A reader recently used my “Contact Me” form on the about page to submit a Bible and Theology Question. Here is what he wrote:
Thank you for being available. It can be hard to find someone to go to for some spiritual questions via the internet.
Lately I have been struggling with some new information I came upon regarding Jesus and some people’s views. To start with, I am a public school high school boy with an unbelieving family, so I am around the non-religious a lot.
To my surprise, I learned based off of Luke 7:34 and John 15:14 that Jesus was not actually a friend of sinners. In Luke 7:34, the pharisees are trying to discredit Jesus by giving him titles such as a glutton, drunkard, and friend of sinners. But Jesus never claimed these titles.
With this information, some people say that Jesus was only with unbelievers to minister to them and not to fellowship or become friends with them.
Do you think this is right? Does our knowledge of Jesus public ministry give us all we need to know about his interaction/relationships with unbelievers.
Thank you very much.
I am posting my answer here, because I think others might have similar questions.
It is true that the Pharisees and other religious leaders were trying to discredit Jesus by calling Him a glutton, drunkard, and friend of sinners.
It is also true that Jesus never referred to Himself by such titles.
However, none of this means that Jesus was not actually a friend to sinners. Quite to the contrary, there are numerous lines of evidence which prove that Jesus did, in fact, hang out with and befriend those whom the religious world at that time considered “sinners.”
1. Nobody Ever Tried to Discredit a Pharisee by Calling them “the friend of sinners”
The reason the Pharisees were able to pin the accusation of being a glutton, drunkard, and friend of sinners upon Jesus is because Jesus ate a lot, drank a lot, and hung out with “sinners” a lot. If the accusation wasn’t at least partly true, the accusation never would have been voiced, and never would have stuck.
The Pharisees are the perfect example. You will never find any place in Scripture or in any other literature of the time which accuses the Pharisees of being the friend of sinners. Why not? Because they did everything within their power to live separately from sinners.
Jesus, however, was often found in the company of sinners, and so the Pharisees tried to discredit Him and His ministry by saying that He was their friend. This is the classic attack known as “guilt by association.”
But of course, this was fine with Jesus, for this was exactly why He came – to bear our guilt by associating with us.
2. Jesus never denied that he was the friend of sinners
Though Jesus didn’t refer to Himself as a friend of sinners, He did confirm that this was who He came to live among. In Luke 5:32, Jesus says that He did not come to call the righteous to repentance, but the unrighteous. So if Jesus was going to call the unrighteous to repentance, He needed to hang out with the unrighteous.
Similarly, in Matthew 9:12, Jesus says that it is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. Again, to heal the sick, Jesus had to be with the sick.
Which raises the interesting third point:
3. If Jesus Wasn’t the Friend of Sinners, He Couldn’t be Friends with Any of Us!
I think one truth that is often overlooked in this discussion is that ALL of us are sinners. The only reason some people like to say that Jesus wasn’t actually a friend to sinners is because they somehow think that they themselves are not sinners. Or at least, they are not “as bad” as those other sinners.
You know what this is? This is called pride, which is the worst of all possible sins.
The only people who would claim that Jesus wasn’t really the friend to sinners are those people who don’t think they themselves are sinners.
I believe that when Jesus makes His statements about not coming for the righteous in Luke 5:32 and not coming for the healthy in Matthew 9:12, He was implying that none of us are righteous, none of us healthy. We are all sinners in need of repentance. We are all sick in need of a physician.
If Jesus was only going to hang out with the righteous, He would have stayed in heaven.
4. Jesus Didn’t Come to Save us From Our Sin, but to Save us From Religion
When it comes to discussing who Jesus hung out with, the choice is not between the righteous people and the unrighteous people (for all are unrighteous), but rather between the religious and the non-religious.
I believe that–even more so than our sin–Jesus came to free people from religion. And one way Jesus showed this was by hanging out with the people whom religion rejects as “unworthy” of God’s attention or forgiveness.
Jesus didn’t hang out with sinners to show that God loves them more than God loves religious people. No, Jesus hung out with sinners to show both them and the religious people that God accepts and loves all people. That is one of the central truths of the Gospel message. You don’t have to become religious in order for God to love and forgive you. In fact, religion may actually get in the way of understanding that God loves and forgives you!
5. Yes, Jesus Hung Out with Religious People Too
Yes, yes. I do not deny it. Some of His own disciples were “religious.” And we must never forget that Nicodemus visited with Jesus (John 3), or that Jesus ate dinner with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-49). He also calls His followers His friends (John 15:14).
But again, the question is not whether or not Jesus hung out with religious people. Of course He did. The question is Why?
It was not because He approved of their beliefs and behavior. Not at all!
Just as Jesus didn’t hang out with sinners and tax-collectors as an endorsement of their beliefs and behavior, so also, the fact that Jesus hung out with religious people should not be seen as an endorsement of theirs.
Again, I believe that Jesus was more concerned about the barriers to God which are erected by religion than He was about the barriers to God which are caused by sin.
But even this is getting off track. It is not about which group is worse than the other.
It’s not about who is approved, accepted, or endorsed more than someone else.
The message of Jesus was this: “It’s not about your sin! It’s not about your religion! It’s all about God! And guess what? He loves you!”
So Should you Make Friends with Sinners?
Well, I’ve got news for you. If you have friends, you are already friends with sinners.
Some of them are religious sinners and probably suffer from all sorts of spiritual blindness to their own sin, and how they mistreat others in the name of God.
Others might be non-religious sinners, who are simply trying to “have a good time” in life.
Which group should you seek to hang out with?
It’s easy to decide. Here’s the answer:
You should hang out with whomever God brings into your life to hang out with.
Look around you. The people in your life are most likely the people God wants you to live among. So live with them, as Jesus came and lived with us. Love them, as He has loved you. Forgive them, as He has forgiven you.
Final Note About Jesus the Friend of Sinners
After writing the post above, I did an internet search to see what others might have written on this topic. I found an article by Keven DeYoung called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners: But How?” which I strongly object to, and which the person who sent me the question above might have been referring to. I also found an article by Jonathan Merritt called “Setting the Record Straight on Jesus, ‘the friend of sinners’” which is in response to Kevin DeYoung’s article and is fantastic. Go and read Jonathan’s article. He concludes with these words:
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.
I’m sorry, but this who “Jesus hates religion” thing is silly. I have a copy of the book “Jesus hates religion” on my desk and the whole thing is a straw man. According to dictionary.com religion is
1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.:to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
Which one of those definitions would Jesus object to? Perhaps #4, except that he kind of did that himself. Also Jesus’ brother wrote about what undefiled religion looks like, so there’s nothing wrong with religion, per se. Also, Jesus was called Rabbi on several occasions and, as far as I know, he never corrected anyone. Not only that but he practiced the Jewish religion to a tee. He was circumcised, followed the law, taught from the Torah both on the hillsides and in the synagogues.
It is a very, very, very hard case to make that Jesus came to save us from religion. Legalism and traditionalism? E.g defiled religion? Absolutely. Religion? Not if we use the word according to its definition.
I too get challenged on the way I often use the word “religion”. When I use it, I use it to refer to a system which is presumably based on some of the kinds of things mentioned in your dictionary definition, but which in reality has become a system used to control others and profit from them. To me, that sounds a lot like the system Jesus stood up to when he walked this earth. His harsh words, his criticisms were aimed at that system and the people who upheld it and profited from it, rather than at the prostitutes, tax collectors and those the religious folks considered “sinners”.
Were Jesus to return today I think he would find a system that at many points would be as off-center as the one he found two thousand years ago. Yes, I definitely do think he would once again be murdered/executed by those who uphold the system and their political cronies.
I haven’t read the book you mention.
I didn’t get through the book. I tried really, really hard. But the author kept on arguing against a straw man definition of religion and I had a hard time taking the arguments seriously because of it. What he was really arguing against was hypocrisy and not religion.
I’m a little confused on your second last paragraph. You claim that Jesus would once again be executed by those who uphold the system. I’m curious which Christian tradition you think would do that.
What you say in the first paragraph is also problematic as you mildly slight my dictionary definition and then make up your own meaning. In order for any conversation to occur there must be a means of transmitting ideas. We use words. In order for us to understand each other those words need to have a common meaning. The reality of the word “religion” is not automatically synonymous with a system that controls and profits from others. That’s why we have things like dictionaries. They allow us to use an external resource as the definition and as long as we agree on the definition we can have meaningful communication. To use the world religion in this manner is to go beyond the typically agreed-upon meaning and use it as a code word. A code word is a word that has special meaning to those who know the code word. What believers and non-believers alike do is use the word religion in a context that doesn’t really mean religion but still denigrates the word. It’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. I will grant that there’s a lot of bathwater and not a lot of baby, but it is still miss-using the word.
I think along the lines of Giles comment below. I follow Jesus, not religion. Most of the people I know give the word “religion” a negative connotation that most people who do not identify themselves as “religious” understand.
Yes, I understand that terms have many different meanings to many people. Are you “saved”? Do you believe in “inerrancy”? Do you believe that Jesus is the “propitiation” for your sin. Many “religious” terms are code words understood only by the group that uses them. We should probably avoid using such terms.
Who do I think would kill Jesus today? It would be those systems that don’t measure up to James’ definition of true religion, the systems that profit (power, control, money, influence, status, etc.) from religion. They would be furious with the likes of Jesus, some guy claiming to be the Son of God who calls them out, attracts their followers away from them, and threatens their control and income.
Inerrancy, propitiation and saved are not code words. They mean exactly what they say. They are technical words, not code words, with the exception of saved. Though saved’s definition does not change. It’s a matter of knowing what you are saved from. A code word is something has a special meaning to a select group of people. Your three examples can be looked up in the dictionary and they have a solid definition. I knew exactly what you meant by them. We shouldn’t avoid them at all! But your definition of religion, as you admit in your first paragraph, has a special meaning to the people around you that does not follow any standard definition.
You still haven’t defined who you think would kill Jesus. Would it be the Baptists? Anglicans? Mennonites? Amish? Presbyterians? Methodists? Non-demonationals? Would John Piper pick up the gun? Chuck Swindoll? Pope Francis? James Dobson? Who, exactly? I would guess that substantiating the claim is orders of magnitude harder than making it.
Perhaps the late medieval church, but their sins were greatly exaggerated by the Humanists of the Enlightenment (as well as the Protestants) and so we have to take the reports with a grain of salt and also make sure that we don’t condense several hundred years of bad history into a single solitary condemnation. History has a lot more layers than can fit into a snarky Tweet.
>You claim that Jesus would once again be executed by those who uphold the system. I’m curious which Christian tradition you think would do that.
Since I don’t know how to do the clickie that hides responses, unless specifically clicked on, I’ll just say that my response might be considered NSFW.
For an explicit condemnation, look at how _your_ specific congregation treats those whose ministry is the “adult entertainment industry”. Especially those who sit with award nominees and winners at AVN in Vegas each January.
For reasons I don’t understand, the people that claim to be Christian are much more forceful in their condemnation of individuals in this field, than those whom they are trying to reach.
The latter say ” * *”, and either leave it at that, or give an impassioned response about why there is no God.
The so-called Christians, OTOH, give diatrabes condemining them (the Christian ministry workers) to the lowest of Dante’s hells, with never a chance for redemption.
Sorry, what? I asked for examples of which Christian leaders would kill Jesus (since that was the claim and the reference) and the response is “yeah, but what about porn?”
I used the example, because that is one of the few mission fields that a person can go into, knowing that they will have _no_ support of any type, from other Christians. They will be punished by Christians, for the sin of witnessing to non-Christians.
I am aware of a related mission field, where the people being winessed to, are amazed by the discongruence btween the Gospel message, and the way so-called Christians treat the Christians witnessing to them.
The way those Christian workers are treated by “religious leaders”, is the way those “religious leaders” would treat Jesus, if He was walking the streets today.
1st, not having support is completely different from killing Jesus, which I’m still looking for some examples of, since that was the original claim, thus far unsubstantiated.
2nd, IF (caps intended) they are being “punished”, it will not be for the sin of witnessing to non-Christians. I am vaguely aware of the ministry that you are referring to and, in principle, I applaud what they are doing. But I’ve also read, from Albert Mohler, I believe, that there are concerns that the gospel that they are presenting is misleading. I don’t know, I haven’t looked into it, but if there is a legitimate criticism then they are right to withhold their support. There is a very real concern that a porn missionary might highlight the “then neither do I condemn you” and ignore the “now go and sin now more” part. A gospel without repentance is not the gospel. Again, I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to so it makes it difficult to respond. Though interestingly enough, Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, where Mohler is President, has a ministry for women in the porn industry.
3rd, It’s a little confusing that the adult entertainment industry, one of the most socially destructive industries there is, is highlighted but foster and adopt ministries, hospitals, schools, relief organizations, homeless ministries, special needs ministries, nursing home ministries, pregnancy crisis ministries, prison ministries and a host of other ministries, most often sponsored and run by the organized churches of multiple denominations, is ignored. So because these people have harsh words to say about a single organization that goes to porn conventions that obliterates everything else they do? Because they (attempt to) care for widows, orphans, the homeless, the addicted and spend millions of dollars and travel thousands of miles to find people who do not any type of access to the gospel and translate the Bible into their native language, or build schools and hospitals as well as churches their witness and their faith is nullified because they (wrongfully) dismiss porn stars and the people trying to reach them?
In 2010 the American church supported 127,000 missionaries. One hundred and twenty thousand!!! The most number of missionaries from a given country. From the evil American Christian church*!! In the un-evangelized world (usually closed countries) there are thirty thousand workers and missionaries. In the evangelized, non Christian, world, there are 1.31 million full time Christian workers. One million, three hundred and ten thousand!! In the evangelized, Christian, world there are 4.19 MILLION full time Christian workers! This is virtually all done from within some form of organized church.
The argument that Christian leaders wouldn’t recognize Jesus because they don’t support porn ministries (which several actually do) does not hold much water. Take note that there is no record of any evangelistic efforts in the temples of Venus or Aphrodite but there is ample evidence that the Jewish diaspora was the primary means of moving the gospel forward for the first fifty years of the church. In other words, early on, Christianity moved forward via the Jewish religion. Jesus worked primarily among the Jews, went to synagogue each Saturday (according to Luke), and also has several friends and supporters among the religious leaders, even the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea was a member, as was Nicodemus)! Far from shunning religion, Jesus embraced it and practiced it wholeheartedly as did his followers after he was raised!!
The bottom line is that despite its warts, hypocrisies, and evils, the Christian church (including the American church), and its leaders, have been working for good for two thousand years (the American church, not so long), failing spectacularly many times along the way. Your anger is probably justified. But dismissing the whole of organized Christianity because a small portion of it has mistreated a porn ministry makes no sense, even if the criticism is legitimate.
4th, I’m still looking for details on which Christian leaders would kill Jesus.
* In a twist of irony, the US also receives the highest number of missionaries. I would guess that a contributing factor is that the US is nowhere near as Christianized as people often think.
It looks as though James wasn’t using that dictionary when he says “if anyone considers himself religious”. That sounds like he didn’t think his readers necessarily would. And he then says, in effect, that true religion is helping widows and orphans. Which is to say true religion is not religion at all except in the metaphorical sixth sense that you list.
Moreover granting that the early Christians were religious in some recognised sense, they still weren’t a religion. James and many others were practicing Jews, others in the church followed Jesus without following Judaism. A movement that contains some people who follow religion X and others who don’t can’t be a religion. I have no problem with the Christian religion, I just am under no obligation to follow it, as I see it. Unless by “Christianity” you mean “the way” of Jesus, which I see as transcending religious boundaries.
That was to Kevin.
Actually, if anything Jesus made the religious boundaries very clear. To quote “I am the way, the truth and the light. NO man comes to the Father except through me.”
To address your earlier statement, the argument is nullified by reading into the next verse. In 1:26 James addresses those who call themselves religious. In other words “if you consider yourself religious and do not bridle your tongue you are not actually religious”. That sounds like an endorsement of religiousness instead. Then go on to the next verse and he says “THIS is what religion is”. And the word that he uses in Greek is explicitly used to reference ceremonial religion. And it wasn’t just James. Paul, too, referred to then proto-Christianity as a religion. Back then being religious was not controversial in any way. It is only in our modern, “enlightened” mind where we have deemed religion unclean.
You can read James like that, but I don’t think it’s the right way. True religion is helping widows and orphans = true religion (ie the way) isn’t religion at all in the conventional sense. But let’s concede your reading. You still haven’t explained how a movement including both people who follow religion x and others who don’t can itself be a religion.
I don’t despise religion, by the way. More than happy to go to a church service. I don’t hold with church bashing by ex fundies. There are lots of wonderful churches in the world. One day I might join one. Meantime, where two or three are gathered …
James did not say “true religion”. He said “undefiled religion”. E.g. religion that was not tainted. He wasn’t talking against religion in general, he was talking against defiled, or useless, religion. He speaks positively of undefiled religion.
Explaining “how a movement including both people who follow religion x and others who don’t can itself be a religion” is quite simple. They joined religion Y, which was birthed out of religion X, but only after the leaders of religion X kicked them out after several decades.
Matthew Richardson says
We’d all be pretty lonely if we couldn’t be friends with sinners. 😉
Steven McDade says
I’d rather hang with the sinners than the saints in churches because the sinners know how to have fun.
Matthew Richardson says
I have fun with ‘saints’ quite often.
The whole question rather misses the point. It’s not about friendship; it’s about unconditional love and service. Sadly the Pharisees missed it – they saw friendship as an accusation, not as a blessing from unconditional love and service.
Jesus took the message of the kingdom of heaven to everyone. A way to live like Jesus is to spend time with people in the places you can find them, but within the limits of your faith (don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes you stumble – maybe try meet-ups with tax collectors) and within the limits of where God sends you (which could be to your unsaved parent in the next room, the mate next door, the homeless down the road, or the stranger overseas, or all of them at different times).
Ricky Donahue says
I thought religion was a non-profit organization
Just remember Jesus hanged around sinners but He never compromised doctrine nor the gospel message to hang around them. He was perfect around them every step of the way we don’t have that ability, careful now, its an old saying but a good one “they can bring you down before you can ever bring them up”
I don’t seem to be getting comment updates. Kevin, I understand the theory. It’s what I was taught. We read James differently. To me he is saying that those Christians who regarded themselves as religious (such as himself, a practicing Jew) should understand that undefiled religion is not religion at all in the conventional sense. He says it’s aiding windows and orphans and staying pure. Not doctrine or ritual. The Greek word used refers to the ritual side of religion, the Temple’s priests and sacrifices and holiness codes. I don’t come to this view because it is unfashionable to identify as religious. It’s just my exegesis. Here I stand etc.
Yes, you are exactly right. The word that James uses in 1:26 refers to ceremony and ritual. But in 1:27 he uses the exact same word. It is word-for-word the same. He separates them by calling one futile and the other undefiled. He doesn’t say that it isn’t religion “in the conventional sense”. He calls one form pure and the other form futile. Saying that Jesus came to save us *from* religion might make for Tweetable theology but it is not an accurate representation of what the word means (via the dictionary definition), how it was defined in both the ancient and modern worlds, and how the New Testament presents it.
The tweet link in the article body is also fdirectly contradicted by 1 Timothy 1:15 “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them! ” Jesus did not come to the world to save us from religion, he came to save us from our sin. Period. It is sin that separates us, not religion. If we wanted to have an accurate tweet-level, religion-based Theological point it would be something along the lines of “Jesus came into the world because religious practice is insufficient to save us”. Granted, it’s less fun because it’s not as inflammatory, but it holds up.
Lol. I like that. No I don’t think Jesus came to save us from religion. And yes it’s the same word used both times in James. But my point was true religion is charity and a pure spirit as James defines it. Not doctrine or ceremony. Thus it doesn’t correspond to your dictionary definitions except for the sixth which is a metaphorical use, like saying “football is my religion”. So I stick with my reading. To me it’s like saying “if you must call yourself a Protestant then understand that true Protestantism is protesting at injustice, not reading Calvin’s Institutes”. Or something like that. He subverts the definition IMO. But we must agree to differ I think.
Greg Amey says
Sinners…..AND……Sinners with food (bread and wine)
Johnny Blaze says
If we don’t make friends with sinners how on earth are we suppose to save those whom Jesus our Lord called on to preach the Good word?
So yeah I agree with the author of this article. He backed up his points by pointing us to bible passages, which was comforting.
I believe that everyone has his own truth