Are we not saved by grace? When the Lord Jesus said to the healed paralytic, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14) It sounds like he is being put under law.
When we find passages that seem to contradict each other, that is an invitation to dig deeper to find the real significance. We are assured by many verses that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. See for example Ephesians 2:8–9. So, what is the significance of this passage in John chapter 5?
It is important to see the purpose of the law. The apostle Paul tells us: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…” (1 Tim. 1:8–11). Now the question is: who is the “just” and who is the “lawless and disobedient?”
We must begin by realizing that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So, all are “lawless and disobedient.” It is in the Old Testament that this is proved with regard to mankind generally. Israel was the “petri-dish” that demonstrates the general condition as described in the opening chapters of Romans. It is useful to recall the giving of the law to Israel.
The Israelites were delivered from the bondage of Egypt and brought into the wilderness with the promise that the Lord would lead them to a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord demonstrated His grace to them by providing food and water in the wilderness. Even their clothing did not wear out (Deut. 8:4). Yet, their own weakness was shown by their constant complaining. They did not heed this warning of their own weakness. So, when the Lord told them “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples” (Ex. 19:5), instead of appealing to the grace of the Lord, they boasted “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (v. 8). So the Lord put them to the test by giving the law. They still repeated this boast on two other occasions (24:3; 24:7). Shortly, afterward (ch 32) they built the golden calf to worship.
In John’s gospel, we are presented with the One who has the remedy for sin (Jn. 1:12, 29). But, that remedy could not be provided without the acknowledgment of its need on the part of those who would be delivered. When we come to the incident in John chapter 5, the first thing to notice is that John tells us that the Lord went up to a “feast of the Jews.” This sets the stage. We are to view the incident here as a commentary on the condition of the nation.
In the angel-troubled water of the pool, we see the promise of healing to those around. But, the paralytic is the true condition of the nation. No one there is able to help. The Lord Jesus, on the other hand, offers help. But, is the promise of help sufficient to change the one who is “lawless and disobedient?” That the healed paralytic goes to the Pharisees shows the terrible helpless condition of one who can only see the promise of self-improvement by the law. He typifies what people today mistake for the gospel in the promise of Ezekiel: “Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life” (Ezek. 18:27).
The healed paralytic is the picture of one who has received mercy to try again. But in that condition, he is still looking to the law for spiritual deliverance. He had previously said there was no one to help him get into the pool. The Lord Jesus had essentially performed that task for him by healing him of his paralytic condition. Can he really now take the position the Lord challenges him with: “See, you are well! Sin no more” (Jn. 5: 14)? Having received mercy to help with his helpless condition does he now have the strength to “do what is just and right? (Ez. 18:27)? Can he now “turn over a new leaf?” As one preacher said: “I was born bad and had a relapse.” Anyone who has tried “doing what is just and right” according to the law knows that it is a hopeless endeavor. Something more is needed.
The contrast is seen a little later in John 9. Here the man born blind is made to see. The existence of a transforming power (Jn. 3:5) is seen in the fundamental change of one who was blind into one who can see. Furthermore, there is development. The progress of development from verses 9, 11, 17, 25, 31, and 38 shows a life transformed and growing step by step to one who can truly worship (Jn. 4:23).