It’s election season and millions of Americans are weighing and evaluating the character of the candidates. Why would they examine a person’s character when deciding how to cast a vote? Because a leopard doesn’t change its spots. What those candidates have been in the past is a predictor of what they will be in the future. This is yet another phrase, another beautiful little idiom, that has been passed to us from the Bible—the King James Bible.
A leopard doesn’t change its spots is used to indicate that character traits do not easily change. Even more particularly, bad character traits do not easily change. A man may say he has transformed himself. A woman may insist she is different than she was before. But without compelling and long-proven evidence to the contrary, we know better. A quick search of recent news headlines shows that opponents of both presidential candidates are charging that these leopards have not changed their spots—who they were in business and politics in the past proves who they will be in the White House. They are probably right.
This expression is drawn from Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.” Philip Ryken makes the important and clarifying point that this statement is not racist: “The point is not that black skin is evil or that black spots are stains. In fact, black spots are the distinctive beauty of the leopard. Black is beautiful. The point is that skin color—like a sin nature—cannot be changed.” And neither can leopard’s spots.
There is nothing a leopard can do to change its spots. There is nothing a dark-skinned Ethiopian can do to change his skin color. There is nothing a sinner can do to change his sin nature. MacArthur says it like this: “When you look at the biblical diagnosis of the human heart, there’s just nothing there that can respond. Desperately wicked. And what proceeds out of that heart is all the sins and iniquities that characterize it.” (See also Psalm 51:5, Matthew 7:18, 1 John 3:9, and so on.)
Humanity is in trouble. Just a couple of chapters later Jeremiah summarizes the human condition like this: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9). According to Psalm 51:5 we are born sinners, born in a state of rebellion against God: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” And then, according to the words we are considering today, we can do nothing to change ourselves. After all, a leopard doesn’t change it spots. It all sounds very hopeless.
Except that God is a God of grace. We cannot change ourselves from within but God delights to change us from without. And he does! He does all that is necessary to save his people. He even gives us salvation as a free gift of grace. The rhetorical question, “Can the leopard change his spots” is answered with a resounding no, followed by something far, far better. The leopard cannot change itself, but God can change the leopard. The sinner cannot save himself, but God loves to save the sinner. That is our one and only hope.
Would you like to sing about such sweet truth? Why not sing along with “The Prodigal” which celebrates the kind of transformation every Christian undergoes.
Or, for a more traditional hymn, Andrew Bonar’s “Upon a Life I Did Not Live.”