Jesus “…a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7:34
I remember one Senior Pastor of whom a person living in sin said, “He never looked at me differently though I was living in sin, and he never gave up on me. I saw Jesus in him. That’s why I came back to Church.” Every now and then I receive emails from people I get to talk to about their sins. I don’t enjoy talking to people about their sins as much as I don’t enjoy talking to people about my sins- as it is humbling. I get to talk to people because I’m a sinner, who is also solely dependent on God’s grace for literally everything. I get to because I’m no longer just a sinner, but also a saint (declared righteous) by God’s sovereign grace. One of the great joys of investing my time with people is that I also get to read notes from those who’ve been helped, because God works despite us. And below is an excerpt of an email from a brother, whose testimony brought great peace and joy to my heart. It also caused me to pause and ask of myself this question again: As a follower of Jesus, am I a friend or foe of sinners? The email reads:
I wanted to tell you that I am very thankful for you and all the time and grace that you poured into me over the time that we met together. You were very loving and very patient with me in the midst of all that I was going through. You treated me as a brother and not as a sinner (even though I was acting like it). I wanted to thank you for all of your prayers and life that you ministered to me. The scriptures that you opened to me, the things that you invested in me may have at the times seemed to be in vain. However, I want to tell you that they were not. At the time I was very angry and confused and had drifted away from the Lord and from his purpose for my life. Thank you for never giving up on me and for always treating me as fellow heir of grace. I know that in my sins and in my disobedience I caused you a lot of grief and pain. Want to ask you to forgive me for any of these sins that I have committed against you. You put your trust in me and had faith that I would overcome all those things. For that reason my continual disobedience must have hurt you very badly. Please forgive me any pain that I caused you.
That word “fellow heir of grace” caught me afresh. It is possible to believe in a theology of grace and be a law-centered church relationally. What we assume to believe about God vertically will display itself horizontally in our sociological environment. It is no wonder that Paul was astonished at how quickly the Galatian church turned to another Gospel. The most humbling and challenging thing for me (pastorally) in Tokyo is to foster an environment of grace, while preaching a theology of grace continually. I say “humbling and challenging” because there is a difference between what I assume to believe and what I actually believe. It is one thing to preach a theology of grace, and it is another thing to show grace in the way we treat one another in the church and society. To be fair, understanding and applying the Gospel of grace is a process in our own lives–as 2 Peter 3:18 says: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” All spiritual growth ought to result in growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. Personal heart-change takes place in the little moments of life. Sin & weaknesses gets exposed, and God’s grace meets us in the mundane.
When you look at your own lives, do you look at your past sins in any way other than that which leads you to praise God for His grace today? Or do you constantly condemn and continue to beat yourself up for not matching up? And how do you treat those that have come to you in openness about their sins? Do you look at them differently? Do you immaturely use those personal information against them when they upset you? Or do you call them gently to repentance, trusting that the Holy Spirit will do His work as you pray and wait patiently. Are you patient with even those who don’t repent and change as quickly as you would like them to? Do you give up easily on people forgetting how patient God has been with you all these years? Are you patient with fellow sinners, as Christ has been very patient with you all these years? Have you come to see yourself in light of grace daily that you are now starting to see others as fellow heirs growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ? As Ray Ortlund puts it:
A gospel-centered church is a variegated collection of sinners. What unifies them is Jesus, the King of grace. They come together and stick together because they have nothing to fear from their church’s message or from their church’s culture. The theology creates the sociology, and the sociology incarnates the theology. And everyone is free to trust the Lord, be honest about their problems, and grow in newness of life. (TGC Blog)
When we’re in sin we love Jesus to be our friend, don’t we? How about when others sin? Do we see them in the light of God’s grace? Becoming a friend of sinners does not mean we endorse sin, but we learn to love and be patient like Jesus whose great love sets us free from sin. I believe there’s no perfect church, but I also believe there can be a healthy Gospel-centered church. May the preaching of the gospel of grace lead us to be more and more forgiving, more and more patient with sinners, and all the more loving to our brothers and sisters in Christ.