3. Righteous Sinners…

A Journey with Jonah – 3
“Righteous Sinners & Wicked Saints”
Jonah 1:1-16,  3:1-10,  4:1-8  & Romans 2:12-24

One of the statements I have heard raised from time immemorial is the one that reads, “I know some people who are not Christians, that live better lives than some Christians that I know.”  It is so frequent that they may be some truth to it.  So let us investigate the matter.  Let us to look at the problem of Righteous Sinners and Wicked Saints.

Wicked Saints

Let us look first at the wicked saints.  Jonah is one of them.  Jonah’s name means Dove and Hosea calls the dove a bird that is silly and without sense.  But that is too tame a judgment on the actions and attitudes of Jonah.  He is a nasty, vengeful, and intolerant man.  This book intends to display the character of Jonah, so that the more we read, the less we will like him.

But Jonah is also a saint.  He is one of the elect.  He is a prophet of God.   He understands the truth and can express it convincingly.  He believes in God and has obeyed God for perhaps his entire life.  He is the kind of man that God can use to help redeem others.

Jonah is not a sinner in any official sense.   He does not worship idols. He does not participate in any corrupt practices.  He keeps the law of Moses with zeal and devotion.  Perhaps like the rich young ruler, he can say “All these things I have done from my youth.”  But, in this story too God says, “one thing you lack.”

There is a story about Naaman in the Old Testament. The book of II Kings, chapter 5 reads, “Naaman commander of the army of the King of Syria, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him, the Lord had given victory to Syria. The man was a mighty warrior, but he was a leper.”  And if Jonah had gone to his doctors, he would have received the word, “Great shape. Fit as a fiddle.  You could run a marathon – Except….  There is a dark spot on the x-rays.  All may not be as well as appearances would indicate.”  Review chapter 4 to see how nasty this saint cam be.

I must give Jonah however, a bit of protection.  I need to tell you that he is not the only saint with clay feet.  The Old Testament tells us of Abraham who is a sinning saint.  Jacob is beyond all question an unsaintly saint.  David is a sinning saint too.  In the New Testament, Peter is such a one, even after the day of Pentecost.  Paul & Barnabas split from each other in a sharp contentious moment.  In fact the New Testament is written to saints who struggle with sin, and too often succumb.

We must face the alarming reality that saints are not sinless.  We are the flawed followers of the Son of God.  We are the children of our Father, but God happens to have a lot of misbehaving children.

Righteous Sinners

But another strange phenomenon meets us.  If saints are sinful at times, there are times when sinners are righteous.

The sailors, in Jonah chapter one, are sinners.  They are Gentiles.  They worship other gods.  They bow down before idols.  They do not keep the law of Moses.  They are probably involved in the foul practices of one of the many debauching fertility religion.

And yet notice what manner of men these are.  Under these difficult circumstances, they act like saints.

  • They are religious. (5)
  • They pray to the best god they know. (5)
  • They are tolerant of Jonah’s differences and advise him to pray to his own God. (6)
  • They are considerate.  When the casting of lots indicates that Jonah is the villain, they do not, in a mob action, dispose of the trouble maker.  They ask him to explain himself instead. (8)
  • When confronted with the truth, these men fear God. (10)
  • When having to sentence their passenger, they ask his counsel. “What should we do?” (11)
  • When Jonah tells them to heave him overboard, their compassion instead sends them to the oars to try to save the man. (13)
  • When his doom is inevitable they prayed to the God of Jonah and offered sacrifices and made vows. (14)

These men are making all the right moves.

And then there is the response of the residents of Nineveh as noted in Jonah chapter 3.
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

The general population, the king and the nobility, all the way down to the domesticated animals, take the call to repentance seriously. And everyone in that ancient world knew that the Assyrians were the enemy. They are the bad guys! But here they believe the prophet and repent.

And you and I have known such people.  We live next door to neighbours who are not Christians, not church goers. But they are not brutes or villains either.  Husband and wife love each other, raise good families, never steal or curse. Help out with Big Brothers and give to the Salvation Army when they come canvassing, coach little league, and so on.  In fact most of the sinners of our world demonstrate significant elements of goodness in their lives.

Possible Solutions to a problem

So how come that saints can be nasty and sinners so nice?  Good question. There are several ways to resolve the tension.

Proposal #1.            Saints differ from sinners, only in that they have been forgiven.  They still sin just as often.  Martin Luther put it into a Latin Formula. Simul Justus et Pecator.  “Simultaneously justified while remaining a sinner”.  Some would argue that if we are not saved by our good works, we cannot be damned for our bad works.    Many theological voices remind us that we all “sin inevitably and of necessity”.

But Christians have this advantage over sinners, they have the relief of knowing that every day they can pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive all who sin against us.”   This view says, that when a saint sins, his going to heaven is not jeopardized by it, whereas those who are not Christians get the full weight of eternal judgment.  The motto I have seen on some bumper stickers reads, “Not perfect, just forgiven!”  So saints live more happily than sinners who must carry their guilt feelings and pay the final penalty.

Proposal #2.             Saints are still sinners, in thought, word, and deed every day, but they are sorry about it, and confess to God their sin, and try to do it less often.  They may not be sinless, but they sin less. They still sin, but are unhappy about it, compared to the sinner who blithely goes out and sins, and does not take it seriously.  So saints live less happily than sinners.  They live lives of continual penitence.

Proposal #3. One of the earliest suggestions suggested that there are four kind of people in the world. There are (1) Saintly Saints (Mother Theresa?), (2) Sinning Saints (you and me?), (3) Righteous Pagans (Gandhi?) and (4) Wicked Sinners (Hitler?) And the ancient and medieval church suggested Purgatory for Sinning Saints.  Limbo for the righteous pagans, while the others went straight to heaven or hell. (You might want to visit the article on Purgatory on this website for further discussions of this tricky subject.)

Proposal #4.  There are NO sinning Saints.  If saints sin, they lose their salvation, and so become official “sinners” again. And there are NO righteous pagans! All their righteousness is just filthy rags and are unacceptable!

Proposal #5.              In spite of whether a person is a saint or sinner, because of the great love of God for all, all will be safe at the end of the human story. This is called Universalism.   After all, “to sin is human: to forgive divine.”

Proposal #6.             It may be that the average saint is far more righteous than the average sinner, but when a saint acts like a sinner, we stand up and take notice, because it is an exception to all we expect.  When a sinner does things that are self-less we notice them too, for they also are out of character.

When a minister molests a young child, it makes the headlines.  When a Sunday School teacher perpetrates an act of violence, his churchmanship is noted and made part of the horror of it all.  When a punk-rock band raises money for the hungry it gets headlines, when a Christian gives money to feed the poor, everybody yawns.  The Christian church gives billions for world relief, and it is hardly noticed. After all that’s our job.  But when a Hollywood star collects money the world says, “How wonderful.”   These items attract attention because they are contradictions to the expected norms, just like Jonah and the Sailors both catch us by surprise.  So maybe we can solve the issue of wicked saints and righteous sinners this way.  Saints are better than sinners, with an occasional exception.  Now we can close up our hymn books and go home, we have solved the dilemma.  But I’m not sure that is the entire solution.

Living in two worlds

The reality is that all people live in two worlds.  We live in a world where God’s grace surrounds all we do.  But we live in a world where the “fallenness” of the world pervades all we do.

This means that saints are tempted to do wrong, and occasionally do. Listen to the writer of I John: “I write these things to you, my children, in order that you do not sin, but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”  John says, “If” we sin, not “when” we sin.  He is saying that sin is not inevitable.  We are out of the sinning business.  Sin is to be the exception not the norm in our lives.

But this living in two worlds also means that sinners are tempted by God to do good.  God is omnipresent, and is actively and redemptively working everywhere, inside and outside the Christian community. He is the constant presence ministering to and through every person in the world.  He is the mover to do good even in the lives of those who count God their foe.   There is a name for this.  It is called “Prevenient Grace” or “Common Grace.”

C.S. Lewis reminds us that there are moments when the believer is tempted to think that God may not exist.  But there are similar moments, Lewis says, when the atheist is tempted to think that perhaps he does.   We are mistaken if we think that the only influence in this world are evil forces, such as the world, the flesh and the devil.  God never abdicated his world, and his influence is greater than that of evil.


There are some conclusions of practical consequence in all of this.

Christians live their lives struggling against temptation.  It is normal.  None of us are beyond the possibilities of sinning.  We need to be vigilant, lest like Jonah one dark spot spreads to engulf all of life.

A second implication is that sinners are not as wicked as we often presume.  In the heart of every one exists a Christ-shaped void that Christ is intended to fill.  A word wisely spoken can strike a chord in the human heart, because even the wicked are made in the image of God.  St. Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, and we are restless until we find ourselves in you.”

There is a third implication.  There are sinning saints and righteous sinners, but the glory of God is reflected best when saints live righteously.  Then the name of God will not be blasphemed before the world.  Instead, people will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.  You might want to read and reflect upon Romans 2:12-24 if you want to dig a bit deeper into this matter.

1 Response to 3. Righteous Sinners…

  1. Stephen Merriman says:

    David I have had to read Jonah a couple of times. After the Williams stuff I struggle with seeing any good in people in general, I trust very few humans and their humanity, yet I recognize I am part of that tribe and maybe it’s me I don’t trust! Oh GRACE, need it all the time! Hard to be a pastor/chaplain and see little to redeem in people. Working it through God’s grace for me a sinner desiring to live saintly. Stephen

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