Two men go to see the doctor. The first is suffering from advanced cancer and needs a life-saving intervention. The second is completely healthy and is going for a routine check-up. The doctor is a perfect physician and prescribes the appropriate medication in each case.
However, the pharmacist bungles the prescriptions and gives each man the other’s medicine.
The man with cancer is given multivitamins and told to exercise daily, while the healthy man is given an extensive course of chemotherapy. Unsurprisingly, the sick man dies from taking the wrong pills while the healthy man suffers unnecessarily.
In this parable the perfect physician represents Jesus. Jesus understands every single person and always prescribes the perfect medicine.
For the self-righteous that medicine might be a judicious application of the law, since the law’s purpose is to break our pride, silence our self-righteousness and reveal our need for a Savior. Ultimately the law is meant to lead us to Jesus that we may receive the gift of his righteousness (Gal 3:24).
But the law is of no use to the one who is already free from the cancer of sin. The observance of regulations, which has an appearance of wisdom, enslaves the free and does nothing to promote godly living (Gal 5:1, Col 2:23).
The best medicine for the believer is a healthy dose of grace supplemented with the daily exercise of faith in Jesus.
The parable explained
In the parable the confused pharmacist represents the preacher who mistakenly dispenses grace to the self righteous and law to saints. The result is that both will be made worse off.
The self righteous will wrongly believe that all is well even as death reaches for him. The saint will wrongly believe that eternity hinges on his ability to deliver a righteous performance for Jesus. Instead of walking in the freedom that Christ brings, he will come under guilt and condemnation as he strives, and fails, to live at Christ’s level. He will be miserable and his hair will fall out from stress.
The Bible can be considered a repository of life-saving medicine. The entire Bible is useful for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But confused preachers sometimes prescribe the wrong medicine. With the best of intentions they may do more harm than good.
Let me give you an example from Peter’s second letter.
In chapter 1 Peter discusses the forgiveness, grace and power that comes from God.
In chapter 2 Peter warns the church about the false prophets and false teachers who are “among you”. Peter clearly distinguishes these “unrighteous” men from the “godly men that God rescues from trials” (v.9).
In chapter 3 Peter turns his attention back to the saints four times referring to them as his “dear friends.” If chapter 2 is full of fury at the false prophets infiltrating the church, chapter 3 contains fatherly exhortations for the saints.
Where’s the danger?
Problems arise when the medicine-dispensers (preachers, teachers, bloggers) confuse the “dear friends” of chapter 3 with the “slaves of depravity” of chapter 2.
Harsh, condemning words meant for the wicked are spoken over those whom Christ calls righteous. Instead of being warned about the dangers of listening to false teachers and prophets, saints are treated as if they were somehow false themselves.
Inevitably the misguided pharmacist concludes with an appeal for greater human effort and thus insults the grace of God. Instead of finishing with praise and thanksgiving for the One who has qualified them, Christians are likely to leave feeling worse than when they came in.
Like Peter, Jude similarly draws a line between “godless men” and his “dear friends” who are loved and kept by Jesus. It’s important to note that both types of people are found inside the church. Jude says of these godless men who deny Jesus Christ as Lord that they have “slipped in among you” (v.4).
Again, in the hands of a confused preacher, Jude’s warning to the saints can be twisted into a doctrine of human effort. The punch-line might contain Jude’s words but not his meaning: “Contend for the faith, keep yourself in the love of God, lest you end up like them.”
But Jude’s message is “woe to them” (v.11), not “woe to you.” Jude’s medicine of rebuke is specifically for the godless who remain under condemnation, not the saint who is made righteous by Jesus.
The end of Jude’s letter is one of the clearest assurances a Christian can have that they are justified, sanctified and kept by Jesus:
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (v:24-25)