Are You Forgiven, or Just Religious?
Introduction: What is man’s greatest need today? You say, “Which man?” Everyone’s need is different. O.J.’s greatest need is for a job so he can pay his debts. Newt Gingrich’s greatest need is for humility so he can rehabilitate his reputation. What about you? What is your greatest need? You might say,
“Right now it’s financial. I have a huge debt that is weighing over me.”
“My greatest need is to get through school. Once I graduate, life will be a piece of cake.”
“I have an addiction I am struggling with, and until I get control over that issue, nothing in life will be normal.”
“I have a really major, potentially life-changing decision hanging over my head. Making the right decision is my greatest need.”
You know something? The greatest need every person has is not found in any of these categories.
The greatest need any of us has is to experience forgiveness of sin.
In a powerful way Jesus confronts us with this fact in the familiar story of the paralytic in Luke chapter 5. Let’s read it.
One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … ” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today” (Luke 5:17-26).
The man in this story is probably a quadriplegic. We don’t know what caused his disability, but certainly in his mind, as well as in the minds of his friends, his paralysis is his greatest need. He couldn’t work like others; he couldn’t play; he couldn’t travel; he couldn’t marry and have children. This is an all-consuming problem.
Then he hears about Jesus, whose reputation is spreading rapidly. He is healing people of all kinds of diseases. Maybe, just maybe, He will be able to solve this man’s greatest need. It is worth whatever effort he can expend to try to meet Jesus. By definition, however, a quadriplegic in that day was pretty helpless. There were no wheelchairs and no handicap laws requiring access to public places, much less a private home.
Fortunately, this man has four buddies, good buddies, who agree to help him get to the gathering over at Peter’s house in Capernaum. Now we can’t be absolutely certain that this meeting was in Peter’s house, but Mark 2:1 gives us a hint that it was. There we read that the town was Capernaum and that Jesus had “come home.” The last home mentioned is Simon’s home in verse 29, where Peter’s mother-in-law was healed of a fever. With no other homes mentioned in the intervening verses, it seems that Mark is most likely referring to the same home.
When the paralytic and his friends arrive, they discover there is no way to get close to Jesus. The religious bigwigs are there from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, and, of course, they have taken all the good seats in the house. By the way, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (often called the Scribes) almost never met outside of Jerusalem. One wonders if this unusual meeting might not have been generated by the healing of the leper described in the previous paragraph in Luke 5. There we learn Jesus did an amazing healing for a leper and then ordered him to go and show himself to the priest and offer the prescribed sacrifices as a testimony to them. It was a testimony all right, but not one they received well.
This new religious teacher from Nazareth was not one of them, so He was automatically suspect in their eyes. I suppose they set out on a fact-finding mission to figure out who this man was that could heal a leper, and by whose power He healed him. It couldn’t be God’s power, they reasoned, because Jesus had reached out and touched the leper, something strictly forbidden by their rules and regulations. In fact, the Pharisees were forbidden to get within six feet of a leper, or 100 feet on a windy day. This reminds me of the story of Jimmy Allen, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention a decade ago, whose grandson was turned away from Sunday School because he had contracted AIDS. “Unclean! Unclean!” was the cry.
Back at the house in Capernaum we see that in addition to the religious investigators, a large crowd has gathered, filling every nook and cranny of the home. Others are undoubtedly standing outside looking through the windows. The paralytic is just about to despair when one of his friends comes up with a crazy idea: “Why not go up on the roof and see if we can cut a hole in it to lower you down?”
Now such a suggestion made a little more sense in that day than it would today, but not much more, and I’m sure the initial reaction was, “You gotta be kidding!” Roofs were flat, and there was often an outside stairway to the roof, for the roof was regularly used to dry grain or hang the wash or for water storage. The roof was normally constructed of a series of beams with sticks laid across them. Mud was used to hold the sticks in place. Everything was at a slight incline so rain would run off. Luke says the men removed tiles, but Mark says they dug their way through the roof, so I would assume that on top of the mud this particular roof was tiled, perhaps to give it more of a patio effect.
I have often wondered what the host of the house, in this case possibly Peter himself, must have thought as he sat inside (undoubtedly close to Jesus), and began to feel debris raining down on his head. As he looked up he began to see daylight, and the hole got bigger and bigger until he could see four faces looking down at him. Then the man on the mat was lowered with ropes right in front of Jesus. The fact that the homeowner didn’t object makes me believe that he was enough of a follower of Jesus to be pleased at any step people might take to get near Him, even the destruction of his own roof.
Then we read in verse 20, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’” I return to the question we started with this morning: “What is any man’s greatest need?”
Jesus clearly did not think this man’s greatest need was his physical condition (bad as it was), but rather his spiritual condition. Some have suggested that the man’s physical condition may have been the result of his spiritual condition; i.e., he may have become paralyzed due to some sin in his life. Perhaps he had been drinking, crashed his ox cart, and suffered a spinal injury. If that were the case, Jesus’ point might be that before the man was healed, the root cause of his illness had to be addressed.
That is certainly possible, but it is by no means necessary. The Bible makes it very clear that while some sickness is the result of sin, that is not true across the board. In John chapter 9 we have the amazing story of a man born blind. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:2-3). Jesus did not mean that the man and his parents were without sin, but rather that no particular sin in their lives caused the blindness.
The only thing of which we can be sure regarding the paralytic is that Jesus believed his greatest need to be the forgiveness of sin, whether or not it was the cause of his paralysis. And frankly, that is true of every human being—paralytic, diabetic, cancer victim, or perfectly healthy specimen. Every other need is subordinate to the need for forgiveness, for sin has affected every aspect of our lives. Without forgiveness, nothing else can produce wholeness and fulfillment.
In verse 20 we discover a second fact, namely the greatest kindness one person can do for another.
The greatest kindness any of us can offer is to exercise faith in another’s behalf.
Did you notice that when Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”? Now I assume that includes the paralytic himself, but it certainly refers to his four buddies. Their perseverance and ingenuity are seen by Jesus as an indication of the presence of a faith which believes in His power to such an extent that it is prepared to go to the limit in order to reach Him.
Sadly, we Americans stress individualism so much that we can hardly understand how one person’s faith can be used by God in behalf of someone else. But consider also the case of the Centurion in Luke 7 whose servant was sick and about to die. Jesus was summoned, but while on His way, the Centurion sent word:
“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word; and my servant will be healed.” …
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well. (Luke 7:6-7, 9-10)
The servant gives no evidence here of personal faith; in fact, he may well have been completely unconscious from his sickness. But God responds to the faith of his master.
I want us to understand from these examples that the greatest kindness we can perform for someone else may not be an act of love or compassion; it may not be bailing them out of a financial crisis or sitting with them in a hospital room. It may be exercising faith in God in regard to that person’s life. Parents, we must entrust our children to God. When the Old Testament says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6), it is assuming a cooperation between the parent and the Spirit of God that produces fruit in the child’s life. I have often said at a child dedication, “This child is not saved by the faith of the parent but by the faithfulness of the parent.” What I mean is that while we cannot believe for our children, yet God has given us a powerful ministry in their lives, a ministry which we exercise by faith.
This works the other way too, for children on behalf of their parents. Many of you have elderly parents who have never given clear testimony of faith in Jesus Christ. They may be religious, but you are not sure they are born again. I believe this story of the four friends of the paralytic calls upon you to believe God for your parents’ salvation. Stretch your faith; don’t give up on that aged parent who seems so reticent to discuss spiritual things. Claim them by faith; speak to them of God’s grace as you have opportunity. I am not saying that you can guarantee their salvation, but I am saying that your faith may be an instrument that God honors as his Holy Spirit works conviction in their lives. It still remains our duty to bring to the Savior those who are spiritually paralyzed through the stranglehold of sin.
So far we have seen that the greatest need any of us has is to experience forgiveness of sin, and the greatest kindness any of us can offer is to exercise faith in another’s behalf.
What is the greatest mistake a human being can make? It is not to invest a huge amount of money just prior to a stock market crash. It is not to go to work for a corporation that is secretly negotiating a leveraged buyout that will reduce their personnel by 60%. It is not even to marry the wrong person. The greatest mistake a person can make is to misjudge who Jesus is.
The greatest mistake a person can make is to misjudge who Jesus is.
You have heard of the unpardonable sin. In Matthew 12, the unpardonable sin is identified as attributing the power of Jesus to Satan. In that passage Jesus casts a demon out of a man who is blind and mute and heals him, but the Pharisees conclude that He has done this indisputable miracle by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus responds, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32) Jesus performs this astounding miracle by the power of the Holy Spirit, but the twisted religious leaders are so blinded by their jealousy and hatred that they give the credit to Satan.
When you consider other passages that seem to refer to the same sin, it appears that the unpardonable sin is the sin of turning one’s back on absolutely clear evidence of who Jesus is. And why is it unpardonable? Because what more can God do than give absolutely clear evidence?
With that in mind, look at verse 21, where we read that “The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law began thinking to themselves, ‘Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” Now their premise is right – only God can forgive sins. It’s their conclusion that is wrong – Jesus must be a blasphemer, for he is claiming to forgive sins. The correct conclusion should be, “Jesus must be God.”
Please note that the religious leaders aren’t saying these things out loud; they are talking to themselves, perhaps whispering their blasphemous doubts under their breath. But Jesus can read their minds and he asks, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …,” and the sentence isn’t finished. Jesus just proceeds to offer them the greatest proof they could possibly want of his divine nature.
The greatest proof of His divine nature is the forgiveness He offers.
He heals the man. On the surface, of course, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven you” than “Rise and walk.” The latter may be put to an immediate and obvious test, whereas the onlooker does not know whether sins are forgiven or not. In point of fact, however, it is harder to say, “Your sins are forgiven;” for while there are many healers, there is only one forgiver.
He says to the man, “‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.” And that brings us to the fact that…
The greatest response human beings can give is praise to God.
One of the curses of a successful ministry is the tendency men have to accept glory for what God has done. I am always troubled when ministries are named after the minister, with the possible exception of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – Graham has so clearly demonstrated a life of humble service before God that there probably has been little harm done there. However, when you observe some of the widely known religious leaders of our day, do you not get the notion that self-promotion is a dominant theme? Their pictures are on every promotional piece, their names are on the marquees, their presence is sought at every Christian convention. Oh, I know many of them say the words, “All honor and glory goes to God,” but sometimes their actions belie those words.
Will you notice please that when Jesus, who was God and who deserved to be worshiped, ministered to the needs of people, even He did not seek glory for Himself. He pointed people to the Father. He was pleased when they praised the Father. I referred a few moments ago to the healing of the leper in Luke 5, verses 12-16. Look at verse 14: “Then Jesus ordered him, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest.” Can you imagine a faith healer today saying to someone he has just healed, “Don’t tell anyone!”?
Verse 26 reads, “Everyone (obviously not including the religious leaders, for the rest of the chapter will demonstrate that their opposition and hatred toward Jesus only increases – but everyone else) was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’” Remarkable indeed!
Now I want to talk to you here at the close of my message about forgiveness, for there is no greater word in the English language. I don’t talk to you about being more religious. The Scribes and Pharisees had religion coming out their ears, but they did not know forgiveness.
Guilt is a terrible curse on the human spirit, and we can’t get rid of it by denying it, sublimating it, or trying to transfer it to others. The only way to get rid of it is by accepting God’s forgiveness. Twenty years ago I read an article by Rick Harrison in the now-defunct Eternity magazine. It was entitled “Garbage Collectors,” and I want to read part of it to you:
Like many home dwellers, when it comes to taking out the garbage, I put it off until the very last moment. While I delay that inevitable sojourn, the garbage begins to spill on the floor. There lies the evidence of my negligence for all to see and smell. The terrible odor finally convinces me that the time to put out the garbage has come.
On our street Monday is usually collection day. On rainy pick-up days, however, the garbage collectors sometimes keep their feet dry and our garbage gets soaked. Then I trudge back to the curb and bring the mess back to the house. For a whole week, we get to look at it, smell it and repeatedly pick it up off the floor.
One day as I was bringing the garbage back in, it occurred to me that many of us approach our frustrations, failures and hurts in the same way we tend to our garbage when it rains. We confess our sins and failures. Forgiveness is pronounced, but we do not receive it or experience it. We take out the garbage only to bring it right back in to live with us.
No wonder sometimes our lives are not joyous. The garbage begins to get heavy. It starts to spill over into our relationships. It makes a mess, and the smell permeates our lives. Sometimes we suffocate ….
I have another clever way of avoiding the growing pile of debris. Rather than take it out to the curb and let it be carried away, I climb into the can and jump up and down to condense the trash. Then there is room for even more. I don’t get rid of the old trash. The load just becomes heavier and heavier. Once I pushed the limit. The can burst open and all of that smelly, slimy debris spilled out. The can was useless after that, and I had a real mess on my hands.
We go through the same disastrous exercise in our relationships when we pack them with the trash of guilt, unresolved conflict and anxieties until the loads become too heavy. Then, like garbage cans, the relationships burst open; sometimes they are irreparable.
Somehow, we miss the point. In 1 Peter 5:7 the promise is, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you.” In 1 John the promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God’s forgiveness is like a collection truck that comes by and carries away the trash forever. We don’t have to see it or smell it ever again … It’s gone.[i]
Every one of us has sinned. We have fallen short of the standards God has set for us—standards intended to make our lives longer, more fulfilling, and more fruitful. Sin in turn produces guilt, that awful sense of personal failure. It gnaws at our consciences, telling us there are no excuses and we deserve to be condemned. Guilt in turn destroys the joy of life. It eats away at our peace of mind and poisons relationships.
Many Christians are handcuffed by guilt. This goes all the way from the widow who says, “If only I had insisted that my husband go to the doctor earlier, he would not have died,” to the person who believes he has committed the unpardonable sin. (By the way, I think the unpardonable sin is like what they say about Alzheimer’s. If you’re worried about having it, you don’t. If you are concerned about having committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t, because those who have, have no conscience about it).
I am convinced that the single greatest cause of spiritual defeat is a guilty conscience. We know we have sinned, and we are weary of it; yet we don’t know how to be free from a sense of failure. I think freedom is found in three very simple, yet profound truths:
- Christ’s death on the cross included a sacrifice for all sins — past, present, and future. All our sins were future when Christ died 2,000 years ago. There is no sin you will ever commit which has not already been paid for by Christ’s death. The words that Christ spoke on the Cross, “It is finished,” (John 19:30) are the same words used in that day for business transactions, meaning “paid in full.”
- God does not punish us for our sins! All of the punishment has already been given to Christ. God disciplines us, but he does not punish us. Some Christians interpret all calamities as God trying to get even with them for failing to obey his commandments. A sick child, an accident, financial difficulties—all of these are believed to be God’s punishment for sin. In fact, some people even try to punish themselves for their sins! How futile and unnecessary! Oh, we may pay the natural consequences of our sin for a long time, but we must not think of God as punishing us.
3. Although we may become weary of confessing the same sins, God does not become weary hearing our confession, provided we are being honest with him. In fact, Pastor Erwin Lutzer of Moody Church wrote, “If we say to God, ‘I am coming to confess the same sin,’ God’s reply is, ‘What sin?’ Any previous sins which have been confessed have already been blotted out forever!”[ii] The sins you confessed yesterday will never again be a barrier between you and God unless you doubt the value of Christ’s sacrifice or unless you are using confession as a mere excuse for further sin.
Last Christmas we printed the words of an anonymous author in the worship folder. They are very pertinent here:
If our greatest need had been for information … God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been for technology … God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been for money … God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been for pleasure … God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was for forgiveness … So God sent us a Savior. His name was Jesus.
Friend, you can find forgiveness today by putting your faith and trust in the one who died for you. A simple sinner’s prayer will do, if you mean it with all your heart:
Father, I confess that I have sinned and have fallen short of your standards. I know I deserve Hell and not Heaven because of my sin. But I believe you when you say that you sent Jesus to die for me and to pay for my sin. I receive Jesus by faith as my personal Savior. Thank you, Father, for loving me and for letting me join your family. Amen.
[i]. Rick Harrison, Eternity Magazine, “Garbage Collectors.”
[ii].Erwin Lutzer, Pastor, Moody Church, citation lost.