Guest Post: How to Welcome Sinners into Your Church, part 3, by Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield currently serves as a pastoral intern at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek Florida. This article and the two preceding it are edited from a recent sermon Dan preached in our church. 

   Practical Applications

In the past two blog posts, we saw both the Pharisees’ and Jesus’ differing attitudes toward lost sinners.  Today, I would like us to consider some practical applications.

As you read this post, I hope you can say with me that you want visitors to fill up your church building each Lord’s Day.  And I hope that you are praying that many of those visitors would be people who have never heard the gospel before.  I hope that your desire is that people from all walks of life would walk through those church doors.  But how are we going to respond when people walk in who are obviously living a sinful lifestyle?  How can we learn from our Saviour’s example?

First of all, we must never condone people in their sin.

Brethren, let us never be ashamed to call sin what the Bible calls sin.  Despite what our society is saying, homosexual behavior is sin.  Abortion is sin.  Premarital sex is sin.  Pornography is sin.  We are not just old-fashioned religious fanatics who simply refuse to get with the times.  We are not ashamed to say those things because God has said them, and God has not changed between now and the time when the Bible was written.

Our society, and even some professing Christians, would like us to believe that disagreeing with someone and calling their lifestyle sinful is the most unloving thing we could do for them.  It will only serve to alienate people and make them cold and bitter towards the church.  And so, they say, we must tone down this talk about sin and focus more on God’s love and acceptance of people just the way they are.

Friends, let me say this as plainly as I can.  In light of eternity, to condone people in their sinful lifestyles is the most unloving thing we could ever do for them.  When God has said that a life of unrepentant sin will lead only to eternal punishment in hell, how could it ever be loving to not warn people about it?  How could it be loving to make people feel at ease and accepted by God while they are living a sinful life that is opposed to His Word?  How is it loving to ignore the warnings throughout the New Testament that those who do not repent of their sins will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Brothers and sisters, let us not downplay sin in order to win acceptance with people.  Let us be like Jesus and be faithful to call people to repentance.

But secondly, we must be compassionate like Jesus.

While being careful to not condone people in their sin, we must also be willing to reach out to the lost like Jesus was.  We must be willing to dine with the tax collectors and sinners.  What does that mean for us practically as a church?  What are some ways that we can do that?

Let me give this example.  Suppose someone comes to church next Sunday that is openly homosexual.  They come in and sit down and it seems like they really want to be here.  How will you welcome them?  Will you act like a Pharisee, thinking that you may become unclean even by talking with them?  Or will you communicate your gladness to see them here and your desire for them to come back?  Will you seek to build a relationship with them in which the Lord may bring gospel opportunities?

Maybe you are thinking at this point…is that ever going to happen?  Why would a homosexual ever come to this church, knowing what we believe?  Let me tell you a true story.

One Sunday, back in the late 90s, a woman living an openly homosexual lifestyle walked into a Reformed Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, New York.  She came in feeling awkward because she looked so different than everyone else.  But she knew she wanted to find out about who God was, and so she was determined to stay.  How did she get to that point?  What had led her to come to a church that she knew disagreed with her lifestyle?  She was a professor of English at a secular university and was living in a homosexual relationship.  She couldn’t stand the kind of Christianity that was promoted by right-wing conservatives, the kind that proclaimed nothing but hatred for her and all those living her lifestyle.  So she began to research them to seek to understand them better.  But one thing she needed to do in her research was to read the Bible.  So she began to do that.

About the same time she met the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church and his wife.  And they didn’t condemn her or treat her differently than other people.  Instead, they befriended her.  They invited her into their home, they had discussions together about the Bible and politics, and they treated her as a real human being.  And then, one day………she walked through the church doors for the first time.  She hadn’t been saved yet.  She still wore her lifestyle on her sleeves.  But her reading of the Bible plus her interaction with the Pastor and his wife had begun to really cause questions to rise up in her heart.  And so, even though she had not yet relinquished her sinful lifestyle, she came because she wanted to know if God was real and what He really had to say about her life.

How will you respond if someone like that walks into our church?  The world says there are only two responses.  You either love them and therefore accept whatever lifestyle they are living.  Or you disagree with them and therefore hate them.  Brethren, by our words and actions, we must prove them wrong.  We must show compassion while maintaining that God is holy.  We must love people without condoning their sin.  We must be willing to meet people right where they are.

There are some churches where people like this would not be welcome.  No one would stop them from coming in the door, but the looks that people give them would be enough to communicate that they are not welcome there.  They are basically saying, “go and clean up your life first, and then come back and try again”.  But if Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, brothers let us do the same!

How will we receive the woman who has had an abortion and feels like she has committed the unforgivable sin?  How will we welcome the homosexual who has been living that lifestyle but is longing for something more?  How will we welcome the prodigal son who has gone into the far country, but is now coming back?  On the day of judgment, I hope that no homosexual or anyone else could ever say of us: “Emmanuel Baptist Church had good news to share, but they wouldn’t share it with me.”

Brethren, let us continue to cultivate a church that we can be excited to invite anyone to, because we know that everyone will be thrilled to see them here.  And why are we thrilled to see them here?  Because we know that Jesus can save the unsaveable.  His gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.  He came into the world to save sinners

Remember that true story I just told you about that woman?  Her name is Rosaria Butterfield and she is now a passionate follower of Jesus Christ.  The Lord has even used to her to write books about her experience which have been a great help to many people.  Isn’t that an amazing example of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6?

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Paul had preached the gospel to homosexuals, and adulterers, and idol worshipers.  And God had saved them!  Let us never forget that we are Christians not because we were somehow superior to others, or more upright than others, or more lovely than others.  We are Christians because Jesus delights to save poor, wretched, unlovable sinners.  If we remember that, we will be the most welcoming kind of church, where the gospel is freely shared with anyone and everyone who walks through those doors.  Wouldn’t it be something if someone was to look in during one of our fellowship meals and see that we are sitting and eating with tax collectors and sinners.

A third and final application

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, there is good news for you.  Jesus is a friend of sinners.  Here in Mark, he is associating with the worst people in society.  They were people who had a reputation for nothing but wickedness.  And here he is condescending to their low state, meeting them right where they are.

My friend, listen to me.  Not only does Jesus have the power to save you from your sins.  He is willing.  Maybe some of you have grown up in the church and you have learned that God chooses people to be saved and you wonder… do I know if God really wants me?  How do I know if he will really accept me if I come to Him?  Or maybe you think that you are too bad to come to Jesus, that your past life is too sinful to forgive!

Friends, Jesus Himself has said that you may come.  He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  He says in the gospel of John, “whoever comes to Me, I will never cast out.”  There’s only one qualification to come to Jesus.  There’s only one thing you need to do.  It’s simply this: recognize that you are a sinner.  Recognize that you have sinned against a holy God and that you deserve His just condemnation and wrath and that you have no hope apart from Christ.  If you recognize that about yourself, you will find that Jesus is not only able to save you, He is also abundantly willing to do so.  Will you come to Him today?  He is not ashamed to call Himself a friend of sinners.

Guest Post: How to Welcome Sinners into Your Church, part 1 by Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield currently serves as a pastoral intern at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek Florida. This article and the two to follow are edited from a recent sermon Dan preached in our church.

In a recent series, Pastor Jeff Smith demonstrated how we as Christians should respond, not only to the recent Supreme Court decision, but also to the overall condition of this nation as it spirals away from God.  He showed, from the Scriptures, that humble sorrow is an expected and righteous response to our nation’s rejection of God and his rule over us.  We ought to be grieved at the state of this nation.

But it might also be good to consider another aspect of this topic.  We have looked at a zoomed out, big picture response.  But what I want us to do today is to zoom way in.  I want us to think about how we should respond, not to the state of the nation, but to individual people.  What I mean is this: how will we respond when people living sinful lifestyles walk into our church?

We know that we ought to be grieved over the state of our nation and the fact that sin is being celebrated in the streets.  It ought to be a burden on our hearts that God’s commands are discarded and His holy name is thrown into the mud all over this country.  But how should we respond when people from the world come into this church?  How do we interact with people out in the world who we rub shoulders with?  I want us to answer those questions by looking at the example of Jesus in the Gospels, and then drawing out some practical applications for us living in the 21st century.  Our passage will be Mark 2:13-17.

The account of the call of Levi is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Clearly, the gospel writers wanted to emphasize it as an important lesson for us.  We are going to consider two main lessons from this account, and then some application.  Today’s blog post will be the first main lesson.

1.     The Pharisees’ attitude toward lost sinners

We see something amazing happen in this passage.  In the midst of Jesus’ teaching ministry, he walks by the tax booth of a man named Levi.  Levi wasn’t a believer at this point in the story; not until Jesus walked up and said two simple words to him: “follow me”.  And without question, this man gets up and immediately becomes a follower of Jesus.  What a testimony to the power of God! Levi is so overjoyed with his new-found faith that he immediately throws a dinner party with Jesus as the guest of honor.  He also invites many others to come to the party, perhaps friends from the tax-collection business and others who were known publicly as sinners.  Perhaps there were also prostitutes and other adulterers there.  What a sight that must have been.  A group of people most blatant in their outward transgression of God’s law were eating dinner with Jesus and his disciples.

But the Pharisees were not pleased with what they saw.  Evidently, some of their number saw Jesus participating in this dinner and were disturbed.  In verse 16 they ask, “And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, ‘How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?’”

It is not hard to see from the Scriptures that the Pharisees hated such people.  This is partly because of who the tax collectors were.  During this period of history, the nation of Israel had been conquered and was occupied by the Roman Empire.  And since it now was under the jurisdiction of the empire, the people had to pay Roman taxes.  The tax collectors in Israel were usually Jewish men working for the Roman government.  Not only were they working for the enemy nation, they were often charging more than the Romans demanded and keeping the extra for themselves.  As a result, they were viewed as both thieves and traitors by the Jewish people.

But there was another reason why the Pharisees hated Jesus’ dinner company.  All of the guests at Levi’s party were known publicly to be sinners.  They were people despised by the Pharisees because of their blatant disregard for the laws and the traditions of the Jewish religion.  And in their pride, the Pharisees thought that they were morally superior to such people.  Consider this parable Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14.  “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raisehis eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

You see, the Pharisees thought that they were righteous before God because of all their religious rituals and traditions that they kept.  But their pride and lack of compassion showed them for who they really were.  They drew near to God with their lips but their hearts were far from Him.  Jesus said to them in Matthew 23:28 – “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Such pride and hypocrisy did not result in compassion to those who were known as “tax-collectors and sinners”.  It resulted in disgust and condemnation.  Jesus also said in Matthew 23:13 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The Pharisees were more concerned with who was outwardly “clean” than with those who honestly desired to pursue peace with God.  In their minds, anyone who had lived a life of disregard for God and religion were automatically excluded from the kingdom.

So why were they so concerned about who Jesus was eating with?  Why did they even care?  Because they knew that everyone considered Jesus to be a prophet from God.  He Himself was claiming that He had been sent by the Father.  And here He was, eating with tax-collectors and sinners.

Remember the story in Luke 7?  Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner, and a woman known publicly for her sin comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with oil.  Remember what the Pharisee says to himself?  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”  The Pharisees believed that God would have nothing to do with such vile people because they wanted nothing to do with such people.  Not only were they jealous of Jesus’ popularity, they were also disgusted that someone claiming to be sent by God would be spending His time with the “unclean” sinners of society.

The Pharisees’ attitude toward those who were outwardly wicked showed the true condition of their hearts.  While claiming to be righteous in God’s eyes, they were nothing but hypocrites.  They pretended to care about the truth, but really only cared about themselves.

Next time, we will consider Jesus’ attitude toward lost sinners.