When Jesus visited a town in Galilee, He healed a man hopelessly consumed by leprosy with His compassionate touch. Like leprosy, sin corrupts the souls of men and women completely, making us alienated from God, hopeless to save ourselves, and in desperate need of rescue. As Alistair Begg explains, though, Jesus died for sin to meet our greatest need. In response, we are called to cast ourselves on His mercy.
I invite you to turn with me to Luke’s Gospel and to chapter 5. Actually, we’ll just read the three concluding verses of chapter 4 and then two verses in chapter 5.
So, it’s Luke 4:42: “At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’ And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.”
Verse 12 of chapter 5: “While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’
“Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him.”
Father, we pray that as we have our Bibles open before us, that you will conduct that divine dialogue where, in a way that is mysterious to us and yet life-giving, the Spirit of God speaks into the soul of a man or a woman, even through the voice of a mere mortal, as our minds are turned to the truth of the Bible. So help us to this end, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, this evening we come to the first of four studies in basic Christianity, which are going to be pretty basic studies. We only have a very brief time for each. But our thought is that these studies may actually give rise to four strands of instruction that will run throughout the whole of Parkside Church so that we might be able to consider what it really means to be a Christian.
Tonight, in the first of these, we’re looking at what the Bible has to say about becoming a Christian. And it may be that for some of us the thought of beginning with a story of a man with leprosy is a strange place to start. But I hope it will become clear as to why.
In the passage that we’ve just read, both in the end of 4 and then into 5, it’s clear that Jesus has been moving from town to town in Judea. He’s been preaching the good news of the kingdom; the word about him has been spreading. And as he reaches one of these particular towns Luke references here without naming in verse 12, he runs into a man who is covered with leprosy. The Greek actually gives the very notion of him being completely taken over with leprosy, “full of leprosy.” He was therefore suffering not simply from a dreaded disease, but from a very bad case of that particular disease—a disease that was as painful as it was loathsome, and it carried with it a stigma. No one who suffered from this disease could live within the community; they lived isolated from others. They were forced to call out, “Unclean, unclean,” and in certain indications to give people an awareness of their presence, lest somebody should be inadvertently contaminated by them. Therefore, the individual knew nothing of the regular blessings of family life, didn’t enjoy the company of friends, or was not allowed the privileges of employment.
So this man that Jesus meets here is, if you like, a dead man walking. He is a prisoner of his own skin. And he knows what he needs: he needs to be cleansed and cured. Presumably, the news of Jesus had begun to spread, preceding him, preceding his arrival here—the news of this itinerant preacher who had this story of “freedom for the prisoners” and of “good news [for] the poor.” Of course, that would have registered in the mind of such an individual, feeling himself a prisoner of his circumstances and certainly completely impoverished as a result of the dreaded disease that he bore. It’s therefore no wonder that, coming face-to-face with Jesus, Luke tells us that “he fell with his face to the ground” and he “begged” Jesus to cleanse him. And the phraseology makes it clear that he’s absolutely convinced of Jesus’ ability to clean him up, to cure him, and the only question is whether Jesus is willing.
And if you look at verse 13, you see there that Jesus does the unthinkable: he reaches out his hand and he touches the man. That may seem not particularly consequential to us until we think for a moment and ask ourselves, “I wonder how long it was since this man had been touched by anyone other than another leper?” No one touched a leper. The disease was dreaded. But in compassion Jesus reaches out his hand, and he touches the man, and he declares his willingness, addressing his hopeless condition. And in a drama, with just one word in Greek, katharisai, from which we get our English word catharsis, there is a catharsis takes place in the life of this man, and immediately he is healed.
Now, there’s more that follows in the story, but we’ll leave the story at that point, because the rest of it is not germane to our consideration tonight. We’re asking the question, What is involved in becoming a Christian? And I found it helpful just to keep these three words in my mind as I thought of the man and as I thought of our question: first of all, the word condition; secondly, the word compassion; and thirdly, the word cure.
First of all, considering what the Bible says concerning the condition of men and women. Actually, the cleansing of the leper is a wonderful illustration of the spiritual cleansing that Jesus provides. And not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old, we discover that leprosy is one of the clearest pictures, the clearest allegories, that the Bible contains of the predicament of men and women as sinners. Like the leper, our lives are spoiled. We suffer not from this physical ailment, but we suffer by our natures from the leprosy of sin, the leprosy that has spoiled our souls.
The Bible tells us that when God made the world and put Adam and Eve in the garden, it was all good—no disappointment, no unhappiness, nothing wrong at all. But it wasn’t to stay that way, and the man and the woman decided to disobey God. They chose to go their own way rather than to trust him. They wanted to decide for themselves what was right and what was wrong. They didn’t want to pay any attention to what God had told them.
And the consequences of their self-centered decision were absolutely devastating. God had told them that “if you disobey me and you act contrary to my plan and purpose for you, then in that day you will surely die.” And, of course, they didn’t physically die; we read on in the story, and they went on to have children and so on. But Jesus makes it clear by the time he steps on the stage of history, referencing the historicity of Adam and Eve, that the death that entered into the world was the spiritual death, closing down the communion between a holy God and his creation, bringing alienation into that picture, bringing bondage into people’s lives, bringing conflict into their circumstances, and all of that wrapped up in the human predicament—so that, if you like, in a moment life was robbed of its wholeness, of its completeness, of its perfection.
And since that day, every human being shares in the corruption of Adam and Eve, shares in the guilt of Adam and Eve. Every one of us is born with an inherent bias to sin, every one of us a sinner in the same sinking ship with everybody else. And every day we are confronted by the ravaging nature of our condition. We see it in our children in their rebellious hearts. We see it in ourselves in our lusts, in our dishonesty, in our jealousy, in our fear. We see it in our resentment, and our disappointments, and our regret, and our pride. All of these things plague men and women, spoil our lives, ruin our homes, rob us of any sense of lasting peace and satisfaction.
Now, so far nobody, I think, would be prepared to argue with at least the predicament. Any sensible man or woman living their life and reading the newspapers recognizes that there is some reason why after all this time, with all the advances of technology, with all of the opportunities for the progress of humanity, that tonight we sit in a world that is ravished by epidemics that are directly related to man’s inhumanity to man; we’re are war with one another on every front; we’re at war within our homes; we’re at war within our own psyches; more money is spent on seeking to put people’s heads back together again, metaphorically, than is spent in some countries on their whole gross national product.
Why is this? Well, the Bible says it is because of sin. And sin is not an intellectual problem; it is a moral problem. No matter your intellect, no matter your status, no matter whether you were highborn or lowborn, every one of you, like me, is just a miserable sinner. Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? But that is the Bible’s description of our condition: alienated from God, justly deserving the judgment of God. In his holiness, God has decreed that sin must be punished and will be punished. And the Bible speaks of hell in such a way as to make it awfully clear that for us to die in this present condition will be to face the full force of God’s wrath. And, of course, the gravity of our condition is such that, just like the leper, we’re actually unable to rectify our circumstances. If there’s going to be a rescue, it must come from the outside.
The man threw himself at Jesus’ feet and begged him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus said, “I am willing. Be clean.”
From the condition, then, to the compassion. Jesus was filled with compassion, we’re told. In fact, on one memorable occasion, as he looks out on the crowds that are milling around him, the Gospel writer records that Jesus was filled with compassion when he saw the crowds because they looked “like sheep without a shepherd”—which, of course, rung a chord for him. He was the Shepherd. He was the great Shepherd of the sheep. He was the one who declared, “I haven’t come to call righteous people, to put together a religious club. I’ve come to call sinners to repentance. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep. They know me. I am the door. By me, if any man enters in, he will be saved.” He looks out on the crowd and his heart is filled with compassion. And on account of that, Jesus comes to address our most basic needs. Alienated from God, we’re in need of reconciliation, and stained and polluted by sin—our consciences testify to it, our minds speak to it even as I speak to you now—stained by sin, we’re in need also of forgiveness.
You see, if we’re not careful we’ll begin to think, in our twenty-first-century world, that this kind of issue is a sort of marginal issue, it’s an esoteric concern, it is somehow or another just to be put in a compartment somewhere, perhaps to be tackled at a later time on another day. But let’s get down to the real issues of dealing with life. After all, there are so many poor people in the world, and there are so many things that need to be addressed, and so many complex problems that we need to go and rectify around the world—and, of course, there are.
But that is the great lie in the end, isn’t it? Now, we don’t have time to go to the following story, but the following story is the remarkable story of how four men bring a fellow who’s their friend who’s paralyzed, and they drop him down through the roof so that he can meet Jesus. And Jesus says this very strange thing; he says, “Your sins are forgiven.” The average person would say, “‘Your sins are forgiven’? What possible good is that? I’m a paralytic, for crying out loud! They brought me on a bed. I didn’t come here to have a theological discussion about the condition of humanity. I came here to get my legs.”
And that’s the way many people think. And Jesus says to them—to the Pharisees, who are so concerned about this, because they said, “He shouldn’t be saying ‘I forgive your sins,’ because only God can forgive sins,” and they were pretty well convinced it couldn’t be God who was present—he says, “Then what’s the easiest thing: to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’?” Well, it’s far easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,” because nobody would really know, would they? But to say “Get up and walk” puts you on the line: “‘Get up and walk’? If he doesn’t get up and walk…” But he gets up and walks. And what does Jesus say? “‘In order that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.…’ He said to the paralyzed man, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”
What was the issue? The forgiveness of his sins. And if the paralyzed man could come back from heaven tonight and speak to us, he would tell us that he would have been prepared to remain paralyzed but go to heaven forgiven than to get his legs back and go to hell unforgiven. Because the condition that confronted him was his alienation from God and his sinful heart, which demanded a forgiveness that he couldn’t provide. And what was true of him is true of the leper. And again, as I say to you, it’s not very palatable, but it’s true of you and me tonight.
That’s why the story of the gospel, the Christian message of the gospel, is so tremendously compelling. “God demonstrates,” says Paul, “his own love [towards] us in this: [that] while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Peter takes up the theme in 1 Peter 3, and he says, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” In other words, if our condition is alienated from God, what compassion on the part of God to provide in his Son the reconciliation needed! We need a reconciler. We cannot reconcile ourselves, no more than the leper could pick his scabs away and see himself transformed.
And when Paul addresses this in a passage of the Bible that I’ve given myself to try and understand before I die, he says in a quite memorable statement, “All this is from God”—all this good news, all of this intervention, all of this grace is from God—“who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Do you get that? No longer “counting men’s sins against them.” How can that possibly be?
And the answer comes in this phenomenal verse: “God made him”—that is, Jesus—“who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Because Jesus was sinless, he could take our sins. And the gospel is the story of this great exchange, an exchange that takes place at the cross: Jesus taking our place and bearing the wrath which our sins deserve so that in exchange we might receive the righteousness which none of us deserves.
You see, it’s only when we realize that Jesus died in our place—it’s only, in theological terms, when we understand the substitutionary nature of the atonement—it is only when we recognize that Jesus died in our place, taking our sin, that we can then make sense of his death as an example of self-sacrificial love.
In fact, in reaching out to the leper, Jesus is demonstrating the way in which his kingdom comes. In touching the leper, it’s almost as if Jesus is saying to him, “I am prepared to become like you, a man under judgment, in order that you might become like me in all of the freedom and forgiveness that I provide.” And hymn writers throughout the centuries, right up into contemporary hymn writers today, at their very best have never deviated from this:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood
[And] sealed my pardon with His blood.
Halleluiah! What a Savior!
My condition was irremediable. Unless someone comes from outside to do what I cannot do for myself, then I am lost, I am enslaved, I am dead, and I am finished. And the good news is that at just the right moment, when we had no way of escape, Christ comes. It almost makes you want to run out into the street and shout it, you know—no matter what someone would say.
Finally, a word about the cure. ’Cause I could have all kinds of ointments with me here tonight, and you could have all kinds of rashes, and I could tell you that the ointment that I have—indeed, it’s almost the great family joke, which I shouldn’t let you in on—but there is not a condition known to humanity that I cannot provide a solution for in a particular medication that comes from Scotland. And my children, they know before it’s even out of my mouth, no matter what it is: “Have you tried … on that?” And I could tell you about the efficacious nature of this potion. And you could actually believe what I tell you. And you could scratch yourself raw all through the night, believing me in the entirety of what I say.
No, you see, for a cure to be effected there has to be appropriation, there has to be response. In the case of the leper, the mere knowledge of Christ’s ability to cure was not enough to cure him. And so, for us, assent to certain pieces of information is not enough to save us. Giving assent, acknowledging intellectually that certain things may be true, is not the same as saving faith.
“Well,” you say, “What is saving faith? How may I know this cure in my life? If that is my condition, and Christ is so compassionate, and he sent you and others to tell me, how is this cure effected?”
Well, to become a Christian, trusting in what Jesus has done on the cross as our only basis for acceptance with God will involve at least these three elements: One, acknowledging that I am absolutely helpless and cannot rely on any righteousness of my own—that I am absolutely helpless and cannot rely on any righteousness of my own. Just one cross reference, as it comes to mind. Isn’t this what Paul says in Philippians 3 when he reflects on what Christ has done in his life? He says, “I consider all the things that I used to stack up in my plus account, all of the things that made me me and that I was resting in for my own well-being and for my heavenly citizenship,” he said, “I consider them all rubbish now, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own.”
Now, to become a Christian involves “not having a righteousness of my own.” In fact, there are only two religious systems in the whole world, if you think about it: one that produces a righteousness of your own, and one that says, “There is no righteousness of my own that could avail me one iota with God ; therefore, if I do not have credited to my account the righteousness of someone else and base my acceptance on that, then I am without hope.”
Acknowledging that I am absolutely helpless and cannot rely on a righteousness of my own; secondly, believing that Jesus has died and has provided the very gift of righteousness that I’ve just admitted that I need; and thirdly, that on the strength of that I must then cast myself upon his mercy—cast myself upon his mercy; apply Christ to myself, if you like; appropriate Christ to me.
We’re going to take bread in a moment and eat it, and take the juice and drink it. And, of course, this is the very language that Jesus used, wasn’t it? “I am the bread of life. He who eats of me will never hunger.” In other words, he says, “I want you to appropriate me. I want you to receive me as I am. I want you to welcome me as Savior and Lord and King.” And when we break bread as an expression of our dependence upon God, it’s simply a symbolic illustration of the gospel. It’s a reminder to us not of something sacrosanct in these elements, but it is a reminder to us of what Jesus has accomplished in becoming sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. So I take the bread, and I take the cup, and I look back to Calvary, and I say, “How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be my Savior’s love for me.”
Well, we must stop. But not before I address a question in the mind of the thinker. (I’m forced to say that narrows the group a little, but not a lot.) If there has to be the acknowledgment of my helplessness, my belief in Jesus as my only righteousness, and the casting of myself upon him, how can that possibly be done? Because if we’ve just understood accurately the state of our condition, we are lost, we are enslaved, and we’re actually dead. You might just as well go to the graveyard in Chagrin Falls and ask people to come out of their graves as ask dead people to become Christians. Because by our nature we’re disobedient, we’re rotten to the core. It’s not our nature to trust Christ; it’s our nature to disobey him.
“Well,” says the thinker, “if there’s going to be a Christian experience, it’s going to take a miracle.” That’s exactly right. It’s going to have to take a miracle! The gospel is miraculous. God works within us. God works within us to create in us things that cannot be produced by our own dead, enslaved humanity. And God does this always in the same way: he does it through his Word and he does it by his Spirit. In other words, God speaks to men and women inwardly. That’s why I prayed earlier about this divine dialogue—that in some miraculous way God speaks into people’s hearts and lives. He imparts life to our dead souls and he brings us to new birth.
That’s what Jesus was saying to the religious man Nicodemus. Nicodemus says to him, when Jesus says, “You must be born again,” Nicodemus says, “How can I be born again? How can you get born again when you’re old? You can’t enter your mother’s womb a second time.” And Jesus says, “No, no, no, no. We’re not talking in those terms. Let me tell you this….” And then he says that the birth that is brought about is not as a result of human decision, nor of a husband’s will, but is as a result of God.
We sang about it in our hymn, didn’t we? Have you ever wondered what the line means, “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray”? Have you? You’ve sung it a hundred times, haven’t you? “Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray.” What is that? It is the divine, miraculous impartation of life into the soul of a man whereby he can listen now to the same message that he has heard seventeen hundred times and there is a divine transaction takes place. God does that. You don’t do that. God does that. That’s why you have to ask him to be gracious and merciful to you, not sit in your own smug self-confidence saying, “One day, when I’m good and ready, I’ll give God a chance at my life.” Don’t you disregard, don’t you hate those things? “Give God a chance”—as if somehow or another God is helpless, standing waiting to see whether any of us are going to decide to “seek” him.
The way the gospel is proclaimed, it’s as though Adam and Eve were seeking God in the garden. No! God was seeking Adam and Eve in the garden. It wasn’t that people were running around Judea looking for Jesus; it was that Jesus was moving around Judea looking for lost sheep. And he comes tonight, and the Word of God comes home to the heart, and the Spirit of God, as Thomas Watson puts it remarkably—he says, “Our wills are like a garrison, holding out against God, until the Spirit with sweet violence conquers or changes it, making the sinner willing to have Christ upon any terms, to be ruled by him as well as saved by him.”
What does that mean? Well, the Word of God comes in the voice of someone, maybe the preacher. The preacher preaches, and comes and knocks at the door of the human heart, calling for a response, saying as I’ve said this morning, “I implore you, I beseech you in the mercies of God, be reconciled to God.” Here I come with the Bible, trying to explain it to you, pointing it to you, confirming it to you, urging you to trust its promises. And the Holy Spirit comes to the human heart with a key, and turns the key, and diffuses the ray. And what cannot be accomplished by the mouth of a man is accomplished by the work of God. It is a miracle.
We used to sing an old song, “It took a miracle to put the stars in place.” Remember that one?
It took a miracle to hang the world in space.
But when He saved my soul
[And] cleansed and made me whole,
It took a miracle of love and grace.
You see why a Christian should be a humble person? Evangelical Christians, if they really are evangelical, if they believe this doctrine, we should be the most humble people on the face of God’s earth, because we know, “You know every sin I’ve ever done. But your blood has covered every one. O God, such love!” In fact, it’s one of the marks of genuine Christian experience—not the smug, self-satisfied proclamations of what we’ve done and how well we’ve done.
Well, somebody may be asking—and I must close—“How would I ever know if this miracle is in process?” Well, let me ask you: Are you beginning to see that you’ve done wrong and that God is rightly angry with you? Are you beginning to sense that Jesus has been sent by God the Father to bring you forgiveness? If so, that is the work of God’s Spirit. We could never believe such things without his help. And the salvation that he provides, he provides completely, because no sin is too shameful; he provides permanently, separating us from our sins forever; he provides unconditionally, because none of us can make ourselves worthy of forgiveness. The work of the gospel is totally uninfluenced by our status or our lack of it. And he saves us immediately. Our sins are gone.
The leper was full of leprosy, in every sense a lost cause. No amount of picking at his scabs could solve his problem. And maybe that’s how you are tonight. You’ve been a great sinner. The loathsome nature of it all makes you feel that you’ve gone so far, so far—so far that Jesus would never take it all away. But I want to assure you that if your sinning conscience cries out, in the leper’s words, “Lord, if you’re willing, you can make me clean,” you will hear him say, “I am willing.” He’s still willing.
Bow with me in prayer, will you? When I understood enough of the gospel to realize my condition and that Christ had paid the penalty for my sin, I wanted somehow or another to respond. And you may from your heart tonight want to cry out to God, and let me pray this little prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but through you I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness. I turn now from my sin and receive you as my Savior.
 Luke 5:12 (KJV).
 Luke 4:18 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 2:17 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 9:36, Mark 6:34 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 5:31, John 10:14, John 10:9 (paraphrased).
 Luke 5:20 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 5:21 (paraphrased).
 Luke 5:23 (paraphrased).
 Luke 5:24 (paraphrased).
 Romans 5:8 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:18–19 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV 1984).
 Philip P. Bliss, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” (1875).
 Philippians 3:8–9 (paraphrased).
 John 6:35 (paraphrased).
 Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love” (1905). Paraphrased.
 John 3:3–10 (paraphrased).
 John 1:13 (paraphrased).
 Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?” (1738).
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Practical Divinity (Glasgow, 1764), 127. Paraphrased.
 John W. Peterson, “It Took a Miracle” (1948).
 Kate and Miles Simonds, “When I Was Lost (There Is a New Song)” (2001). Paraphrased.
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.