Calling Sinners to the Savior
Passage: Luke 5:27–5:32
Calling Sinners to the Savior
I’d like to ask you to consider a question this morning. From the human perspective, what is it that keeps people from following Jesus? Now, biblically speaking, we know that the answer is the deadness of the human heart – a state so dire and desperate that only divine grace can provide the remedy, as the Holy Spirit grants new life to whom he will through the preaching of the gospel! Biblically speaking, the answer is depravity, but that depravity takes different forms with different people. And so, my question is this – from the human perspective, what is it that keeps people from following Jesus?
There are several answers we might give, but broadly speaking, I would say most people fall in to one of two camps. The first camp is perhaps the most familiar. It’s those people who say, “I’m too bad for God to save. I’ve already done too much wrong.” We might call this the outcast camp, and its adherents are not hard to spot. It’s the person who lives with an unshakeable sense of shame, which in turns leads her into more and more destructive patterns of behavior. Or, it could be the person who simply doesn’t care about standards of morality, doesn’t care about religious practice, and has instead decided to embrace head-on a self-centered life. Those two people look different, but they both belong to this same camp – the outcast camp. “I’m too far gone for God, so why even bother?”
But there is a second camp that is perhaps even more prevalent and is certainly more sinister. If the sinners’ camp says, “I’m too bad for God to save,” this second camp says the opposite – “I’m already good enough for God to accept.” We might call this the righteous camp, or more accurately, the self-righteous camp, and while its adherents are not as loud in their refusal of Jesus, you can still spot them. It’s the person who constantly points out how bad everyone else is in comparison to himself, which of course proves that he is actually a pretty good person overall. Or, it’s the person who is very moral, all the while believing that his morality is enough to get him into heaven. These people trust in their own righteousness, and as a result, members of this second camp, who don’t look as bad as those sinners, actually end up in the same place. They end up refusing Jesus. Broadly speaking, these are the two basic reasons why people refuse to follow Jesus. “I’m too far gone for God to save,” and “I’m good enough already for God to accept.”
Well, as we come to Luke 5 this morning, we find Jesus interacting with both camps of people. On the one hand, we see Jesus engaging with those who are considered outcasts in Jewish society – the tax collectors, men like Levi here in v27. And on the other hand, we see Jesus confronting those who are confidently righteous – the Jewish religious leaders. But here’s one of the keys to the passage, brothers and sisters, and one of the keys to understanding the gospel. Here in Luke 5, Jesus does not view these people as belong to two different groups – outcast and righteous. No, Jesus sees only one group – sinners, who need a Savior. That’s really the earth-shattering claim that Jesus makes in this text. There is only one camp for humanity – the camp of sinner, and both tax collectors and Pharisees are included in its ranks.
And so, that means the pressing question for all people is the one we see played out here in Luke 5 – do we see ourselves in the correct light, or the correct camp we might say? Do we recognize that there is really only one category of people – that of sinner who needs to be saved? Or, to say it another way, do we recognize that the gospel is for those who believe themselves too far gone and for those who believe themselves good enough already? That’s the message of this text. Whether you are a tax collector or a Pharisee, Luke 5 is telling you that you need Jesus.
The issue of the passage is our response to Jesus, and as we look at the details, we find that Luke is giving us two truths here about Jesus’ ministry that lead us to the right response. The first truth has to do with Lordship, while the second concerns Jesus’ Mission. With an eye toward following Jesus more faithfully, let’s consider each truth in a bit more detail.
The Gracious Lordship of Jesus
Luke begins in vv27-28 by showing us the Gracious Lordship of Jesus. Luke gives us very few details regarding the setting for this scene, but that lack of detail is actually instructive. As you read the verses, what stands out quite clearly is Jesus’ initiative. This isn’t a random or accidental encounter with Levi. This is intentional. At his initiative, Jesus calls a tax collector to be his disciple.
Now, before we think about Jesus’ initiative, we should acknowledge how unexpected this is. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were despised, in large part because they worked for the hated Romans. And they were also corrupt. To put it simply, you could get rich quick as a tax collector, and it wasn’t even that hard. If the Romans required a $10 tax, you collected $15 and pocketed the extra five. Over time, that adds up, which makes being a sell-out a little easier to stomach. Your neighbors may hate you, but at least you’re rich!
Here in v27, when Luke tells us that Jesus calls a tax collector, we need to understand how radical this is. A respected teacher would never associate with tax collectors, let alone call one to be his disciple. But that is exactly what Jesus does. He calls Levi to follow him.
Now, why is Jesus doing this? Why take this radical step to call such a person to be a disciple? It’s because Jesus is teaching us something foundational about the nature of discipleship. This is easy to overlook, but it’s something we need to slow down and regularly remember. Notice that Levi did not seek Jesus out. It was the other way around. It was Jesus who took the initiative with Levi. It was Jesus who made the first move toward this despised tax collector. And do you know what the Bible calls that initiative? Do you know what Scripture call this first move on Jesus’ part? The Bible calls it grace. That’s the foundational point we need to be reminded of regularly. Following Jesus begins not with our move toward Jesus but rather with his move toward us.
Brothers and sisters, this is true of every single disciple in the history of the church. This is my testimony and yours. The reason we are followers of Jesus today is because he, in his grace, moved toward us and called us out of the sin and darkness of our former lives. We were no better than Levi. Sure, we may have looked more respectable on the outside, but we were just as desperate as he was. And yet, into that darkness, the Lord Jesus came and called us to himself. It was his initiative that made us his followers. In fact, this is part of the reason why we confess Jesus to be our Lord – because he is the one who initiated and called. It was his voice that began our relationship to him, and it is his voice that now defines our relationship to him. Do you see it? The call of Levi is a reminder that all discipleship begins with the Lord Jesus taking the initiative to call us, and that initiative, rightly understood, is grace.
But along that initiative there is another aspect of Jesus’ lordship that should get our attention here with Levi. V27, Jesus is the Lord who initiates and calls Levi, but then in v28, Jesus is the Lord who redefines Levi’s life. Notice the brief but powerful description of Levi’s response in v28 – “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” Now, you’ve got to appreciate the cost of Levi’s response. Remember, he’s making good money, and his job is pretty stable.
And yet, in an instant, Levi leaves that life behind in order to follow Jesus. Understand, that this is a total reorientation of Levi’s life, and it comes in submission to Jesus. Once Levi walks away, there is no going back to collecting taxes. There’s no going back to the wealth and security of the tax booth. And still, Levi immediately lays it all down in order to follow the Lord Jesus.
This too is foundational for discipleship. To follow Jesus means that he is now the defining center of your life. All of your previous priorities – your job, your identity, your hopes, your interests – all of those priorities are now redefined by him. To use Levi’s life as an example, you can’t have one foot in the tax booth and one foot on the road of discipleship. It doesn’t work like that. No one can serve two masters, as Jesus himself will say. To follow Jesus means that everything now reorients to and around the Lord Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, is that true your discipleship today? Are seeking to submit every aspect of your life to Jesus and to his Word? Your job, your dreams for the future, your daily conduct, your opinions and priorities – is Jesus the Lord in those areas? To follow him like Levi means that you obey his Word and live under his authority. Are we doing that, day in and day out?
And listen, I want to be clear. This kind of allegiance doesn’t mean that every Christian has to sell everything today and move overseas in service to the gospel. Disciples display their allegiance in a variety of ways. But at the same time, this kind of allegiance does mean that the heart of every Christian is marked by this kind of willing submission to Jesus that obeys wherever and whenever he calls. Your discipleship road may not lead to the literal ends of the earth, but you should be willing and ready to go there. I’ll ask again – is this true of us, brothers and sisters? From our thinking to our priorities, from our actions to our values – are we defining every aspect of life in relation to the Lord Jesus and to his Word?
Now, as I ask that, some of us will have to honestly answer, “No, my Christian life right now is not marked by that kind of submission to Jesus’ lordship. There are areas where I am ignoring his authority and going my own way.” Some of us will have to answer with that kind of honesty, but here’s what I would say if that is you today. I would encourage you to remember the grace that first called you as a disciple. Remember the initiative that the Lord Jesus showed to make you his own. That same grace is at work today just as it was on your first day of being a Christian. And that means today there is forgiveness with the Lord, and today can be the day you repent and respond afresh to reorient your life around the Lord Jesus. Don’t despair, brothers and sisters. Instead, confess your sin and remember the gracious lordship of Jesus. If discipleship is grace from beginning to end, then that means there is hope, even for wayward and stumbling disciples too.
The Merciful Mission of Jesus
Amazingly, the Lord Jesus is not finished with lowly tax collectors. After calling Levi, Jesus attends a party thrown by his new disciple. And it is here that Luke gives us the second truth that helps us respond to Jesus. From vv29-32, we see the Merciful Mission of Jesus. As we just noted, Levi throws a party in v29, and he invites his tax collector friends as well as the Lord Jesus. Now, this is really instructive, and I want us to draw this out. Following Jesus did not mean that Levi had to get rid of his old friends, but following Jesus did mean that Levi had to relate to his old friends in a new way. Do you see the difference? Levi throws this party so that his tax collectors buddies can interact with Jesus. Levi wants them to know the Savior!
This too is part of discipleship. Following Jesus does not mean that we pursue some monastic vision of life that avoids all contact with the world. Rather, following Jesus means we live in the world in a way that makes clear that the world is no longer our home, and that Jesus is now our Lord. And that’s what Levi is doing here in v29. He is in the world but not of the world. This is key, brothers and sisters, and it’s important that we understand the distinction Levi illustrates. There is a difference between engaging people in world and imbibing worldliness ourselves. The one is part of our calling and therefore necessary, but the other undermines our witness and therefore should be avoided. Or, to say it another way, worldliness is a problem, a serious problem, but, as Levi shows us here, we don’t have to compromise on worldliness in order to take the gospel into the world. He’s in the world but no longer of it. Now, we’re going to come back to this point in a few moments and make some more application on what this looks like. And not surprisingly, it will be the Lord Jesus who gives us some insight.
But for now, we need to note that it is not the worldly people who oppose Jesus at this point. It’s the religious people – the Pharisees and scribes. They can’t make the distinction that Levi makes. In their minds, you should never get too close to sinners, so they take this opportunity to undermine Jesus. Notice v30 – “And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” Now, notice the word Luke uses in v30 – the religious leaders grumbled at Jesus’ disciples. Do you know who else in Scripture is said to have grumbled like this? OT Israel. They grumbled – same word – against God in the wilderness. Do you remember that? Instead of trusting the God who delivered them, OT Israel grumbled against God and even gave in to unbelief. And here in Luke 5, that’s the same thing we find the religious leaders doing. Luke is not subtle, is he? Who are the religious leaders like? They are like the wayward, rebellious, unbelieving nation of Israel. It’s not the outcasts who are hardening their hearts. It’s the religious leaders.
But Jesus then responds to the grumbling religious leaders, and his response reveals not only the heart of his mission but also how misguided the religious leaders are. Notice what Jesus says, v31 – “And Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’” Now, on one level, Jesus’ point is straightforward, isn’t it? Doctors are concerned with those who are ill, not with those who are healthy. A doctor who only hangs around with healthy people is a strange doctor. He’s not really fulfilling his calling.
But then in v32, Jesus takes that straightforward image, and he applies it to his mission, v32 – “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Now, you’ve got to make the connection from v31 to v32. Like a doctor who faithfully treats the sick, Jesus has come for sinners. If Jesus avoided tax collectors, he would be like the doctor who only hung out with healthy people. He would be hijacking his own mission! This is why Jesus came – to seek and save those who are lost, or to use the imagery here, to heal those who are sick.
But at the same time, Jesus has also indicted the religious leaders, hasn’t he? He has even exposed their hard hearts. This is important. In v32, Jesus is not saying that the religious leaders are already righteous and therefore don’t need a Savior. Far from it. Jesus is saying that the religious leaders have failed to see their need, and that’s why they refuse to follow Jesus. The religious leaders have the worst kind of spiritual sickness – it’s the disease of self-righteousness. They are sick, but they don’t know it! In their minds, they don’t need a doctor, and that’s why they reject the gospel. That is a tragic and sobering point that we need to reckon with. It is not the religious leaders’ sin that keeps them from Jesus. It’s their self-righteousness.
And so, if you are here this morning and you are convinced that your good works or your morality are enough to make you right with God, then Jesus has some strong words you need to hear. In humanity’s natural state, there are no righteous people in the eyes of God. There are no healthy people who stand above the need for a Savior. In God’s economy, there are only sinners who need to be saved. There are only sick and lost souls that need Jesus to seek them out and save them from their sins. Please don’t dismiss the gospel this morning, thinking that you already good enough on your own. It doesn’t matter how many sins you have avoided in your life. It doesn’t matter how much higher your standards are compared to all those sinners in the world. You cannot save yourself. And Jesus is warning you today that self-righteousness is as dangerous as outright wickedness. On the authority of Scripture, I plead with you – do not make the mistake that the religious make here in Luke 5. Do not falsely believe that you are well enough on your own. There is only one kind of person before God, and that is a sinner who needs to be saved. And I pray that God will open your eyes to see how that salvation comes only through Jesus.
But on the flip side, this scene at Levi’s house should also remind us that there are no sinners beyond the reach of the Savior. Tax collectors were pretty lousy, and yet, Jesus seeks out such sinners. There are no people who are so far gone that Christ’s grace cannot reach them. That’s his mission – to call even the most wayward sinner to himself. In fact, if you look at the history of the church, some of Christ’s most faithful servants have been those whom he saved out of the darkest sin. The apostle Paul persecuted the church and even approved of the murder of Christians, but Christ saved him and made him the apostle to the Gentiles. The renowned theologian Augustine was an outright pagan who loved pleasure more than anything, but Christ saved him and made him a great servant to the church. John Newton, the composer of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, was a slave trader who lived a debauched life, but Christ saved him and used him to minister the gospel to many across the world. I remind you of these saints not to impress you with their ministries, but to encourage you that even the vilest sinner can be saved and redeemed through the grace of Jesus Christ. If the Lord Jesus can reach tax collectors and murderers and pagans and slave traders, then surely he can save you. If you’re here this morning and you’re convinced that you are too far gone, then Jesus has some strong words you need to hear. He came to save sinners, just like us, and in his grace, he is calling you today to hear his gospel and believe. Whether its self-righteousness or outright wickedness, we’re all sinners, and what every sinner needs is Jesus.
As we get ready to close this morning, I want to go back to that point from earlier – about Levi being in the world but not of the world. He left everything to follow Jesus, and at the same time, he hosted a party for his tax collector friends to meet the Savior. That’s a picture of our calling, brothers and sisters. As followers of Christ, we are called to join the Lord Jesus in the mission of proclaiming the good news to the world. We have this tension that will be with us until Jesus returns. On the one hand, we are called to avoid worldliness – that’s part of discipleship. And on the other hand, we are called to take the good news into the world – that’s also part of discipleship. That’s what we see Levi doing here in Luke 5. The question becomes – How do we do this faithfully? How do we, as Christians, live in a way that upholds both sides of our calling – not giving in to worldliness, but also not failing to take the gospel into the world?
There is a lot to say in answer to that question, but in our passage, we see the essential answer from the Lord Jesus himself. Look again at this passage, and notice how Jesus engaged with these tax collectors. Jesus does two things that I would say many people assume cannot go together. On the one hand, Jesus shows remarkable compassion. This is clear throughout the passage. Jesus calls Levi, he goes to dinner with tax collectors, and he presumably interacted with them in a respectable, friendly manner. I mean, it’s not hard to imagine the Lord Jesus talking with some tax collector, asking about his family, listening to the man’s story, and perhaps laughing along at something funny that happened just recently. It’s all compassion, in other words. These are people who have no business being in the presence of the Lord Jesus, and yet, Jesus, with great kindness, gives them his friendship. That’s the first thing Jesus does. He interacts with these worldly people with great compassion.
But the second thing is just as important. Jesus also shows remarkable clarity. Notice the end of v32. Why has Jesus come? “Not to call the righteous but sinners” to what? To repentance. Jesus was clear. Sin is serious, and therefore, sinners like us need to repent. Tax collectors need to turn away from swindling people. Greedy people need to turn away from idolatry. Gossips need to turn away from spreading slander. The sexually immoral need to turn away from impurity. Sinners need to repent, Jesus says.
Imagine again Jesus talking with that tax collector at Levi’s party. He’s learned the man’s name, he’s heard about his family, perhaps they shared that laugh at something funny. But at some point in that conversation, you can almost hear Jesus saying, “You know, friend, there is a better way to live than what you’re chasing after. You’ve got all this money, but that money won’t last forever. In fact, that money doesn’t really mean much in God’s eyes. God’s standard is perfection, and the reality is you can’t buy God off. All your money can’t erase your sin. There’s only one way to know the Living God, and it’s through the mercy and grace he provides. And that means you’ve got to lay down your sinful ways. Right now, today, you’ve got to repent and turn from sin in order to trust in the grace that only God gives.” It’s not hard for me to imagine Jesus saying that to some tax collector.
And so, catch what the Lord Jesus has done. He’s done two things that lots of Christians seem to think can’t go together. Jesus has shown compassion, and he’s been clear. That’s instructive, brothers and sisters. In fact, I would say that’s the essential starting place for us to be faithful with the good news. We show compassion, and we speak clearly. We compassionately welcome and engage with all whom God brings across our paths, and we speak clearly and without apology the things that God has said are true. Those two actions are not at odds, and we shouldn’t undermine one while claiming to uphold the other. Being compassionate does not give us license to distort or deny the Word of God. And being clear does not give us permission to be harsh, cruel, or unkind. Now, does this mean that everyone will like us? No, of course not. Does this mixture of compassion and clarity mean we won’t face opposition? Not in the least. But it will help us, brothers and sisters, walk in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus, even walking in the way that he walked.
And so, I am praying that our church would model this kind of witness. This is part of what it means to faithfully follow the Lord. We submit to his gracious lordship over us, and we devote ourselves to his merciful mission that saved us. And we do that in the way that our Lord did – with compassion and with clarity, that the lost might be saved by the same grace that saved us. Amen.