In 1 Timothy 1:15 (ESV), Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” I often wonder how many Christians believe this. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that to be a Christian is to understand one’s need for a savior, Jesus’s status as the only source of salvation, and our personal status as saved by him. However, while understanding this and even stating it, we often act as if the gates to the kingdom were barred after we passed through; or as if passage through the gate, for those who come after us, has changed. You are probably wondering what I mean by this.
Let’s start with our own salvation. There was a time when you were trapped in sin (as was I). If it were not true, then you needed no savior. Despite your sins, and knowing them full well, Jesus called you to himself, credited your sins to his account (took them upon himself) and credited his righteousness to your account (declared you justified and righteous in the sight of God). Jesus did not say, “Take care of your sin first, then I will save you.” He did not say, “Get your life right and I will come into it.” He said, “You are trapped and enslaved by sin. You have destroyed your life. You are a person whose natural state is rebellion and self-degradation. But I love you, regardless. I love you; I want you for my own; I died for you; I am going to transform you.”
John 3:16 is a very popular and well-known verse. But too often we forget to read on. Verse seventeen says Jesus did not come to condemn the world. Verse eighteen tells us something we must understand about ourselves. It says those who “do not believe are condemned already” (ESV). We did not need to be condemned. We did not need anyone to come and condemn us. We, in our natural state, were condemned because of our sins. Jesus came as the solution to condemnation; as our liberator from sin and sin’s results. He came while we were trapped in sin (Romans 5:8).
We—as his followers who walk in his steps, work as his hands, and beat as his heart—should love those around us, regardless of their sinful status. Take careful note of that. We should love those around us, not “in spite of” their sinful status, not “because of” their sinful status, but “regardless of” (without regard for) their sinful status. Too often, after coming to Christ ourselves, we pretend that others must first stop sinning before we, the people of Christ, accept them. When we do this, we charge them a toll for our love: “Become like me and I will accept and love you.” To whom does the average sinner go to when suffering or in need? Church people? Pastors? For the most part, no. So many people refuse to speak to Christians about their sins and the results of those sins because they expect to be condemned and judged. They expect this because it is what they often experience from Christians—Christians who have forgotten their own personal sinfulness and who have no idea how to model the love of Christ.
How should we respond to the sinners around us? That is an easy answer to give, but, like most easy answers, it is often misunderstood. We should respond to the sinners around us with love and acceptance. Though trapped in sin, we must accept them and love them. Why? Because that is exactly what Jesus did. That is exactly what he did for us. When encountering such prodigals, we act more like the older brother, forgetting the heart of the father who wanted his son to return, regardless of what the wayward son had done (Luke 11:15-32). While many of us are saying, “Get your life right. Stop sinning. Be a better person.” God is saying, pleading, crying out: “Just come to me! Come as you are! Come, laying aside all else. I’ll cleanse you. I’ll save you. I’ll make you whole and pure.” But all they hear is the din of our condemnation, as we lay burdens upon them—burdens which we ourselves never had to lift, never would lift, never could lift, for salvation (Matthew 23:4). When we came to Jesus, we said “Take me as I am and make me as you are.” So, why tell others, today, “Become like me and he will accept you”? Of course, we may never say it outright, but we too often act it out.
Look at Jesus and his example. Where were the sinners in his day? Where was Jesus? Where are the sinners in our day? Where are we? Now, where would Jesus have us be? When sinners came to Jesus, how did he respond to them? How do we respond to them? Now, how would he have us respond to him?
Of course, many people will point out, rightly, that Jesus always told the sinners who came to him, “Go, and sin no more.” This is true. Yes, there is a place for us to tell sinners that their actions should (or even, must) stop. But did Jesus do this before accepting and loving them, or after? Of course, he loved them first. He accepted them first. He welcomed them into his life and into his presence first.
So, why do we too often tell sinners, “You stay over there until you stop sinning, then I will love and accept
you.” Why do we hole up in our churches where the sinners are not to be found, while patting ourselves on the back for reaching the world around us? Why do we do this, when our Lord would have us out looking for sinners to whom we can demonstrate his love? Yes, I know the sinners came to Jesus, but how many sinners come to you for help? Perhaps, if you would come out of your comfort zone, accept and love them, they would start to do just that. I can assure you that if you become known as a person who loves the sinner two wonderful things will happen. First, you will develop a reputation among sinners that is Christlike instead of Pharisaical. Second, they will start seeking you out—love attracts those who need love. Of course, another thing will happen as well. The modern religious Pharisees (Today this is spelled ‘good church people’) will lump you in with the sinners. But when this happens, you are in the best of company—Jesus.