Preaching the Sleep of Jonah

Victor Chininin Buele

The last post argued that the sleep of Jonah in chapter 1 was in part the result of a hardened heart that was actually able to be sound asleep in the midst of a storm of unprecedented proportions. It left the reader with the question: Are we asleep? Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell?

Today I want to try to wake up the Reformed preacher from the sleep of Jonah.

One very challenging question I have been considering for the better part of three years is this–how can it be that the resurgence of “Reformed” preaching has not decreased, but perhaps even increased, abuse inside of the church?

I had thought this was a problem of antinomianism, that is, in its most comically tragic form, a “let’s do whatever we please because we are saved” attitude. I figured legalism was far from it because legalism would be such a strict outward observance of Biblical principles (even if the heart is not engaged or willing or delighting in God) that it could not possibly be part of the equation. Sinclair Ferguson cleared that up for me in The Whole Christ showing that both antinomianism and legalism have the same root: a belief in the lie of Eden that God is not good, he is not loving, he cannot be trusted, and he is not for us. Some choose to go super strict about it–I will not even touch the tree so that I won’t be able to eat the fruit if I don’t touch it! Some choose to go super liberal about it and say, “What’s wrong about it? Go eat all the fruit you can. What’s the worst that can happen? Diabetes? Nah! There’s grace/insuline for that!”

One of the first reasons I started to ponder this question was because I had the task to restart the exposition of the book of Luke at a church that had gone through the horror of seeing her senior pastor’s sin of sexual immorality exposed. I needed to pick up the exposition in Luke 17:11-37. So I went and read Luke 1-17, but I also went and listened to the last sermon that was preached in the series and a few others.

I had preached at that church a few months earlier a sermon about the law from the book of James. I remember that the pastor cleaned up after me, so to speak, and took off the edge I purposely left hanging in there. He added grace and gospel to my message. It’s not that I didn’t preach the gospel or that I didn’t speak about grace. But the text was about the law, so there was a certain edge there that was unfortunately flattened. I told my wife about it. I felt frustrated that my point was undone, but it was not my church. Life moved on. I didn’t really ask why!

So, there I was, listening to the man’s sermons. Expository sermons. In the Reformed world, we place a big emphasis on expository preaching–preaching “straight” from the Bible where the message of the sermon is the message of the text. We even go through long series going through the same book of the Bible, verse by verse, to not miss anything. If there is a subject I normally wouldn’t want to talk about, preaching this way will force me to deal with it and not skip it. In theory, there is no way for this to fail. The preacher is to submit to the Word, find its authorial intent (divine and human), find a way to communicate it effectively and apply it faithfully.

This man preached almost 17 chapters of Luke while living in gross sin. And a number of other books prior to that.

How did this happen?

I noticed that the sermons didn’t have skin in them. The applications didn’t get to the heart. Yet, they sounded like terrific expositions of Scripture. I do not recall finding any technical exegetical errors or excursions into La La Land. I could see how a people could listen to years of that and walk away every Sunday being absolutely thankful to God for the sermon and feeling edified. I do not recall hearing of any conversions at the church from the preaching, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were. The Bible shines through as it is living and active, and it is not restrained by the sin of the mouthpiece.

But that doesn’t give us an excuse to not ask anything or, worse yet, to make this key mistake of justifying gross sin or explaining it away because of what we perceive to be the fruit of a ministry or the gifts of the minister.

These sermons did not get to the hard confrontation of calling the human being, made in the image of God, to own his sin, to name it, to reject it fully, to turn from it specifically and completely, and to live for God. In the condition of this man’s heart, there is no way in the world he could have asked these kinds of questions without being laid bare himself at the pulpit. So, he didn’t. And every Sunday, things got worse. And the church, who called him to minister to them, was asleep. Asleep comfortably in the sleep of Jonah.

When application is about somebody else, or it asks us to turn our eyes outwardly to others and away from our own need for Christ, or overemphasizes grace or law (that is, it asks us to believe the lie of Eden that God is not good, trustworthy, and loving), or trivializes our sin (everybody sins, we are imperfect, all pastors fall short of 1 Timothy 3/Titus 1), we need to pay attention. Not to the application, though. Something is wrong. Ask questions. Pray boldly. Speak frankly. Fear God and not man.

Preaching like this is a counterfeit. Allow me to illustrate:

The title of my sermon restarting the Luke series was “In the Midst of You”, and I made three larger points, three signs of the Kingdom: (1) The Kingdom enters a time of complacency and ingratitude, (2) the Kingdom brings in the outsider and shows some of the insiders to have been false sons, and (3) the Kingdom means the end of the law for righteousness. My application, very much guilty of the same style of preaching that I am describing, was this: (1) be thankful, (2) seek to identify God’s miraculous power as you go about your daily life, and (3) guard your heart against relying on the law for your righteousness.

Abstract. Abstract. Abstract.

Can you see how you could have walked away from my sermon (which in essence was no different than the previous sermon by the man preaching while living in sin) and be thankful for the teaching and inspired by the application? And yet, my application does almost nothing for you.

It doesn’t confront you with anything. Be thankful! Great. Does it actually confront my lack of thankfulness? Am I complacent and ungrateful? What specific event or presence or lack of a gift from God showed me to be unthankful or complacent? What sin is behind my response? What am I doing to hide it? This application has a point–thankfulness is the antidote to complacency. But the complacency has to be exposed and understood, confronted and challenged. I have to let the text confront me and call me to repentance. And repent! There is a way this application sounds right but does absolutely nothing for my soul. I can write down “Be thankful” in my notes and maybe say an extra prayer before a meal throughout the week but let it do nothing more in my heart. Sin loves to hide there.

Seek to identify God’s miraculous power as you go about your daily life sounds wise and deep, practical and life-changing. I even quoted Chesterton for good effect. It lacks specificity again. It does very little. And in reading the text again, I think the connection between the exegesis and this application is very thin–there was a miracle in the text; therefore, appreciate miracles.

And then, this exhortation to guard the heart against relying on the law for your righteousness also falls short. The congregation was about to start fleshing out the consequences of sexual sin that hid for a long time in their midst. It was hidden. Lies had to be told and believed. Deception took a root in people’s lives. And this application completely missed the point in light of that. A person hiding gross sin was reminded that no person can save himself by doing the right works of the law and by not doing what the law forbids. Hear: GRACE! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to translate this exhortation to: “I may be indulging in ungodly sexual pleasure, hiding it from my wife, hiding it from the men who are supposedly walking with me, but I’m good because Scripture says there is no one righteous, not even one. Praise Jesus for His grace for such a wretch as me!” This sermon completely missed the point of the text for this people in that particular day in those particular circumstances.

Preaching like this allows sin to hide and thrive. It doesn’t call us to do anything. It redefines repentance and results in such a rejection of any application that requires costly obedience and honest discipleship, that anyone who calls you to repentance turns into a Pharisee, and we know what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees! So, you can continue to walk down the wide, open road of sin, whistling and singing Amazing Grace, even receiving praise for your sermons and receiving praise from the sermons for your sinful behavior. Not explicitly, of course. That would be heretical. And when the mouthpiece in the pulpit is the one hiding the sin, manipulation and spiritual maneuvers can be very hard to identify. It is the water in which you swim.

I saw in the Twitter world something last week that summarizes the point very well: “Want to know if you have a healthy pastor? Disagree with them.”

Try it sometime, Biblically of course, it may expose what needs to be exposed.

Fellow preachers–we must repent of preaching that hides and empowers abuse. These are misrepresentations of the character of God who compassionately sent His Son Jesus to die for all our sins, past, present, and future and raised Him up from the dead to sit at His right hand and intercede for us, who sent us the Spirit that we may have life and live out the good works prepared beforehand by Him. They do not edify the sheep.

This is preaching from the sleep of Jonah. We are fast asleep in the deep, safe recesses of a study in the middle of a church that is trying to weather a storm of cosmic proportions. Wake up, fellow Jonah. Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell? It may look like having to get ahold of yourself, own your sin, repent of it publicly, and let somebody else preach. It may look like having to turn back on your fear of losing the congregation or not be liked by them and actually give them real and concrete applications that will help them kill sin and delight in Jesus.

Next time, I will venture a bit into another flavor of preaching from the sleep of Jonah that redefines respect and submission in ways that foster and empower abuse to be perpetuated and never opposed.

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