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God’s Word for You

Jonah 3:5 the order of salvation

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, November 17, 2018

5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they declared a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least.

What is the order of salvation? This isn’t a phrase that is used by most Christians, but it’s a doctrinal position that preachers and theologians need to consider. By the “order of salvation,” we mean, what comes first: the preaching of the word of God, or a decision in the heart of the sinner, or the grace of God, or good works? This is one of the questions that gets right at the heart of what various churches teach, and it quickly exposes false teaching, just as the Communion Question does (that is, “What does an unbeliever receive in the Lord’s Supper?”).

All we need to do it take this passage, Jonah 3:4-10, at face value, and we see the entire order of salvation.

1, Jonah preached the word of God to the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:4).

2, The people of Nineveh believed God (Jonah 3:5). We can say from the Hebrew text that they believed in God, and that they believed God. In this case, they amount to the same thing: They put their faith in God and in his message, and they believed his message and applied it to their lives.

3, They responded to God’s message with repentance and a change of their lives. This repentance involved a fast—refraining from eating food during daylight hours and probably drinking only water or milk. They also put on sackcloth. Sackcloth itself is a coarse material originally made from goat hair. However, the term is probably an idiom, a local expression meaning to put on ordinary working clothes, as opposed to their beautiful finery. It means to dress humbly and simply, as a person who is in mourning, which is not a time for fashion or for making oneself attractive. This is certainly what is meant in Isaiah 50:3, “I clothe the sky with darkness and make sackcloth its covering,” and also Jeremiah 4:8,28, and Revelation 6:12. These signs of repentance were also commanded by Joel to his listeners (Joel 1:13-14). In Joel’s case, the audience including the priests the temple in Jerusalem. Jonah’s audience was a foreign Gentile city; repentance shows a turning away from sin, not any particular status within God’s church (Jonah and Joel were contemporaries, serving as prophets just a few years after the death of Elisha).

4, Seeing their repentance and knowing the contents of their hearts, God relented from the destruction he had promised (Jonah 3:10).

We need to see, however, that God turning aside the earthly consequences of their sinfulness was not the same as God forgiving them. They were forgiven from the moment they put their faith in God, since grace comes through faith, as Paul says: “We have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). Just as God forgives a repentant thief, even though the thief might still need to serve his time in prison, so also God forgave the Ninevites their sins even though the destruction he promised was still imminent. So why did God spare the Ninevites? We will save this question for verse 10.

The faith of the Ninevites was not merely a quality in the Ninevites. It was trust and confidence in God’s mercy. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrew 11:1). We could and do describe their faith as true, saving faith.

It was actual faith (fides actualis), a genuine faith of the intellect and the will. This was shown in their repentance, which was not merely an outward show but was a turning away from their sins and turning to God’s promise of salvation through Christ.

It was a faith of the heart (fides cordis), a knowledge and assent that God’s mercy is genuine and real, and available to mankind.

It was a personal faith (fides specialis), a trust that God’s forgiveness was for each and every one of them: “Christ for me.”

It was a faith the lay hold of its object, which is always Christ. This is not an inward faith “in me” (fides reflexa, which is damning), but an outward faith laying hold of Jesus and salvation through Jesus (fides directa).

It was a faith given through the power of God (fides divina), possible only through the working of the word of God, the gospel, in word and sacrament. There is no difference in our faith. We trust in God’s word and promise, and we have forgiveness through Christ.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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