The Supremacy and Sweetness of God: Preaching for Radical Obedience

William E. Conger Lectures | Birmingham, Alabama

The title is “Preaching for Radical Obedience: Luring Our People to God.” So let me begin with a definition and then try to connect the message this morning with the message from yesterday. What do I mean by radical obedience? I mean the kind of obedience to God that comes from the root of your life, which is planted in God and is drinking up joy, and hope and satisfaction from the subterranean streams of grace, embodied in the promises of God. That the root of your life is soak in grace and you’re feeding that root on promises and that’s coming up and giving hope and joy and satisfaction and on the limbs of that strong tree are growing the fruit of obedience, that’s what I mean by radical obedience.

It’s the kind of obedience that’s described in Hebrews 10 when the early church found out that some of their friends were in jail, and at the cost of the plundering of their property, they joyfully went to the jail to visit them. That’s radical obedience when you do such a thing joyfully. Or like Moses when he had the opportunity to stay in the posh palaces of Egypt, chose rather to share ill treatment with the people of God because he looked joyfully to the reward. That’s radical obedience. Or, Saint Paul, counting everything as refuse in order to gain Christ. That abandonment of all of his rich pedigree and all of the easy life that he might have lived for the sake of obeying the call of the Lord and gaining Christ, that radical obedience. Or, like Jesus said, taking up your cross daily and following his precisely because if you lose your life, you will find it. That’s radical obedience.

Glory Manifest Through Obedience

Now, I think you should preach to that end. I want people like that in my church. Don’t you? If we preach and that kind of people are not begotten, to what end is it all? But, you should ask the question, okay, what’s the connection between that and yesterday? Yesterday’s message was all about the supremacy of God in preaching, magnifying God, making him central in preaching and so the connection needs to be asked, well what is this goal, radical obedience, have to do with that goal, of the supremacy of God in preaching?

The answer is very simple and it’s very easy to find in the Bible. The obedience of our people, like that, is the way that God manifests his glory in our culture.

He leads me in paths of righteousness, for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3)

Obedience exists for the glory of God. We are led in paths of righteousness for his namesake. And so if you by your preaching can move people, somehow to walk in paths of righteousness, the name of God is magnified in the world. That’s the connection between yesterday and today.

“Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds.” (Matthew 5:16)

That’s radical obedience. And give glory to your father in heaven, so if we preachers want to be used of God to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in his glory in Birmingham, or wherever, we have to so preach that our people radically obey God. Every day, all day.

This is not a Sunday morning event where preaching ends in its significance. Preaching must be designed to produce a certain kind of person if preaching is driven by a passion for the supremacy of God in the world. And not just in this little teeny event. You see the connection between preaching for radical obedience, I hope, and preaching to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things.

When you or your people cast to the winds their fears, and risk their lives and spend themselves, not for any particular human fortune but for the glory of Christ, then he will be supreme in the city because of your preaching. So, we preach for radical obedience out of love for the glory of God. And the question now then becomes, what kind of preaching does that? How does that kind of obedience get stirred up in a people?

Radical Obedience Motivated by Supreme Pleasure

Well here’s my thesis for this morning, or at least a first part of the thesis. The most powerful and painful acts of obedience must be motivated by a supreme passion for pleasure in God. And the preaching that kindles that kind of obedience must constantly portray God as supremely and everlastingly satisfying. I need to say that again. There’s two parts to it.

All radical obedience must be motivated by a passion for satisfaction in God. And therefore the preaching that leads to that kind of obedience must portray God week in and week out as supremely and everlastingly satisfying. It helps the people when experience God that way. They might legalistically, which is of no value to anyone, but not Gospel obedience.

Now let me begin to unfold this thesis with an illustration from my experience from some years ago in prayer week in our church. We have a prayer week at the beginning of each year and on the Friday night of that prayer week we pray all night, from 10:00pm until 6:00 in the morning. And we divide the night up into hours and different people are assigned an hour to lead in that year — I think it was 1991, I was assigned a hour on repentance, and contrition.

So I was to lead our people during the night, 1am, whatever they gave me, the slot I don’t remember, into a time of repentance and contrition, penance, and I want to describe to you what happened in my preparation for that, which sheds light on how you preach for evangelical obedience.

Now, the point that connects the two is this: contrition and repentance are the necessary first steps of radical obedience. It is radical obedience to be contrite before God and to repent of your sins. And all true gospel obedience begins there. So if I can figure out how to preach to produce contrition, and repentance in people, I will have discovered at least the first steps of how to preach toward radical obedience.

Contrition, Repentance, and David Brainerd

Now, what I did to get ready for that night was to read excerpts from David Brainerd. David Brainerd, you remember, was a missionary to the Indians in New England 250 years ago or so, and he would have married Jonathan Edwards daughter, had he lived. He died when he was 29.

On August 9, 1745, he preached to the Indians at Crossweeksung, New Jersey with these words he wrote in his journal about preaching, “There were many tears among them while I was discoursing publicly. But no considerable outcry, yet some of them were much affected with a few words spoken to them in a powerful manor, which caused the persons to cry out in anguish of sorrow, although I had spoken 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 them, and there upon pressed them to come without delay.”

Pierced Hearts

Now, August 6th, “It was surprising to see how their hearts seem to be pierced with the tender and melting invitations to the gospel when there was not a word of terror spoken to them.”

November 30th, preaching on Luke 16, concerning the rich man and Lazarus, he wrote this in his journal, “A word made powerful impressions upon many in the assembly, especially while I discoursed in the blessings of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, this I could perceive affected them more than when 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, that which has distressed many of them under convictions is that they found that they lacked and could not obtain the happiness of the Godly.”

I read that in preparation for my hour on repentance and contrition. And it struck me. Because I had never heard anybody say it quite like that before, that this is the way he brought about tears of contrition and brokenhearted-ness because of sin. So I want to examine with you what happened in those moments when Brainerd preached, but before I do that, let me give you a biblical example of this.

Unworthy of the Miracle

It comes from Luke 5. The situation is that Jesus had just been in a little boat preaching, he’s done preaching and he wants the disciples to cast out into the water and throw down their nets for a catch. Well they had fished all night and there were no fish down there.

So, Peter in verse 4 says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing, but at your word, I will let down the nets,” and when they let them down, the nets were filled with fish, so full that they were breaking. Peter’s response to this miracle of grace, not a chastisement, but a miracle of mercy, is very unlike twentieth-century self-esteeming responses to grace.

It says in of Luke 5:8–10,

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus knee’s saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord, for he was astonished and all that were with him at the catch of fish, which they had taken.

In other words, he did not say, “My, if God does such things for me, I must be somebody.” That’s the way American Evangelicals talk about the cross and about miracles of grace, not what Peter did.

When Peter was treated with mercy, he fell on his face and said, leave me, leave me. Get it? Most people wouldn’t get it. Why’d he do that? Why didn’t he feel like somebody? Because he knew he wasn’t worthy of that miracle and he knew that to have a Christ like that would result in a lifestyle on his part so different than the lifestyle that he was presently living, if he really believed such a Christ and had such a Christ on his side, he couldn’t stand what he saw in the mirror and he was on his face saying, “Jesus, if there’s any place you should be, it shouldn’t be in my presence and so get out of my life.”

So, here you have Brainerd saying, “These Indians don’t cry when I preach judgment. They cry over their sin when I describe heaven and mercy and the freedom of grace and that they can have it.” And Peter cries and falls on his face when he’s treated with undeserved grace and mercy, with all these fish being brought with just the word of the Lord for the dropping of a net. Now, what is going on here? We need to analyze this, we need to figure this out.

Feel Sorrow over Sin

Genuine, and I’m entering on an analysis here of what’s going on. Genuine gospel contrition, repentance, sorrow for sin, is only possible where you feel bad about not having holiness. You feel sorrow about not having the God of holiness. Now there’s an ambiguity in this, we’ll see if I can get at it with you.

There are criminals who, when they’re confronted with their crime, and are sentenced, weep. So weeping at the point of the discovery of your crime may or may not be a sign of contrition and repentance. The weeping may be not because they’ve discovered the beauty of holiness and love holiness, but that they’ve discovered the freedom to do unholiness is being taken away from them. They’re going to jail, and so they no longer are free to do as much unrighteousness as they would, and they’re sorrowful about that.

And so you see the weeping and you cannot, for sure, know what it is. Weeping means little, folks. Weeping means little. People cry in my office over the most selfish things. So, we must be careful here how we say this. A criminal may cry at the indictment of his crime because the freedom to do more crimes is being taken away. The only true sorrow for not having holiness is a sorrow that comes from the love of holiness. And the realization that you haven’t loved it as you want. And have fallen so far short. It’s not the fear of the consequences, hell that results in the tears of evangelical obedience. Or evangelical contrition.

Delight Precedes Brokenness

It’s the realization that you have missed it, you have missed the joy, you have missed the wonder, you have missed the awe, you have missed the blessedness, you have missed the purity, you have missed the fellowship of the holiness of God in your life. Now, that’s odd when you think about it. That’s really strange because it means that before you can have genuine evangelical tears, you must have discovered joy. This has huge implications for how you preach.

You see what I’m saying? A person in order to weep over the lack of holiness must have been brought to a point of delighting in holiness for its own sake. Delight must precede brokenness. If you want tears, you must preach joy. Isn’t that odd? You must so preach that people see the beauty and the glory and the undesirables of what they have trampled, and until they get it, their tears, if they come, will be legal tears, not evangelical tears. Tears out of fear of hell. Tears that they let down some loved one, but not tears that I’ve missed holiness, which is the most beautiful glorious reality in the universe, the holiness of God. Tasting it, fellowshipping with it, beholding it, living it, I missed it, and I want it so bad.

Nobody weeps over the departure of a young woman until they loved the young woman. You got to love holiness before the lack of it will bring you any tears. We must preach so as to portray to sinners who have no holiness, holiness in such a way, that by the anointing and power and regenerating and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, they are enabled to taste the beauty of holiness and then they are struck at the horror of their lives. That they’ve missed it. That this treasure has been treated like dirt. They’ve been indifferent to it, they’ve stomped on it, they’ve ignored it, they’ve made fun of it, and now, suddenly, awakened to taste it.

That’s called conversion, it’s called awakening, and when it happens to a lot of people at the same time, it’s called, what? Revival. So we need to talk about this kind of preaching. Let me state my thesis again so I can keep you up to date about where I am in my sequence of thought. The most powerful, painful acts of radical obedience are motivated by a supreme passion for pleasure in God. I would add now, in the holiness of God. And the preaching that will kindle that kind of obedience must portray God as supremely and everlastingly satisfying.

Turn the Lights Up

Now, all we’ve done so far in this message is get you just inside a life of obedience called contrition. And repentance. The beginning of the Christian life is the discovery of how wrong everything has been. How out of sorts with God, how your values have been inverted, how your tastes have been blunted and suddenly, by the awakening of the Holy Spirit, you can now taste the beauty of holiness, the beauty of Christ, the delightfulness of God, that he’s a treasure and a wonder, and then your whole life comes into perspective.

I used the analogy one time at my church, that somebody, early on in your darkened life, puts an ebony broach around your neck. It hangs there, and you feel it, and it’s dark. The darkness of sin is all over you and Satan commending sin to you, puts this wonderful ebony broach around you neck and you feel it, and it feels like ebony, and you hold it up in the dark and it’s beautiful black ebony. Then God turns the light on in your life, and your able to see holiness for what it is, and you hold it up and the broach is a roach hanging around your neck.

Yes, you preach about sin, but you want the broach to look like the roach that it is, the lights have to go on so people see beauty for what it is. And that’s not beautiful. Other things are delicious and beautiful. So first step toward radical obedience is bringing people to radical contrition and you do it by portraying God in his holiness, alluring it, hence the subtitle of my talk. Alluring it to God. Not pounding them to God. They’ll never come. They may do some legalistic shop cleaning and become nice, well dressed, Baptist or Presbyterian, or Anglican or Methodist church goers, but they won’t be born again.

Churches have many non-born again, upright, moral, keep your nose clean, impress God and everybody else, moralists. They’re not going to heaven, because they’re not born again because they don’t delight in holiness with their soul. In their heart, they’ve never fallen in love with God. In all form.

A Passion for Joy

Now, what have to do next, with my sequence of thought, is say this: the ongoing obedience that comes after the obedience of contrition and repentance must also now be motivated by a passion for joy in God. Now, to demonstrate that I want to show you that all genuine gospel obedience that pleases God comes from faith. Let me give you some text and then tell you why that’s a step in the argument.

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)

So how should the law be obeyed? By faith. All obedience must be by faith. I wrote my whole book, Future Grace, to get at this. It took me twenty years to figure this out and I’m still working on it.

Consider two more texts to show this:

Whatever does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)

Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Hebrews 11:6)

You can do as many good works as you want without trusting Christ for the divine enablement by grace, and they don’t please God. Right now, how many people in our churches are in that category? Or, in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, you get this phrase, “your work of faith.” What is a work of faith? It is a work that springs out like fruit on the branches of faith. Or consider Galatians 5:6,

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail but faith working through love. Love comes from faith.

The works that are called for by a Christian are not legal works — they don’t merit, they don’t earn. They are fruit that demonstrate the reality of faith and if they aren’t there, the faith isn’t there. That’s the point of James 2. Okay. That’s enough text, I could go on and on, the list goes on.

Obedience Overflows from Faith

Now I need to show that obedience in the New Testament comes from faith. Now, years ago, as I got to this point in my developing understanding, I would just stop here and in the message and say therefore, preach for faith. If you want to bring about radical evangelical obedience to the glory of God, beget faith with all your might. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God, therefore, people will believe, they’ll produce obedience, that’s the end of the message, I’ll go eat lunch, get on a plane.

I don’t do that anymore because you know why? Hardly anybody in America knows what faith is anymore, we got this easy-believism thing that guts faith, guts faith, takes the guts right out of it. Makes it a signature or a prayer or a decision. Nothing happened any different at all in the life and it’s called faith the whole motive is to give assurance on the spot. Well that’s not New Testament faith, and of course we’ve got carnal people filling our churches then. That faith changes nobody.

Satisfied in Jesus

What is faith, then? What is the faith that changes people? That begets the fruit of the deeds that are radical obedience that brings glory to God, that’s what I’m preaching for. Not just any old faith.

All right, I’ll give you a definition. Now, I wrote 400 pages to explain this, but I’ll just take 10 minutes to do it here. Here’s my definition of saving faith. It’s not all that needs to be said, but it’s, I think, what John Piper needs to say everywhere he goes in the last part of the twentieth-century. The essence of faith is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. Especially what he promises to be for us in the age to come.

The Giver, Not the Gifts

Saving faith is being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. Especially what he promises to be for you this afternoon and in the age to come. Let me unpack that definition for you. It’s got two pieces that are intended to be very God-centered. The first is it’s faith in all that God is for you. It’s not faith in his gifts, it’s faith in God. It’s not being satisfied with forgiveness of sins — that’s a gift.

There’s a lot of people who would like to have their sins forgiven and not go to hell, who could care less if God were in heaven. Just so there’s golf, and health and you name it. I often ask my people, maybe not as often as I used to, but I ask them, test yourself. If you could have everything you desire in heaven forever, minus God, would you be happy? That’s a scary question, because I think if many of our people were honest, they’d say, sure, health? All the toys? All the sex? All the health, all the food, all the play, all the nature? And that tests where your satisfaction is. Saving faith is satisfaction in God. Not heaven, not restoration with loved ones, not health, not spouse, not family, not ministry, not success, but God.

Hunger and Thirst No More

The second thing the definition highlights is the word satisfaction. I could use other words. I could use the word delight, or pleasure or whatever. They’re all in the Bible, but I have used the word satisfaction simply to highlight the fact that faith is not a mere intellectual assent to doctrine. Or decision to do any particular thing, pray a prayer, sign a card, go to church. It is a real, deep inner emotional soul contentment in who God is for you.

Now, just a brief biblical defense of that:, “

Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me [here we are at faith], believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:35)

So what is faith, on the basis of that verse? I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me, see the parallelism, he who believes in me shall never thirst. Saving faith in Johannine theology is a coming to Jesus so as to find such satisfaction in him that you neither hunger or thirst any longer at the well and the bread of sin.

It does not mean you do not sin anymore. It means you now have such a revolutionary new taste capacity that you have found in the fountain of life and the bread of heaven, such amazing satisfaction that when Satan and sin commend their bread and their water and their wine to you, though you may be temporarily allured in very quickly, it will taste awful, you will feel bad, you will do the 1 John 1:9 thing. You will confess it, you will be sorry, yuck, get that out of my mouth. You’ll be back to cross, you’ll be looking up and you’ll be saying, “Fill me” because you will have discovered the fountain. It’s not that other fountains cease to be attractive, it’s that now you know where it’s found. Your quest is over. Jesus is the end of the quest here. And you go back and you lay down and you drink satisfaction over and over again. That’s saving faith, to have been awakened, to have been satisfied in all that God is for you in Jesus.

Break the Power of Sin with Superior Promises

Now, this is second grade here, to make the next point, but I’ll make it anyway. You all see, don’t you, how that kind of faith produces radical obedience. You could preach the rest of this sermon, couldn’t you? I think you could, but that’s my job, so a few more minutes to finish it. If the heart is satisfied with all that God is first in Jesus, the power of sin to lure you away is broken. You wonder how to break the sin of lust in your life? Pornography? How to break the sin of greed in your life, in your insatiable desire to have more money and more security in retirement, how do you break that power? And the answer is, a radically superior satisfaction.

Another promise, the promise of money comes and says, “if you come my way, if you serve me, I’ll give you this” and now your eyes have been opened and that’s rubbish, Paul says, compared to Christ. But your eyes have to be open to the beauty and the desirableness of Christ. Same thing with sex, same thing with power. Every sin has power to the degree that it makes promises to you. Nobody sins out of duty. You only sin because sin lies to you, promising you either short term or long term pleasures.

The only way to defeat those pleasures evangelically and not legalistically is with the power of a superior promise. Or a superior satisfaction. So if you want to produce radical obedience in your people that forsakes sin and embraces the hard cavalry road of obedience, they must feel the superior desirability of God, day in and day out. And you must preach it. Week-in and week-out. Your main job is to portray God as better than sin.

If you preach duty and hammer away at your people, “God said don’t sin.” God told you do righteousness. He’s God. Do it! You won’t produce radical obedience. You’ll produce legalists. You’ve got to win them, you’ve got to open their eyes, you’ve got to ravish them with God. They’ve got to love God, delight in God, be enamored with God so that when sin beckons them, they say, “You got to power, man, why would I ever want to do that? I’ve got God.” In my presence is fullness of joy. At thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.

The Greater Reward

I’m going to give you a couple of snapshots as I move towards conclusion here. A couple of biblical snapshots of how this faith — faith understood as being satisfied with all God is for you in Jesus, produces radical obedience, and my whole goal here is to motivate you to preach for it.

By faith, Moses refused to be called the Son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. (Hebrews 11:24)

Now before I read the next verse, which is the key one, make sure you get the picture. This is a picture of your life, especially, most of the people in this room are well to do. You may not feel well to do, but you’ve got clothes, and roof over your head, and you will eat lunch. You are well to do, believe me. Because 90 percent of the world doesn’t have those things like you’ve got them.

And therefore, you’re like Moses. Shall I stay in the palaces of the comforts of Birmingham or shall I got to the 90 percent of the world that has almost no gospel? This is turning into a missions sermon. Excuse me, it’s in my blood. And if God were to call you to that end, and you can say to me, “You’re in Minneapolis.” I’m in Minneapolis, I hope, for the sake of the nations. Are you going to embrace the comforts of Egypt, Moses? Are you going to let it go and embrace the sufferings of the people of God and Moses chooses suffering, radical obedience and calls that the fleeting, fleeting pleasures of sin. Somebody got through to Moses that they’re fleeting. That’s your job as a preacher.

You say to every teenager, it’s fleeting. Fleeting. Say to every seventy-year-old, it’s fleeting, because they don’t need to be persuaded anymore. Every forty-year-old, money is fleeting. The joy of that younger woman instead of your plump wife, is fleeting.

Here’s the next verse, what happened, how did he get to this point? Moses considered abuse, suffered for the Christ, greater wealth, than the treasures of Egypt for he looked to the reward. That’s why I’m a Christian Hedonist, folks. I want people to produce radical obedience. I want Moseses. I want people to leave Minneapolis and go to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. And Oman. I want them to leave it all. Therefore, I’m a hedonist. Look to the reward. Forget the rewards of Minneapolis, forget the rewards of a well to do lifestyle in the suburbs, forget it. It’s all fleeting, it’s all rubbish compared to the apostle. As the Apostle Paul said, compared to knowing or gaining Christ.

Preach the Reward

Well, maybe one other quick glimpse in Chapter 10 of Hebrews. I love this. This is one of my favorite stories.

Recall the former days when after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with suffering, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction. Sometimes being partners with those so treated. (Hebrews 10:32–33)

So here they are, suffering, making decisions that result in them being mistreated.

For you had compassion on the prisoners. (Hebrews 10:34)

In other words, they want and identified with the prisoners and got themselves into big trouble.

You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property. (Hebrews 10:34)

Test yourself. Test yourself here. You live in a nice house. You get home today, and it’s burned down, what are you going to do? If enemies of Christ torched it, or threw rocks through your window, what are you going to do? They joyfully accepted the, you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

What’s your agenda in preaching now, if you want to beget people who rejoice at the plundering of their properties at the path of obedience? I assume I’m preaching to people like me. You do want to produce people like that in your churches, don’t you? Okay. If you want to produce this kind of Christian, you must preach the reward. Who is God? My exceeding great reward is God. Full, deep, sweet, intimate, unending fellowship in the presence of an infinitely glorious, all satisfying God. If your people don’t want that, they will not obey. You got to portray him, you got to portray him that way.

A Grand Vision of God

So, let me close with an exhortation that you do that. Preaching that aims to kindle, contrition, that has tears over the failure to see and delight in and follow the holiness of God, must portray holiness as delectable so that the taste is awakened so that they can see that the rejection of it and the trampling on it is a horrible thing. Joy must precede grief so that the grief is evangelical and not legal and then, for the rest of their lives, as you preach, you want them to do radical obedience. Changing their lifestyles, leaving all of their possessions, doing whatever they have to do meet the radical call of God on their lives and take the gospel where it isn’t, you want to produce that, and therefore, you must persuade them by week in and week out by portraying this Christ at the end of that path. As more to be desired than anything. Anything.

Now, if I were here for 3 lectures instead of 2, I would tomorrow, or the next time, talk about how do you become that kind of person? You’ll never preach it if you don’t taste it. So my concluding exhortation is simply love God. Delight in God. Enjoy God. Cut off your hand if you must, to have God. Gouge out your eye if you must to see God. Become a God-besotted person. And then week after week, stand up and overflow.