And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” —Luke 5:30–32
Jesus spent his time with the people who knew they were sinners. He saw it as his mission to seek the lost, to love the hopeless. Christians are often less than welcoming. In fact, I know too many people who have experienced horrible things from church people. Jesus was different. Why aren’t his followers more like Jesus?
Today there is a lot of talk in the church world about being “gospel-centered,” shaping a church’s entire faith and life around the gospel, rethinking everything in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
That sounds good, but in my more cynical moments, I wonder if it is simply a marketing scheme, a way to establish brand identity. Motives aside, for gospel-centeredness to be more than cheap talk, there needs to be real grace. I think there is a simple way to test this: how does a church welcome sinners? Here are three truths to keep in mind if you want your church to be a church that welcomes sinners.
1. A church that welcomes sinners offers God’s forgiveness.
The gospel is about God’s free acceptance of sinners! The gospel includes forgiveness, justification, and the promises of eternal life in communion with God. The apostle Paul teaches that if we believe the gospel, the only proper response is to forgive others:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col. 3:12–13)
It’s a challenge to practice forgiveness, but because of the gospel, God commands that his people forgive. Yet, forgiveness brings with it true love—a love that doesn’t allow victims to suffer, abusers to maintain power, or the weak to remain voiceless. With forgiveness comes a love that is bold enough to seek real reconciliation and repentance. It’s a process, but it is a work that God has promised to do through the Holy Spirit.
2. A church that welcomes sinners confesses sin.
A gospel-centered church understands that Christians are sinners, people who still desperately need Jesus and are capable of sin on many levels. In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus tells the story of a tax collector and a Pharisee, to teach us that a Christian—unlike the hypocritical Pharisee—confesses sin and seeks God’s mercy continually.
Some churches include, as part of the worship service, a prayer for confessing sin. This is often a cooperate act in which the congregation may read together a written prayer, or the pastor may pray on behalf of the church, or a church may confess sin through a song. No matter how a church does this, there needs to be an ordinary time where, like the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke, people pray: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
In a gospel-centered church, everyone is a sinner. Everyone needs to own their sin, confess it, and seek a life of love and self-sacrifice. This is especially true for people in authority. People who use the gospel to avoid repentance and a process of reconciliation—or to maintain power, privilege, or authority—can talk about the gospel all they want, but they probably don’t understand what it means.
3. A church that welcomes sinners loves them.
It’s not enough that a church offers God’s forgiveness. For a church to be gospel-centered, it must seek to love sinners, people who have all sorts of issues and twisted desires. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, Jesus pictures God’s attitude toward sinners, an attitude that his people are to share:
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8–10)
Jesus’ point is that God loves sinners so much that he has gone after them to love them. This God did when he sent Jesus Christ to live and die for sinners. Just as God rejoices over one sinner who repents, so should Christians. Of course no church is perfect, but the church is supposed to be a community of people who are all both sinners and saints, welcomed into God’s presence because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For a church to be this, it needs to constantly return to the gospel. Only people who need Jesus can love other people who need Jesus.