Preaching for Radical Obedience

H. I. Hester Lectureship on Preaching | Kansas City, Missouri

If I were to put a title on this morning’s talk, it would be “Preaching for Radical Obedience: Luring Our People to God.”

Obedience from the Root

Let me define what I mean by radical obedience, and then try to make a bridge to preaching for you. I mean obedience that is radical in the sense that it comes from the radix, the root of your life that is sunk down into the subterranean promises of grace and is drawing up joy and strength and hope, which then are bearing fruit on the limbs of the tree of your life for people to eat the fruit of love. That’s radical obedience.

  • I mean the kind of obedience and love that the early saints had in Hebrews 10:34, where at great peril to their life and the plundering of their property. They joyfully went to visit those who were in prison.

  • I mean the kind of radical obedience that according to Hebrews 11, Moses had when he left the palaces of Egypt, and embraced this recalcitrant people of Israel, and led them all those years so thanklessly in the wilderness, when he could have been enjoying all the pleasures and the fleeting sins of Egypt.

  • And I mean, what Paul means when he says counting everything as loss, we count Christ as gain (Philippians 3:8)

And I mean what Jesus means when he says to take up your cross daily and follow him (Matthew 10:38).

  • And I mean what Paul means when he says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Radical obedience has a flavor about it that is so satisfied in God that it is released from the bondage of sin to do crazy, radical, risk-taking things in the world that make the world sit up and say, Who then is satisfying your heart if you have forsaken the things that satisfy me? And the answer becomes God, and thus he is glorified through that obedience.

Now the question is the connection between that and yesterday’s message — namely, the supremacy of God in preaching. And the bridge that I want to forge is that if you preach for the sake of the supremacy of God, you must preach for radical obedience, because the world will not see the supremacy of God in our affections if we don’t obey with that kind of radical obedience. And I would base that on texts like Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” There is a way of obeying Christ with a kind of radical edge that is salty and bright and causes the world to see the salt of the earth and the light of the world and not praise you or your church, but praise God. And that’s what we’re preaching toward.

So we’ve got to think through and figure out a way to beget, through preaching, that kind of people, that kind of obedience. So we need to cast fear to the wind and spend ourselves and risk our lives and our fortune and show that God is our portion rather than this world. And we need to figure out what kind of preaching will bring that about. So here’s the thesis I want to develop and argue for this morning: There is a satisfaction in God and his glory that is so deep and so profound that it weans you off the breast of sin, breaks the power of sin’s hold on your life. And there is a kind of preaching that begets that kind of satisfaction in God. So those are the two parts of the thesis.

We have to produce a people who see God in such a way that they are ravished with all that he is for them in Jesus. And that is so strong and so dominant and so powerful that all the clamoring pleasures of sin that have been holding them in sway are severed, and they become holy, loving, radical people. And we have to figure out how to preach to beget that kind of satisfaction in God.

Affected with What’s Comfortable

A few years ago, during a prayer week at our church, we always have a night of prayer during prayer week in January, when we pray all night. And we divided up into hours, and I was assigned one of the hours, and my assignment was to talk about repentance and contrition and confession. And in preparing for it, I began to read again some excerpts from David Brainerd from Jonathan Edwards’s life of Brainerd. And I made a discovery there that I hadn’t seen before in Brainerd, which tipped me off about a kind of preaching that may well do what I’ve just described.

Let me give you an illustration. Now I’m talking about contrition and repentance here as the first awakening of the radical obedience that I’m after. These are not separate things. The first glimmers of radical obedience are a heart of contrition and a heart of repentance for the failures and sins in our lives. Now here’s what Brainerd said. On August 9, 1745, he preached to the Indians at Crossweeksung in New Jersey and made this observation. He said,

There were many tears among them while I was discoursing publicly but no considerable cry. Yet some were much affected with a few words spoken to them in a powerful manner, which caused the persons to cry out in anguish of soul, although I spoke not a word of terror, but on the contrary, set before them the fullness and all-sufficiency of Christ's merits, and his willingness to save all that come to him; and thereupon pressed them to come without delay.

So they were feeling anguish, and he hadn’t spoken any words of terror. August 6 — again he says,

It was surprising to see how their hearts seemed to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations of the Gospel, when there was not a word of terror spoken to them.

November 30 — he’s preaching on Luke 16:19-26 about the rich man and Lazarus. And this is what he said:

The Word made powerful impressions upon many in the assembly, especially while I discoursed of the blessedness of Lazarus ‘in Abraham's bosom’ [Luke 16:22]. This, I could perceive, affected them much more than what I spoke of the rich man's misery and torments. And thus it has been usually with them . . . They have almost always appeared much more affected with the comfortable than the dreadful truths of God’s Word. And that which has distressed many of them under convictions, is that they found they wanted, and could not obtain, the happiness of the godly.

Now, that struck me, and raised a question in my mind about the kind of preaching that begets radical obedience. If the first steps of radical obedience are brokenhearted contrition for the lack of holiness, the lack of delight in God, the lack of having the happiness of the godly.

‘Depart from Me’

Now, before I unpack that, let me give a biblical illustration of it from Luke 5. You remember the story of Peter and the other fishermen laboring all night in the Lake of Gennesaret, and not taking anything. And Jesus comes and tells the disciples to go out and cast their nets, and Peter says in Luke 5:5, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” And you remember what happens. They get so many fish that the nets are about to break, and they come ashore with some difficulty. And here’s Peter’s response. Now, remember, he’s responding to a lavish miracle of grace, not a threatening word of judgment. And here’s his response.

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken. (Luke 5:8–9)

Just like the Indians responded to Brainerd’s tenderness about heaven and the sweetness of the gospel, and the preciousness of sins forgiven, and wrath averted, and a home in heaven, and coming home to a Father, brought these Indians to anguish, a miracle that provided them with months of fish after they had said, “There’s no point in going out there because we’ve already fished all night,” brought Peter to his face saying, “Get out of my life Jesus, because I am so filthy, I can’t imagine you are wanting to be near me.”

Now, if that kind of response to our own sin, which is a good response is the first step toward radical obedience, and radical obedience is the means by which people will glorify God, then I want to know how to preach for that — how to find and get that from people.

Awakened to Repentance

So let’s analyze what’s going on here. Let’s try to figure out the nature of this contrition so that we can connect it properly to preaching. I think you would agree with me that genuine evangelical contrition for sin is a sorrow for not having holiness. It’s recognizing the beauty of holiness, and recognizing the sweetness of holiness, and recognizing the benefits of holiness, and God as the holy one, as the all satisfying one, and then being grieved that we don’t have it, and we don’t taste it, and we’re not satisfied by it, and we haven’t been walking in it, and being broken and brought to tears because it’s so far from what our experience has been.

But you’ve got to be careful here about tears, don’t you? You’ve got to be very careful because you can cry over your sin — not because you love God, but because you fear the punishment that is threatened against the sin. That’s not evangelical contrition. Take a criminal in a law court, who’s been convicted of unrighteousness or a crime. And the judge says “fifteen years,” and he breaks down and weeps. And your heart might go out to him. But you should think: Why is he weeping? There are two reasons he might be weeping: (1) because he recognizes the exceeding ugliness and evil of crime and unrighteousness, and (2) “I’m being robbed of fifteen years of doing more unrighteousness,” and both can bring you to tears. And one is evangelical contrition and the other is not and they look identical.

They look identical in the pastoral study. There are so many people in evangelicalism today who confuse bad feelings and tears with contrition. And so as soon as we see them, we’re quick to remove the pain, when in fact, the tears may be solely because of how bad it hurts to commit adultery, not because they hate adultery. I’ve had people walk right out of my office into more adultery, having wept their eyes out. And all the tears mean is, “I’m making a mess of my life and nothing’s working.” That’s right, and you’re crying over it, and those tears mean nothing — as far as evangelical contrition and brokenness over sin goes. Who doesn’t cry when they stubbed their toe, or when their wife threatened to leave them, when their kids act out, or when they get some awful venereal disease. Who doesn’t cry? It’s meaningless to cry. It has no spiritual significance whatsoever. And so we must be very careful that we not equate certain emotional states with brokenhearted, evangelical contrition and repentance and confession for the recognition of sin.

The only true sorrow for not having holiness comes from a prior love of holiness — not a fear of the consequences of not having holiness. Or more precisely said: true remorse over not having holiness is remorse over not enjoying a holy God, but having enjoyed sin instead — not living by the impulse of that joy in a holy God, when you feel remorse that you recognize that your heart is in such a wicked condition, that you’ve been delighting in this instead of God’s holiness. When you break for that, that’s evangelical contrition.

But notice what has to go before the breaking. There has to be a falling in love with holiness. You do not weep over missing what you do not want to have. We need to think about this because this is profound for the way you preach. It was a startling discovery for me that January prayer week, when I read Brainerd; it was a startling discovery for me that you don’t cry over the absence of something when you don’t really want to have it. Therefore, before you can bring someone to cry, you must create the want for what they don’t have.

Or let’s put it more provocatively yet: true repentance must be preceded by a coming to delight in the God of holiness. Until you delight in the God of holiness, you can’t cry over not having the God of holiness. Joy is the prerequisite to grief. That’s the most provocative way to put it: joy is the prerequisite to grief — holy grief. You cannot get saved through coming to contrition for sin, repentance of it, and the embracing of Christ until you are awakened by regeneration and illumination to the exceeding delightfulness and attractiveness of the holiness of God as the holiness of God, not a necessary evil to get you out of hell and into heaven. That’s a paradox: you’ve got to see and taste the sweetness of holiness before you weep, evangelically, over not loving it or having it.

When your heart is awakened to the beauty of holiness, suddenly it lands on you with tremendous force: the wickedness of your life — never having delighted in it, never having lived for it, never having longed for it; you’ve gotten almost all of your joys and satisfaction from other things beside it. Then you weep; then you know what contrition and brokenness and sinfulness are. And until that point, all your weeping is carnal weeping.

Therefore, how then shall we preach in order to bring about such contrition? And if you’re with me, I can sit down and you could finish the message. It doesn’t take any rocket scientist to figure this out. We preach a vision of God that satisfies the heart, that awakens the soul to glory, that portrays holiness in its surpassing beauty, so that if the Holy Spirit is pleased to do his quickening work, people would say “yes, yes,” and then “no, no, no.” Where have I been? Where have I been with my life? True remorse, true contrition, true repentance is born out of falling in love with all that God is for us in Jesus. Until the holiness of God is your treasure, you will not grieve a falling short of having him as your treasure. And therefore, preaching must aim at making God alluringly attractive.

So my title is “Preaching for Radical Obedience: Luring Our People to God.” Brainerd produced anguish and weeping by portraying the beauties of holiness and heaven. Jesus brought forth an anguished “I am a filthy man” by doing something gloriously beautiful through grace for this sinner.

The most powerful and painful acts of radical obedience must be motivated by a supreme passion for pleasure in God. And the preaching that kindles this must constantly portray God as supremely and everlastingly satisfying.

Those are the two halves of the thesis and all we’ve done so far is this. We have said the first baby steps of radical obedience in the Christian life are contrition and repentance. And that cannot happen until the human heart awakens to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus above all things, and seeing it as delightful and desirable and satisfying such that all of life up until this time is perceived to be as black and ugly as it is in being satisfied elsewhere. And then you weep because you’ve discovered joy.

Robust Gospel

Now that’s only the start. We’ve got to figure out how to preach so as to awaken that kind of discovery of the beauty of holiness in God. But I want to also now take you one more step. Most of us preach to Christians. Although, (I want to tread lightly here) in the Southern Baptist Church maybe one member in ten is a Christian. Now that’s a quote from one of you. I didn’t make that up. Because seventy percent don’t go to church, and don’t pray. And the thirty percent who go every now and then may not have a clue. So I’m going to say we’re all preaching to Christians, but we know all of us, in my church too, are preaching to vast numbers of deceived professing believers. And they should make us tremble. That’s what I missed in my church growing up: there wasn’t a trembling about all the sham in the church.

However, I think we preach, not evangelistic messages every Sunday — unless you understand evangelistic messages the way I do. I grew up in a church where, of course, they gave an invitation at the end of every message, and people start putting their coats on and yawning, and everybody knew the end was coming because they saw the turn happening at the end of the sermon. And here comes a little gospel pitch at the end because that’s the way you’re supposed to do it in a Southern Baptist church. I don’t have fond memories of that. And I think it made the church weak.

We ought to preach the gospel every Sunday in the sense that we preach to saints that if they don’t believe in Jesus, they’re lost. And if they don’t act like they believe in Jesus, they have no warrant for assurance, and they should tremble. And therefore, a person, whether saved or unsaved, can get the gospel and learn how to grow in grace by the same message when it’s taking the saints deeper and bringing the pagans out of their darkness. The thing that takes the saints deeper is more of the glory of God, showing how trustworthy he is and how dangerous it is not to love him, not to be satisfied in him, not to trust him, not to walk in reliance upon him. That’s what the saints need to hear and that’s, what the unbeliever needs to hear. You don’t need to have a “gospel pitch” at the end of every sermon — if you’re preaching sermons that are shot through with how to live the Christian life by faith.

Sanctification is by faith and justification is by faith; the same sermon will do both. It will awaken faith in the believer to become holy through faith. It will awaken faith in the unbeliever to become justified through faith. You don’t need a little tack-on that causes all your people to yawn and start putting their coats on and say, “We’ve heard this ten thousand times, this worn-out little pitch.” Give them a big, robust gospel that takes saints deeper, and takes unbelievers into the faith. Cause your people to want to come back and invite their unbelieving friends because they’re getting fed not because these unbelievers need to get fed.

That’s what we were always told: “Bring your unbelieving friends, and we’ll get them saved for you.” Well that not only weakens the laity in what they ought to be doing in the marketplace, but it emasculates the preaching on Sunday morning. And you never do know what’s in the rest of the New Testament.

Preach Faith

Now we’re moving beyond contrition and repentance to the way to live your life. So now I’m talking to the saints here. The most powerful, radical, painful, active obedience — the only kind that is going to get the world to sit up and take notice, and give God glory — must be done, must be motivated, by a supreme passion for pleasure in God. And the preaching, therefore, that will awaken that kind of obedience must — Sunday after Sunday after Sunday — spread a feast of the beauty and the glory of God for people to come and eat and be satisfied by and get up and say, “It is so great to know this God; it is so awesome to be saved and brought into fellowship with this God. I will now go out in the strength of this truth and the satisfaction of my soul, and speak of it, and live radical lives of obedience so that people can see.” Your people are the ones who will win the world, not you; if they don’t, you can’t. You can’t turn Sunday morning into the evangelistic moment. You must make Sunday morning the mighty feeding of the saints with the word of God. Hundreds of people will get saved when you do that.

You preach tithing the way you ought to preach tithing, people will get saved in tithing sermons — not because you tack on two minutes of gospel at the end, but because you know how to preach tithing gospel-like, grace-like — gloriously attractive. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Why is it more blessed to give than to receive? Because we have a God who meets all our needs. Wouldn’t you want him? Isn’t that gospel? You don’t need to tack anything on to the end of that. You’re giving an invitation in the middle, and they don’t have to walk to the front either. A person can get saved in a pew — did you know that?

When I say that this obedience that’s so radical and so beautiful is motivated by a desire for pleasure in God, I simply mean that it’s motivated by faith. Faith is, in my definition — and I’ll try to show it’s biblical; and I wrote a whole book called Future Grace to demonstrate this — a being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. That’s what faith is: faith is a being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. And obedience comes from that. Romans 9:31–32 says:

Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.

So the obedience that is obedience to the law of God is to be pursued through and by faith. Sanctification is by faith.

  • Romans 14:23, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

  • Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God].” There’s no obedience that pleases God, except that comes from faith.

  • Galatians 5:6, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Faith works through love. It’s not love that comes out of nowhere; it comes from faith.

And there are many other texts that I’ll pass over. So if that’s true, that faith is the seed that begets the fruit of obedience. Then the goal of preaching is to preach for faith.

Come for Satisfaction

And I could stop the sermon here (and I would finish on time if I did), but the reason I won’t is because I don’t think hardly anybody in the church knows what faith is. How many people would define it anything like what I’m defining it? — namely, a being satisfied with all that God is for you and Jesus. And therefore, I think to complete this message I need to demonstrate that and illustrate that. John 6:35 says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

Now there’s parallelism right there, right? In John’s vocabulary and in John Piper’s paraphrase, all that God is for you in Jesus is what I think the bread is. The bread is not the flesh merely; the bread is not just the gifts merely — even the gift of forgiveness or justification precious as they are, and without which we get nothing. The gift is God: Jesus came into the world to open the door to God, and I will not stop until I have God. “None of your gifts will satisfy, God, as precious as they are. Give me yourself or I am undone.” And so when it says that they come to me and they will no longer hunger when they come to me, and then he follows that with “and he who believes in me will not thirst,” I take hunger and thirst as virtually synonymous, and I take coming and believing as virtually synonymous. And I define believing as a coming to Jesus to eat such as to be satisfied.

Faith in John’s Gospel (I think I could show the same thing from every book where faith is talked about) is a coming to Christ such as to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ. Now there are two pieces to that definition I want to highlight: the God part and the satisfaction part. Faith is not just a resting in the gifts of God; it is an embrace of God himself through his gifts. So if he promises me heaven, and streets of gold, and forgiveness of sin, and a healthy body, and no more tears — if he offers me all that and withholds himself — no, thank you.

I sometimes test my own people to see who’s saved and who’s not. I say, “If you could have all the benefits of heaven — perfect health, all the relatives restored, no more pain, no more depression, no more loneliness, but minus God, would you be satisfied?” And they tremble because many would. They’ve only related to God in those terms: he’s going to take away my disease, he’s going to take away my fears, he’s going to fix my depression, he’s going to fix all my lousy relationships, and life will be what it ought to be. And once he does it, he can go on vacation as far as I’m concerned. That person is not born again. They’ve never awakened to the beauty of the holiness of God. They just take his gifts and then make a cuckold out of God, and go find a paramour, and have sex with the world while their husband is in the bedroom.

The other piece of that besides the God piece is the satisfaction piece. Faith is not just intellectual ascent. You know what the Reformers said: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Those are the three elements of faith: knowledge, ascent, and trust. That is only sufficient as a definition if you understand trust to be a delighting in the one trusted, because, frankly, you can trust somebody that you do not like. If you narrow the trust down to their competencies, I would rather have a competent CPA do my tax than an incompetent Christian, because I would trust his ability, if not his integrity, to do certain other things. People that trust Christ to get to heaven are lost if they do not delight in the Christ of heaven. Therefore, you must add felicitatis to those three Latin words. I would prefer not to do that.

I would prefer to say that what the New Testament means by pistis or faith is a coming to Christ to be satisfied with all that God is for you in him. And if that’s not what you come for, then you’re not yet believing in him in a saving way.

A Display of Glory

If I have been right that God is glorified through radical Christian obedience — the kind of people who are sacrificing themselves, and inconveniencing themselves, and embracing the unlovely, and pouring out their lives for the needy and the lost and the hurting in the world, at great expense to themselves, they are doing that if they are godly because Christ has become all to them. God has become super satisfying to their souls so they can let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth but it’s still. “Let’s go to Sudan.”

And then the world sits up and says, “What is the reason for the hope in you because you are leaving behind everything I’m resting in, and I don’t get it. And you can say, “God in Christ is so precious to me, and satisfies me so deeply, and promises me an exquisite future with him of ever-increasing joy and glory. How can I not spill over to those who have not yet tasted this? And it could cost me anything, and I’ve got everything in Christ.” And the world might see the glory of God.

And if that is what produces obedience, then I can’t help but conclude that our preaching week in and week out should display the glory of God as delectably as we possibly can. That’s the conclusion of the message: preach week in and week out so that if your people know one thing that they’re going to get on Sunday, they’re going to get God; they’re going to get God in his all-satisfying beauty. And you may preach about judgment. You may preach about hell — you must. But all you’re going to portray that as the flip side of how glorious he must be to make that a just response to rejecting that.