Growing up in my youth group, we liked to throw around the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” The use of alliteration made it sound profound, though the effect lessened as I heard it used more and more by kids from other youth groups, like the time you discovered that your dad didn’t actually invent the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No, in fact, repetition does not suggest innovation. And while the phrase doesn’t quite get to the heart of faith and repentance, it does suggest a helpful distinction.
The story of Jonah, the fleeing prophet, helps us get to that distinction. God commissions Jonah to warn Nineveh of coming judgment, but Jonah foolishly flees from the presence of the Lord to Tarshish by boat. The Lord hurls a great storm upon the boat, and when the pagan sailors find out that Jonah was the culprit of God’s displeasure, they demand to know his identity. Jonah gives a very peculiar response: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).
When you read Jonah’s claim, “I fear the Lord,” you probably smirk, or at least you should. The irony of that statement is surely meant to produce such a response. If Jonah feared the Lord, he would not have fled from the Lord, nor would he have fought so earnestly against God’s gracious plan for the Ninevites—indeed, the nations. Even more, when you place Jonah in the context of the history of Israel, the reader is encouraged to see Jonah as a representative of unrepentant Israel (see Timmer, A Gracious and Compassionate God, 60-63). Jonah is not, in fact, one who fears the Lord. He is simply a rebellious Israelite.
So why does Jonah foolishly make this claim? Even in the midst of God’s obvious disfavor, he piously asserts his good standing with God. Can you picture it? Jonah is soaked by sinister waves, repeatedly pounding away, and, surrounded by the questioning sailors, he straightens his back, lifts his chin, and with indignant pride identifies himself as a Hebrew who fears the Lord. I can just imagine the sailors’ response: “Really? How’s that working for you?”
If we reflect a little on Jonah’s ironic claim, we get a glimpse of where he truly places his hope.
First, Jonah banks on his ethnic identity, I am a Hebrew. He’s claiming the hope promised to the children of Abraham. And isn’t this the foolishness of Israel to claim Peace! when there is no peace simply because they are of Abraham’s blood? This same problem was around in Jesus’ day with the allegedly pious religious leaders. John the Baptist was quick to deflate this hope: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Or Jesus, when confronting them with their unbelief, questions their true relation to Abraham. For if they truly were children of Abraham, they would believe the words of Jesus. In fact, they are not of Abraham, but of their father the devil (John 8:44).
Second, Jonah banks on his moral and spiritual superiority. Here again, the ironic I fear the Lord takes center stage. Now Jonah may have had his catechism questions right, “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” But the fact that Jonah was fundamentally in conflict with the Lord throughout the narrative shows that fearing the Lord, in Jonah’s mind, had little to do with trust and obedience. Rather, as we see throughout the rest of the story, Jonah was dead-set against God’s plan of grace and mercy towards the Gentiles and comparatively pleased with himself. He had set his own standards of acceptance and reached them. We should learn from Jonah’s story that merit theology reveals itself in showing grace only to those whom you decide deserve it.
Union with Christ
Let’s revisit the phrase, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Jonah has all the “religion” he wants. He’s got the right family, tradition, and confessions. But what is he missing? Don’t say relationship, because he’s actually in one—one he shares with all mankind, including the Ninevites. He has a relationship with Adam, and in Adam, we all die. Jonah may be the rebellious character in the narrative, but we’ve all been in that fleeing boat of rebellion. The good news is that the all the promises of God (even the ones Old Testament prophets are supposed to hope in) are fulfilled in the gospel. With faith we can be in union (that’s probably a more biblical word for relationship) with Christ himself, in whom we have all the benefits of God’s grace: perfect righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, freedom from the tyranny of sin, and the hope of the resurrection.
The story never does tell us if Jonah finally repents. But perhaps he did. How else would we know the events of this story except from a repentant Jonah? If so, he experienced the fruit of a relationship with God by embracing undeserved grace. And free grace means you can’t expect others to earn it, but in fact, rejoice to see God’s grace magnified in the lives of others, even our enemies! We share this same hope in God. Only in this relationship do you find you’re free, really free, to love your wife when she disappoints you, be patient with your kids when they rebel against your desires, and show grace and mercy to those who don’t deserve it.