Safe Preaching and the Prophylactic Gospel

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Jonah wanted nothing more than to be a safe preacher. His Lord could get carried away with love at times. He let it get the best of him. Jonah recognized this, and it pained him to see God act so shamefully. The prophet certainly knew better than to let God act that way toward such a hellhole as Nineveh. How embarrassing that would be. So when it came time to preach to this ancient Sin City, he played it safe and slipped a prophylactic over the Gospel. He showed God how to be a better, more responsible Father, one who is protective of his forgiveness. Or, at least, he went out of his way trying—quite literally. He went out of the way that the Lord had sent him. God said, “Go to Nineveh,” so Jonah hopped a ship bound for Tarshish. Fast forward through the stormy sea, the man overboard, the three days stomached in a fish. Finally, arm-twisted into the pulpit, Jonah did preach. And, lo and behold, these sinners heeded the divine word. They fell all over themselves repenting. In what is one of the most comical scenes in the Bible. They even forced their animals to fast and clothed their cows in sackcloth! True to his word, God relented. He forgave them. The city of sinners became the abode of the absolved.

And Jonah? He was fit to be tied. “O LORD, was not this what I said when I was yet in my own country,” he fumed. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster,” (Jon 4:2). That’s just like you, God, to let the guilty off scot-free. To be lavish in love. To act as if grace is not even cheap, but free. To preach an unsafe Gospel that sets up no barrier between the sinner and your gift of righteousness. To let grace conceive faith, and faith to engender love, and love to give birth to hope. Such profligate grace is unbecoming of a God who should be all about justice, reward, and punishment.

There’s more Jonah in us than we’d ever care to admit. We’re okay, in theory, with a God of love. We like that He loves us, loves our family and friends, the smiling UPS guy, and even the rank-smelling bum on the corner. We’re cool with that. But let God throw His arms around the wrong people, and we go all-out-Jonah on Him. Let Him be charitable toward the ex who drags our name through the mud, the boss who fired us for no good reason, doctors who murder babies for a living, or any in a long list of such unworthiness, and we tweak our theology so that only those who meet certain qualifications are fit partakers of grace.

“Enough” becomes the all-important word, the touchstone of our safe theology. Are they sorry enough? Have they confessed enough? Have they amended their life enough? Have they borne enough of the fruits of repentance to show they’re really and truly sad for what they’ve done? Have they endured the repercussions of their sins humbly enough? In other words, have they made themselves worthy enough to be the object of God’s love? For when the prophylactic Gospel is preached, grace is always conditional. That’s what keeps it safe. Only the deserving get forgiven.

Here’s the truth: If the Gospel doesn’t make you mad sometimes, you probably don’t yet understand just how radical it is. It’s as infuriating as it is frightening. We have no control over it. God walks around with a pair of bolt cutters. He snaps chains in two, lets the guilty go free, and there’s nothing we can do about it. People who have hurt us, hurt us deeply, are forgiven and fed at God’s table as if nothing ever happened. People who rank high on our scumbag scale are called brothers and sisters by Jesus. He just loves and forgives as if there’s nothing more important in the world than being a gracious God. And when we confront Him to hand over our list of “enoughs,” He pulls out His cigarette lighter, touches the flame to the paper, and lets it burn.

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You see, He is enough. There is nothing beyond Jesus that is needed. Not enough repentance, not enough faith, not enough improvement of life. Christ is more than sufficient. He doesn’t limit or conditionalize His Gospel. He is the farmer who throws the seeds of His grace everywhere—on asphalt, rocks, shallow soil, near bird feeders, anywhere and everywhere He wants. He wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. He knows quite well that this will upset the Jonahs of the world, but the Jonahs of the world need upsetting. What they don’t realize is that they are just as undeserving of divine grace as their enemies are.

But that’s what makes grace grace. If the recipients are deserving, it’s not a gift, but a paycheck for piety. The Gospel cannot be safely preached; it is an unsafe message. It undermines our sense of justice. It infuriates those who clamor for punishment. It disgusts the moral crusader who must now share a table with the forgiven degenerate. There is no more constant temptation in the church than to set up barriers to protect the Gospel from sinners. Yet sinners are the only ones for whom the Gospel exists.

We don’t know what became of Jonah after the whole Nineveh debacle. Perhaps he remained the hard-nosed, love-must-be-earned type. But maybe, just maybe, as he gazed out over the city of Nineveh, the Spirit gave him eyes to see that city as a mirror of his own heart. Perhaps, over time, he saw that those people were not the only ones who had been undeserving recipients of divine love. He was, too. He, like his enemies, was called friend and son and beloved by a God whose grace doesn’t need to be protected but proclaimed.

Chad BirdChad Bird