Jesus, Friend of Repentant-Only Sinners?

Did these sinners have to repent before Jesus could love them?
(Image from the TGC post)

Kevin DeYoung recently wrote a post for The Gospel Coalition about in what way Jesus was a friend of sinners. He admits his motivation up front:

As precious as this truth is—that Jesus is a friend of sinners—it, like every other precious truth in the Bible, needs to be safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error. It is all too easy, and amazingly common, for Christians (or non-Christians) to take the general truth that Jesus was a friend of sinners and twist it all out of biblical recognition. So “Jesus ate with sinners” becomes “Jesus loved a good party,” which becomes “Jesus was more interested in showing love than taking sides,” which becomes “Jesus always sided with religious outsiders,” which becomes “Jesus would blow bubbles for violations of the Torah.”

In other words, his primary motivation is one of fear. He doesn’t want to see us sliding into liberalism, loving too many people. There has to be a line because if Jesus really did hang out with sinners, unqualified, then we’ll all just embrace every kind of sin we can think of. This suggests something prevalent (maybe not unanimous) in Young, Restless, Reformed theology: the reason for being a Christian is to avoid punishment. If Jesus could actually treat people well even before they repented, then what’s the point of repentance? Maybe that is reading too much into one paragraph of DeYoung here, but it is a common pattern for YRR and occasionally is stated explicitly as in the hysteria over the suggestion that Rob Bell may be a universalist (he isn’t, but that didn’t matter to them).

Ok, so the first problem is his motivation. How about the actual theory itself?

He does a very brief exegesis of a few texts to conclude where the line is of people who deserve love vs those that don’t:

What we see from the composite of these passages is that sinners were drawn to Jesus, that Jesus gladly spent time with sinners who were open to his teaching, that Jesus forgave repentant sinners, and that Jesus embraced sinners who believed in him.

Jesus was a friend of sinners not because he winked at sin, ignored sin, or enjoyed light-hearted revelry with those engaged in immorality. Jesus was a friend of sinners in that he came to save sinners and was very pleased to welcome sinners who were open to the gospel, sorry for their sins, and on their way to putting their faith in Him.

He admits that he is going to completely ignore the story of the woman caught in adultery, citing textual evidence. I get that many historical Jesus scholars don’t want to deal with it (or John much in general) but that is, quite frankly, very strange for a conservative theologian to treat any part of Scripture as not authoritative. Usually driving home how every single word is from God is a big part of their message. Anyway, that story is a good counterpoint where Jesus jumps into a tense situation to rescue somebody who has shown absolutely no signs of repentance. In fact, based on the beginning of the story it seems like the Pharisees brought him in precisely because they thought he wouldn’t judge her and they wanted to trap him (but he outsmarted them by pointing out they weren’t perfect either), which suggests he made a habit of forgiving people even when they weren’t repentant.

That’s not the only story, though. How about just one more, the woman at the well? Jesus approaches her. Jesus starts the conversation. Jesus reveals his identity to her. She becomes the first evangelist. And yet, nowhere before that does she show any signs of repentance, not even of having worked her way through multiple husbands and now living with a man she isn’t married to (definitely considered very sinful then and is still by most conservative Christians today). Actually, nowhere in the conversation does she make any kind of repentance known, assuming we mean repentance as a deep apology for each and every sin in our lives and a promise to do better – not my definition of repentance but it seems to be DeYoung’s so let’s work with it. That repentance is not there beforehand and yet Jesus still initiated an incredibly scandalous conversation and revelation.

We also have words like those of Paul which I think sum up Jesus’ life pretty well (the sexual immorality in question is clear in the rest of the book: a man who was sleeping with his stepmother):

9 I wrote to you in my earlier letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 But I wasn’t talking about the sexually immoral people in the outside world by any means—or the greedy, or the swindlers, or people who worship false gods—otherwise, you would have to leave the world entirely! 11 But now I’m writing to you not to associate with anyone who calls themselves “brother” or “sister” who is sexually immoral, greedy, someone who worships false gods, an abusive person, a drunk, or a swindler. Don’t even eat with anyone like this. 12 What do I care about judging outsiders? Isn’t it your job to judge insiders? 13 God will judge outsiders. Expel the evil one from among you!

One of my biggest problems with many of the Young, Restless, and Reformed group is that they reverse this. They want good Christians to be those who endlessly ignore the blatant unrepentant sins of others in that tribe. This is why many YRR have regularly encouraged us to ignore repeated sexual, physical, and spiritual abuse committed by prominent Reformed leaders, typically turning the blame onto those hurt and hurting many more in the process. Then they want to make sure that Christians don’t dare associate in any way with any possible sinner outside of that tribe, including other Christians who have differing opinions on some questions. That would taint the real Christian too much. That would be failing in our duty to assert our opinion as absolute truth no matter who gets hurt. That would be allowing God’s perfect love to cast out our fear (1 John 4:18) of the slippery slope, our fear that maybe our tribe isn’t right about everything, our fear that even our enemies are deeply loved by God.

I don’t believe Jesus wants us to operate on those fears. I believe, like he did with his life, he wants us to lavishly love everyone with no conditions. It isn’t conditional on them joining my tribe of Christianity or any part of Christianity. It isn’t conditional on saying a certain prayer explicitly turning away from sin in their lives. It isn’t conditional on them cleaning up their moral failures, particularly since it is never our job to decide whether it is even is a moral failure when they haven’t entered that covenant of Christian family together. The only people Jesus didn’t hang out with were those who were so self-righteous and judgemental that they couldn’t handle being in the presence of his radical love.

Anyone reading this, God loves you. She’ll never stop pursuing you wherever you are right now – even if that is in unrepentant sin – with that radical love. No conditions. And I’m going to do my best to do the same no matter what the Pharisees say.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.