John Piper: Smiting Morality with Gospel Joy

A powerful excerpt from Piper’s lecture at the 2010 Desiring God Conference for Pastors, “Lessons from an Inconsolable Soul: Learning from the Mind and Heart of C. S. Lewis.”

The abbreviated transcript follows:

Until we are gripped with the joyful impulses of gospel grace from the inside, we will always be thinking in terms of doing external duties as pressures from outside. This is called morality. But here is what I discovered with Lewis’s help:

A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.

The implications of this for my own pursuit of holiness and my teaching on sanctification have been pervasive. Lewis brings this insight to bear on the Puritans and William Tyndale in particular in a way this is profoundly illuminating:

In reality Tyndale is trying to express an obstinate fact which meets us long before we venture into the realm of theology; the fact that morality or duty (what he calls ‘the Law’) never yet made a man happy in himself or dear to others. It is shocking, but it is undeniable. We do not wish either to be, or to live among, people who are clean or honest or kind as a matter of duty: we want to be, and associate with, people who like being clean and honest and kind. The mere suspicion that what seemed an act of spontaneous friendliness or generosity was really done as a duty subtly poisons it. In philosophical language, the ethical category is self-destructive; morality is healthy only when it is trying to abolish itself. In theological language, no man can be saved by works. The whole purpose of the “Gospel,” for Tyndale, is to deliver us from morality. Thus, paradoxically, the “Puritan” of modern imagination—the cold, gloomy heart, doing as duty what happier and richer souls do without thinking of it—is precisely the enemy which historical Protestantism arose and smote.

This is what I want to keep smiting with Christian Hedonism: The gospel is designed to make forgiven sinners love righteousness, not do it against all their inclinations.

By John Piper. © Desiring God

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  • Ariel Subrahmanyam

    Wow! That is so helpful! Thank you so much for clearing that up. =)

  • Dan Pentimone

    After having given careful consideration to these quotes, I would challenge everyone to reexamine them if you think they are great quotes. To say that “duty is only a substitute for love” misses the very meaning of the word duty. It sets duty and love against each other. This is contrary to the whole of the Bible. Duty in the Bible is simply “that which is owed”. It is our responsibility. We definitely should carry out our duty with love or else it is useless (1 Cor. 13). However, to pit the two against each other is contrary to the Word of God. John MacArthur understands this here: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2010/06/do-we-obey-out-of-love-or-out-of-duty.html

    Carefully look at these again and you will see that it makes no sense. If duty is so bad, then we should never serve out of duty, not even as a crutch.