A podcast listener, Sarah in Chicago, writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, how should Christians respond to the sin of unbelievers? I have longtime friends who are not Christians who partake in drunkenness and homosexuality, among other sins — and I’m wondering how to respond to their behavior with love and grace. In conversation, should I be unresponsive to their willful sin in the hopes of remaining friends with them and their eventual salvation? Or should I call out their sin and explain to them why they are in need of a Savior, with the risk of alienating them and losing our friendship?”
We know that Jesus was called a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19). And we know that he was invited into the homes of sinners, both the nonreligious kind, like tax collectors and sinners he calls them — people like prostitutes — and the religious kind like Pharisees. What we don’t know is how often Jesus was invited back.
And the reason that seems like a real question to me as I read the Gospels is that he explained his presence with sinners differently than you might expect. He didn’t explain himself as a simple friend who just enjoys hanging out with sinners, like they would make him feel good. Friendship with tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees did not mean for Jesus the enjoyment of their fellowship. They had very little in common to fellowship around. He loved them too much to enjoy what they enjoyed.
“Yes, Jesus dined with sinners. But we’re never told he was ever invited back.”
The way Jesus explained his presence with sinners was this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:10). And lots of people today, I think, would say: Good grief, that was offensive. I mean that is an offensive way to talk. “I am hanging out with you because you are sick. And you need a physician. You are a sinner and not righteous, and you need a Savior. That is the meaning of my presence as Savior and doctor.”
There are a lot of people today, I think, who would say: That is just inauthentic. You need to first really enjoy the camaraderie that you have with unbelievers and then, when they feel that you are really one of them and enjoy being with them, then they might be willing to hear that they are sick and need a physician and sinners and need a Savior.
“Jesus loved sinners too much to enjoy what they enjoyed.”
Well, that is not the way Jesus was thinking. I can imagine that in most of these dinner parties Jesus said things that were so blunt and so straightforward and to some so offensive that he never got invited back. For example, when he was invited to Simon’s house he was criticized by his host for allowing a woman to anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair. And his response was a full-blown indictment of his host.
Turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I have come in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:44–47)
“Jesus was a friend of sinners, because those sinners were sick and in need of a physician.”
Well, it is easy to imagine that at many of the dinner parties Jesus went to, issues arose in the conversation that exposed the selfishness and pride and greed and sensuality of sinful friends that he loved, and from the little we can see, it is highly unlikely that Jesus would have simply listened and said nothing about the ways of the kingdom. He would have acted like a physician. “I see some disease here and I know a remedy.” And he points them to the ways of the kingdom.
Later in the first century, we do get a glimpse in 1 Peter of the very tension that Sarah is asking about. On the one hand, Peter calls Christians to be overflowing with good deeds towards unbelievers in the hope that their criticisms will be silenced — criticism of Christians will be silenced — that their hostile attitudes will be silenced (1 Peter 2:15) or shamed (3:16), and that they would be brought to glorify God (2:12). So, it is clear that the believers didn’t want to unnecessarily alienate the unbelievers, but rather to win them and declare the excellences of him who called them out of darkness into light (2:9).
But Peter was also aware that Christians were called to live lives of such purity and holiness that unbelievers would inevitably be offended and critical as the Christians pulled away from fellowship in those sins. This is an amazing two verses in 1 Peter 4:3–4, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.”
“A true friend is full of good deeds, and a true friend abstains from sinful behavior and declares the excellencies of Christ.”
So, the point here is simply that we live with the tensions of what love really requires of us. What does a true friend really do? A true friend is full of good deeds and returns good for evil, and a true friend abstains from sinful behavior and declares the excellencies of Christ. And both of these strategies are necessary. Neither is guaranteed to win over the unbeliever. That is what we long for. That is what we pray for. But we don’t shrink back from our good deeds. And we don’t shrink back from lives of purity and holiness and verbal declarations of the excellencies of Christ. We leave the outcome and the fruit to God in Christ by the Spirit.
So I should say to Sarah: The longer you wait to explain Christ and his excellencies and the ways of Christ and the reasons for your hope in Christ, the more awkward it will seem to you when it comes and the more perplexed your friends are going to be that it took you so long. So, ask your small group at church or your friends or whoever believers you have in your life, ask them to pray for you earnestly, and then go ahead and put into words your love for your unbelieving friends.