Last Sunday, I preached on John 5:1-18, the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. In preparation, I listened to, among other things, John Piper’s sermon on this text (from 2009). Piper is characteristically excellent here. He rightly identifies sin as this man’s main problem, not his physical ailment.
What’s the issue? The issue in the healing is holiness. “I’ve made you well. Now I’ll tell you what this is about: Stop sinning!” This is really important. There’s a gospel pattern here that you need to see. “My aim in healing your body”—and the church could say, “Our aim in touching the neighborhood; our aim in every manner of ministry that touches the mind, the body, the family, is not an end in itself otherwise we would be cruel to people.” Jesus said, “I’ve given you a gift; it’s free. You didn’t do anything for this gift. It came first. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t good enough for it. I chose you freely among all those people. I healed you. Now, live in that power! Know me! Know free grace, and it’s power in your life!… In the power you’ve just experienced, fight your sin.” And yes, he warns him; he threatens him…
A lot of people think there shouldn’t be any warning or threat in gospel ministry. Just promises, promises, promises, and love, love, love, and no threats. No warnings.
Well, that’s not what happens here. Jesus says, “I warn you. If you turn away, if you mock this gift that I have given you for the power of holiness, and the grace that I have shown you—if you turn the grace of God into license, if you make an idol out of this health of yours now, and thank me until the day that you’re dead for the idol of your health, you will perish forever.
The only thing I would add to or change about these words is that there’s no evidence that the formerly disabled man has yet converted to Christ. Based on the evidence of the scripture, Jesus doesn’t warn the man not to “turn away” from Christ’s gift of grace; rather, he warns him, in so many words, that he still needs to receive it. The man has thus far been healed physically but not spiritually.
As I said on Sunday,
We ought not to hear Jesus’ words, “Sin no more,” and say, “Let me give it the old college try, Jesus.” We ought to hear these words and fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Save me, Lord Jesus! I can’t do what you’re asking me to do! I can’t ‘sin no more.’ I want to, but I can’t. Can you do it for me? Can you live the life of perfect, sinless obedience to our heavenly Father that I myself am unable to live? Can you suffer the penalty that my sins deserve? Can you face the judgment I’m unable to face? Can you die the death I deserve to die? Can you suffer the hell I deserve to suffer?”
And of course, our Lord Jesus says, “I’d be happy to… Because I love you that much.”
Unless or until this man at the pool of Bethesda asks Jesus to do that, he may be physically cured of his disease—but that’s strictly temporary. He won’t be eternally healed. We need an eternal healing!
Nevertheless, I’m on the exact same page as Piper when it comes to the relationship between grace and good works: “Changed lives,” Piper says, “are the evidence of a true relationship with Christ; it’s the evidence of repentance; it’s the evidence of being born again.” He continues:
[Jesus tells the man,] “You think this is about healing; it isn’t about healing; it’s about holiness. I came into the world the first time to deal with sin, not mainly to deal with sickness… I’m coming to attack the worst thing this world has ever known: sin. And your healing is about that. Every healing is about that. And every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day is about not sinning. Every disease you get is about not sinning. Every meal on your table is about not sinning. Whether God deals you pain or pleasure, it’s about not sinning…
Malaria is a horrible thing. H1N1 could be a horrible thing. HIV AIDS is a horrible thing. And sin is a million times more horrible than any of them because its consequences are not 38 years but 38 million ages of years. And the only reason anybody would consider helping someone with their sickness and not their soul is because they do not believe that. We will be a both/and church. We will not be forced to choose between loving people in their immediate crisis and need and caring for their souls. I’m just going to say over and over again in any way with no heart desire for their soul to be saved, you don’t love them. I don’t care if you do it for 50 years in Calcutta. You don’t love them.
Amen… with one small qualification: I would emphasize (as I did on Sunday) that “not sinning” is impossible for us. In other words, “every morning when you get up on a bright sunny day” may be about not sinning, so long as we understand that it’s only on the basis of Christ’s “not sinning” that we are saved. For our sake, Christ lived the life of perfect, sinless obedience that we ourselves are unable to live.
Not that Piper would disagree; it’s only a question of emphasis.
As I’ve written about a lot recently, we don’t want to risk turning sanctification into what Gerhard Forde calls the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Having been justified by God through grace, sanctification is not “our part of the bargain.” It’s all grace from beginning to end.
But I heartily endorse Piper’s main point about the healing ministries of churches: If they are not aimed at humanity’s central problem of sin, and the solution to that problem in Christ—the saving of souls—we are failing to love.