The Lord lays out something truly powerful for us in these verses: it is always the sick who need the doctor, not the healthy. By this He shows us we have the right to call upon Him while we are in our sin, however blind, foolish, wicked, unbelieving, self righteous, proud, we find ourselves to be. In whatever condition we find ourselves, we are to call upon Him, for He came to call us to Himself.
Tragically, we so often think the opposite is true. “I’m too sinful… I don’t feel my need for Christ enough… I don’t have enough faith… I don’t see my sin enough… I’m not repentant enough.” We can become dejected about ourselves and think that others are so “worthy” of God’s help because they’re not as unrighteous as we are. But Jesus shows us that this is as foolish as saying a doctor is for healthy people. No, it is the sick who need a doctor, and it is the sinner who needs the Savior.
One of the great issues in the church today is that we are often not living how we are meant to as believers. We can be so far away from the faith, holiness, and fullness of the Spirit and Truth in which we are meant to walk. There are also many in the church today that profess Christ, and yet show very little, if any, fruit of faith. Because of this, many today are trying to speak out against these things, to call attention to the lack here. Yet there is often a great cost when we do not speak against these things carefully. The trouble is, when we rebuke people for lacking faith, repentance, and obedience—showing that a person must walk in these things if they are truly loving, obeying, and believing Christ—we often leave people feeling as if they must do something in and of themselves in order to remedy these sin issues, rather than go to the Great Physician. If we are not careful, we turn people to themselves and not to Christ, even in our attempts to rebuke sin.
It is not simply the person who is feeling their sin who needs Christ, but also the person who doesn't. We really need to understand this! That it is not only the person who feels their sin who can go to Christ, but the person who doesn’t feel their sin yet. We can miss that this can also be faith! When a person believes God’s Word, in spite of everything within themselves, and they reach out beyond themselves to grasp Christ—that is still faith. They are certainly going to Christ to be made to feel and understand the reality of the Gospel, but it is unbiblical to say that a person must be feeling first before they can go to Him. This heart may be different than one that is feeling their sin, but it is still one that has faith. The person with this heart, who is seeking to submit to the Truth in spite of themself, doing so by looking to Christ, His power and righteousness, to correct what is wrong within them… This person has faith.
Therefore, we must be careful that when we preach to people we do not leave people feeling as if they must “see” before they can go to Christ, but rather that as we are blind, we can still go to Him. They may go to Christ to be made feeling, believing, and seeing.
It is not only the person who understands who can come to Christ, but also the person who doesn’t understand. It is not only the person who already trusts or believes, but the person who doesn’t. It is not only a person who is grieved over sin, but also the person that isn’t that can go to Christ. We need Christ as our hope in all conditions that we find ourselves. We need to stop counting people out who want to walk after Christ but don’t yet understand what it means. The person who is willing to cling to Christ in spite of anything in themselves, to take God’s Word as true even as they do not yet see nor understand, or who struggles to obey, believe, or produce the fruits of godliness, faith, and repentance... These people must be encouraged to see that they can go to Christ in all their sickness, clinging to Him in spite of anything in themselves.
If we are not careful to teach this, then we still teach that it is only the healthy that can go to Christ, and not the sick.
Who Are the “Sick”?
When many of us read this passage in Matthew 9:12-13 about the Pharisees criticizing Jesus for eating with sinners, and Jesus’ response, one of the striking points we take from it is how self-righteous the Pharisees were. And Jesus’ response gives us a sense of compassion for the people He was eating with and a sense of revulsion for the Pharisees. If this is where we stop, we risk making the grave and unfortunately common error of ranking some sins as worse than others.
We need to realize that when Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”, we, like those gathered at the time, were intended to understand that He does not consider anyone too sinful to receive, should they turn to Him. But we were not intended to stigmatize self-righteousness as a sin with which we cannot turn to Jesus! Consider: if one of these Pharisees would have come and sat down at the table, would he not have hope in Christ to cleanse him of all of his self righteousness?
Yet this is often the type of thinking we take from passages such as this, ironically, contrary to the great truth Christ reveals here. And we have many such sins we do this with: we see that we must come to Christ in faith, and then we despair at any unbelief in our hearts. That we must be repentant, and then we despair at the unrepentance in ourselves. That self righteousness is contrary to the Gospel, and we despair or condemn others with this sin.
And so, an important separation must be made here. The Pharisees' sin of self righteousness, their type of sin, wasn’t the issue, it was their rejection of Christ by their self righteousness that was the issue. The sin of the Pharisees was to refuse Christ altogether, and they did so upon the basis of their self righteousness—they believed that if Christ was the messiah, He would be impressed with and approve of their self righteousness. But instead, He saw it for what it really was: evil, oppressive, and twisted. And so they took offense at His rebuke, and rejected Him completely.
In a word, you could say that none of these Pharisees took what Christ said and came and sat down at the table with the other sinners. None of them said, “I don’t understand what you mean, but I will sit at your feet, looking to You to show me and cleanse me.” The Pharisees' sin was that they didn’t follow Christ in spite of themselves, whereas the disciples did. They did not look to Christ to rid them of their sins, but they rejected Christ completely by their sins. The disciples were just as ignorant and sinful as the Pharisees, but they clung to Christ and did not depart from Him, whereas the Pharisees rejected and opposed Him—that is the difference.
This is a very important distinction when it comes to any sin, and here’s what we must see: there is a great difference between a person who is walking in sin, yet fighting against it, calling out to Christ, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), and the person who scorns Christ completely and rejects Him. Even when it comes to someone who is ignorant of their sin, there is still a great difference between someone who is walking with God, even if just partially, and a person who isn’t walking with God at all. We must be careful in our judgements and see that to put on one person the sins of another is terribly damaging to the sincere believer. And to do so is to judge them by their weaknesses and condemn them by them. It also turns them away from looking to Christ to be their Great Physician, and to look to themselves.
Every sin is the sickness spoken of. Regardless of which sin, if you are sick with sin, Christ is your Physician. Go to Him! And cast aside anything that tries to stop you in this! “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30) Oh blessed Jesus, to You we run, to You we cling!
We must also recognize that if we do not acknowledge that all people with any sin have the need and right to cling to Christ for help, then all we do is encourage self deception in people. We make people feel that they must hide their sins and struggles, rather than own them before the Living God. We create a system in the church in which those who are most honest are most attacked, and most condemned, and those who are most ignorant or suppressive of their sins, are encouraged to walk in pride and self deception. This is clearly not what Jesus set out to create at all.
The Healing We Need
All of this means that we must know we can come to Christ in all needs, in all sins, in all hardness of heart, unbelief, pride, self righteousness, and so on. Not just in faith but also for faith. Not just when we are mourning our sin, but to be made mournful over our sin. Not only when humble, but to be made humble.
As the church, we need to be aware of the tactics of the devil, by which he will use absolutely any reason to attempt to convince us we cannot come to Christ and cling to Him. And we need to be aware of how the devil can even use us for this discouragement to other believers.
We must also see how different unbelief is from outright rejection of Christ. All of us are blind, foolish, naked, wretched, pitiable, poor, so again—what hope is there for any of us if we cannot come to Christ in all of our lack? What hope is there for any of us if we cannot go to Christ in full blindness? In full ignorance? In full poverty? Yes, we sing how true this is all the time, but we need to ensure we grasp the full measure of it, and permit others to walk in it.
So let us remember that the sick are the ones who need the Physician.
And so, as we talk of the importance of knowing our need of Christ, of being tender towards Him, of knowing what He’s done for us, of being sorrowful for sin, of believing in Him, and so on, let us be mindful. All of this is true! This is the fruit that is needed in the Christian heart. It is also very true that many of us do not have these fruits, and the church can be so void of holiness and sincerity. But it must also be equally true that such people need to cling entirely to Christ to produce such things in them. So, yes, let us say to one another, “You must know Christ!” But let us also say, “And if you do not know Him as you should, go to Him, He is able to produce such holiness in you.” As we say, “Mourn your sins!” let us also say, “And if you cannot see your sins, or do not feel your depravity, then go to the great Physician, who is able to work such repentance in you.” The Christian is not just in need of graces, but in need of the One who can produce all graces in us! “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Praise God that our hope is never in ourselves! We are so foolish, ignorant, blind, unbelieving, wicked, proud, self righteous, and godless, yet our hope every single day is Christ, and all that He can do in us. Where we have not seen our sin, He can show it to us. Where we have not known God, He can make Himself and His ways known. Where we lack all things, He alone has produced them in us.
And perhaps some of us know this well enough, but we must not think only about ourselves, we must think of those who don’t fully understand this, those who are weak, those whom the devil is beating down in condemnation. We must do all we can to encourage their hearts in Christ, “Do you not see? Do you not have the faith you should? The repentance you know you must have? Do you not love as you are commanded? Do you lack humility? Wisdom?... You do not have to even see these things clearly to cling to Christ! If you are simply willing to go unto Christ, in spite of all in yourself, then you may come freely, and take of the waters without price. Yes, His grace is free in all areas, not just some. You may come, however hard your heart is, however doubtful, however loveless, however unrepentant, you may come to Christ to produce these things in you.”
“I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” (Rev 3:18)
“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (Rev 22:17)
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It Is the Sick Who Need the Physician
Turning to Jesus with Our Doubt and Sin
I. Who Are the Sick?
II. The Healing We Need