Jesus was accused of being a friend of sinners. That was the word on the street in first-century Palestine.
The precise phrase — “friend of sinners” — is mentioned twice in the Gospels, in Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34. The naysayers of the day, the religious aristocracy, criticized Jesus as a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
They called him this because it was true. He was a friend of sinners. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come for the spiritually healthy, but for the sick. “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).
Just like he greeted children that others thought were a nuisance, he welcomed sinners that others didn’t (Matthew 19:14; Luke 7:37–39). He looked at them, as Mark says he did with the rich young man, and he loved them (Mark 10:21). He had compassion on them. And most glorious of all, he wielded his authority to speak those wondrous words, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48).
This is all very important for us because, as some have noted recently, we Christians pattern our lives after Jesus’s example. He has, after all, sent us into the world in the same Spirit of his own mission (John 20:21–22).
If Jesus was a friend of sinners, we should be too, it seems — somehow, someway. And instantly, this discussion can drift into a much bigger one about Christians and culture and all that. But instead of going there, let’s just talk friendship for a minute. Friendship, which is not without its implications, is more practical and relevant than a primer on the church’s posture in society. So in that light, here are three tips on being a friend of sinners.
1. Be okay with marginal.
In the example of Jesus, we need to be all right with marginal all the way around. Be okay with associating with the marginal, the poor, the destitute — those often overlooked in society (Luke 7:22). Go there. Be with this people. Serve them. Learn from them. And be okay with being thought marginal yourself (Matthew 19:6–9), or non-progressive or backwater or against sexual modernity — whatever they are saying these days about the Christian conscience. The truth is that many of our neighbors, especially in urban contexts, will think we’re weird. Or stupid. Or close-minded. Or judgmental. Or just simply out of touch with the new post-Christian world.
Popular opinion will continue to cast Christian ethics as outdated and antithetical to the development of the American self. We’ll often find ourselves, in the coffee shop, on the light-rail, at the theater, to be the only ones there who don’t think same-sex “marriage” is the coolest thing since sliced bread. The number of those who share our convictions, or are open to listening, may continue to dwindle. And, really, this is fine. It’s okay. Our calling doesn’t live or die by societal acceptance.
2. Aim to love, not be liked.
We must nail this down. The aim of our charge is love, not popularity (1 Timothy 1:5). Jesus constantly infuriated the popular ideals of his day. They knew his teaching contradicted their own, and rather than like him and wrap their arms around him in happy tolerance, they tried to shut him up (Mark 12:12). “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25).
Jesus wasn’t a fan favorite. They crucified him, remember? The leaders and the people. Not to mention that alongside Jesus’s reputation for shady associations was the utter absence of popularity baiting. “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances . . .” (Mark 12:14). This means Jesus didn’t let the crowd’s facial expressions dictate his message. Or pageviews. Or book sales.
In a sense, there is a holy disregard for what outsiders think, but that’s not the whole story. In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul lays out that one of the qualifications to be an elder is that “he must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:7). As David Mathis writes, we care what others think because God cares. Ultimately, “we want outsiders to become insiders.” Jesus came to serve, not be served (Mark 10:45), and the same goes for us. We are in this world to serve, not be pampered. To love, not be applauded. To bless, not be notarized. So we should care about our reputation — to serve and love and bless — but that doesn’t mean trying so hard to be liked by everybody. Having a respectable reputation is one thing, trying to get everyone to throw their arm around us is another.
3. Put the gospel to work.
This means, first and foremost, that the most important thing we could ever say is that Jesus is Lord. He is the risen King of the universe, alive now and reigning in his mercy and love, commanding all people everywhere to repent and come home. This is amazingly good news, and it is controversial. If we believe this, and say it, some sinners won’t want to be our friends. Nevertheless, the news is still good. The truth is still compelling. Its beauty is never diminished.
A few of the most practical ways we might put the gospel to work as friends of sinners is captured by Tim Keller in Center Church. Leaning on Simon Gathercole’s outline of the gospel as Jesus’s incarnation, substitution, and resurrection, Keller considers three aspects in which the gospel impacts our lives. He calls it the “upside-down” aspect, the “inside-out” aspect, and the “forward-back” aspect — each of which are opposite the world’s way of thinking (46–48). Upside-down is rooted in the most glorious, humble event in history. God became a man. He suffered. He died. Our message and lives are marked by this relentless posture of servanthood. Inside-out gets at the great work Jesus did by taking our place on the cross. He died for us, sinners as we were, and was raised for us by sheer mercy — to bring us to God and accept us not based upon our works, but solely by his grace. This electing grace has no preconditions. It’s lavished on the worst of sinners and tidiest of Pharisees, giving us all the eyes of faith. Then the forward-back, the kingdom Jesus inaugurated by his victory over the grave, reminds us that we are destined for another world, a better one. Heaven will be on earth, but not yet. The world will be made completely new, but now we’re still working and waiting, loving the lost, telling God’s story.
When these truths touch our lives and are put to work in our relationships, we’ll be walking in the steps of our Savior. When this world-shaking wonder orders the way we, sinners saved by grace, think about those around us, sinners in need of grace, then, and only then, we’ll make for good friends. Then we’ll be good friends of sinners, like the true and better “friend of sinners.”