A man collapsed on the street with severe chest pains. A doctor chanced upon him, took him to hospital, and ran various tests.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the doctor said at last, “but you are very sick. You have cancer, lung cancer.”
The man reached into his pocket for a cigarette to calm his nerves. After lighting up, he said to the doctor, “Who do you think you are, telling me I’ve got cancer? I don’t have to take that sort of talk from you!”
“Look,” the doctor replied, “the cancer is at a relatively early stage. I’ve seen worse. There’s still hope for you, if you’ll give up smoking and submit to treatment.”
“Ah, I see,” said the man. “You not only want to put me down, you also want to control me. First you tell me I’m sick and next you tell me I have to submit to you or else!” He took a drag on his cigarette, coughed, and continued: “You’re a typical doctor—always so negative, telling people they’ve got diseases. And you’re so high and mighty, too, threatening people with death if they don’t do as you say.”
“No,” the doctor interrupted. “You don’t understand. You’re seriously ill and if—”
But the man would not listen. “I understand all right,” he said, “and you can get lost as far as I’m concerned! I’m not going to let anyone humiliate me by telling me I’m sick. And I’m not going to let anyone scare me by telling me I’m going to die. And I’m sure not going to let anyone tell me what I have to do!”
Sound absurd? Don’t be too sure.
It is true that few people behave like that sick man concerning their physical health. But when it comes to their spiritual health, many people behave precisely like him.
God’s word, the Bible, claims that all human beings are afflicted with a moral disorder, a spiritual sickness, called “sinfulness”. Humans are sinful, having a nature that is stained by evil and biased towards doing wrong. Many people find this claim deeply offensive. They feel that it demeans humanity, and therefore themselves. They take it as a personal put-down.
But try for a moment to set aside the seeming affront of being described as a sinner, and think soberly about the human condition. Whichever way we look at it, there is something fundamentally wrong with human beings.
We sense this quite clearly when we repeatedly read in the newspapers about people who have done dreadful things—people guilty of murder, rape, abuse, burglary, bashing, robbery, embezzlement, bigotry, adultery and deception. Even with the best will in the world, even with the most ingenious theories about the influences of poverty or parents, we cannot quite escape the conviction that the problem with such people lies in their hearts. We cannot shake the thought that the evil they commit has to do with the evil they harbour.
It is not just strangers, however, who alert us to the fact that humans have a moral problem. Although we hate to admit it, we observe a similar problem in those close to us, those we love. Our children, for example. Of course, they have not robbed or bashed anyone—at least, not yet—and we hope not ever! Even so, we cannot help but note how they are sometimes selfish, disobedient, disrespectful and deceitful. Oh yes, we forgive them and we love them still. But if we are honest we have to admit that there is something wrong with them.
Finally, and most reluctantly of all, we see a similar moral disorder in ourselves. In our quieter moments we cannot help but feel that we ourselves are guilty of considerable wrongdoing. Not rape, not murder, certainly! But so much else! We have not been as loving or as kind or as loyal or as honest or as diligent or as decent as we should have been. We know it, and it troubles us. We feel guilty. We feel ashamed. We feel disappointed with ourselves.
Strangers, loved ones, self—all confirm there is something radically wrong with human beings. But what?
As we have noted, the Bible answers this question. It says that the problem with mankind is sin. At heart, all people are sinners—that is, they desire and do things that are wrong, things that deviate from God’s moral standards, things that are hurtful to themselves and others. This moral corruption is so deep that, although we can partially restrain it, we can never of our own accord entirely conquer it.
This is how the Bible expresses our problem: the human “heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9); “for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19); “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10); “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).1
Why does the Bible insist on presenting us with this dreadful picture of human nature—this dreadful picture of ourselves? One answer is that it is fundamentally concerned with the real and the true. It does not pretend things are other than they are. It does not pretty things up or play things down. It is realistic and truthful through and through.
The Bible’s identification of us as sinners is not only realistic but also diagnostic. The Bible is making a diagnosis of our problem. What is the cause of this spiritual sickness that afflicts all people? It is sin, a corruption at the core of our being.
This is not a politically correct or personally comfortable diagnosis. But it is an honest and accurate one, and therefore an invaluable one.
It is a relief and a blessing to have a truthful diagnosis of our problem! What use is a doctor who tells us comforting things that are not true? The man with lung cancer might be relieved to be told that he has a common cold, but such a false diagnosis will kill him in the end. Oh, even if it is harsh, let us know the truth! If our problem is sin, by all means tell us. Then we can seek an appropriate treatment. How can we ever get healing without an accurate diagnosis?
The Bible does not speak of our sin because it wants to put us down, but because it wants to lift us up. God has truthfully diagnosed our problem because he wants to solve it. And he has solved it. He sent a Doctor to heal us. That Doctor is his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
One of the names Christians have traditionally used for Jesus is “the Great Physician”. This name is taken from a comment Jesus made to some self-righteous people who criticised him for associating with unworthy types. Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
Gauging from this comment, Jesus plainly views us as sinners. Equally plainly, he views us with compassion. His heart is drawn to us. Seeing our misery, he laid aside his heavenly glory and came to earth as a doctor to heal us.
Our Great Physician came not only to dispense treatment, but also to devise it. Until he came, there was no adequate remedy for sin. So he pioneered one, the only one.
To heal us, Jesus needed to eradicate our sin—the guilt of it, the power of it, and the penalty due to it. To achieve this total eradication, he sacrificed his own life. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). On the cross, Jesus set up an exchange. He took our spiritual sickness so that we could take his spiritual health.
By dying on our behalf and rising again from the grave, Jesus has brought about a perfect cure for our sin-sickness. That cure begins to take effect in our lives the moment we turn from our sin (repent) and trust in Jesus.
So, instead of being offended when God’s word diagnoses us as sinners, we should humbly admit that it is right. Then we should call out to God’s Son, the Great Physician, to make us well.
Only those who stand on their dignity and deny their own sin-sickness are beyond the Great Doctor’s help. He will not force anyone to receive treatment. He will leave the self-righteous to argue their own case before God on the Day of Judgment.
As for those who admit that they are sin-sick and call out in faith to Jesus, they will indeed be made well. Their healing will begin immediately, and will be completed without fail in and for eternity.
1. The quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version.
The name in brackets after each quotation refers to one of the sixty-six books that make up the Bible, while the numbers refer to the chapter and verse(s) of that book.
Words of diagnosis and healing from the Bible:
* your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you (Isaiah 59:2)
* the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23)
* Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18)
* We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6)
* Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
* For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16)
* everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43)
* if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9)
* these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31)