Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was known as one of the church’s greatest orators. He was also well known as one of the most "God-fearing and holy" monks who ever lived. He gave powerful impetus to the monastic movement during his lifetime and far beyond. He was reared in France by a knightly father and a godly and deeply religious mother. At the age of twenty-two he became a neophyte in the monastery in Citeaux (France). Three years later, as a young man of only twenty-five, he was sent out as the leader of a group of men to found a new monastery in Clairvaux. Though offered high positions in church leadership he consistently turned them all down to remain at Clairvaux for his entire life.

To the surprise of some Protestants his writings had a deep impact on both Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others. Over his 500 personal letters, hymns which are still sung, doctrinal treatises, and sermons, eighty-six on the Song of Solomon alone, we have quite a treasure of spiritual writing from this much admired Christian. One of his best-known classic works is titled On the Love of God. Here he gave deep insight into deep mystical devotion to Christ.

Should we love God because he deserves our love or because it is to our advantage to love him? In a sense this is the kind of question that the popular evangelical writer John Piper poses by his "desiring God" thesis. But Piper tends to answer this question in a way that Bearnard would, I think, have not been fully happy with. Bernard would say that the reason we should love God is found "in God himself." He goes on to argue that the reasons we should give special attention to our love for God is because God gave himself to us in spite of our unworthiness. We should, simply put, love God "because he first loved us." God deserves our love even though he does not need my love. God loves his enemies, and that gratis, so we should love him back.

I may be wrong about this but it seems to me that John Piper, and those who follow his misnamed concept of Christian hedonism, reject the idea that we should love God in this way because we would then be loving God for what he has done for us, thus the "debtor’s ethic" would be the result. I do not think Bernard would make such a distinction at all. Bernard even uses the term "debtor" in the same section of this classic work where he speaks of the "Degrees of the Love of God" and "Why God Should Be Loved."

We love God because he first loved us, thus we have a debt to love him. We also love him because it is in our best interest to do so. Bernard would say both are true.

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  1. Phil Wyman December 20, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    This rocks, and speaks to something I was discussing just today. Thanks.

  2. David Gordon December 21, 2007 at 7:12 am

    Thanks for this post. I ain’t no Christian Hedonist! I love the Lord because he has forgiven my sins. If that is a debtors love well so be it. I’m so thankful my sins are forgiven cause I’m a stupid sinner!
    Merry Christmas to you.

  3. A. B. Caneday December 21, 2007 at 8:17 am

    Amen! I cannot but wonder if John Piper’s opposition to what he calls “the debtor’s ethic” is due to his own misconception of what is entailed in being a debtor. Is it because he infuses into the concept of debtor the notion of “merit”? I think so. Hence, if his objection is actually against a “merit ethic,” then I believe that you and I would join him. However, a “merit ethic” is not entailed in the biblical concept of being debtors.
    Take, for example, John Piper’s favorite modern English translation, the ESV translation of Romans 8:12-13. “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” What is Paul saying? Paul is clearly saying that we are debtors, but that our debt is not such that we should live according to the flesh but rather our debt entails obligation to live according to the Spirit.
    There are several other biblical passages that speak of us as debtors or under obligation because of what God has done for us in Christ (e.g. 1 John 2:6). We are debtors to grace. Robert Robinson got it right when he penned the words,
    Oh to grace how great a debtor,
    Daily I’m constrained to be!
    Let Thy goodness like a fetter,
    Bind my wandering soul to Thee. . . .
    The oxymoronic quality of Robinson’s words dissolve because of grace–debtor to grace, constrained by grace, enslaved by grace, bound by grace.
    The debtor to grace does not flirt with the notion of a “merit ethic” that supposes that grace which has made me a debtor to the God who loved me and gave his Son on my behalf demands a “pay back.” “Pay back”? Preposterous! The debt I owe is eternally impossible to pay back and that kind of debt is not called for by God’s redeeming love. There is no pay back to be made. I am a debtor of grace not a debtor of merit. Hence, I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind and with all my strength (Mark 12:30). This debtorship calls for an unusual kind of sacrifice, not the giving of one’s life as repayment but a living sacrifice, the offering of our whole beings in service to our redeeming God (Romans 12:1-2).
    Mention of service touches upon another aspect of John Piper’s “Christian hedonism” in which he disparages the idea that we are to serve God. Piper inverts the biblical emphasis. He makes much of God serving us and little of us serving God. I think this and his rejection of the “debtor’s ethic” is all bound together because of his own misconceptions because of the intrusion of “merit theology.”
    Norman Shepherd is right. Isn’t he? Merit theology is destructive to the gospel.

  4. Gray December 21, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks John. I’m reminded of Chesterton on St. Francis:
    It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.
    Merry Christmas!

  5. rick December 22, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    John, not sure what you and your readers thought about the book Blue Like Jazz, but i think you and your readers would really enjoy reading the new book: Brown Like Coffee. I found it at
    I loved it.

  6. Nick Morgan December 23, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    John, that was a very interesting post. While I have read and benefitted from several of John Piper’s books, I have to admit that his thesis behind “Christian Hedonism” and it’s motivation for loving God have often left me with more questions than answers. I think you hit on something very important through quoting St. Bernard of Clairveaux; and that is our motivation to love God is not either/or but rather is a both/and. Yes, we love God because He is worthy, but we don’t even do this until we first know how much He loves us! I think our fallenness makes it extremely difficult to love God purely for His own sake. I think there is also a significant theological insight here that precludes the either/or approach, and also should erase the fear of confusing the so called “debtor’s ethic” with a “merit theology”. The truth here that is often lost lies in knowing God as an eternal Trinity. Within the most Holy Trinity the eternal relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one of eternal, limitless, self-giving and receiving of love. And as Christians, we are God’s children, and by our union with Christ, God has called us to enter into that eternal exchange of love among the 3 Divine Persons of the Godhead by sharing in the inner life of the Trinity. This is something many of the early Church Fathers and Christian mystics have understood for centuries, but many of us seem to have lost this teaching in our day. Therefore, through participation in Divine life and with it, Divine love, we receive unbounded love from God, which we do not deserve. And for love to be complete it must both give and receive, so we respond to God’s outpouring of love upon us by loving Him in return because He “first loved us” AND because He is worthy! When we place a dichotomy between these motives we ruin them both. And of course, the more we truly love God, the more we will enjoy Him, and this will also result in an increased love for those whom God loves; other people and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our sinfulness keeps us from experiencing this love fully in this life, but part of our hope in the future resurrection will be our capacity to share in God’s eternal Triune love as fully as our creaturely existence will allow. Then we will know to the fullest the love of God in Christ Jesus for all of eternity! That, I believe, would be a more complete understanding of “Christian Hedonism”. God bless!

  7. Dan Holcomb December 23, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    I find it funny that we assume that all must love God from the same motivation, in the same fashion–as if love were an equation to be gotten correctly, or not at all. Or as if every pilgrim’s progress had to follow the same steps in the same order for the same reason to the same conclusion. Let us love God as best we know how, and as the individuals he created us to be, instead of copycats or students of the appropriate technique.

  8. Molly December 24, 2007 at 1:43 am

    GREAT post. Thanks for the thoughts. Albeit, daring to ask any questions about Piper is not allowed, but I, for one, appreciate your thoughts. 🙂

  9. Larry Ky December 24, 2007 at 10:19 am

    In reading “Let God Be God” by Philip Watson I was stunned to find the similarities in Piper’s theology and St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Piper’s entire “because God is worthy to be loved…” seems strangely similar to these men who Luther seem to indicate only have returned to an man centered point of view in order to “glorify God”. To love God this way is selfish. Man is “reading God” from man’s point of view not God’s revealed self in the Cross. So when man “deems” God worthy it sounds noble and God honouring, for is not God worthy, yet when we do this we are judging Him. He can have no such glory by sinners in essence, no matter how noble the intent saying, “I deem you worthy of my praise.” How do we “give God glory”, Luther asks? We don’t. We can only recognize and accept the glory He has given and shown Himself in Christ alone. God is not given glory when we “seek Him” or “deem Him so worthy”, that is the perverted love of fallen man that is ultimately seeking itself. Rather we acknowledge the glory revealed in the revealed God, Christ, God on the Cross. In other words we do not “give” God glory other than to say He has glorified Himself in showing us His utter godly love, that which loves that which is unlovable and unattractive. This is the truth of God revealed in the Cross.
    Piper’s theology seeks, like Thomas and Scotus and many others to be theocentric in its gravity, but in the end is only anthropocentric in gravity with what Watson calls a theocentric tendency. The tendency is always of even the heathen to “honor” God, but in the fall we cannot. God honors Himself in the revelation of the Crucified God, Jesus. And this revelation is the revelation of a love that is utterly self less. His Glory is His selflessness = His love = His real Law. What we lost in becoming inwardly turned either as open sinners or religious false saints. Luther destroys all man centeredness contra Thomas, Piper and others, even though they attempt with sincerity to not be “man centered”. Luther gives credit to sincerity but says that is not enough, men are sincerely wrong, especially about God.
    It is also notable that in Piper’s studies I’ve seen in Sunday school materials that he arrives at the necessity of a “practical holiness” before God or else one will “not be saved”. He makes God’s love like man’s, that it must arise from the objects being itself lovable and attractive (fallen love or eros). This is in opposition of what Luther sees in the NT and particularly at the revelation of the Cross, that God’s love is purely creative and thus He shows Himself to be true Creator, His love IS first and loves that which is unlovable and unattractive to it…this is true godly love, true God and His true Law…not a God who must love that which is attractive and lovable (more like Moloch). The irony here is that Piper, unknowingly, arrives back at Medieval Rome just as Aquinas’s (and Soctus and others) thought helped M. Rome arrive where it was/is – that something must be made lovable in order to be saved, it matters little how small or great you make it, its man centered and making God’s love like fallen man’s love.
    Here we see Luther’s issue was MUCH deeper than typically espoused in standard thought labeled as pelagianism or semi-pelagianism. It’s a matter of true and utter theocentricity as the gravity of all things versus what abounds to ultimately be anthro or egocentricity as a focal gravity point with an attempt of a theocentric tendency. Thus, in God’s glory we find revealed in Christ that man in no way EVER ascends to God but that God descends to man, the ENTIRE point of the incarnation. And the glory of God is in no way fallen man deeming God worthy, but acknowledging that glory revealed that judges all of man’s fair devices to “reach up to God” and gives the pure love of God to fallen man who is utterly unlovable.
    Piper’s hedonism boils down to nothing new under the sun, its Thomas Aquinas thought all over again, yet another “ladder to heaven”, EVEN though that is NEVER its intent. Again, though as Luther warns, men can and will sincerely be wrong. Even the Pagan and Muslim intends to magnify the glory of God but it is not God but a god honed from a general knowledge of God (e.g. His sovereignty, righteousness, etc…) with a perversion of man’s fallenness. This is how ALL idols (stock, stone, doctrines) are honed, from a knowledge of the true God. Thus, apart from Christ, EVEN distilling ideas of God from Scripture, EVEN using the name of Christ other than the true and proper work of Christ, we hone idols. THIS was the entire problem with the papacy, that under the name Christ and Christian, an idol was honed to be worshipped that was not in the end THE GOD as revealed in the Cross.
    A general knowledge of God only begets idols, it is only when we see the WILL of God for us, pure free mercy and grace for nothing EVER, that we have and KNOW the real God. Without that all is idolatry be it Zeus, Allah, Ketzkutal or a jesus (WWJD for example is an idol within the church bounds). Loose the revealed God and you loose the hidden God. Apart from Christ as the crucified One (sans ANY merit even AFTER conversion) and you loose both the revealed and hidden God.
    Larry KY

  10. don bryant January 5, 2008 at 6:06 am

    I think that Piper’s Christian Hedonism best expresses the biblical data giving the different parts their appropriate weights. I think other answers discount too much biblical data on one side or the other. However, I continue to be bothered by the reformed insistence that roots assurance in sanctification and ends up creating Christians who “flame out.” Wherever Puritanism has had its day, it is dead within three generations. I don’t think the human psyche can stand under the strain of finding one’s proof of election in one’s level of sanctification. To ask the old question, when is the threshold of good enough reached. No one can answer.

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