And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This [man] blasphemeth. And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, [Thy] sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. Matthew 9:2-7
I have three observations from this passage.
1. Jesus Christ saw that this man had faith and then acted. Thus, faith was prior. This contradicts the curious doctrine held by many Reformed or Calvinistic believers that regeneration precedes faith. Now this doctrine has some merit, but only from an eternal viewpoint, from the perspective of the transcendent God who exists outside of time. This transcendent God chose His people, the ones who would be saved, from before the foundation of the world, and when He did so, it was done. Those people were considered saved, spared the wrath to come, and nothing could be done to nullify or revoke this fact. However, the eternal viewpoint is not the only viewpoint. God is not only transcendent, apart from time and creation (denying this, making God a part of creation, is the bedrock of so many false religions) but immanent with respect to creation, meaning that God does maintain a presence in time-space – indeed this presence is omnipresent – and sustains it (denying this is deism, among many other false systems), and then there was immanence par excellence by way of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. So while the salvation of the elect was an accomplished matter as soon as God decreed it before the foundation of the world, the regeneration of human beings happens at a specific time and place that God has also decreed. Compare this with the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of the elect on the cross. That Jesus Christ would do this thing was decreed by God the Father in eternity before creation was accomplished. However, God also declared that accomplishing atonement would happen by way of His Son’s entering space-time, dying on the cross at a specified time and place in a manner that fulfilled prophecies from earlier times and diverse places, and being likewise raised from the dead. Though this act accomplished salvation for all the elect regardless of time, the cross nonetheless happened at a particular time. It would be therefore be improper to say “the atonement preceded Jesus Christ going to the cross” if for no other reason than the Bible’s specifically stating otherwise. In like manner, this example shows that one cannot say that regeneration precedes faith. In this text, Jesus Christ saw that faith already present in the man, and forgave his sins. Though faith is not of man but of God, a gift of the Holy Spirit sovereignly bestowed upon the elect according to the decree before the foundation of the world of the Ancient of Days, who is God the Father, this example shows that the Godhead is glorified by the Holy Spirit’s first giving a person faith and then accomplishing the work of regeneration that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross made possible. (I am aware that people were regenerated by the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament prior to Jesus Christ’s atonement, with the deathless ascensions of Enoch and Elijah being the chief examples, but this was based on looking forward to the atoning act that Jesus Christ would accomplish at a particular place in time. Even in these cases, regeneration did not precede faith, and as the epistle to the Hebrews conclusively lays out, atonement did not precede the cross.)
2. Though “regeneration precedes faith” is a doctrinal aberration adhered to by some Calvinists, Reformed soteriology is also confirmed by this text. For at what point did the paralytic man exercise his free will? At what point did this paralytic man ask for his sins to be forgiven and to be saved? This paralytic man did have faith, mind you, and this faith was in whatever relevation of the Person of Jesus Christ that he had access to (for the Lord was not yet lifted up on the cross for sins, nor had He yet risen from the dead). But make no mistake: he came to Jesus Christ expecting to be healed! Even if he presumed that his paralysis was due to sin on his part (and the Bible makes it clear in the book of Job and when Jesus Christ healed the man born blind in the gospel of John that such is a false assumption!) the text and the context of this episode does not reveal that this paralytic had the priestly role of Jesus Christ in mind when he sought the Christ’s aid. It should also be noted that even the unbelievers in this episode did not challenge Jesus Christ’s ability to heal this man, but to forgive his sins! So, this man went to Jesus Christ expecting to be physically healed and thereby fulfilled his human responsibility of exercising his God-given faith (though this faith existed in the context of limited human knowledge) and when Jesus Christ being sovereign God saw that the faith given by the sovereign God the Holy Spirit was present in this man, Jesus Christ acted sovereignly, of His own initiative, unasked and uninvited (this man did not “ask Jesus Christ into his heart” or “say a sinner’s prayer”!) to save this man from his sins! And when the sovereign God acted in this manner, the paralytic had no say in the manner. He could not reject, refuse or undo it, nor could he truly even consent to it! This text, this example clearly demonstrates unconditional election and irresistible grace.
3. Point 1, that regeneration does not precede faith, and point 2, that unconditional election and irresistible grace are true doctrines, should inform our evangelism. Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God says God the Holy Spirit in Romans 10:17. Regeneration happens when – in accordance with the time and place chosen by the Ancient of Days – one who has been elected unto salvation and given to Jesus Christ in eternity but from the temporal perspective is unregenerate encounters Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel, receives the gift of faith from the Holy Spirit, and is saved by the work of the Holy Spirit. Romans 10:14 asks us rhetorically “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?” The Holy Spirit does not give faith apart from the preaching of the gospel, and the Holy Spirit does not regenerate in the absence of this faith.
Yet, the gospel is oft not being preached! A form of the gospel, perhaps, but not the gospel. The gospel of good works is often substituted where we try to draw people to Jesus Christ by being good, loving moral people so that we won’t have to use words. The Roman Catholic Francis of Assisi did say “preach the gospel, and use words if necessary”, but that is not Romans 10:14 or Romans 10:17. Also, a gospel of politics and social action is offered up to draw people to Jesus Christ, whether it is the conservative one of opposing abortion and homosexuality or the liberal one of relieving poverty and opposing political oppression. Yes, the Bible speaks of morality and justice on a personal and societal level, but those are in the interests of revealing God’s attributes and nature to mankind, and accepting only some of God’s attributes and not God Himself is but idolatry. Yet, these and other such flawed, distorted gospel presentations, which amounts to either Christless evangelism or evangelism that presents a false Christ, are common, even dominant.
Why? Well the answer is given in the text. When Jesus Christ presented the gospel – presented Himself in His priestly role and His divine prerogatives that bore witness to His identity as God in the flesh – what happened? He was opposed. He was hated. He was rejected. He experienced trials and persecution. “And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This [man] blasphemeth.” And the same thing happens to us when we present Jesus Christ as God who is not only Savior but Lord and Judge! That is what happens when we tell people that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, and unless we repent of our sins, believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation and love Him by keeping His commandments! We experience opposition! We face persecution!
Now instead of accepting what the Bible says when it tells us that we will receive opposition just as Jesus Christ did, that we will be scorned and rejected just as Jesus Christ was, because He is our Master and the servant is not greater than his master, we decide that the problem is either us or the message. We decide that if we are experiencing opposition, it is because something is wrong with us and we need to change. We decide that if we are experiencing rejection, it is because something is wrong with the message and the message needs to change. So, in order to gain carnal acceptance, we take Christ out of the message. When we deny that Jesus Christ is the only way, we deny Christ. When we deny that true repentance means turning away from sins and living in obedience to Jesus Christ, we deny Jesus Christ. When we deny that God alone saves us, and not works or membership in a church, we deny Jesus Christ. And when we deny or omit the reality of eternal judgment and damnation for sinners, we deny Jesus Christ.
And why do we do this? Go back to the text. “For whether is easier, to say, [Thy] sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” We do it because it is easier! Again, the scribes who persecuted Jesus Christ with their blasphemy in this episode were willing to accept Jesus Christ the teacher, because there were many teachers. They were willing to accept Jesus Christ the prophet, for there had been several prophets. They were willing to accept Jesus Christ the priest, for there were many priests. They were willing to accept Jesus Christ the king, for there had been several kings. They were willing to accept Jesus Christ the miracle-worker, for there had been miracle workers. What they were not willing to accept was Jesus Christ as God, as the one God, as their God! Had Jesus Christ merely been willing to be accepted, He could have just healed the man’s paralysis and ignored that man’s sin. For what? So that man would have been well and whole and therefore able to walk into the lake of fire for eternity instead of being carried there? Is that what would have been in that man’s interests? How? Or had Jesus Christ merely been willing to avoid rejection by His own people and persecution, even the death on the cross, He could have just overthrown the Romans and been made emperor of the world with Jerusalem as the capital and Israel the chief people. After all, didn’t Satan offer Jesus Christ the very same deal during His temptation in the desert? But the people would have enjoyed the earthly benefits of Jesus Christ’s imperial rule during their lives only to be cast into the lake of fire after they died, because no atonement would have been made for their sins!
So, Jesus Christ didn’t just take the easy way in merely presenting Himself to this man as his Healer, a role that He knew that the faithless unelect would accept Him. Instead, He presented Himself to this man as his God, a role that He knew would be rejected by the faithless and the reprobate! Jesus Christ took the hard way! He asked “Which is it easier to do, forgive his sins or heal him” and did the hard part, which was promise this man’s salvation at that time, and then be the personal guarantor, the personal surety of that salvation when He went to the cross later! But now, so many of us who presume to speak and teach in Jesus Christ’s Name despise the hard road that Jesus Christ took for the easy road. Which is easier to say? Repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ lest you perish for eternity? Or “I am pro-life?” Or “I support family values?” Or “America is a Christian nation founded on Biblical principles?” Or “marriage was created by God to be between one man and one woman?” Or “I stand with Israel?” Or “no justice, no peace!” Or “help the poor, the orphans and the widows”? Or “judge not”? Or “let he who is without sin cast the first stone!” Or “we must be good stewards of the environment and of our bodies?” Or “God is love”? While Biblical support can be found for all of those notions (provided that they are given in context) the point is that they fall short of the message of Jesus Christ, and fall particularly fall short of the message of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and resurrected for our justification! The message of eternal life and worship of God to those who believe, and of woe and sorrow exceeding for those who do not!
And why do we avoid persecution by saying the easy things instead of the hard ones? Because though we profess to love God first with all our heart, soul and strength as the chief commandment requires us, the truth is that we love ourselves more. Because we love ourselves more, we love the world and the things in it more. That is being double-minded, and the epistle of James reminds us that such a person will never receive a thing from God, and that includes the free gift of salvation. So, Christian evangelist, I urge you to make your calling and election sure. Get off the easy way and take the hard way. Bear witness of the true Jesus Christ with the true gospel today, and do not withhold Jesus Christ and the gift of faith from your fellow man because you value yourself so much than you value your fellow man. If you are unwilling to experience persecution to liberate your fellow man from sin and death by preaching him the gospel, how can you say that you love him? And if you do not love your fellow man, whom you see every day, how can you say that you love God whom you do not see? The Bible asks the same question and you know the answer. Do not blaspheme Christ by saying that which is easy! Glorify Jesus Christ by telling the world the truth of Him.
If you have not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, I urge you to do so right now.