“And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician: but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:29-32
The accounts of the conversion of Levi Matthew in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5 address and settle several important issues facing God’s people in our day. One of these is the issue of how the church of Jesus Christ is to be built. Shall we “call the righteous” or shall we, as Jesus did, call “sinners to repentance”? Jesus was not forming a club of righteous people. Rather, He was calling on sinners to repent and join Him. To form a band of the righteous, there must be agreement as to what righteousness includes. Therefore, calling the righteous involves building a church on the basis of agreement, while calling sinners to repentance involves building the church through persuasion. Strangely, the calling-the-righteous method will always lead to lowering standards. It demands that our standards of behavior not exceed too much the standards by which our “prospects” already live. Men say that, “You cannot build a church today and still preach the old standards.” Calling sinners to repentance, on the other hand, requires the church to maintain high standards based on what pleases God.
The story of Levi Matthew also helps us with the questions that have been raised about evangelism and personal holiness. When Levi answered the call, “Follow Me,” he immediately sought to evangelize his friends. Just as others who had also answered the same call of Jesus, he was becoming a fisher of men. And the Lord Jesus was helping him. He and His disciples attended a gathering of publicans and sinners that Levi had arranged by making a “great feast.” His critics complained that the Lord and His followers were wrong to associate with openly wicked people, but these critics were the ones that were wrong. Hebrews 7:26 says that Jesus is, was, and always will be, “Holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners,” but Luke 5 records that He ate and drank with sinners. This almost paradoxical balance gives us an important key to effective evangelism. The Lord Jesus was the holiest Man any sinner had ever met, but He was willing to be with the worst people in town. He never condoned their wicked ways; actually He called them to repent. He was "separate from sinners” in that His life was blameless and His stand very clear for right and against wrong, but He never stayed away from them. Rather He went among them in order to win them. This combination of a holy life and an evangelistic attitude is always powerful to the winning of the lost, even in our time.
Furthermore, the concept of calling sinners to repentance, illustrated in the words of Jesus in this account, helps us immensely in understanding the term repentance and how it relates to salvation. Confusion about salvation repentance has caused doctrinal error, division among the saints, and deep trouble for many hearts; and it needs to be dispelled. The Lord Jesus can and will dispel this confusion if we will listen to what He said with our hearts and minds open to the truth.
Sinners are called to repent
The sinner must repent if he is to be saved. Just as the Book of John uses the term believe repeatedly (and never the term repent) to describe the salvation decision, the Book of Luke uses repent again and again to describe what a sinner must do to be saved.
In Luke 10:13-14, we read that Jesus said in a sermon:
“Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you.”
Luke 11:32 tells us that the Ninevites will stand in the judgment and condemn the generation that rejected Christ because they, “Repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” Luke 13:3 and 5 tell us that, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” In the parables of the lost things recorded in Luke15, we are told of joy in Heaven over, “One sinner that repenteth.” In the story Jesus told about the beggar in Heaven and the rich man in Hell, the truth is taught that sinners must repent in order to escape Hell and gain Heaven (see Luke 16:27-31). Luke concludes the book with the Great Commission, which in His account says, “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations.” Without question, sinners must repent in order to be saved.
Repentance is a change of mind.
The Greek word used in the original, and translated repent in the English version of Luke, actually means to change the mind. It is built on the Greek word for mind, and can imply remorse or compunction, but it always carries the basic idea of a turn in the way one thinks. Repentance is not a promise to do better, proven by doing better. When it is defined in this wrong way in preaching, works is brought into the plan of salvation, and the Gospel is perverted. One must change his mind in order to be saved by God’s grace. Salvation is not a matter of changing behavior in order to merit salvation by good works. We are saved when we change our minds (repent) and believe on Christ.
About what must the sinner change his mind? He must repent about sin according to Mark 1:4. Repentance of sin is required for remission of sin, as we see also in Luke 24:47. He must change his mind about his sins. He must also repent of his unbelief according to Mark 1:15. Jesus preached the Gospel and said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye [change your mind] and believe the gospel.” The sinner must change his mind in order to believe for salvation. Further, the sinner must repent of his good works in order to be saved. That’s what the book of Hebrews means when it speaks of, “Repentance from dead works” (6:1), and it is a change of mind vividly described in Philippians 3:7-9.
The Bible teaches that men are justified in the sight of God by nothing more than faith in Jesus Christ. When we read about “repentance and faith,” the meaning is that sinners must repent in order to put their faith in Christ for salvation. They must change their minds about their sins: stop excusing them, decide not to oppose God any longer, and agree that they have been wrong. They must change their minds about their unbelief: realize that the Gospel is true and that Jesus is indeed the Savior, and stop depending on themselves or the church for salvation. They must change their minds about their good works: admit that what they have done will not get them to Heaven and that relying on these deeds to obtain eternal life will put them in Hell. This change of mind is necessary for a sinner to place his trust completely upon Christ for his salvation. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. To believe on Christ, one must repent. If a sinner has truly repented, he has believed on the Lord Jesus. It is Jesus that saves. It is not our remorse or good intentions. We are saved by faith alone (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16). Repentance is not the first step to be followed by faith. Saving faith involves a change of mind. It is not just praying a prayer; it is turning the heart. The sinner is saved in one step: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Act 16:31). Salvation repentance is the change of mind necessary for the sinner to put his faith in Christ to save him.
When the sinner repents, he turns to Christ.
In this wonderful story of Levi’s conversion, the Lord illustrates repentance by the role a doctor plays in the experience of a sick person.
They that are whole need not a physician: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Mark 2:17b
Calling the righteous would be like a doctor calling a well (whole) person. Jesus calling sinners to repentance is like a doctor calling a sick person to be healed. When a man is sick he sometimes foolishly puts off getting help. He may moan and groan for days, and suffer with pain and fever, hoping that the illness will run its course and go away. Then finally many of us decide that it is time to go to the doctor. We sit in the waiting room, ready to tell the doctor our woes. But why are we there on this day when the day before we suffered at home? We are at the doctor’s office for the same reason that others are there that day: we have repented of the flu. We have changed our minds about our sickness and about the need to see the doctor. When the time comes, we enter an examining room and tell the doctor about our symptoms. But do we promise him that we are going to get better? Do we worry about how sincere we are when we say that we want to get well? Of course, we don’t. The doctor would think we had gone crazy if we did! We just tell him the problem, and then trust him to do what he can to cure us. That’s how a sinner gets saved. He changes his mind about his condition, and comes to the Doctor Who can make him well. One’s salvation does not depend upon the thoroughness of his determination to change, nor upon his works after he turns to Christ. It depends on the One Who alone can save, and upon the willingness of the sinner to let Him do the saving.