anglican church was defined by a vehement anti-Calvinism and extreme rationalism in the late colonial and early national periods.18 Although, for example, Hamilton mocked Anglican leaders like Samuel Seabury for their loyalty to Parliament, he did not repudiate Anglican theology to the same degree.
As the war progressed and nation-building ensued, due to his political genius and military skill, Hamilton’s writings naturally adopted a much more civil and diplomatic turn. Hamilton’s references to the divine became vaguer and less Christian. The language of a “divinely authoritative Religion,” “the will of heaven,” and “an over-ruling Providence” far outweighed any allusions to Scripture or any kind of theological discourse, indicating that Hamilton may have slowly traded the Christ-centered, born-again religion of his youth for the lawful, reasonable deism of the age (or something we might call Christian rationalism).19
Still, there is no evidence to support the idea that Hamilton rejected the deity of Christ or that he questioned God’s miraculous intervention in the world. To simply label Hamilton a “deist” or a “rationalist” does not adequately describe his own theology during this stage of his life. To begin, more so than Jefferson, Hamilton believed that the French Revolution was opposed to “friends of religion.”20 Like Washington, he believed that we “flatter ourselves that morality can be separated from religion.”21 In other words, natural law is grounded in the eternal, revealed law of God. In the early years of the republic, Hamilton proposed a “day of humiliation and prayer” for the nation.22 In his doctrine of divine providence, Hamilton still remained the same young man who had prayed for the hurricane to cease on the island of St. Croix. Faith was about more than knowledge or reason. As Secretary of the Treasury, he noted to George Washington “the conflict between Reason & Passion,” a tension that many of his deist or Unitarian colleagues might not have admitted so easily.23 Although the Federalist Papers never mention God explicitly, Hamilton sounded like a New Light evangelical in his opening essay: “In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”24 Political liberty and religious liberty were inseparable in Hamilton’s mind, and he affirmed a real boundary between orthodoxy and “heresies.”
As he slowly passed from the earth, Hamilton once again found himself between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, begging each for the bread and the cup from the Lord’s Table. But Hamilton’s end was much like his life, confessing the faith once delivered to the saints while finding no real home in the communion of believers.
As scholars have noted, perhaps the most compelling evidence to the authenticity of Hamilton’s faith is his marriage to Eliza, a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. An active member in the Dutch Reformed Church, Eliza worshiped her Lord and sought to obey his commands with such heartfelt sincerity that Washington’s staff was somewhat surprised when Hamilton chose to marry her.25 After all, Hamilton had written to a friend in 1779 about his ideal wife: “As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me. She must believe in god and hate a saint.”26 In Eliza he found no moderate believer, and their wedding in 1780 was in traditional Dutch Reformed custom.
If Alexander Hamilton was an unbeliever, he was indeed “made holy because of his wife,” as her influence upon his soul became evident in his waning moments (1 Corinthians 7:14). Upon rushing into the second-floor room and discovering that her husband was dying (not suffering from “spasms,” as originally she had been told), the frantic Eliza was consoled not by Hamilton the soldier or Hamilton the founding father or Hamilton the financial genius, but by someone who appeared to know the weight of sin and the hope of Christ: “Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian.”27
By John Piper — 1 year ago
We end week number 500 on the podcast today, and we end it with a sharp Bible question from a listener named Derek, who lives in Seattle. “Pastor John, hello! I have a Bible question for you about the new birth. Peter wrote that believers are born again ‘not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). Can you help me understand the truth that these verses are totally compatible? Romans 10:17 and James 1:21 also mention the saving power of the word heard and implanted, but surely not in a way that minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit. The question then follows: How do the Holy Spirit and the word of God collaborate in the new birth?”
Great question. Well, let’s start by reminding ourselves that the reason we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, like Jesus says, is because by nature, by birth, we are all spiritually dead. This is the way Paul describes it in Ephesians 2:5: “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ.” Now, that making alive is the same as the new birth, said in different language.
Every human being has fallen in Adam and comes into the world without any saving spiritual life at all. We are dead. We are by nature resistant to God. We do not submit to him by nature. We value things that he has made more than him by nature. And we do not have the spiritual capacities to see Christ as supremely valuable and true and better than anything in the world. Nothing of that do we have by nature.
Unless we feel the weight of the lostness and fallenness and deadness of all humans, especially ourselves, nothing about the new birth is going to make sense in the New Testament. So, all of that means that if we’re going to live, if we’re going to know God, if we’re going to be happy forever, we must have new life — that is, new birth, new creation.
Born of the Spirit
So what Derek is asking now is how the Spirit of God and the word of God function together to bring us out of this deadness into the new, eternal life of knowing and enjoying God forever. And Derek refers to the words of Jesus in John 3:3, 6–8. Jesus said to Nicodemus,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
So, to be born of the flesh is the first birth that we’ve all experienced. If you are alive, you were born. And he says that to be born first in that way is to be no more than a fallen human being. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” That’s all it is. Something more must happen for us if we are to enter the kingdom of God, and Jesus describes that more as a birth by the Spirit.
And then he compares the work of the Spirit in the new birth to the blowing of the wind (John 6:8) , which means the Spirit is as free and as mysterious in his regenerating new-birth work as the unseen wind. You don’t control the wind. You don’t make the wind come. You don’t make the wind go. It just comes. It goes. It does what it does, and that’s the way it is with God’s sovereign Spirit in whom he makes alive and gives new birth.
“We didn’t make our first birth. We don’t make our second birth.”
We didn’t make our first birth. We don’t make our second birth. We don’t raise ourselves from the dead. We don’t create new life in our souls. It is a gift. It’s a miracle of God. We don’t initiate it. We don’t control it. It’s the sovereign mysterious work of the Holy Spirit of God.
First Cry of Faith
Our first conscious experience of this new birth is the arising in our hearts of faith in Christ. You might say that the first cry of the newborn Christian infant is the cry of faith. Instead of “waa, waa,” the heart feels, “I see him; he’s beautiful. I love him, I want him, I need him. He’s my Savior!” That’s the cry of the new birth. And Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). So that baby cries, “Jesus is my Lord!” And he says that the evidence of the Holy Spirit coming into our lives is that we cry, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
So, even though the work of the Holy Spirit is unseen and outside our control, the evidence of his work is manifest. We see the glory of Christ as desirable and believable, and we embrace him as our Savior, our Lord, our treasure. That’s the evidence of the new birth in our life. Christ is now real, and precious, and trustworthy to us, and authoritative for us. We have been made alive, born again. That’s the work of the Spirit.
“Even though the work of the Holy Spirit is unseen and outside our control, the evidence of his work is manifest.”
But now you can see right away, by the very nature of what’s happened, that this implies something about the word. If we are now believing in Jesus because of our new birth, and that’s the first cry of the newborn, and we are seeing him as true and real and valuable, where do we see him?
Born Through the Word
The Holy Spirit does not whisper the gospel in our ear. We have to hear about him in the gospel. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” What we learn then is that faith is a work of the Holy Spirit in new birth (Ephesians 2:8–9), and faith is the effect of hearing the word of God. Faith comes from the new birth by the Spirit, and faith comes from the word.
And that’s where 1 Peter 1:23 comes in to connect word and Spirit in the new birth. Peter says, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable [that’s the Spirit of God], through the living and abiding word of God.” Born of the Spirit, born through the word. So, what we see is that the sovereign Spirit of God binds himself to the word of God because his primary work (as Jesus said in John 16:14) is to glorify the Son of God, who is manifest in the preaching of the word of God.
The Holy Spirit does not move willy-nilly, randomly, through the world, touching random people with the new birth who have never heard the gospel, without any reference to the word of God at all. No, he doesn’t do that. He moves in tandem with the preaching of the gospel. And the reason he does is that his primary mission, according to John 16:14, is to glorify the Son of God. And if he just made people alive who’ve never heard of the Son of God, they wouldn’t be glorifying the Son of God with their new life. New life is bound to the word of God because new life is meant to glorify the Son of God, and we hear about the Son of God in the word of God, the gospel.
We see an example of this in Acts 16:14, where Paul is preaching to Lydia and the other women there by the river. It says, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” So, you have the word spoken, preached by a human being (Paul), and you have the divine work of God opening the heart to give heed and to give new life so that she can understand and receive the preciousness of the gospel.
Speak the Word Faithfully
So, the implication for us is that our essential role in salvation is to speak the word of God and then trust the Spirit of God to do the work, the heart-work called the new birth. We don’t cause the new birth in ourselves or in anybody else, and we don’t cause it in those we are preaching the gospel to. The role we have — and it is an absolutely essential role — is to speak faithfully the word of God.
Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” He answers, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So, my prayer for us is this: may the Lord give us great boldness and faithfulness and confidence that when we speak the word of God, the Spirit of God will give life and glorify the Son of God through the awakening of faith.
By John Piper — 10 months ago
Sound preaching, happy God. Those two themes are connected in Paul’s mind, as evidenced in today’s question from a podcast listener who is also a preacher. “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for this podcast. My name is Matt, and I have been the lead teacher and preacher in a congregation for about five years now. I find myself stunned by 1 Timothy 1:10–11. And I’m wondering if you can riff on these verses for a full episode. Explain to us how the happiness of God relates to the soundness of our preaching. This link seems essential. And if such a connection can be made, you seem like the guy to do it! Thank you!”
Well, to riff on that will be my pleasure. Let’s put this amazing text in front of us. In 1 Timothy 1:9–11, Paul is describing the kinds of ugly behaviors that the law exposes. And in verse 10, he gives another way to discern those behaviors (and the good ones). He says they are “contrary to [healthy] doctrine,” or healthy teaching. Then in verse 11, he says that healthy teaching is healthy because it accords “with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.”
Now, there are four great realities here: (1) the blessed God, (2) the glory of the blessed God, (3) the gospel of the glory of the blessed God, and (4) the healthy teaching that accords with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. Matt is asking about how the blessedness of God affects the healthfulness of pastoral preaching and teaching. That’s a great question that I’m very, very eager to talk about. Let’s move backward through each of these four realities.
First, the blessed God. What does blessed mean? There are two ways the word blessed is used in the Old and New Testaments. It’s used for “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus.” Now that’s not the word that’s used here. That’s eulogētos. It means I bless God. He doesn’t bless me; I bless him. This word is makarios, which means blessed in the sense of fortunate or happy. Here are the uses of it in Paul — just a few examples — so you can taste what this word means when it’s applied to God.
Titus 2:13: “[We are] waiting for our blessed hope” — that is, our joyful, wonderful, satisfying hope — “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The adjective blessed is used to describe the hope, meaning a joyful hope, a wonderful hope, a satisfying hope.
Here’s Romans 4:7–8: “Blessed” — that is, happy, fortunate — “are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed [same word] is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” I mean, we’re supposed to picture a man in the courtroom. He is dead guilty. Everybody knows it. He’s pronounced innocent and sent into eternity with infinite joy. He goes out of that courtroom clicking his heels and dancing for joy into eternity. That’s makarios. That’s the word.
Here’s one more: 1 Corinthians 7:40. Paul says of the widow (because he loves his own singleness), “Yet in my judgment, she is happier if she remains [single] as she is.” Makariōtera is the relative form or the comparative form of makarios.
So, my conclusion is that blessed means fortunate (objectively) and happy (subjectively). God is happy. If that word bothers you — if it just sticks in your craw to say God is happy because it’s just too superficial, and God is big and great and glorious — I sympathize with that. I suggest you choose another word, like contented, joyful, euphoric, felicitous, glad, rhapsodic. I mean, get your thesaurus out and find some words. But don’t conceal the reality, the affectional reality. He’s not glum. He’s not morose. He’s not gloomy. He’s not dour or moody or sour or grim. He is the glad and happy God. He’s not disappointed in being what he is.
Glory of the Blessed God
Now, what’s he happy about? Well, it all starts in eternity — except that nothing starts in eternity (language just won’t work). It all is in eternity. God had no start, and his happiness had no start. That’s where we are. We’re back in eternity. From all eternity, he has been supremely happy in the fellowship with his Son.
Matthew 17:5 says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” There is no greater energy in the universe, no greater intensity, no greater zeal, no greater passion, no greater esteem, no greater force or vehemence of affection than the infinite, eternal love and delight that the Father has in his Son. That delight belongs to the very nature of God from all eternity. He is happy in his Son — eternally, infinitely.
Then he’s happy in the wise, just, and holy ways in which he does everything that he does. Here’s Isaiah 46:9–10. This is the very heart of what it means to be God:
I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.”
That is a literal translation of the Hebrew: “I will accomplish all my good pleasure.”
Or Psalm 135:6: “Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” In other words, God approves of what he does. He’s pleased with his wisdom and his power. He is happy with the choices that he makes. His sovereign will cannot be thwarted. Therefore, he is a consistently happy God.
Most amazing of all, perhaps, is God’s delight in the people whom he created for his glory. Listen to these breathtaking statements from God’s happiness in his people. Psalm 149:4 says, “The Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.” Or Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” If God gets loud, it can be heard billions of light years away.
Then Jeremiah 32:40–41: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant.” Now for all of us Christians, this is what Jesus bought with his blood. He called his blood the “blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:28).
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their heart, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
Now, in 1 Timothy 1:11, I think Paul calls this overflow of God’s happiness onto his people God’s glory. This is the glory of the blessed God. When God’s eternal happiness in himself is seen in all its various manifestations, it reveals God’s fullness, completeness, perfection, glory.
A gloomy God is a deficient God, a defective God. He lacks something; he has a defect. He’s not glorious. But the eternally, infinitely happy God is glorious in the overflow and the fullness of his happiness — perfectly glorious, without any defect or deficiency.
Then Paul says that the gospel is the gospel of the glory of the blessed God (1 Timothy 1:11). This glory of the infinite fullness of God’s happiness is essential to the good news of Christ. Why is that? Because 1 Peter 3:18 says that Christ died to “bring us to God.” That’s why he died.
“It is not good news to be brought to a gloomy God.”
It is not good news to be brought to a gloomy God. “Watch out for him. He’s got his moods. Stay in your bedroom when he’s out of sorts.” That’s not good news. That’s not the gospel. A dour, downcast, unhappy God is not good news. Who wants to go there? Yet Christ died to take us there — namely, to a happy God, a Father who is infinitely happy as he overflows onto his children with his own happiness.
What is good news is when Jesus says in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full,” and when we hear Jesus say at the last day, in Matthew 25:23, “Enter into the joy of your master.” In other words, the glory of the happy God is good news because we will share in it. That joy that God has in the fellowship of the Trinity, in his Son in particular, will become our joy.
In John 17:26 — this may be the most amazing statement of it — Jesus says, “The love with which you [Father] have loved me” — this is the infinite joyful delight in the Son from all eternity — “[will] be in them, and I in them.” The very love that the Father has for the Son will be our love for the Son, our joy in the Son. This is why Jesus died, so that undeserving sinners who cast themselves for mercy on Christ could actually share God’s joy in God.
Now, the last thing Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:10–11 is that we pastors and elders should make sure that our teaching and preaching are healthy teaching and preaching, healthy doctrine (sound is the old translation).
“The ultimate glory of the gospel is that we will share in God’s immeasurable happiness in God.”
Now what is that? Well, here’s what he says: healthy teaching accords “with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” This means that we preachers will ask these questions:
Does my preaching sound like and look like I have been in the presence of such God-centered glory?
Does my preaching echo the infinite worth of the glory of the happy God?
Do I open the gospel so clearly and so faithfully — so biblically, so deeply — that people can see that the final reason, the ultimate reason, it’s good news is not that our sins are forgiven, or that we escape hell and wrath, or that our guilt feelings are gone, or that our bodies are going to be glorious and get well and not suffer anymore, or that we’re going to see loved ones again, or there are going to be no more tears?
Those are glorious, but they’re not the ultimate glory. Rather, the ultimate glory of the gospel, the ultimate thing that Jesus bought when he shed his blood, is that we will share in God’s immeasurable happiness in God. Do all of our doctrines ring with this God-centered hope? Do all of our doctrines ring with the serious joy of God and our share in it?