What Christians say about Jesus can have eternal consequences.
That's a rather banal and uncontroversial claim, yet it's surprising how often it's overlooked or disregarded. We can forget that in our rush to defend Jesus and make him more palatable to our culture we can unwittingly lead people to accept soul-destroying beliefs. For example, I was reminded today of how an incorrect version of the claim "Jesus is a friend of sinners" can lead people to embrace universalism.
Before I connect the dots between those two ideas, let me first provide some clarification about an unfortunate and disheartening incident.
In his recent column for Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt made erroneous claims about my views on an important topic. I've given a quote to Merritt before and, had he asked, would have gladly done so again. Instead, he quoted me selectively and out of context and misrepresented my actual beliefs. He also implies that he asked several evangelical scholars about comments I made ("I asked him about the notions espoused by Carter . . ."; "He pushed back against Carter's assertion . . ."), but when I contacted several of those academics directly they told me that Merritt never mentioned me by name, much less asked them to comment on what I had actually said or written. Merritt substituted his version of what I said and asked them to respond. He also misrepresented claims made by my TGC colleague Kevin DeYoung.
I contacted Merritt and asked him to make an update and correction. He adamantly refused.
If the issue were merely a lapse in journalistic ethics by Merritt I would not be mentioning it now. But Merritt makes claims that have implications for the gospel that I feel are necessary to address. Since I will be referencing his article, I also feel it is necessary to let people know that many of the claims about my views in the article are inaccurate.
The posts by DeYoung and I were written to address whether Jesus would attend any and every kind of gathering of sinners. Merritt misrepresented us by saying we think Christians should only talk to soon-to-be Christians. That is, of course, not the case. Rather, we believe there are several gradations of "fellowship." Jesus clearly reserves the category of "friends" to his disciples (John 15). Likewise, koinonia (fellowship or participation) is a special category for those who have union with Christ (see 1 Cor 10-11). The confusion—be it intentional or from ignorance—comes from jumbling up all these categories so that to speak of Jesus' restricting his associations and fellowship on any level is to suggest that Christians walk on the other side of the street from pagans.
Responding to Merritt's article and the unpleasantness of having to explain our disagreement is something I would have preferred to avoid. And I almost did. Then I saw that one of the country's most influential religious figures—Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church—tweeted, "Got to go with Jonathan Merritt on this one." That comment made me realize that if even noted evangelical pastors could be confused about this issue, then it's an worthy of comment.
So what is it people are "going with" when they agree with Merritt's argument? In his conclusion, Merritt says:
As some Christian leaders attempt to reimagine Jesus' social habits, it's time we set the record straight on the friend of sinners. There's too much at stake.
A Jesus who loves us even if we don't love back? A Savior who pursues us even as we run away? A Christ who offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached? That would be a Jesus who is better than we've imagined, and that would be good news.
As the article makes clear, when Merritt says "set the record straight on the friend of sinners," he is referring, at least in part, to a claim made by DeYoung. In his article, "Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?" DeYoung wrote,
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."
Merritt has followed this logic to (at least one) wrong conclusion. He supports the contention that Jesus would have "baked the cake" for a same-sex wedding ceremony and that Christians should therefore also be willing serve at a same-sex wedding.
But is it really true that "Christ offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached"? If so, then we must follow that claim to all its logical conclusions, for Christ, for Christians, and even for the unrepentant unbeliever.
Let's start with the implications for Jesus and his followers. If Jesus would fellowship "indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached" then it means he would fellowship with any group of sinners while they engaged in any type of sin (that is what "without condition" entails). That means not only that Jesus would act in such a manner (i.e., hanging out with any sinners while they are engaging in any type of sin), but that we should do so too.
This is a hard claim to support. Would Jesus have sidled up to Paul during the stoning of Stephen and said, "Let me help you with some of those coats." Would Jesus have joined Roman soldiers in casting lots for the robe of a crucified man? Would Jesus have served lemonade at a lynching?
When I asked that last question on Twitter, I was immediately condemned. As Aaron J. Smith said, "You are comparing a lynching to a [same-sex] wedding ceremony you don't agree with." He is right. I am. That is how logic works.
What is interesting, though, is how Smith and others seem to think that the comparison is unfair, offensive, and absurd. Their reasoning is based on what their peer groups or modern society consider acceptable. However, if you were to travel back to the U.S. South in the era of Reconstruction and make the same comparison, they would also say the comparison was unfair, offensive, and absurd—only in reverse. They would claim it was ridiculous to imply that Jesus would bake a cake for a same-sex wedding and wouldn't serve lemonade at a lynching.
Of course some people refuse to accept the analogy because they believe, contra Scripture, that same-sex marriage doesn't hurt anyone and isn't sinful. For those cases I offer a substitute: Would Jesus serve wine at a polygamous wedding? Would Jesus bake a cake for an incestuous wedding? Would Jesus be the host for a "divorce party"?
While what our culture considers acceptable might change with the times, Jesus does not. He is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). What he would not deem acceptable in AD 30 or in 1863 does not change just because the calendar says it is 2014. And if Jesus would not condone the behavior, then we should not claim that believers are justified in condoning the behavior indiscriminately without condition, and with no strings attached.
There is an even more concerning implication, however, and that is for the unrepentant unbeliever. If it is true that "Christ offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached" then the logical implication is that universalism is true.
As I mentioned, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His character is consistent. If Jesus was willing to continuously fellowship with any and all unrepentant sinners— indiscriminately, without condition, no strings attached—then he will continue to do so in the future. If an unrepentant sinner was willing and able in AD 30 to fellowship with Jesus in Jerusalem as much as they wanted, then why will they not be able to do the same in the New Jerusalem? Why could they not, if they so chose, fellowship with Jesus forever without ever feeling the need to repent of their sins?
(Calvinists would obviously say the unrepentant would not will to do so, but
Merritt and other Arminians would likely disagree. UPDATE: Merritt says he is not an Arminian. I apologize for the error.)
I don't believe Merritt, Andy Stanley, and the others who concur with his article believe in universalism. I hope they would say that would be following the logic of the argument too far. In fact, I'd encourage Merritt and Stanley for the sake of clarity to explain how their view allows for a change in Jesus' fellowship of sinners upon his return to judge the living and the dead. I'm assuming they must make such an allowance in order to keep in line with Jesus' own teaching and the Apostles' Creed.
That is one of the problems with arguments. Other people will eventually come along and follow an argument to its logical end point—even when the logical conclusion is far past where we may be willing to go. Even if we are not willing to be consistent in our theology, those who hear us will. That is why we should be careful about claiming that the unrepentant can have unconditional fellowship with non-judgmental Jesus: some people might start to believe it's a universal truth without an expiration date.