True Holiness Befriends Sinners

The pursuit of holiness may keep you from bad company. But have you ever considered that it might also lead you to keep some pretty bad company?

Jesus is our litmus test of lived-out holiness. He is the Holy One of Israel in human flesh. His life serves as the best answer key for what divine holiness looks like when reflected in humanity. And they rightly called him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).

So what are we to do with a God-man who associated with the most blatant nonbelievers of his day?

Not Merely to Defy Convention or Enjoy a Party

It’s worth noting what Jesus is not doing when associating with unbelievers throughout the Gospels. He’s not just going with the flow. He’s not trying to get in with the hip crowd. He’s not just looking for a good time, or to drown his sorrows, or tag along with the social scene, or grow his reputation, or hang out because there’s nothing better to do.

Take note that there’s no passivity in Jesus’s approach. And no sin. He’s there on mission — in the unbelieving household, at the party — not aiming simply to defy conventions, but actively seeking the salvation of sinners. He sees associating with unbelievers as a strategic place to call for repentance — and is it all that surprising when he keeps running into the hardest hearts among the “believing” religious elites of his day?

Angling for Repentance

In Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners, New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg sums up the relevant texts from the Gospels like this:

Scandalously, [Jesus] associates with the notoriously wicked, but he is willing to feast with the scrupulous religious leaders as well. Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners reflects his willingness to associate with them at an intimate level, but not merely for the sake of defying convention or enjoying a party. In each case various textual clues, if not explicit statements, demonstrate that Christ is indeed calling them to repentance and summoning them to become his followers. (167)

His close proximity to sinners doesn’t mean he’s coddling sin, but that he’s getting close enough to confront unbelief with precision and grace. When he engages sinners (Mark 2:15; Luke 7:37–38), he’s honest that he sees them as such (Mark 2:17; Luke 7:47–48), and that it’s precisely for their sake that he has come. The man known as “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19) is said, in the next verse, to “denounce the cities [that] did not repent” (Matthew 11:20).

A Contagious Holiness, Not Fearing Contamination

Jesus exhibits a “contagious holiness,” Blomberg calls it. “Jesus discloses not one instance of fearing contamination, whether moral or ritual, by associating with the wicked or impure. Rather, he believes that his purity can rub off on them, and he hopes that his magnanimity toward them will lead them to heed his calls to discipleship” (167).

Having your purity “rub off” on nonbelievers isn’t automatic, and won’t come from passivity and nonchalance. It happens through sustained intentionality to connect with nonbelievers where they are and, with God’s help, point them toward saving belief in Jesus. The power to clearly and explicitly share the gospel, and to gently but firmly call for change, won’t come from the worldly desire to nestle up to sin. It must come from holiness, true holiness.

Befriending Unbelievers Together

And here’s an important clarification in the land of lone-rangers. Jesus is the perfect, sinless God-man — and during his earthly ministry was able to go at it alone if needed — but even he always seemed to have his disciples with him. How much more do we need a team, to go at our evangelistic efforts with a solid brother or sister or two who will not let us be dragged down by the sin around us, and in us, but keep us on mission, intentional to engage and rescue sinners with the gospel of Jesus.

Don’t storm the gates of hell alone. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two (Luke 10:1). You’re wise to go with a team.

Good News Changes Bad People

So proceed with accountability, and use great caution. As the apostle Paul acknowledges in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Be warned.

But don’t miss the evangelistic impulses flowing elsewhere in the very same letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9–11.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

Don’t confuse the call to separate from an openly sinful “brother” with a summons to stay away from the lost. We call them “lost” because we hope they’ll be found. And in an increasingly post-Christian culture, they likely will not be “found” without someone risking it to take them the gospel in uncomfortable ways and places.

It’s one thing to confess Christ and embrace sin. It’s quite another thing when someone living in sin doesn’t yet confess Christ — and the Christian bent is to put ourselves in potentially dangerous situations in hope of rescuing them.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Romans 10:14–15)

Yes, bad company corrupts good morals. Do beware. And don’t ever forget that God’s good news stands ready to change really bad people.

Crucified to Sin, Raised to Go Back In

Maybe the call to holiness has kept you from eating with the tax collectors and sinners of your town, and in certain circumstances, that may be all well and good. But if we’re taking our cues from the Holy One of Israel made human, eating with tax collectors and sinners could be the very thing we’re called to do more of.

Christian holiness is not the avoidance of darkness at all costs. It includes going into the darkness, letting our Light shine without compromise, and bringing people back from the darkness by the power of God.

Jesus’s true followers are not only crucified to the world, but also raised to new life and sent back in to free others. Let’s die to every sinful desire in us for bad company, and yield to the holy impulse to befriend some of the world’s worst for Jesus’s sake.