The Scandalous Satisfaction of Forgiveness
“And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’” (Matthew 9:1-2)
I can think of few things that would be more debilitating and disheartening than paralysis. So when you consider the gravity of this man’s need, and the goal of his friends in bringing him to Jesus, there’s something shocking, if not downright scandalous, about Jesus’ response. The emphasis on his authority to forgive sins seems a bit callous and ignorant at first. It feels a bit like ordering a steak and being served an empty plate with a little garnish on the side. It’s kind of a nice finishing touch, but I’m not sure how that little twig there is going to fill me up or address my need, my hunger. It’s kind of a nice bonus to be forgiven of sin, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it laying here on the mat.
This is by no means the first time that the sick have come or been brought to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (see Matt. 4:23-24; 8:1-17). So when these men bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus, believing and expecting him to be healed, we can’t fault their aim or request, and we certainly can’t fault their faith.
But that Jesus’ response is such a shock (at least to us as readers), suggests a significant flaw in our general perspective of things. We have a tendency to focus on earthly needs and problems, while overlooking the bigger spiritual picture of God’s kingdom and our deeper spiritual need to be forgiven and reconciled with God.
This is so pervasive among North American Christians, that sociologists suggest that it has actually become its own functional religion. In his study of the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers, sociologist Christian Smith found that
the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ . . . In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.1
And it’s not only true of teenagers and young people; many of them learned this from watching the religious lives of their parents. Our default mode as humans living in a fallen world is to focus on earthly needs and problems, which not only overestimates what the world can give us, but underestimates the problem of sin.
We don’t always like to talk about sin, and we find it unloving to suggest to someone that like us, they are sinners. But it’s no more unloving than a doctor sharing a terminal diagnosis with a patient—if it’s a real diagnosis. If sin is a real problem, we ignore it to our peril.
Sin in its most basis sense is disobedience and rebellion against God. It’s essentially saying to God, our Creator and our King, “Thanks for making me, but I’ll take it from here. We’d like to run things on our own terms from now on.” The result of our sin is not only the fall of creation and all that’s wrong in this world—poverty, violence, diseases like paralysis—it all stems either directly or indirectly from human rebellion against God. More devastating than anything on the earthly plane, though, is our separation from God in judgment. We want to run things on our own terms, but that doesn’t mean God is not still king, and that he doesn’t have a right and even a moral obligation to judge those who rebel against him, punishing them with eternal death.
That probably sounds severe to some of us, and no doubt some of us don’t think we’re quite that bad (especially compared to that guy!). But the severity of our sin is not measured against that guy, but against the holiness of God. The reason we think little of our sin is because we think little of God—his majesty, his worthiness, his holiness, his moral perfection. Our earthly perspective clouds us from seeing sin for what it is, and so we focus on earthly needs and problems instead.
And this is a temptation not only at the personal level, but at the broader institutional level of the church as well. For the last two-hundred or so years, the western church has struggled with the temptation (especially in New England) to downplay the spiritual aspect of our mission (especially the ideas of repentance and sin and God’s wrath), and instead focus on meeting human needs at a human, earthly level—dealing with poverty, sickness, education, civil rights, and the like. So it is, sadly, that you can walk into countless churches in New England, and the Bible holds no authority. The gospel of Jesus—that Christ died for our sins to take on himself God’s holy anger and wrath against our sin, so that through faith in him and his life, death, and resurrection for us we might be forgiven and reconciled to God and adopted into his family, and so to lovingly follow him and serve his kingdom and enjoy eternity in his presence—that gospel is not proclaimed. What’s left is simply a social service organization, which may do a lot of good things in meeting earthly needs, but has nothing of eternal value to offer people, and therefore leaves them under God’s eternal condemnation, because it doesn’t offer them Christ.
To be honest, the evangelical church has often made the opposite error—focusing only on spiritual needs and ignoring the physical. Loving people in word only, but not also in deed. The physical problems people face are real problems, and if we love them, we will care about finding real solutions. But though we are rightly to be faulted if our love never translates into getting our hands dirty in addressing earthly needs and problems, we see in these verses (and elsewhere) that while both physical and spiritual problems are real, Jesus does in fact prioritize the spiritual. It is the bigger problem, and therefore the deeper human need.
As Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert put it, “there is something worse than death and something better than human flourishing. If we hope only for renewed cities and restored bodies in this life, we are of all people most to be pitied.”2 As good and fulfilling as something like health or education or financial stability truly are, they’re worth less than a nickel compared to the delight and satisfaction of being forgiven our sin and reconciled to God and enjoying his blessing and presence forever in the new heavens and new earth. As tragic and enslaving as something like paralysis or debt or any number of trials in life truly are, they are better than all the riches in the world when compared to the horrors of eternal judgment. Sin is the bigger problem, and therefore forgiveness is the deeper need. So it is that Jesus came, we are told in Matthew 1:21, “to save his people from their sins.”
So to look at Jesus’ words to the paralytic, what seems at first like a callous and irrelevant response is actually deeply compassionate and hopeful. Jesus isn’t settling for the fruit, he’s going after the root. He’s dealing with the bigger problem.
So it is that we should not allow our longings and prayers to deal only with earthly needs and problems. When you pray for your friends, or your children, or yourself, do your prayers focus only on safety, or health, or success, or stuff? Or are you asking God to change hearts, to give your children faith in Jesus, to free them from guilt and shame, and fill their hearts with the love of the Father? Are we asking God to make them more like Jesus, to satisfy their hearts with Jesus, so that their joy isn’t in their circumstances but in him? So that they’re free to lay down their lives for his sake and the sake of his gospel?
If Jesus is concerned with the deeper problem, so should we be. And not just in our personal lives, but in our ministries as well. We cannot allow our ministries to deal only with physical needs, but we must hold forth the gospel of God’s saving grace. As John Piper has said, “As Christians, we care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.”3 That is the heart of Jesus’ mission, and he has authority on earth to deal with that deepest need—the forgiveness of our sins before our holy God and Father.
So here’s the question: Were you to come to Jesus with a request like the paralyzed man’s (or something much less significant), and hear instead, “Take heart, my child, your sins are forgiven,” would that be enough? Is it enough for you to know that through faith in Christ your biggest problem has been decisively dealt with, and your greatest need has been eternally secured, and that no one can take it away? Is it enough to know that in this fallen world, even if you have nothing else, you have relationship with your Creator, your King, your Savior, your Father in heaven?
If not, I’m not sure you understand what Jesus came to do. If you find that unimpressive, or boring, or irrelevant—a garnish on the side of an empty plate—then I’m not sure you’ve accurately diagnosed the problem of this world, or that you’re tuned in to God’s solution. There is something worse than sickness, poverty, and death; there is something greater than health, wealth, and human flourishing in this life. There is God—the terror of being separated from him for eternity; the joy of eternal life with him, in his presence, free from all guilt and shame, enjoying his blessing as part of his family, bringing glory to him as a servant of his kingdom forever. And this life and joy is only through faith in Jesus, who has authority on earth to forgive sins.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26).
1. Christians Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), Kindle edition.
2. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 23.
3. As cited in Justin Taylor, “We Care about All Suffering in This Age—Especially Eternal Suffering,” Nov. 18, 2010. Available at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/11/18/we-care-about-all-suffering-in-this-age%E2%80%94especially-eternal-suffering/