February 15, 2021 Standard Bearer preview article
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Rev. Ronald Hanko and will be published in the February 15, 2021 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The doctrine of the perseverance or preservation of saints is beautifully illustrated in what happened to Jonah when he tried to escape his commission to Nineveh. God does not and cannot forsake His own or leave them to perish. He always rescues them from their disobedience and sin and brings them to repentance and new obedience. God, who has chosen His own from eternity, redeemed them by the blood of His Son, and sent His Spirit to work in them, cannot forsake them without being unfaithful to Himself. Abandoning them to their own sinfulness would mean that His counsel can change, the blood of His Son be shed in vain, and the Spirit’s work come to nothing.
If our salvation depended at all on us, we would never be saved. It depends entirely on God and His gracious work, not only the beginning of our salvation, but also our continued salvation and final glory. If it had not been for God’s electing purpose, for the cross, and for the sovereign operations of the Spirit, Jonah would have fled forever from the presence of God and never regretted it until he found himself not in the water but in eternal fire.
God uses many means to deliver His people from their sins and disobedience. To some whom He has saved He gives sufficient grace that they live upright and holy lives without straying long or far from the right way. With those who do stray, His Word is the principle means of restoration; but when they will not hear the Word, then He uses other means to discipline them and restore them. Thus it was with Jonah, who needed the reproofs of heathen sailors, the threat of death and of hell, and three horrifying days in the belly of a fish to bring him back from his disobedience.
The straying of some is not due to the insufficiency of God’s grace, but to their own stubbornness, unfaithfulness, and hard-heartedness. So it was with Jonah, and when finally the Lord restored him, he confessed that he had observed lying vanities and had forsaken his own mercy (2:8). That must be the confession of every preserved child of God.
When in the storm Jonah was wakened by the shipmaster and exhorted to call on his God for deliverance, there is no record of his doing so. It must have been the case with him, that wickedly seeking to flee God’s command, he could not pray to his God. Sin separates between us and God and, if they do not cease altogether, our prayers become a mere formality when we continue in sin. As the Canons of Dordt say: “By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them” (V, Art. 5).
Even more striking is the contrast between the sailors and Jonah. They called earnestly on their gods (1:5), while Jonah could only acknowledge that the storm had come from his God for his disobedience. Everything the sailors did put Jonah to shame. Their praying to idols served as a reproof of Jonah, who did not and could not pray to the true God. Their fear put Jonah’s claim to fear the true God to shame. They were more afraid of his sin and its consequences than he was. Jonah should have been the one asking, “Why have I done this?” instead of the sailors. In trying to spare Jonah, they showed more compassion for him than he showed for the Ninevites—more compassion for his physical well-being than he showed for the eternal well-being of the citizens of Nineveh.
What a shame it is for a child of God to be rebuked by the ungodly and to show less zeal for God than the heathen do for their idols! God sometimes uses such things to bring His own children to their senses and to reveal their folly. It is one of the ways in which God disciplines His children, but they are shamed by such discipline.
Jonah did not acknowledge his disobedience until the sailors had used the lot to determine whom to blame for the storm, and then his acknowledgment was far from an actual confession of sin. In his heart Jonah was still fleeing from the presence of the Lord. He was not only asleep in the bottom of the boat but was asleep spiritually—still spiritually asleep when the shipmaster’s words had roused him from his physical slumber and when he was forced to admit that their peril was his fault.
Jonah needed more discipline, therefore. It is not clear from the story whether Jonah understood that God would rescue him in some miraculous way if he was thrown overboard and asked to be thrown overboard because he saw it as the will of God. He certainly understood that without him on board the sailors would not perish. Perhaps he was simply leaving the whole matter of his and the sailors’ future in God’s hands, which would have been the beginning of repentance. But perhaps he, in desperation, saw his being thrown overboard as another way to escape God and intended it to be a kind of involuntary suicide—better to die than to go to Nineveh! We do not know.
Whatever was going on in Jonah’s mind, God would not let him perish nor would He allow Jonah to go on his disobedience and perish everlastingly. God preserved his life that he might not die disobedient and unrepentant. God used the terrors of drowning and of the fish’s belly to finish Jonah’s discipline and make him ready, though still reluctantly, to obey God. Jonah’s discipline, therefore, continued as he was thrown into the raging waves without hope of rescue. God’s ways with Jonah certainly were “in the sea.”
Jonah’s experience of the terrors of drowning are described in chapter 2:5, 6. Those terrors of being cast into the sea were for him a reminder of what it was like to be cast out of God’s presence (2:4). Even more, in the fish’s belly, he was reminded of the terrors of hell and of being forever separated from God. He was not only in the depths of the sea but also in the “belly of hell” (2:2).
There is a perfect correspondence, therefore, between what happened to Jonah in the sea and his experience of being cast out of God’s presence and perishing forever in hell. There is not always such a correspondence in our lives. More often than not we cannot connect our trials with our sins and say, “this is happening to me because I did this or that.” Nevertheless we always feel, especially when living sinfully and without repentance, that every bad thing that happens is the result of our sin. In that way we are not different from Jonah and in that way we too experience God’s discipline.
The way of sin is the way of destruction and hell, and sometimes we need to be told that by parents, pastors, elders, teachers, or friends. Jonah had run away from family and friends as well as from God, and so God had to tell him in a very graphic way that the wages of sin are death. He experienced what every sinner experiences when he goes on heedlessly and carelessly in sin: “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow” (Ps. 116:3).
So Jonah’s discipline has many parts—the special storm, his reproof by the sailors’ words and example, the lot that left him without a hiding place, his being thrown into the sea, and his being swallowed by a fish. The lot, the storm, and the fish especially were prepared by God to bring His wayward prophet to his knees. We do not usually see God’s hand as clearly in His dealing with us, but providence and grace work together through all things for the salvation of His sinning people.
It is worth noting that the lot that singled out Jonah was not chance. Jonah was far from Israel where the lot could be used to learn the will of God and, cast by heathen sailors, it would not ordinarily have been anything but mere coincidence that the lot fell on Jonah. In this case, God used it to point His finger at Jonah and to begin the great work of grace that would save Jonah’s disobedient soul. Nor is anything in our lives mere coincidence. God uses all things for our good even when we can make no connection between providences and our behavior.
The special storm and the specially created fish are a reminder, however, that God’s saving grace is always miraculous and special. It is so because it flows from the cross. Storms, fish, trials, providences all serve the salvation of God’s people because of what Jesus did on the cross. He made all those not judgments for sin but chastening mercy. He did so by taking all the judgment and wrath on Himself and taking it away from us. But God’s grace does not make chastening unnecessary, and His chastening grace is relentless. He sends it in His own time and in His own way, but He will use whatever means are necessary. One trembles to think what might be necessary to deliver one from his own sins.
We see in Jonah clear proof that though Christ has taken the wrath of God against our sins on Himself and delivered us from the wrath to come, Christ’s work does not deliver us from the consequences of our sins, from divine chastisement, and from God’s holy anger against sin. That is what we forget when we think we can go on carelessly in our sin as though God does not see. That is how we behave when we use grace as an excuse for sin. Then we say with Jonah, “I am an Hebrew and fear the God who made all things,” and refuse to bow before Him.
Jonah’s sin and slowness in repenting it are a lesson to us when we are wayward and hard-hearted in our waywardness. Jonah’s sin brings us before the question of the sailors, “Why hast thou done this?” We have no need of the lot to mark us as sinners. Jonah’s example uncovers the sin that is in every one of us. Jonah’s discipline makes us tremble before the all-seeing and everywhere-present God of our salvation. His discipline forces us to say, “I fear the God who made all things: I should do better than this.” Seeing Jonah’s sin and the discipline, however, we also see the faithfulness and mercy of God who, though He chastises, us does it for our profit and whose grace is always sufficient to restore us. It brings us to the cross where we learn why we suffer not the destructive storm of God’s wrath against sin, but the gentle showers of His correcting love. It brings us to our knees confessing that salvation is of the Lord.