“As soon as I get well, I’m going to go to the doctor.” If someone told you that, you might think that he needed to see a different sort of doctor, namely, a shrink! Doctors are not for those who are well. Doctors are for the sick.
“As soon as I can clean up my life and conquer some of my bad habits, I’m going to become a Christian.” That statement is just as crazy as the man who says he is going to the doctor as soon as he gets well. But even though it is crazy, it is one of the most widespread mistaken ideas both inside and outside the church, that Christianity is for good people.
You hear it when it is said of a notoriously ungodly person, “If he ever darkens the door of a church, the building would probably fall down.” It’s communicated nonverbally in many churches by the way everybody looks and dresses. I’m glad that we’re more casual here, but in many churches, most folks wear suits and dresses. If a person isn’t dressed up, he feels a bit out of place on Sunday morning.
Another way we communicate that Christianity is for good people is by separating ourselves from ungodly people. We avoid getting to know our neighbors, except to observe that they drink a lot of beer and spend their Sundays quite differently than we do. We’d be greatly relieved if they would move out and a decent Christian family would move in. We fill our calendars with activities with church folks. We make sure that our kids never have contact with unchurched kids. If we’re really lucky, we work with Christians so that we can go for weeks without rubbing shoulders with pagans. Maybe someday we’ll be able to move into a Christian retirement community where we’ll spend our golden years in total isolation from all those wicked people in the world.
Many non-Christians think that Christians are good people who have all their really bad problems worked out. They can’t relate because they know that they’ve got some serious problems which they wouldn’t dare mention among such a company of smiling, happy churchgoers. They mistakenly think that Christianity is for good people and they know that that excludes them.
The only problem with this prevailing notion that Christianity is for good people is that the founder of Christianity taught precisely the opposite. In so doing, Jesus came into opposition with the religious crowd in His day. In the story of the calling of Levi (= Matthew), Luke teaches us a vital lesson:
Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
This lesson is so crucial that I would venture to say that if you do not understand it, you probably are not a Christian in the true sense of the word. If you think that Jesus saves pretty good, basically moral, church-going people, you do not understand the heart of the gospel. If you think that someday when you stand before God, He will let you into heaven because you’ve tried to do your best, you’ve been regular in attending church, you’ve given money to the church, you’ve never intentionally hurt anyone, then you’re in for a rude awakening. Jesus’ words here should jolt you into re-thinking your understanding of the Christian faith.
Do you view yourself as a basically good person? Then you should be alarmed! Jesus excludes you when He says, “I did not come to call the righteous.” Jesus spoke these words to men who were religious leaders. They had devoted their lives to God and to the Jewish religion. They never missed a synagogue service. They attended all the religious festivals at the Temple in Jerusalem. They ate only kosher food. They followed the ceremonial law to a tee, avoiding anything that would defile them. They had set times each day for prayer. They tithed not only their money, but even their table spices (Matt. 23:23)! They diligently studied the Hebrew Scriptures and could cite large portions of it from memory. They were even “Calvinists”: they viewed themselves as God’s chosen people! But Jesus excluded them when He said to them, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
We need to be very clear about what Jesus meant. He did not mean that anyone is good enough to get into heaven by his own righteousness. Jesus was using irony or sarcasm, saying in effect, “If you guys think that you’re good enough to merit salvation, then you don’t see yourselves as spiritually sick. Thus you won’t see any need for the doctor.” Jesus only saves one kind of person: A sinner who knows that he is a sinner.
The Pharisees and scribes spent so much time studying the Scriptures that they should have shown them that there is no one righteous in God’s sight. Genesis 6:5 states, “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” That verse did not apply only to the Gentiles. King Solomon states that “there is no man who does not sin” (1 Kings 8:46). David wrote (Ps. 14:2, 3), “The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” Looking on his own heart, David prayed, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps. 143:2). The prophet Isaiah (64:6) laments, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
Invariably, those who view themselves as righteous do not know God as the Holy One. When the godly Isaiah had his vision of the Lord, lofty and exalted, with the cherubim crying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” he wailed, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). Job, whom God called the most blameless and upright man on earth (Job 1:8), said, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5, 6 NIV). No one who gets a glimpse of God in His absolute holiness dares to think that his own righteousness will enable him to stand before this Awesome God!
Invariably, those who view themselves as righteous are comparing themselves with other sinners, not with God. The Pharisees looked at the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and those who were not scrupulous about keeping the Jewish rituals and thought, “We’re better than these people.” But, of course, they were looking at things outwardly, not as God looks, at the heart. Jesus later confronted them with this hypocrisy when He said, “You are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). If we try to impress one another, we can put on a pretty good show. But people can’t see our corrupt hearts.
But the holy God aims the laser beam of His penetrating gaze beyond the outward, down to the depths of our thoughts and motives (Heb. 4:12-13). He sees the pride that makes us think we’re somehow better than others. He knows the lustful thoughts that we’re able to conceal even while we sit in church. He sees the greed that moves us to hoard our money or spend it on our own luxury, even when we see others in need. He is aware of the anger and jealousy that we manage to conceal under a phony smile and an insincere compliment. He knows the way we love the things of this world, while our hearts are lukewarm toward the Savior who gave Himself for our sins.
John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3.7.4) writes with penetrating insight of the inherent sinfulness that clings to us all:
For, such is the blindness with which we all rush into self-love that each one of us seems to himself to have just cause to be proud of himself and to despise all others in comparison. If God has conferred upon us anything of which we need not repent, relying upon it we immediately lift up our minds, and are not only puffed up but almost burst with pride. The very vices that infest us we take pains to hide from others, while we flatter ourselves with the pretense that they are slight and insignificant, and even sometimes embrace them as virtues. If others manifest the same endowments we admire in ourselves, or even superior ones, we spitefully belittle and revile these gifts in order to avoid yielding place to such persons. If there are any faults in others, not content with noting them with severe and sharp reproach, we hatefully exaggerate them. Hence arises such insolence that each one of us, as if exempt from the common lot, wishes to tower above the rest, and loftily and savagely abuses every mortal man, or at least looks down upon him as inferior…. But there is no one who does not cherish within himself some opinion of his own pre-eminence.
If you do not identify with what I’ve been saying, if you think it applies to others, but not to you, then you, like the Pharisees, are one of the “righteous” whom Jesus did not come to call to salvation. But, if as I describe the Bible’s evaluation of the sinfulness of the human heart, you acknowledge, “Yes, that is the way I am, I know that I am a sinner,” then I have great news:
As Paul put it, “Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). As Jesus says it here, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” If a man thinks that he’s in great shape, then he won’t go to the doctor, even if he’s got cancer. The Pharisees had spiritual cancer, but they thought they were pretty healthy. But the tax collectors had no illusions about themselves. They knew that they were terminal sinners. Many of them feared that they were such terrible sinners that they were hopelessly beyond God’s reach. But Jesus made it clear that it was just such people He came to seek and to save and that He was able to save.
As you probably know, tax collectors in first century Palestine were a despised lot. Most of us have heard the horror stories about the IRS lately, but even if they are heartless, most IRS agents aren’t getting rich themselves at taxpayers’ expense. But the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were getting rich personally by extorting money from their own countrymen. They were greedy, dishonest, and heartless. They had no concern for the poor, the widow, or the orphan. They loved money so much that they were willing to be despised, excommunicated from the synagogues, and classed with murderers, robbers, and prostitutes. The good life they were able to enjoy because of their crooked profession made them willing to bear the scorn of their fellow Jews. Levi was this kind of man.
When Luke tells us that Jesus saw Levi in his tax office and said, “Follow Me,” and Levi left everything behind, rose and began to follow Jesus, I think Luke is compressing the story for impact. There was probably a longer process involved. Perhaps Jesus had visited Levi’s tax office on numerous occasions, to pay the taxes for His widowed mother or to represent His impoverished neighbors. Probably Levi had heard Jesus teach the crowds who gathered nearby. No doubt he had heard reports of Jesus’ miracles and of how He had told the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.” But now Jesus deliberately observed Levi (the Greek word means “careful and deliberate vision which interprets its object,” according to G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 203) and authoritatively commanded, “Follow Me.” And Levi walked away from his tax office, left his greedy profession and obeyed Jesus’ call.
Note that Jesus took the initiative with Levi and not the other way around. Scripture is clear that there are none who seek after God until God first seeks after them (Rom. 3:10-11). Jesus said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him;… No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:44, 65). He said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you …” (John 15:16). Because all people are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), they cannot decide to follow Jesus until He imparts new life to their dead hearts and calls them from spiritual death to spiritual life.
Thus the difference in Levi’s life and the reason for his radical response to give up his greedy way of life and follow Jesus was not due to Levi’s decision to change; rather it was due to Christ’s powerful, effectual call to salvation. There is a popular, but false, teaching that says that God has done all that He can do to save sinners, and the rest is up to their free will. Jesus is pleading, He wants you to repent, He is trying to woo you to Himself, but the decision is up to you. Alas, God is powerless before the almighty will of man! But if salvation is thus dependent on the will of man, the bottom line is, contrary to the plain statement of Ephesians 1:11, God does not work all things after the counsel of His will, but rather after the counsel of man’s will.
Thankfully, Scripture plainly declares that salvation is not from the will of man, but of God (John 1:13). “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth …” (James 1:18). “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). The good news is that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). B. B. Warfield says, “Sinful man stands in need, not of inducements or assistance to save himself, but precisely of saving; and Jesus Christ has come not to advise, or urge, or woo, or help him to save himself, but to save him” (cited by Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination [Presbyterian & Reformed], p. 164).
So whether you are an outwardly terrible sinner, as Levi was, or a self-righteous sinner, as the apostle Paul was, there is hope for you. Christ did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. When Christ effectually calls a sinner, the Holy Spirit convinces him of his sin, He enlightens him in the knowledge of Christ, He renews his will and persuades and enables him to embrace Christ (see Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 31). The result is that the sinner freely and willingly repents and trusts in Christ alone for salvation. That powerful, effectual word of Christ is the only scriptural explanation for the conversion of a sinner like Levi into the Apostle Matthew.
But, it is obvious that Jesus Christ does not call sinners to remain as sinners. Rather,
Repentance means turning from the sinful way I was living to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord. Levi’s actions as described in verse 28 picture biblical repentance. He walked away from his greedy lifestyle and became obedient to Jesus Christ. While not everyone is required to give up their job and all their money the instant they come to Christ, everyone must see that repentance means turning to God from our idols, to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). It is not just a change of mind with no resulting change of behavior. It is a change of the total person.
Repentance is inseparably linked with saving faith. Obviously, Levi believed that Jesus is the Messiah who has the authority to forgive sins and to command our total allegiance or he wouldn’t have left everything to follow Jesus. In the story of the paralytic just preceding Luke shows that Jesus truly had the authority to forgive sins. His point in linking that story with this one of Levi’s conversion is to show that Jesus has the authority to forgive a sinner of the worst kind by calling that sinner to repentance.
We tend to think of repentance as a negative necessity. You’ve got to do it to get out from under God’s judgment, but life won’t be as fun any more. But Jesus links repentance with great joy, both in heaven and on earth (Luke 15:7, 10, 22-27, 32). While our text does not state that Levi was joyful after he repented, it is implied in that he put on a great banquet and invited all his unsavory friends to meet Jesus. Repentance ushers us into the full banquet of God’s abundant mercies. We will be filled with gratitude to our gracious Lord who so freely bestows His salvation on such undeserving sinners. So we should view repentance as a delight because of all its benefits, not just as a duty that deprives us of the temporary pleasures of sin.
Invariably, repentance means that I will accept Jesus’ mission for my life. You cannot truly repent and believe in Jesus and then decide that you’re going to live for yourself and aren’t going to follow Him as Lord. While the Lord’s purpose as to the particulars of how we serve Him will vary, the bottom line for all of us is that He wants to use us as repentant sinners to call other sinners to repentance through us.
There are three specific implications of accepting Jesus’ mission for our lives as seen in Levi’s response:
(1) We must make contact with lost people to reach them for Christ.
That sounds perfectly obvious, but it is anything but common in practice. This is my biggest problem when it comes to reaching others for Christ: I simply do not know that many non-Christians well enough to talk about spiritual things. And my occupation serves as a barrier to the process. As soon as somebody finds out what I do for a living, they draw back as if I had bubonic plague. But we all need to develop relationships with those who need to know the Savior.
By the way, recently converted people often have the most contacts with lost people. Levi had a whole house full of friends who needed to meet Jesus. Great! Let’s help new believers do all they can to bear witness to their lost friends.
But maybe you’re wondering, “I thought Christians were to be separate from bad company. Proverbs warns about the danger of wrong friendships. Isn’t it dangerous to socialize with lost people?”
If you socialize for the purpose of carousing with people in their search for pleasure, yes, that’s wrong. But if your purpose is to relate to them as a fellow sinner with a view to introducing them to the Savior, that is proper and good.
I emphasize “fellow-sinner” for two reasons. First, if you remember that you’re a sinner, you won’t come across as holier-than-thou. Second, you will be on guard so that you won’t be tempted to join in with things that would draw you back into your old way of life. Most Christians have it backwards: they associate with sinning believers and separate from unbelievers. But Paul tells us that we are not to associate with any so-called Christian if he is sinning, but that we are to associate with unbelievers (1 Cor. 5:9-13). Purpose is crucial in our contacts with lost people.
Who would have thought that this greedy, hardhearted tax collector would become a disciple and write the first Gospel? Imagine what the other disciples must have thought when Jesus called Levi! Or what the early church thought when the Lord called Paul! But the Lord is in the business of calling those whom the world thinks to be unlikely candidates for salvation. We need to be careful never to despair of anyone’s salvation, no matter how entrenched in sin the person may be. It is to God’s glory to save the most desperately wicked.
Can you imagine a doctor's office with a sign on the door: “We do not treat the sick”? As a church, we dare not imply, “Good people only; sinners not welcome.” Jesus did not come to call good people, but to call sinners to repentance. If you think of yourself as a good person, you should be alarmed. Christ saves sinners, not pretty good people. But if you confess, “I am a sinner,” you have the promise of Scripture that “Christ died for the ungodly.” If you will repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you will know the joy of having Him dine at your table and of seeing Him use you to share His good news with other sinners.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation