When I was a boy, my parents made me go to church every Sunday morning. I had no desire to go. I found the worship service boring and could not wait for it to be over so I could go play. But even worse than Sunday morning worship was the weekly catechism class, which was held on Saturday morning. That was the lowest point of my childhood experience in church. I had to go through a communicants class, then I moved on to the catechism class, where I and some other boys and girls had to memorize the Westminster Shorter Catechism. I endured it all just to become a member of the church and finish the course so my parents would be satisfied. I was not converted until several years later.
When I did become a Christian, I found myself wishing I had paid more attention in my catechism class. The only thing I remembered from the Shorter Catechism was the first question and answer, and the only reason I remembered that question was because I never could make sense out of it. The question was this: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer that we were required to learn and to recite was this: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” I just could not put those two things together. I understood, even as a child, that the idea of glorifying God had something to do with obeying Him, something to do with the pursuit of righteousness. But that was not what I was most singularly concerned about. It was not my chief end to be an obedient child of God by any means. And because it was not my chief end to be an obedient son to God, I could not understand how there was a relationship between glorifying God and enjoying Him. To me, the two seemed antithetical, incompatible.
My problem was that I was confused about two foundational ideas. I did not know the difference between pleasure and joy. What I wanted was pleasure, because I assumed that the only way I could have joy was by the acquisition of pleasure. But then I discovered that the more pleasure I acquired, the less joy I possessed, because I was seeking pleasure in things that required that I disobey God. That is the attraction of sin. We sin because it is pleasurable. The enticement of sin is that we think it will make us happy. We think it will give us joy and personal fulfillment. But it merely gives us guilt, which undermines and destroys authentic joy.
My conversion was fundamentally an experience of the forgiveness of God. If there had been a fire hydrant where I was when I was saved, I would have jumped over it, because I experienced the difference between pleasure and joy. I discovered in my own conversion the same thing John Guest discovered.
Psalm 51 is the greatest example of repentance that we find anywhere in Scripture. In this psalm, David, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, is brought to repentance for his sin with and against Bathsheba. He is broken and contrite in his heart, and he comes before God and begs for forgiveness. He says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (v. 12a). Those who have experienced the forgiveness of God and the initial joy of it always need to have that joy restored, to have the guilt of their continuing sin removed so joy may return. As we seek forgiveness from God on a day-to-day basis, we return to the beginning of our joy—the day we discovered that our names are written in heaven.
Untold billions of people have never experienced the joy of salvation. If you are one of them, I say to you that there is nothing like it in the world. Just imagine having every sin that you have ever committed erased by God, having all of the guilt you have accumulated and the attendant feelings of guilt removed. That’s what Christ came to do. He wants to give us joy, not power or success. His gift is the joy that comes from knowing that our names are written in heaven.