Setting the Record Straight on Jesus, ‘Friend of Sinners’
Many people know that the New Testament refers to Jesus as a “friend of sinners,” but what does that mean exactly? Apparently not what some Christians think it does. In response to a twitter comment I made about Christian singer Natalie Grant walking out of The Grammys, Joe Carter, prominent Calvinist and director of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission rhetorically asked, "Didn't [Jesus] only welcome those seeking forgiveness?" He went on to agree with another that "The sinners Jesus partied with were already followers."
Theological sirens blared inside my head as Carter doubled down on his assertion that Jesus wasn't really a friend of sinners, but I assumed it was probably a fringe view I wouldn't likely encounter again.
A few days later, however, a friend emailed me a blog post from The Gospel Coalition titled, "Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?", written by another Calvinist, Kevin DeYoung. He said that Christians needed to be "safeguarded against doctrinal and ethical error" regarding Jesus' social habits.
"Jesus gladly spent time with sinners who were open to his teaching…Jesus embraced sinners who believed in him," DeYoung wrote before concluding, Jesus "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."*
The sirens returned. Was there really a conditionality in Jesus' relationships? Carter’s and DeYoung’s assertions didn't square with what I know about Jesus from the New Testament. Christ preached the Kingdom everywhere he went, but he also indiscriminately and unconditionally forged relationships with those at the margins of society, offering them a seat at the table. This scandalous social practice earned Jesus that nasty nickname to begin with.
But I'm a columnist and not a Bible scholar, so I decided to investigate in case I was wrong. After all, hell hath no fury like a Calvinist scorned.