Leopards and Their Spots

“A leopard cannot change its spots.” People say this with the idea that a man cannot change who or what he is. There is some truth to the idea. But like all aphorisms, it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Why do you think we have prisons? Or as they are sometimes called, “correctional institutions.”

When a man commits a crime, is caught and convicted, we typically send them away to prison for a period of time. Hopefully the length of their stay in prison is proportional to the crime they committed, but we send them their for a few reasons.

First, while they are in prison they are not out and about in society committing further crimes against people and property. We have the expectation that when someone commits a crime, that they become even more predisposed to commit another crime. Criminal acts harm our society and so we with to prevent further harm.

Secondly we send them to prison as a deterrent. Prison is not a nice place, as even someone who has been held overnight while awaiting arraignment can attest. A prisoner loses their expectation of privacy, must behave according to certain very strict rules, and is confined when they might otherwise wish to move about. Prison is meant to be unpleasant, to cause people to wish to avoid it. People who wish to avoid prison are less likely to commit criminal acts for fear of prison. Either that, or they are likely to violently resist capture, but that’s another story.

Thirdly, we send people to prison in hopes of reforming or correcting their behavior. Unfortunately we sometimes see that bad company corrupts good morals. Place a man who might otherwise never again commit a crime in the company of other men who have repeatedly done so, and they are likely to influence his character.

Prison itself does not rehabilitate any man. The fear of incarceration does not improve a man’s character. Certainly their behavior might be changed, but, just like the leopard and it’s spots, their fundamental nature remains.

We know this, or at least we believe it. We may say otherwise, but the idea still remains. A criminal remains a criminal even after he has been to prison. This is why it is often difficult for people who have been released from prison to find work afterward. Even though they have “paid their debt to society” we still do not trust them. We find it hard to believe or accept that they have been changed.

So it is when a man comes to Christ. When a man who has spent a lifetime as a thief and a liar turns about and says that he is now a Christian, we look on him with skepticism. We look for evidence of a changed heart by watching for a changed life.

When a minister of the Lord falls, and we see it happen more often than we probably would like, what are we to think if we soon see him preaching the word again? Doesn’t God’s moral law still apply to those who profess to be Christians? How can we not look upon such a man with the same skepticism that we look upon the released prisoner?

Men are great deceivers. We celebrate a whole class of people whose job it is to deceive us. Actors convince us, if only for the short time they are on the stage or screen, that they are someone other than themselves when they play a role. We don’t think that Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush had a deep conflict between them over who should be the captain of the Black Pearl. Instead we see that conflict as between Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa. We don’t really see Johnny Depp on the screen, but Jack Sparrow. We don’t really see Geoffrey Rush, but Hector Barbossa.

If an actor can convince us of something that just isn’t so, what might a person who wants to be seen as “good” and “godly”, but isn’t do? Pretense abounds. Con men and charlatans abound, even in the “ministry.” We must be careful who we listen to, and who we trust.

I think that we should take a profession of faith seriously. If someone professes faith in Jesus, I will welcome them as a brother. If their life later demonstrates that faith to be false, then the word of God gives a prescription for how to handle that.

On the other hand, when someone, anyone, claims to speak for God, compare what they say to the word. There are many false teachers, even men who appear, or appeared to be godly Christians out there. If they teach you to turn away from Jesus, they’re false. If they teach you that you are saved by what you do for God, they’re false. If they teach that by being a good man, you are saved, they’re false. If they teach that adherence to a cause, such as being pro-life, or Republican, or tearing down statues is necessary for eternal life, they’re false.

Only one thing is necessary for eternal life. Faith in Jesus Christ.


  1. “[W]hen someone, anyone, claims to speak for God, compare what they say to the word.”

    Indeed. In fact, one (of several) of the clearest injunctions concerning this concept can be found when the Apostle Paul said, “Imitate me,” because he did not stop there! “Imitate me AS I IMITATE CHRIST.” IOW, (my own paraphrase) “Compare my words and deeds to those of Christ and imitate me in those things that agree with and in fact faithfully follow the words and deeds of Christ.”

    Where ANYONE who claims to speak God’s words speaks words NOT congruent with The Word and behaves in manners inconsistent with the life and work of Christ, we are not to follow that person.

    It’s not easy. We must, for example, be on guard against our own blind spots, our own missteps, our own injections of personal opinion contrary to the Word.

    1. Strange, isn’t it that you should echo one of the points in my pastor’s sermon from this morning (No, it really isn’t strange if you think about it.), regarding Paul and his imitation of Christ. Paul was saying “follow me, while I follow Christ,” with the goal that both he and those who follow should follow Christ.

      Christ is our goal. Not any particular preacher or apostle, but Christ. It’s a narrow path, and we’re easily led astray, but if we trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit he will keep us on the path.

      Your example regarding our own blind spots, and opinions is well taken.

  2. BTW, as an aphorism, it makes pretty good scripture 😉

    Jer 13:23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

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