Weak and Wounded, Sick and Sore: Why Jesus Says Sinners Are Sick, and What That Means for the Gospel and for Us

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:11-12)

In 1759 a songwriter named Joseph Hart penned a hymn entitled “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy.” The first verse goes:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and pow’r.

At first blush, it’s a surprisingly modern sentiment. As our culture has moved away from ideas of culpability and guilt and instead chosen a model of human brokenness that emphasizes victimhood and frequently calls evil “illness,” the church has tended to react.

We cry foul on the idea that “sinners” deserve to be viewed with compassion. We emphasize the need to “call sin sin” and for people to take responsibility for themselves. Repent or else, you scumbags.

Fair enough—to some degree. We won’t understand the human condition without understanding free choice and with it, culpability.

Yet Joseph Hart didn’t choose his opening words because of some bleeding-heart zeitgeist in 18th-century England. He got it from the Bible—from Jesus in Matthew 9, and before him, from several powerful Old Testament Scriptures.

Quoting from Isaiah 53, Peter declares that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds” (1 Peter 2:24).

Acts 28:27 is speaking of forgiveness and conversion when it quotes from Isaiah 6, saying, “otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and be converted, and I would heal them.”

As much as we might not want to admit it, the Bible itself describes the conditions of sin and guilt as a form of sickness and wounding.

It is God himself—speaking eloquently to the Pharisees here in Matthew 9, in the person of Jesus—who calls his people to have compassion on those who are overtaken by the ravages of sin and the oppression of guilt.

And on the flip side, when it speaks of forgiveness, the Bible often uses the term “healing.” Isaiah 53’s “by his stripes we are healed” is frequently used when praying for physical healing, but the New Testament writers instead apply it to forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship with God.

A Compassionate Gospel

It’s important to recognize that although God calls sinful people “sick” and “wounded,” the Bible is also clear in assigning real guilt. Final judgment will come, and must come, because people have made free choices to defy God and damage themselves and others. God would not be just or good if he held no one to account for all this.

In other words, calling sin a “sickness” doesn’t mean that sinners are off the hook, as though they were born with a congenital disease or were stricken with their own immoral choices like people are stricken with the flu.

Sinful actions are symptoms of a deeper disconnection from God, but the disconnection is ultimately chosen, and we are morally culpable for our own actions and the damage they do.

(That said, Jesus’ warnings against judging others should tell us, at the very least, that we don’t see the whole picture. God will take into account factors we can’t even see, and his judgments are just.

For example, a little-known Old Testament passage declares that in a particular era of Israel’s history, prostitutes would not be punished by God because it was the men of the culture who were driving the practice [Hosea 4:14]. God’s judgments are just, fair, and yes, compassionate.)

God sees the whole picture, and while he does “call sin sin” and is particularly harsh on hypocrisy, the way he chooses to engage sinners through the gospel is driven by compassion.

The Hebrew word for God’s compassion (often translated “mercy”) is racham, which denotes a deep, gut-level empathy and identification with the pain of another. It actually comes from the root word “womb,” denoting how raw and visceral a compassion this is.

That’s why Jesus came—not to condemn sinners, as he says elsewhere, but to save them. Not to damn the sick to hell, but to identify deeply and personally and rawly with their pain, and then to get them healed.

Sin Hurts

Sin—meaning the whole range of actions and attitudes the Bible denotes as sinful—hurts. It hurts us. It hurts others. It often flows out of pain in the first place, as we lash out at other people because other people hurt us.

It’s instructive to remember that while in our modern age we distinguish between someone who’s sick and someone who’s wounded, in the ancient world that distinction was much less clear. Someone who had been stabbed and was dying of the wound was “sick.” The biblical picture of sin’s results is one of a worldwide battlefield where everyone is sick, everyone is wounded, everyone is dying, and everyone has dealt out wounds of their own.

If God were not compassionate in the core of his being, if he didn’t primarily identify with us rather than sit over us in judgment, he would have wiped out the whole human operation long ago. There is too much pain-for-pain, too much ancestral and generational and genetic baggage, too many lies warping our sense of reality and making us sick.

We are a mess. But rather than judge and condemn the whole lot of us and wipe the slate clean, God as the Bible describes him chose to immerse himself in the mess and commence a rescue operation.

God can (and sometimes must) act punitively, but by preference he acts mercifully.

The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)

The Fallacy of the Pharisees

We are all sick. That’s one of the subtleties of Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew’s house: they thought they were in a different category. They weren’t. They might not have been sick with apostasy and blatant immorality, but they were infected with pride, self-deception, and even murderous intent.

One of the New Testament’s great insights, given by the former Pharisee we know as Paul, is that we are all sinners. We all need help. We all need healing. For us to look down our noses on other sinners is as ridiculous as a stage 1 cancer patient feeling morally superior to a stage 4.

Perhaps when we look at one another, rather than thinking like judges—with the goal of ascertaining and condemning—we might practice thinking like doctors, whose ultimate goal is to understand and then to heal. We might diagnose, rather than blame.

And we might see a better future and understand that when we view a person who’s sick, we aren’t viewing the person they were meant to be. As a wise friend said to me the other day, “We don’t see people for who they truly are when they are in pain.”

Coming to the Healer

Jesus’ designation of sinners as “the sick” has another major implication. Sickness can be cured. And lest we think that isn’t his point (some sicknesses aren’t curable, as far as we know), he names himself as the doctor, come to find the sick and restore their health.

Jesus is the only one who can heal this disease. He is the only one who can heal the wounds inflicted by sin, our own or others’. But that is what he has come to do. No matter how sin has ravaged you, body or soul, you can be healed. Sometimes the cure is painful, but the goal is health—“mercy, and not sacrifice.”

When we are aware of our sin, we are sometimes so broken by shame and pride and self-condemnation that we can’t imagine coming to God. God, the Judge, would surely kick us to the curb.

But instead, may I suggest you see yourself as sick—as a loved child, wounded and hurting, come to a Father and physician who has already pledged himself to making you whole.


The full text of “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”:

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and pow’r.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

2. Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

3. Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

4. View Him prostrate in the garden;
On the ground your Maker lies;
On the bloody tree behold Him;
Sinner, will this not suffice?

5. Lo! th’ incarnate God ascended,
Pleads the merit of His blood:
Venture on Him, venture wholly,
Let no other trust intrude.

6. Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.


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This is Part 123 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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