How does God's grace affect change in people?
I don’t know for sure, but sometimes I wonder if our mental picture of God’s grace is something that is soft, warm, and cuddly. If grace was personified it would be that newborn baby in the hospital nursery swaddled while everybody on the other side of the glass ogles them. But God’s grace doesn’t always come to us in pleasurable forms. God’s grace doesn’t come to the Ninevites in a pleasurable form. It doesn’t come to them in a politically correct form.
The message God gave Jonah to call out against Nineveh is recorded in 3:4: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Jonah is to call out against Nineveh a message of judgment.
So God gives Jonah his sermon topic and tone. It’s not the happiest topic and tone to preach. But it has the intended effect: “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to least of them” (3:5).
The message to the Ninevites was one of judgment and what heart motivation is God trying to appeal to through it? Fear. God’s message to the Ninevites is a message of judgment designed to create fear in them.
How popular is that method in 21st century America? It might be popular within some strands of Christianity, but it’s also very unpopular within other stands of Christianity. I would weigh in on that by saying both strands have it wrong.
Let’s take those would say a message of God’s judgment designed to create fear is something to be avoided. Maybe you’re in that spot. Maybe you would look at God’s message to the Ninevites and say that might be OK for God to do with them, but not here in America in 2017. Maybe you would say we should avoid that kind of provocative language. I would respectfully push back on that. There was someone else who used this tactic in his preaching: Jesus.
"And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen’” (Matt. 22:11-14).
These are messages of God’s judgment designed to instill fear in Jesus' hearers in order to bring about repentance; in order to bring about spiritual vigilance. Even Jesus used this method. So if we’re faithfully teaching what Jesus taught, we too will teach and preach God’s judgment to come. We’re wrong to avoid it.
Interestingly enough it was an atheist who has made the strongest case for this in favor of it: Atheist illusionist Penn Jillette once said, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Here’s an atheist saying to Christians that if you believe judgment is coming, you’re hateful not to say something about it. We’re wrong to avoid talking about the judgment to come.
On the other hand, the prototypical “fire and brimstone” preachers and churches also have it wrong. Why? In large measure, they fail to preach the judgment passages in the context of the sweep of salvation history. Judgment passages don’t occur in a vacuum. They point to something. They’re embedded within a larger story. Judgment passages ultimately point to the cross of Jesus Christ and the hope found through it.
Jesus experienced hell. He was cast into the outer darkness. He went through the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Why? For you! In your place. But we don’t hear that too often from the prototypical fire and brimstone preachers. Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice, wherein he faces the full brunt of God’s judgment in our place, is often left out.
God’s judgment of sin is real and it’s severe. We’re meant to feel the fear of it. Because only then, will the cross of Christ shine brilliantly in our hearts. The cross is God’s judgment of your sin. In the cross we see the severity of it which should send chills down our spines. But we also see the beauty of it because “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
The question I’m trying to answer is: how does God’s grace affect change? God’s grace affects change in us by plunging us into the depths of fear and then, through the life and death of Jesus, bringing us to the heights of hope.