THE CONTROVERSY OF CHRISTIAN CONVERSION
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
April 23, 2017
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
— Luke 5:27-32, ESV
We have entered into a section of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus Christ begins to court controversy on every corner. He has landed on the radar of the religious rulers, and they are tracking Him at every turn. What the Lord does here seems stunning to the Pharisees, who caught Him hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners.” At the end of the day, however, it is what happens to Levi that is most controversial. Jesus had the audacity to convert him to His own brand of religion, the Christian religion. It made a brand new man out of him, so much so that Levi the tax collector has been known as Matthew the Apostle ever since.
Levi was a Controversial Convert
Levi was a lower-level publican, or tax collector, stationed at the city limits of Capernaum. He was not a chief tax collector like Zacchaeus, so he enjoyed no social status at all. He had a little money from ill-gotten gain and used it to consort with prostitutes, fellow tax collectors, and other such “sinners.” Misery loves company, and Levi’s lot often gathered together at Levi’s house.
Respectable religious people in Jesus’ day wouldn’t touch Levi with a ten-foot pole. They would not talk to him, let alone go to a dinner party at his house, let alone invite him to join their group, let alone make him a leader in the group. What was Jesus thinking? What was Jesus doing? Why start such a controversy?
When Jesus saw Levi sitting there, He must have thought to Himself, here is an elect child of God chosen by the Father from before the foundation of the world. His sins are great, but not greater than the grace and mercy of the Lord. He needs to be changed into a new person, so I am going to speak the word to him so that he will be converted into a newborn child of God.
Now, you and I are not Jesus and we do not possess the omniscience of God. We do not know who the elect are, so we must approach all people as objects of God’s love and forgiveness. When we see someone who seems to be far from God and excluded from God’s people, we must go to them, like Jesus, and invite them come with us into the kingdom of God.
Unwillingness on our part to associate with so-called sinners, or attend a social event rife with unbelievers, or to think we are somehow too superior to spend time with those who make no profession of faith is pure Pharisee-ism (which means quite literally, separatism). The worst advice I ever received in my Christian life was early on when fundamentalist pastors and leaders told me to separate myself from old friends and the places you find them. I did this to their peril.
Christian people should have separate values and a holy character distinct from lost people, but Christians must never separate themselves from lost people. Jesus did not, and it made Him quite controversial. Perhaps we would do well to make a list of people we used to know, people of sinful natures, and reach out to them. Perhaps if we went to a dinner party with them, maintaining our Christian character of course, they might venture back to church with us. It worked for Jesus, most especially Matthew, but it was not without controversy.
Christianity requires a Controversial Conversion
The conversion of the convert is quite controversial in and of itself, especially when compared with contemporary methods of evangelism. Jesus did not ask Matthew to ask Him into his heart. Jesus did not invite Matthew to walk and aisle and pray a prayer. Jesus did not really ask Matthew anything. Christ gave him a command, two words led by an imperative verb, “Follow Me.”
This is a simple commandment requiring total commitment. Matthew proved the call effectual when he did what verse twenty-eight said that he did. I can just here him singing,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon filled with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God should die for me! (Charles Wesley)
Contrary to the opinion of heretics in history and not a few latter-day saints, conversion is not by the mechanisms of man but by the sovereign grace of God. Contrary to the attitude of hyper-Calvinists and the apathy of evangelicals everywhere, God’s grace is transmitted from person to person, delivered by a believer telling an unbeliever to believe, repent, and follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus and Matthew prove to be most excellent examples. Christ is grace personified, and Matthew is struck by a love that will not let him go. He leaves everything he has for Whom he has gained. Matthew does not merely believe in Jesus, but turns and follows Jesus into the kingdom of God.
When we talk to people about the gospel, let us tell them these controversial things: We do not need more believers in our churches today, as many so-called have long dropped out. We do not need more members in our churches today, as far too many are inactive. We need followers. We need converts. We need men and women and boys and girls convicted of their sin, convinced of the gospel, converted by the grace of God, who are willing to pay the cost to leave everything and give anything for the joy of following Jesus Christ.
Jesus Remains the Controversial Christ
The controversy does not end with Matthew’s conversion, it only begins. For Jesus maintains this same mode of operation for the entirety of His earthly ministry. Then, He commissioned His true followers to do the same. Let the controversy continue!
Jesus said that people are not sick, they are sinful. In His response to the controversy created by the self-righteous Pharisees, Jesus likened sinners to sick people. It is a powerful metaphor, not a metaphysical point. People do not commit crimes, misdemeanors, and other sins because of sickness (with the rare exception of the criminally insane). They do such things because they are sinful and selfish. They want money that does not belong to them, they want sex that is not wholesome and marital, they want power to be used to coerce, they want things for themselves at the expense of God and neighbor. It is not a sin to be sick but it is sick to be sinful and not realize it, nor seek to do anything about it; and, it is a sickness unto death if not cured by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus demonstrated that people do not need to be left alone, they need to be bothered and changed by the gospel. The emphasis upon pluralism and tolerance that existed in Jesus’ day is exponential in ours. It is not a bad thing, per se, until freedom of religion becomes freedom from religion. The spirit of the age now demands that if we have Christian faith, we keep it to ourselves and not offer its life-changing power to anyone else. Such laws exist in Muslim countries, post-Communist countries, and are creeping into our very own country. Are we willing to risk controversy to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with our world?
Jesus insisted that the kingdom of God is not for pussy-footed professors of faith, but for full-fledged followers of God. “Follow Me” is the most important commandment in Scripture, upon which all other commandments stand. Those who obey, believe. Those who believe, obey. Christianity is not membership in a separatist club, it is not a get-out-of-jail-free card, it is not an hour of worship a year or even a turn once a week. Christianity is a converted life, a new life-style, where all of life is given to the One who gave His life for us.
You did not know high school football player Chuck. You did not know college baseball player Chuck. You did not know get drunk and have a good time Chuck. You only know Pastor Chuck. Those two fellows are as different as night and day, as Levi and Matthew.
In truth, life was simpler as Levi compared to Matthew. Before I became a follower of Christ, my weekends were free, I had few run-ins with other people, and spent virtually all of my time and resources on myself. After I was converted to Christianity, my schedule got hectic, I had to fight the world and the flesh and the devil and the Pharisees, and everything I own was signed over to the control of another. I found controversy as a young believer, found it in every church I have served as a pastor, and it will continue until the controversial Christ comes again or takes me home.
I would not have it any other way. Neither would Matthew. And I pray, neither would you. No matter the controversy, no matter the cost, follow Jesus, or you’ll be lost.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org