The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, said this in 1 Timothy 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” adding “of whom I am chief.” Paul counted himself at the top of the list of those sinners being saved, then and now, apparently. That Jesus Christ came to save sinners was also the declaration in John 3:17, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
But in the various accounts of His confronting the religious leaders, Jesus had an interesting manner of going about it. Look at this encounter He had with the Pharisees:
“Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
“When Jesus heard that, He said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Matthew 9:10-13). (He quotes Hosea 6:6 in His response.)
It was a unique way of tossing the ball back, so to speak, into the laps of the Pharisees, who were obviously the ones on the wrong side of the equation, or rather, well dug-in with the sinners Jesus came to save. But what was the difference, as Jesus saw them?
Let’s look at another situation that shows a more vivid contrast between the two types of listeners to what Jesus said:
“Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’
“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).
In the passage just preceding this one, Jesus had posed this question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” This is a futuristic query, obviously, but one that we must carefully consider in this future day—it is not religious displays of self-righteousness but a faith that is from a humble and contrite heart that realizes its emptiness of any godliness whatsoever.
In this parable, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection had not been accomplished, but note what Jesus saw in the tax collector that caused Him to say the man was justified.
It was the man’s utterly devastating admission of guilt as a sinful person, the echo of David’s confession summation in Psalm 51:4a, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight….” Not until a person realizes this truth can the transformation of the new birth be accomplished by the Spirit of God. It is a truth that applies to both saved and unsaved in regard to having a right relationship with God. David was well-established as a believer in God, but apparently the tax collector was not. Yet the admission of guilt is directed to God, Himself, first, rather than those people whom they had sinned against.
For an in-depth look at David’s confession, here is that account:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
“For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak and blameless when You judge” (Psalm 51:1-4).
Some Bible teachers argue that Paul’s evident struggle displayed in the latter half of Romans 7 was an account of what occurred before he was saved on the road to Damascus. But a close look at the life of Saul of Tarsus, as his Jewish name was, only tells of ungodly acts toward the followers of Christ and no evidence of any struggle within himself about being wrong in those actions. No doubt the Spirit of God was dealing with him by those “pricks of conscience” the Lord mentioned when he was blinded by that strong light that day.
In that Romans 7:8-25 passage, the tenth commandment, which told him he was not to covet anything, awoke in him a warfare of spirit against flesh that brought him to cry out in desperation, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
“So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).
None of this could have happened before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, for he had not sought the Lord until he came to the end of his dependence on his own righteousness. It is an experience that all born-again believers experience, as he later describes in Galatians 5:16-18:
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Paul, who describes himself as the chief of sinners, as you recall, summed up his fully-committed relationship with Christ in Galatians 2:20-21:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”
To get to that attitude and commitment for any person, let’s connect the dots with appropriate Scriptures:
- Romans 10:13-14 – “For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ And in Joel 2:32 – “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?”
- Romans 10:17 – “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
- Romans 3:20 – “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”
- Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
- Luke 18:13 – “And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (He knew who he really was before God!)
- Revelation 3:20 – “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” (Just as the Word of God hammers a person’s conscience, it is the knocking on his door by Jesus, like the pricks of conscience Paul experienced on that Damascus road.)
- John 1:12-13 – “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Note the connection of receiving to believing to being born of God.)
- John 3:3 – “Jesus answered and said to him (Nicodemus), ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’”
- Titus 3:5 – “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (This is the effect of the new birth by the Holy Spirit.)
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new.”
This article began with consideration that Jesus “came into the world to save sinners.”
Then, the seemingly selective attitude of Jesus coming to save self-identified sinners – not the self-righteous Jews, who were trusting in the law for their salvation – shows up in a passage of Scripture. The self-righteous religious leaders were blinded to their own need, and thus were not open and responsive to what Jesus had to offer.
We have looked at several Scripture passages that show how it is the responsive person who comes to Christ. That is the person who comes to realize he is an ungodly sinner before the living God. That recognition of total unrighteousness apart from the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ is to continue even after having been born again by the Spirit of God, as the first B-attitude tells us in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Perhaps it is more understandable if paraphrased like this: “Truly happy are those who realize their spiritual poverty, for they will have ready access to the kingdom of heaven.”
In these passages and those in the numerical list above, it is understandable how these four following verses are accomplished in a person:
John 6:44 – “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
John 6:29 – “…This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not… willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (Rejecting the sinful life and clinging to the Lord)
Jeremiah summed it up in the words of the Lord that he recorded in Jeremiah 29:13, “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.”
The Philippian jailer demonstrated the principle of how connecting with God comes about, in Acts 16:30-31, “And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”
Note that their answer was not, “You must be baptized,” and “You must join our church.” It was “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” an impossibility for a spiritually dead person. Yet, without hesitation or explanation of how to do it, the repeated directive throughout the New Testament is “believe.”
The jailer in Acts 16 was not rejecting God in anger and rebellion, but was desperate in his desire to be saved. This is just as we have seen in the other passages, where Jesus is dealing with one who is responsive in contrast to one who is plainly satisfied with his own ideas of “how to get to heaven.” Those who try to convince others that “there are more ways to heaven than Jesus” are definitely in that category of being satisfied with their own “control of their destiny.”
I close with a repeat from a former article of that old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. But you can salt his oats.” J. B. Phillip’s, in his early publication of his paraphrase of Philippians, titled a sub-heading in chapter 2 that spells it out very well: “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.”
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