A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

Sermon Index

Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/08/1995

Luke 19:1-10

The Conversion of Zacchaeus Luke 19:1 And he entered and was passing through Jericho. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus; and he was the chief tax collector, and he was very rich. 3 And he was trying to see who Jesus was, and he was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. 4 And he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see him, for he was about to pass through that way. 5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” 6 And he hurried and came down and received him gladly. 7 And when they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner!” 8 And Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” INTRODUCTION

This familiar story is essentially a passage about what it means to be saved. There is no concept which is more central to the Christian faith or less understood by the general populace and by many professing Christians. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” But what is this salvation that had come to Zacchaeus? How is salvation related to conversion? To being “born again?” And what is conversion? Is it essentially a decision? A commitment? An experience? A relationship? A transaction? Or in some sense all of these things? To understand Luke’s answer to these questions, we had better begin by defining some terms.

First, religious awakening: that which happens to the congregation when the sermon is over. O.K., for those of you to whom that definition does not apply, let’s get serious. First, salvation. To be saved is to be rescued, delivered, brought from danger to safety. It is what a lifeguard does to a person in danger of drowning. To understand what spiritual salvation is, we have to ask, rescued or delivered from what? And the biblical answer is, from sin, that is, from its penalty and its effects, the sum of which is damnation and spiritual death. And what is sin? It is whatever is not of faith; it is knowing to do good and doing it not; it is lawlessness, particularly with respect to the law of God; it is all unrighteousness; it is rebellion; and its wages is death. So Scripture would describe it. Salvation then is being delivered or rescued from all of that.

Conversion is basically a word for change. Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 18:3). You have to be changed, converted, turned into something you are not. Interestingly, modern automotive technology has given us a perfect illustration of the New Testament usage of this word. Have you ever heard of a “conversion van?” It is a van whose normal insides have been stripped out and replaced with luxurious seating and appointments. Instead of the normal benches, you now have captain’s chairs, tables, maybe a couch hiding a fold-a-bed. So a sinner who has been converted is the same on the outside, but has new “equipment” on the inside. Old things have passed away and behold, all has become new.

Born again is a metaphor Jesus used to describe conversion when he was talking to Nicodemus: “You must be born again” (John 3:3). It emphasizes that the change which takes place involves receiving new spiritual life and adoption into God’s family, a new relationship with the Father. So how do all these terms relate? Do you have to be converted, i.e., born again, to be saved? Jesus said so flatly to Nicodemus. But little Zacchaeus has his own way of illustrating these truths. His familiar Sunday-School story emphasizes four essential points about salvation and conversion.


Zacchaeus was a son of Abraham, and yet he still needed to be saved (vs. 9). The Jews tended to assume that because they were the people of God they were automatically saved, just by being in the right human family. But the New Testament launches a frontal assault on that assumption almost from its very first word. Don’t even think it, said John the Baptist: God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones! In modern terms, people often assume that they are saved because they are members of a church, or because they grew up in a Christian family. But nothing could be further from the truth. As the cliché has it, God has no grandchildren. All men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and they are saved by faith in Christ’s work on the Cross—not by their parents’ faith or their church’s faith! You have to personally admit that you are a sinner and ask for God’s forgiveness, confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead. There is nothing about your parents or your pastor being able to do it for you! All need salvation because all are sinners. Your family, your church, your culture, your personal uprightness in human terms, and your sincerity have nothing to do with it. If you are a sinner, you need a savior. And if you want your own way and have therefore been disobedient to God in anything, you are a sinner. That is why even a “good” person needs to be saved. He needs to be converted from self to God in his basic orientation. Zacchaeus certainly did. And so do you.


Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Now, tax collectors are not exactly the most popular of all public servants today, but it is probably impossible for you to conceive how despised they were in the first century. Judea was crushed under the occupying Roman army, and the tax collectors were Jews who were getting rich by collaborating with the enemy. Not only that, but they were notorious for taking advantage of their fellow Jews. A tax collector was expected by his Roman masters do deliver a certain sum, and anything he collected beyond that he got to keep for his services. So the incentive to cheat his fellow Jews was built into his job. Zacchaeus was no doubt the most hated and despised man in Jericho, and for good reason. He had earned all the contempt that we have for a thief, an extortioner, and a traitor. If I can use so low a word here in the South, he was a scalawag! And he was not just any tax collector; he was the chief of them, the head honcho, the worst of the bunch.

Zacchaeus, in other words, was a truly despicable person who, in order to pursue his job at all, had made a profession out of hardening his heart. He was not only the lowest of sinners, but he had made a continual practice of killing in himself every ounce of compassion and fellow-feeling for his countrymen. Statistically, he was the last person you would ever expect to be able to repent and be converted and be saved. And that is the point. If Jesus could save Zacchaeus, he can save anybody! He can save you. Do you remember the story of the Rich Young Ruler from just a couple of weeks ago? Do you realize what just happened? The camel just went through the needle’s eye! Who then can be saved? With God, all things are possible.


Zacchaeus is the perfect paradigm, the perfect picture, of a concept of salvation that has been the theme of the whole Gospel from the beginning. Jesus does almost nothing but offer the invitation, “Come and follow me!” But this person needed to bury his father first, and that one had bought a pair of oxen and needed to check them out. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful because he had many possessions. The disciples were those who had accepted the invitation. So when Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, the key to Zacchaeus’ salvation is that he hurried down and received him gladly. That makes all the difference between being saved and being lost. Think of the parable of the marriage feast: it is the very significant relationship of table fellowship that is the Bible’s constant picture of what salvation is.

You see, man assumes, “If I do my best, God will accept me.” But man’s best is only filthy rags, not a wedding garment. We have it all backwards. The reality is, because God has accepted us—if we accept that—we are enabled to do more than our best. You don’t change yourself so God will accept you; it is the fact that God has accepted you in Christ that changes you! The change flows from the relationship. In other words, based on your personal relationship with Jesus Christ—that you take him as your personal Lord, God, Savior, Messiah—based on your having that relationship with Christ, God counts your sins as his, his sacrifice as the payment for your sins, and his righteousness as yours. That is “justification by faith.” It is not a mere legal fiction. It is rooted in the relationship you have with Christ when you accept the invitation to follow him, a relationship that flows from the very incarnation itself, and which is of such a nature that it makes it right for God to treat you that way instead of treating you as you deserve. And because it is a relationship with the very Lord of Glory himself, it does things to you. Because of that relationship you will never see the flames of Hell. Because of that relationship you will never be the same again. Or, to put it another way, God doesn’t grant you forgiveness and justification because you have sufficiently converted yourself; conversion, the change, flows from the nature of justification. It is all contained in the relationship. And this leads us to the fourth point:


From the very moment that his new relationship with Jesus began, Zacchaeus began to be a new person. It did not take him long to show it. “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (vs. 8). On hearing this, Jesus announces that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house—not as a reward for his repentance, but because this dramatic change in Zacchaeus was the evidence that his new friendship with Jesus was real. Conversion is not a new leaf we turn over to assure God’s acceptance; it is the new attitude which comes with a new relationship with God’s son and leads to new behavior. We are not saved by perfect obedience, because we cannot render it. We are not saved by imperfect obedience, because God cannot accept it. So we can only be saved by grace, God’s unmerited favor, his offer of friendship based on the sacrifice of Calvary. And so Jesus does not say, “Shape up and we will see.” He says, “Come and follow me—yes, you, just as you are, right now. Just as you are, without one plea but that my blood was shed for thee. Leave your nets—your tax table, like Matthew—your sycamore tree—and come. Nothing will ever be the same again, but all you have to say right now is, ‘Yes.’” Leighton Ford said, “God loves you just as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way.” That’s right. But all Jesus is asking of you right now is a real “Yes.” He will take care of the rest. But don’t you see: if you do respond with a real “yes,” it will by its very nature involve making right what is wrong. Wanting to do so is part of the “yes,” and the ability to do so flows from the relationship thus established, for you are now no longer attempting to do it alone. You can’t say, “Yes, Jesus, I will follow you—as long as you are going where I was going to go anyway.” That is not a “yes!” It’s a “no” disguised as a yes. And, oh yes, he knows the difference. So there is no salvation without conversion, without a change in your life. Why? Because you cannot enter into a relationship with Jesus and not be changed by it. The change is not the ground, but it is the evidence that salvation has come to this house. We cannot judge because only God sees the heart, but if there has been no change it is prima facie evidence that there has been no salvation. You cannot know Jesus and stay the same.


The rich young ruler kept all his wealth, and much sorrow with it. Zacchaeus gave away half of his, and did it with great joy. What was the difference? One of them said a real “yes” to a real relationship with Jesus as Lord and therefore Savior, and the other did not. Jesus still says, “Come and follow me.” What is your answer today?

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 03/20/2007