The following is a lightly edited transcript
Let me try to define what I mean by radical obedience, and why I talk in terms of luring our people to God and then relate it to the supremacy of God in preaching.
What I mean by radical obedience is the kind of obedience that comes from the radix, the radical root that’s planted down in God and is soaking up, drinking up joy and satisfaction from God’s presence and God’s promises in our lives. It’s the kind of obedience that the early Christians had according to Hebrews 10:34 where it says that they rejoiced at the plundering of their property when they went to visit their friends in prison because they looked to the reward and knew that they had a better and abiding possession. So they were freed for love and obedience because of the radical orientation on God that they had.
Or the kind of obedience that Moses had according to Hebrews 11:23–28 where he led Israel, rebellious as they were, through the wilderness, all the while forsaking the fleeting pleasures of Egypt and focusing on the reward.
Or the obedience of Paul who counted everything as loss because of these surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8). It’s the kind of obedience that bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), takes up it’s cross daily and follows Christ (Luke 9:23).
In my preaching in Bethlehem in Minneapolis theses last eighteen years, my goal is to produce that kind of people. If my people don’t love with the kind of radical sacrifice of things in order to bring joy to others in God, then I will feel like a failure. And so preaching for radical obedience of that kind is a high on my agenda.
Now how does that relate to the supremacy of God in preaching? And the answer is that faith in God is invisible, love for God is invisible, until it expresses itself in love for people. And so love you could say is faith made visible or contentment and delight in God worked out. Galatians 5:6 says, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” So faith that is resting in God, trusting in God, banking on God, frees you from all the competing greed and allegiances of the world to be radical risk-takers, because even if you lose your life, you’ve got God. And so if God is your portion, if you’re trusting him, it frees you for love. And so the reason love and the supremacy of God in preaching relate is because when you love, you magnify God. You show that he has satisfied you, that he has met your need. You don’t need to hold on anymore.
When my book Desiring God came out in 1986, many people lifted a huge cry about how inappropriate it was to talk about Christian Hedonism. And I left it both for its shock value and because I mean it exactly like it stands. A hedonist is a person who lives for pleasure, which I do, à la Psalm 16:11. Do you know that by heart? You’re not a Christian Hedonist if you don’t know that one by heart. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” If you say you’re disinterested in that, you’re blaspheming. If that’s not your passion in life, to have the pleasures of God at his right hand, be careful. He will not be impressed with your self-effacing obedience that says, “Oh, I don’t want that. I don’t want that fullness of joy. I don’t want those pleasures of your right hand. I want to be a hero, and do it for no other reason than the fact that it’s right to do.” I think God would just say, “Well, you get your ethics from Kant but not from the Bible.”
God Versus Six Figures
Now the reason that I’m saying it is because we were talking about this, and I used an illustration from yesterday. It’s real fresh for me because this man’s tears meant so much to me. He came from Indiana to Minneapolis on a job, and he made an appointment with me to see me. He brought his old tattered copy of Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist into my office, sat down, and before he could say anything, began to cry.
He held up the book, and he said, “I want so bad to be a worship leader at my church and to preach. I’m a risk-management consultant with Northwest Airlines. I make a six-figure salary, and because of this, it means nothing to me.” He held up my hedonism book. “Because of this book, it means nothing to me.” And I just whispered, and I said to him with tears in my eyes, “It’s working; it’s working.” Somebody’s getting it.
If you’re shooting for a six-figure salary as the way to be a hedonist, you don’t get it; you’re a fool. But if you are ignoring the six figures and saying, “I want to know God. I want to worship God. I want to lead other people to God in order to find my everlasting joy in his presence,” then you’re getting it. And the six figures begin to mean nothing. So there’s the connection between the supremacy of God in preaching and radical obedience. If you say to your six-figure salary, “It means nothing to me.” It’s OK to have one.
But if you can’t say, “It means nothing to me because God means everything to me,” you will belittle God in your lifestyle because you’ll have all the same houses, all the same cars, all the same toys, all the same vacations, all the same retirements, all the same clothes, and the world will never ask you the question, “Where’s your hope?” (1 Peter 3:15). Nobody will ask you that question because they see where your hope is. That’s exactly the same place theirs is. Why would they ever ask you?
But if you pour your life out in the inner city, or if you give yourself to Sudan, or if you take a well-to-do suburban church and live a counter-cultural lifestyle, and lay your life out to people at great cost to yourself, then they might ask you, “What makes you tick? Where are you getting your strokes?” And then you can say, “God is a treasure to me. God is a treasure to me. My car means nothing to me. My house means nothing to me. My retirement means nothing to me. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever. Let’s just go die.” Then they’ll ask you, and then you’ll be able to give them an answer.
So I’m preaching for that kind of people. I’m on a martyr search. Everywhere I go, I say to people, “I’m here to recruit martyrs.” The reason is because in Revelation 6:10–11, after the martyrs under the altar cried out, “‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ . . . they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” The Great Commission will not be finished without more martyrs. I want it to be finished; don’t you? I want the Lord to come. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). And it will not come without martyrs. So I’m here to recruit some.
Awakened to Joy
Let me tell you a little pathway that the Lord took me on a few years ago to clarify for me how to preach for radical obedience. It was prayer week at our church. We always begin the year with a week of prayer, and I preach at the beginning and the end of the week on prayer. And we pray every morning, and we pray at noon, and we have an all-night prayer meeting on Friday. And just say at the beginning of every year, “O God, O God, O God, without you, this year will accomplish nothing, so come. Work in our church and fill our church.” Well, during that night of prayer, we divvy up the hours among the staff and the elders, and each one takes a different hour and leads the people in a theme. And I was given one year the theme of contrition and repentance.
To prepare for that, I went back and I reread some Brainerd, the missionary to the Indians from 250 years ago that Johnathan Edwards wrote about in his book. Probably after the Bible and maybe after Pilgrim’s Progress and maybe one or two others, it is probably the most influential missionary biography there is. Well, I reread his experience with the Indians to see the role of contrition and repentance.
I’m using this as an illustration because contrition and repentance are the first steps of radical obedience. So there’s the connection in your head between where I’m heading. I’m aiming at: How do you preach for radical obedience? I’m starting at the front end of radical obedience of contrition and repentance because that’s radical if you get it right, and then that leads into a lifetime of living radically and obediently toward God, which magnifies God, and I want to figure out how to preach toward that. So my first question is: How do you preach for contrition and how do you preach for repentance?
So I wanted to see what Brainerd did because he only lived 29 years and left a legacy that’s lasted 250 years. And there were revivals among the people at Crossweeksung Indians in New Jersey under his ministry. They were small revivals, but real revivals. These were real pagans, falling down and being radically converted, forming little churches, and little Bible institute, and so on. Well, let me read you a few quotes that God led me to I believe to get ready for this middle of the night prayer time. 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 notice: not a word of terror. Now Jonathan Edwards and Brainerd believed in terror, and I believe in terror. My guess is most of you believe in hell. Hell is terrible, and we should not hide it from our people. But I’m trying to look at proportion and strategy here in preaching. On August 6 he said,
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.
That really set me to think. What brought them to conviction and tears and desperation was not mainly the portrait of hell as something to be avoided, but the portrait of the happiness of the godly, which in themselves, they did not yet have access to. Now think about this with me because this set me to think: Does this not point to something utterly paradoxical? — namely, that in order to bring about that kind of evangelical contrition, you must awaken joy first. Or at least let us say it this way: at least you must awaken a taste for the joy of heaven before anyone will be stricken with not having it. Why would you weep over not having Christ until Christ became delectable to you?
What Tears Prove
Now here you have to be real careful, don’t you? Because you have to distinguish the origin of tears in a criminal’s life in the courtroom. You have to be careful here, don’t you? A criminal is sitting there, and he’s guilty. He knows he’s guilty. The jury knows he is guilty. He is found guilty, and now his sentence is about to be read. The judge reads the sentence: 15 years in prison. Say the man’s 55. He computes in his mind that he’ll be 70. I feel virile; I feel strong. I’m 55. At 70 I’ll be older. I won’t have the same potential and body anymore. And he begins to cry. Is that repentance? Is that contrition? It might be. It might be, however, that he’s not crying at the discovery of how wrong he was, but that the freedom to more wrong is being taken away. That’s not contrition and repentance.
Tears prove nothing. I’ve discovered that after eighteen years in the pastoral study. Tears mean nothing because tears simply signify pain; that’s all. And the pain can be: “I want to end this marriage at any cost because it hurts so bad and I’m sick of it.” And the tears can flow like buckets. Or tears can be” “I see I’m as guilty as she is and I hate myself. I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes. And I’ll do anything to make this thing work.” That’s different; very different tears there. They look the same, but you’ve got to dig a little bit. You’ve got to scratch a little bit to see what’s underneath a tear.
So what I’m saying is: true evangelical repentance that leads to life, not death, must be preceded by the heart awakening to the joy of the fellowship of Christ. The holiness of God has to be seen as precious. Otherwise the weeping will not be the weeping of not having it. Because nobody cries about not having what they don’t want.
Preach the All-Satisfying Glory of Christ
Now do you see the implications of preaching here? If you want to produce that kind of repentance on Sunday morning, you want to break people’s hearts and bring them to faith — well maybe they’re in the faith and they’ve backslidden, and have become cool, and are starting to fall in love with the world and out of love with the holiness of God and the fellowship of Jesus. And you want to break them with real tears of their faith at either the front or at the end. How do you preach?
And the pointer here is: You’ve got to help them fall in love with what they’ve forsaken again. You’ve got to help them see Jesus again as valuable. You’ve got to be a hedonistic preacher — meaning, you’re not going to scare them into tears. I believe there’s a place for judgment in preaching. There’s a place for threat and warning; it’s all over the preaching of the prophets and Jesus himself. There’s a place for that.
But there’s also a place for portraying God, and portraying Christ, and portraying heaven, and portraying forgiveness, and portraying acceptance, and portraying love, and portraying beauty that causes the hard-hearted, suddenly by the power of the Holy Spirit, deep inside, to want it again. And then to cry because of how far they are from having it — and that’s real; that’s real.
So the connection here between contrition and repentance are the first steps of radical obedience. The lesson I have so far is the way to preach for radical obedience, which begins with contrition, is: preach the supremely all-satisfying glory of God in Christ. Woo people. Win people. Show people.
Preach the Beauty of Christ
Now this is a thousand-mile separation from the health, wealth, and prosperity “gospel,” where you woo people with: your business will prosper, you’ll have a nicer house, a nice car, or even a better marriage. That’s not the point. Everything might collapse, in fact, if they come. Their marriage might collapse. First Corinthians 7 says: If the unbelieving partner wants to leave, let them go; you can’t make them stay. You can’t make war. That may be the cost of discovering where your true joy is found in Christ. Your business may totally fail because you have now begun to deal with people rightly, and the first chapter in your path of righteousness is a failed business and so on. This is not the health, wealth, and prosperity thing we’re talking about.
We’re talking about a radical discovery of everlasting joy in God that may cost you your life, your family, your business, your health — and everything. And it will be gain. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). And “to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). That’s radical Christian Hedonism; that’s luring our people to God.
So at the front end of conversion of the Christian life, if you want to bring about contrition and repentance, you can’t just scare people away from hell, and you can’t just trip them with false promises that things will go better. You must biblically and faithfully and exemplarily preach and model the supreme value of God over everything else in the universe.
For example, next Sunday is Easter. On Easter, we do a different kind of service at our church, in which we encourage our people to invite unbelievers. I’m not a seeker-sensitive church in the traditional understanding of that, but a fairly traditional church. I preach to the saints on Sunday morning, but I hope I’ll preach with a passion and a helpfulness so that every unbeliever who comes there can get it. But on Easter, we do it differently. We’re going to run this service longer. It’s going to have more music; it’s going to be different. We won’t have Sunday school. We’ll do a lot of things different here: the parking is different; everything is accessible here.
And I tell people I’m going to try — it’s not my gift, but everybody should try — to be an evangelist. I’m not a successful evangelist. I grieve over it. I labor under the shadow of a great father who is an evangelist and has won ten thousand people to Jesus. And I will never compare to the number of people my dad has won to Jesus probably. And so I grieve that I’m not a chip off the old block in this regard. But I try. So I tell my people, “Next Sunday, I’m going to give it my best to make Jesus look ravishingly beautiful to unbelievers, and I’m going to put the cookie on the lowest shelf that I can. And you just bring them.” And they generally do this. We generally have 300–400 people that probably don’t know Christ at these special services.
So my goal will be to do what I just said ought to be done. I wish the fruit were more than it was. We’ll get maybe 12 people or so make a profession of faith on those Sundays. But why not a fourth of the unbelievers who come, like the parable of the four soils? So pray for me, with me, on next Sunday, and I’ll do the same for you.
Preach for Faith
If that’s the way you get started in preaching toward radical obedience — lavishly portraying the beauties, the glories, the wonders of God in Christ, so that you quicken and awaken behind the hardness a love for holiness, a love for Christ, a love for God, which then weeps because it doesn’t have it and wants it more than it wants anything — if that’s the way you start, how do you continue? How do you conceive of preaching for eighteen years in one place to the same people? So what is the aim now to preach? You preach to build faith.
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. (Romans 9:31–32)
In other words, radical obedience or obedience to God’s law, his moral will, is not to be pursued by works; that is, your concept of obedience must not be: “I perform this as a way of putting God in my debt and paying me wages.” “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Wages corresponds to works. Gift corresponds to faith. So if you want to obey God properly, you don’t obey via works, paying your eight hours of labor so that at the end of the day you say, “Give me my wages, God.” That’s works.
You obey out of trust in God’s goodness toward you to enable you and reward you and strengthen you and carry you and help you and work for you. That’s really right: he works for us. “No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). So I want to preach in such a way as to awaken faith which produces radical obedience. So I could answer the question, How do you preach then on for the rest of life? and I’d say every Sunday should be a faith building Sunday. Every Sunday should awaken and quicken and strengthen faith in the promises of God so that people will walk out so full of confidence in God that they let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, and radically obey God and take risks and show the value of Christ in their life.
The Nature of True Faith
Now I could say that and stop and say that’s good enough. But I don’t want to stop there because I think, by and large in American evangelicalism at least, and probably here too, most people don’t understand what the nature of faith is. So to say I preach for faith, get more faith — there is a tremendously limited and narrow understanding of faith in American evangelicalism, owing to very successful evangelism which tends to define it almost entirely in terms of a backward glance. This is why I wrote the book out there called Future Grace.
Most people think of faith as: trust that Christ died for your sins and rose again, and then out of gratitude, turn to the future and begin to work for God because he did all that back there, and I trust him for it. That’s a concept that will produce very little fruit, I think. Because faith in the Bible is future oriented mainly — not solely, but mainly. It’s absolutely right to look back to Jesus Christ crucified and risen and say, “On this I take my stand. This is my life. This is my reality, in order that I might be assured God is for me in the future, on which confidence I build my life and take my risks and love people.”
Faith is future oriented. “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Five minutes out, he’s there. Ten minutes out, he’s there. Five years out, five million years out, Christ’s promise is valid, and you believe that, and it frees you to love. Therefore, I think we better go back, we pastors, and help our people get a handle on what faith really is if we’re going to say preaching for radical obedience means preaching for faith, which it does. So here’s my definition that I will mention and unpack for a few minutes: the essence of faith (and here I mean justifying faith, which also sanctifies) is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ, especially what he promises to be for us in the future. Being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ.
Now let me pick out two pieces of that definition and show you why I’m defining faith that way. First notice that it is very Godward, God-centered: being satisfied in God and all that he is for us — not just being satisfied in the forgiveness of sins, not just being satisfied that I’m going to heaven. You can be happy that you’re not guilty, and you can be happy that you’re going to heaven and not like God. You can dislike God and be glad you’re forgiven. And you can dislike God and be glad you’re going to heaven if you conceive of forgive as “I’m not going to hell,” and conceive of heaven as “I’ll see my brother or my mother,” and “I won’t be sick anymore.”
I sometimes ask my people just to quicken and awaken, just to see how they’re doing, I say, “If I could absolutely assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that in a thousand years, you would be in paradise, you would never be sick again, you would have everything that this world has to offer in terms of physical and material pleasures, and you would not have a single guilt feeling, but God would have be out of existence, would you take it?” Ask yourself and see if you love God or love his gifts.
So I’m trying to define faith radically: being satisfied with all that God is for us — not gives us. It’s alright to enjoy his gifts — absolutely alright — but only as springboards to more love to him.
Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:4–5)
Every meal is a kind of sacrament in which you sanctify it and let it become a springboard to worship, a springboard to God. And if you don’t make that spring, you’re an idolater. Every loving pizza bite is idolatry. We are made for God, so we must define faith in a way that embraces God, not just his gifts — otherwise we mislead people terribly into destruction.
And the second piece I wanted to point out is this word satisfy. It’s an emotionally loaded word; I know it is. You can choose another word if you want. Being satisfied with all that God is for us — I simply mean that faith cannot be limited to awareness of doctrinal truth about God, nor can it be limited to acts of will by which we say I do now agree with those doctrines. Rather, it must also be a delight in the God of those doctrines or a being satisfied or a resting in the God of those doctrines. And I would base that on texts like John 6:35:
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.”
Faith is parallel to coming. In John’s thinking, coming to Christ for bread is faith. So here’s my definition, in Johannine theology, of faith: faith is a coming to Christ such that you are satisfied in the bread and the water that he is; that’s faith. He who believes in me will never thirst because he has found the end of the quest: “I have found the fountain. I will never turn away from this fountain. Day after day I will drink at this fountain.” That’s faith.
Now if that’s faith, then how do we preach to get it? If faith is a being satisfied in all that God is for us in Jesus, how do you preach? The answer is: like a hedonist, like a radical hedonist who says forget your six-figure salary; it’s going to go poof. The moths are going to eat it. The thief is going to steal it, and you can’t take it with you. There are no U-Haul trailers behind hearses. Forget it. Go for broke. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where no moth can ruin and no thief breaks in and steals; that’s the way Jesus talks. Come on, you want to invest? If investors are dancing around thinking all is well now, they better go read the Bible because Jesus says the moth will eat and the thief will steal eventually.
Do you want to invest? You want to invest? I used to invest in the stock market about 25 years ago. I played it. I bought Disney, and I read about this new thing called Disney World in Florida that was coming. But God got ahold of me so bad in that stuff, because every morning I’d go to that page first, go down to my mutual funds, check them out. I was teaching at Bethel College in those days, and I got so convicted that I was entangled in civilian pursuits, that I sold it all off. I gave a lot of it to Christian organizations, and bought a house with $17,000 of it. I had this money because my mother died. The death of a parent can get you in big trouble. My mother left me $30,000–40,000 — I forget exactly. We were living in an apartment and had one little child. I was 28 years old when she died, and the temptations came. I had money to invest for the first time in my life. I had zero money until that time. I went to graduate school, and had nothing in the bank when I came out. I had a $10,500 salary from Bethel College, which I thought was heaven. They’re going to pay me to study the Bible. This is terrific.
And then suddenly I’m a wealthy man. That scared the living daylights out of me after about a year or two of that. Now I have a house because of my mother, and I don’t have anything in the stock market except whatever those folks do down at the Baptist General Conference with the retirement that they take out of my check, and I presume that’s in the stock market. Just because for me, it was consuming.
In your preaching, you must help people get free of alternative pleasures. That’s the goal: you must help them.
Preach for Delight
In Hebrews 10. This unit from Hebrews 10–13 is the most hedonistic, radical call for sacrifice and love in the Bible, I think. Hebrews 10:32–34 says:
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings . . .
So there you are. That’s your reward for being a Christian.
. . . sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. . . . What does that mean? Well, it means some of them got put in jail and others went to visit them and got in trouble for it. We’ll see that there in verse 34:
For you had compassion on those in prison, . . .
See, some were already in prison. You weren’t. You had to make a decision: Shall we go to the prison to visit them and get identified with them and get in trouble or not?
For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, . . .
Now I’m almost done here. My time is up. I am preaching for that kind of people. Don’t you want to be and preach for that kind of people? They joyfully accepted the plundering of their property. Why was their property plundered? Because they went to visit the people in prison. They identified with the Christians who were already paying, and then they paid. And when they looked over their shoulder to see their house being broken into, or their furniture being burned in the street, or whatever was happening — I don’t know what was happening; either an official confiscation or mob violence, and their houses are burning and their car was on fire. This text, if you can believe it, says they joyfully — this is hedonism at its rarest — they joyfully accepted the plundering of their property. And then comes the preachers mandate:
. . . since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
There’s a mandate, brothers and sisters, for how to preach. What are you doing week in and week out to help your people rejoice in the plundering of their property? That’s the key issue. What are you doing to help them week in and week out to say, “It means nothing to me. I will rejoice, if in the cause of love, I lose my house. I will rejoice.” What are you doing to help them?
How are you living? I heard a pastor about eight years ago at a pastors gathering, a well-known pastor, stand up and say, “Well, we just bought a cabin on a lake as a getaway because if you can’t beat them, join them.” Now a lot of you have cabins. Maybe you should. Maybe you shouldn’t. I’ve got a little chapter on money in Desiring God. Read it if you want to know what I think of cabins. And I do not rule them out, I just have a big question mark.
The point is this: Is he going to be able to preach like that? In such a way so that all his people when they lose their cabin, and their main house, and their car, and their freedom, and their health, are they going to rejoice? What kind of preaching is going to do that? It’s going to be a modeling, and it’s going to be a lavish display, week in and week out, of the superior satisfactions of God in Christ over everything this world has to offer.
So I just plead with you: set your face to preach for the sake of the supremacy of God, by depicting God, week in and week out, in such magnificent ways that the people come to love him, and delight in him, and trust in him, and be satisfied in him way beyond anything else in their life.