Everyone who knows anything about the gospels—and even those who don’t—knows that Jesus was a friend of sinners. He often drew the ire of the scribes and Pharisees for eating with sinners (Luke 15:2). Jesus clearly recognized that one of the insults hurled against him was that he was “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). As Christians we love to sing of this Pharisaical put-down because it means that Jesus is a friend to sinners like us. We also find ourselves challenged by Jesus’ example to make sure we do not turn away outsiders in a way that Jesus never would.

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.”

Here we have an example of a whole truth being used for a half truth in the service of a lie. Once, as a younger man in ministry, I made an offhanded comment about how Jesus “hung out with drunks.” I was gently and wisely corrected by an older Christian who had himself overcome alcohol addiction. He challenged me to find anywhere in Scripture where Jesus was just “hanging out” with people in a state of drunkenness. In an effort to accentuate the grace of Christ, I stepped beyond (around, over, and away) from the biblical text and made it sound like Jesus loved nothing more than to yuck it up with John Belushi in Animal House.

If we are to celebrate that the Lord Jesus is a glorious friend of sinners—and we should—we must pay careful attention to the ways in which Jesus actually was a friend to sinners. Omitting the story of the woman caught in adultery (for reasons of textual criticism), I count five main passages in the gospels where Jesus is chastised for getting too close to sinners.

  1. Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32 – This is the story of Jesus calling Matthew the tax collector to be his disciple. We find Jesus reclining at table with many tax collectors and sinners, “for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15). When the scribes and Pharisees grumble about the company he keeps, Jesus tells them that he has “not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).
  2. Matthew 11:16-19; Luke 7:31-35 – Here Jesus rebukes the “people of this generation” because they rejected John the Baptist for being too tight and reject the Son of Man for being too loose. It’s from this incident that we get the phrase “friend of sinners.” We should note that it was an insult heaped upon Jesus by his enemies. This doesn’t mean Christ didn’t own it and we shouldn’t sing it, but it suggests he may not have owned it in every way. If Jesus was not a “glutton and drunkard” as his opponents thoughts, so he may not have been “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in exactly the way they imagined either.
  3. Luke 7:36-50 – Right on the heels of this story comes another one like it in Luke. A sinful woman anoints Jesus with expensive ointment and wipes Jesus’ feet with her tears and the hair of her head. When Jesus is corrected for letting this “sinner” touch him, he reminds Simon that those who are forgiven much love much. In the end, Jesus forgives the woman her sin and announces “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50).
  4. Luke 15:1-2 – The setting for the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son of Luke 15 is found in the first two verses of that chapter. As the tax collectors and sinners “were all drawing near” to Jesus, the Pharisees and scribes grumbled that Jesus was receiving them to eat with them. The three parables that follow demonstrate how God seeks out the lost (15:3, 8, 20) and how pleased God is when sinners repent (15:7, 10, 21-24).
  5. Luke 19:1-10 – Again, the Jewish leaders grumble because Jesus “has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner” (Luke 19:7) Though Zacchaeus repents and is a changed man (19:8), the Jews simply cannot accept that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (19:10) and that this notorious tax collector has been saved (19:9).

So what lessons can we draw from these episodes? In what way was Jesus a friend of sinners? Did he have a grand strategy for reaching tax collectors? Did he indiscriminately “hang out” with drunks and prostitutes? Was he an easy going live-and-let-live kind of Messiah? 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.

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67 thoughts on “Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?”

  1. Jon says:

    So, earstohear, you reject justification by faith (i.e. faith as the means of justification)? Jesus receives people who do not trust in Him?

  2. Jon,

    Faith is no means of justification, neither is this what is intended by the phrase “justification by faith” in the scriptures. We are justified by Christ’s work on our behalf. (Romans 5:19, Hebrews 10:14). Faith is the instrumental means given to God’s people whereby our justification in Christ is made manifest, not actual. If our justification in Christ by covenant is not a pre-existing fact, then faith has nothing to lay hold of.

    Yes, it is true that ALL salvation is the result of Jesus accepting a people who DID NOT trust in him (Romans 5:6). He chose a people out of fallen humanity (Romans 9:21), not because they had faith in him, but in spite of the fact that they did not. It was according to his mercy (Titus 3:5), not according to their faith. He ultimately gives them faith as a result of the covenant (Galatians 4:6), but this is not a cause of their salvation, but an effect of their salvation (I John 5:1). That’s salvation by grace – it’s salvation based on what Christ did plus absolutely nothing else, which is evidenced by faith, not ratified by it.

    May God bless our studies and understanding.
    teth

  3. Kevin, I beg you to reconsider your last sentence. Please.
    Because…when I was in high school, I was anorexic. And I knew Jesus didn’t want me to be anorexic, but I couldn’t bear feeling fat.
    So I shoved God out of my life precisely because of teachings like this. God would NEVER accept a sinner who kept turning back towards her sin. God would not welcome me unless I was repentant, and since I didn’t have the will to break my addiction, to try to change, to repent, I lived for four years of my life hating myself and running from God.
    When I actually* returned to God, there was no initial determination to turn from my sin. There was only a whisper for help. Yet, the very next week I caught myself over-exercising. However, instead of running from God, I heard Him say that I was welcomed anyways, and He would help me. The burden was no longer on me to be in the right frame of spirit and mind to be welcomed by God. Jesus loved me anyways.
    A God who only welcomes those who want to change isn’t my God. God welcomes us no matter who we are, and, maybe, it is in His presence where we start to change.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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