Everyday Expressions from the Bible
"A LEOPARD DOESN’T CHANGE ITS SPOTS"
#2 in the Series by
The expression ‘A leopard doesn’t change its spots’ is usually used ruefully. We recall a classmate from the Primary School who was known for his ability to steal sweets from a shop near the school. Then we notice in the local paper that, as an adult, the same person has been jailed for stealing cars. ‘A leopard doesn’t change its spots.’ The expressions means something like ‘Human nature is human nature. Human nature does not change. Some people act very predictably according to their nature. They are like they are.’
Our expression concerning the leopard and its spots is a biblical one. It was actually used by God Himself when He spoke through His servant Jeremiah. In a passage containing many indictments against His people, God said to the prophet in Jeremiah 13:23: ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.’
The Human Condition
Sadly, the full verse from which our expression is taken is a biblical diagnosis of the human condition. On a positive note though, a correct diagnosis always precedes a cure. The Bible’s diagnosis of us is that we are sinners by nature. It is not so much sinning that makes us sinners, but rather that we sin because we are sinners. In and of ourselves we can no more alter this than an Ethiopian can change his skin colour or a leopard can change its spots. David confessed ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51:5). And the Lord Jesus taught ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit’ (Matthew 7:18). It is because we are ‘bad trees’ that we bring forth ‘bad fruit.’
Our sin would not be a problem for us if God were not God. He is holy and just, and as such can only punish sin. Sin is thus our worst problem of all, because we cannot do anything to change our sinful nature. ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.’
The Bible teaches the ‘total depravity’ of human nature, that is that sin has affected us totally. Sin has affected and infected all our faculties – our thinking, motives, desires and will, as well as our actions. By nature we will not seek or desire God. A sinner no more seeks God than a criminal seeks a magistrate. We have lost the ability to please God. We are unable to save ourselves from our sinful, condemned condition. We cannot ‘pull ourselves up by our own boot laces.’
Man, by his fall into sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation, so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself or prepare himself thereunto (Westminster Confession).
The Human Conversion
Is our condition therefore totally helpless and hopeless? It would be, were it not for the saving grace of God. It would be apart from the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God is able to do what we cannot do. He has provided helpless, hopeless sinners with a salvation. And this salvation is very thorough. It is a matter of redemption both accomplished and applied. It was accomplished by Christ at Calvary, when He suffered the condemnation due to sinners. It is applied to individual human hearts by the Holy Spirit of God. He does not leave us to our own devices. He enables, assists and ensures that we partake of Christ, and so are fully saved from our dreadful and damnable human condition. Almighty God is actually able to change our nature, so that instead of running away from Him, we are drawn to Him, and enabled to partake of the salvation He has provided for us in Christ -
All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto then a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.
This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holly Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it (Westminster Confession).
‘A leopard does not change its spots.’ Likewise, we cannot change our human nature. But God can! Salvation is a matter of saving and transforming grace. ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). God’s indictment through Jeremiah was that we cannot do good because we are evil at core. But grace transforms us from the inside out. Evidence of having received saving grace is the desire to please God. This desire, though, is not to earn our salvation, but rather to express our gratitude for the salvation we have received. ‘By this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments’ (1 John 2:3). ‘No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God’ (1 John 3:9). Occasional lapses apart, the thrust of our life now is to please our Father in heaven.
‘A leopard does not change its spots’ for sure. Human nature is what it is. But who are we to say who is or who is not beyond divine redemption – beyond the saving, transforming grace of God? There is a Gospel of grace!
How sad our state by nature is!
Our sin how deep its stains!
And Satan binds our captive minds
Fast in his slavish chains
But there’s a voice of sovereign grace
Sounds from the sacred Word
Ho! Ye despairing sinners, come
And trust upon the Lord
My soul obeys the almighty call
And runs to this relief
I would believe Thy promise, Lord
O help my unbelief!
To the dear fountain of Thy blood
Incarnate God, I fly
Here let me wash my guilty soul
From crimes of deepest dye
A guilty, weak and helpless wretch
On Thy kind arms I fall
Be Thou my strength and righteousness
My Jesus and my all
(Isaac Watts 1674-1748).