When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. — MARK 2:17; CF. MATTHEW 9:13
One day Jesus passed by a tax office and saw a man named Matthew, a tax collector, and said, “Follow me” (Matt. 9:9). Matthew did follow Him, and he invited Jesus to dinner at his house. Like Matthew, his friends were tax collectors and “sinners,” and they came to dinner and sat down with Jesus.
The term sinner used in this text has more than one meaning. On the one hand, it was a label that the Pharisees stuck on anyone who didn’t observe the law according to their rules and regulations. On the other hand, these friends of Matthew were guilty of notorious sins. They had given up even the pretense of religion. They were people that you and I probably would rather not be associated with. They were fornicators, gamblers, swindlers, cheaters, liars, and drunks.
Jesus shocked the Pharisees by dining with such people. Offended, they asked Jesus’ disciples why He associated with known sinners. They didn’t ask because they truly cared for Jesus and His disciples; they just wanted to shame the Master and His followers. The Pharisees were trying to assassinate Jesus’ character, for in their eyes He was guilty by association. “Doesn’t He know who they are?” their words implied. “Is this any way for a proper rabbi to behave?”
Jesus responded by saying, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17). What a relief it is to know that the Son of God not only associates with sinners but offers to heal their sickness and cleanse them of sin! Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Had the Pharisees recognized and acknowledged their own sin, they would have realized that they had as much need of the Savior as anyone else.
After a long day of conflict with the Pharisees, Jesus preached on the necessity of following Him (Luke 14:25–35). He concluded with this warning, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 35). In chapter 15, we read that the publicans and sinners pressed forward to hear what Jesus had to say. But the Pharisees and scribes continued to complain, saying, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (vv. 1–2). Jesus then told three parables: one about a lost sheep, the next about a lost coin, and the third about a lost son. Each parable illustrates the joy of those in heaven over the good news of even one sinner who repents. Each also illustrates the sad state of those who do not recognize their need of repentance, such as the elder brother who acts like a Pharisee by refusing to go to the father’s house to celebrate the restoration of the prodigal son (15:28).
The Pharisees thought they were the best of believers. They were not like the tax collectors, who betrayed fellow Jews by overcharging them with
taxes to line their own pockets and those of their Roman overlords. They were not like notorious sinners, either, who wasted themselves and their goods in godless living. The Pharisees demonstrate the great danger of deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have no sin to repent of (1 John 4:8). If we think we are good, then we, like the Pharisees, will miss God’s great offer of salvation to sinners. The Pharisees heeded God’s warnings not to associate with sinners (Ps. 1:1; Prov. 1:10; cf. 1 Cor. 15:33), but they missed His command to teach transgressors His ways and to convert sinners to Himself (Ps. 51:13; cf. Ps. 25:8). God’s plan of redemption is exclusively for sinners, even those who consider themselves morally noble and religious.
Jesus calls all sinners to repent. True repentance is not a nebulous response of sorrow; it requires definite actions. Repentance so transforms the mind that it results in a changed life. Repentance does not merely say “I’m sorry” (similar to what we say when we accidentally step on someone’s foot). Rather, true repentance says from the heart, “I’ve been wrong and grieve over my sin, but now I see the truth, and I will change my ways accordingly.”
The first step of repentance, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, “is heartfelt sorrow that we have provoked God by our sins.” This sorrow, coupled with a deep sense of God’s majesty and a profound awareness of His goodness, causes us to hate our sins more and more. This sorrow and hatred, in turn, cause us to flee from sin. True repentance also leads to “heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 90). Mere sorrow over sin that does not lead to changed living is a sham (2 Cor. 7:9–10).
Jesus still calls sinners—even the greatest of sinners—to join Him in His kingdom. His call does not ask us to do penance by increasing our religious duties, but to truly repent, that is, to cease from sin, turn back to the path of righteousness, and walk in new obedience to God (cf. Hosea 6:6). Those who practice true repentance know what Jesus meant when He said, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). When they, by grace, respond to that call, they will experience deep joy in union with the Friend of sinners. And nothing causes more joy in heaven than the repentance of His called ones!
Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation
By Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein