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Jesus never apologized for getting on the inside with outsiders. It was his mission. What kind of doctor refuses to see patients? What kind of farmer refuses to get his hands dirty? What kind of church has no place for sinners?

People reviled Jesus. They called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Have you ever been called names like this? Have I? Do we fear contamination from the world more than we have confidence in Christ’s power to cleanse?

Of course, I’m not encouraging people with drinking problems to go hang out in bars. I don’t expect new Christians to keep all their same friends who lead them into the same temptations. I’m not saying that if you really want to be relevant you have to watch sleazy movies so you can talk about them with the sinners in our lives. We need to use wisdom.

And we also need guts. We must not think of relationships with non-Christians primarily as dangers but as opportunities. Do we go out into the world hoping for conversion or expecting contamination?

Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4). Do we believe that?

The gospel–if we are talking about the true gospel–works through repentance and relationships. We need both. Jesus had relationships with sinners and tax collectors. And through those relationships what did he call them to do? He didn’t say call them to self-expression, or invite them to despise religious people, or summon them to eat, drink, and be merry (in our language: eat, drink, and be tolerant). He called them to repentance. One commentator says, “Jesus neither condoned sin, left people in their sin, nor communicated any disdain for sinners.” Jesus was not passive, just waiting for people to get their act together. And neither was he passive about confronting sin.

No one in the history of the world has been more inclusive of the broken hearted than Jesus. And no one has been more intolerant of the impenitent. A friend of sinners and no friend of sin.

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18 thoughts on “A Friend of Sinners and No Friend of Sin”

  1. Wondering says:

    And thankfully the church is in perfect agreement on what constitutes “sin” so that we know when it is appropriate to REALLY call someone on the carpet and when not to… And we are also REALLY good at determining those sins that are more serious than the little ones most of us deal with so that we don’t have to waste time becoming more holy and loving ourselves – instead we can devote a bunch of our time and energy into fixing those REAL sinners!! Yes, this is truly awesome to follow a Savior who I know shares the same opinion as I do on what sin is…

    Ok, I’ll admit Jason, that was a bit snarky of me. But my above comment highlights the problem I see too often within the church. I heard a preacher not so long ago say, “In the church, we like to say “Hate the sin, love the sinner…but the reality is that we hate them both and feel proud that we do.” Now how do we deal with this tendency in ourselves to self-righteously judge the other when a large plank is sticking out of our own eye? I think we need to worry about the behavior of self-righteous judgment even more than we need to worry about showing a little common decency in the form of some needed tolerance.

    I think I am learning to head out into the world hoping for conversion – but not as you write about it above. I am hoping for a conversion of a different sort evidenced by my own greater ability to walk in the shoes of another and see the world through eyes other than my own.

  2. David says:

    I have been wrestling with this subject for the past few weeks. What does it mean to be a friend of sinners? Should I be buddies with those who reject my Lord? How did His followers, the apostles and other believers, interact with the unbelieving world? I have spoken to my friends of Christ. There is no interest other than perplexity at my submission to the truth claims of Scripture. I have become convicted that simply hanging out with them really does no good for me or for them. The best way a Christian can be a “friend” to unbelievers is to point them to the Friend of sinners. Share the Gospel, and pray for them. Colossians 4:5-6

  3. Martin Willow says:

    David, being a friend is not dependent upon another’s ability to change – especially when our witness is not as pure and perfect as that of Jesus. More than anything, they watch us as we live our lives. And often it takes some time for their eyes to be open. Being a friend in words and deeds is not the same as “throwing pearls before swine”.

  4. Daryl Little says:

    I agree with Martin, being a friend is being a friend. It makes no sense to avoid being friends with non-believers because they might have a negative effect on you.

    Be wise, be careful and avoid situations that are too much for you, but for goodness sake, go fishing and play ball and baby-sit the kids.
    Just don’t make them your closest friend and confidant.

    It seems to me that it’s the kind of thing that David is talking about that makes people conclude that believers “hate the sin and the sinner”.
    I don’t know any other way to hate the sin and love the sinner is to be friends with people in a normal kind of way.

  5. Cindy says:

    The teaching that I have found helpful as a guide is to look first to Jesus. Follow ‘what’ and ‘how’ HE worked with us (the flock, that’s us, as sinners). He came for us ALL. HE died for US ALL. Treating the entire flock (lost sheep or those who stay with Our Lord) the same; we are to be a servant to each other. One is no more than another. Also, it mentions above, that we need wisdom. To me, friends ‘need’ me when no one else will-no matter their apparent affiliation with God/Jesus. Many times, it seems that Jesus connects us spiritually. No judgment involved. Just one sheep in the flock to another. I allow HIM to help ‘using me’… the empty vessel.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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