Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | December 12, 2007

Friend of Sinners

Jesus was closely identified with the notorious sinners of his day (prostitutes, tax cheats, extortionists, etc.) In fact, St. Paul says that he became sin so that we might become righteous (2 Cor. 5:21.) This is at the heart of the incarnational atonement: it is sinful, fallen humanity into which the Word of God enters. In doing so he heals us of our sin.

“Friend of sinners” is not a label that would be applied to Christianity in the U.S. at the dawn of the 21st cen. Everyone “knows” that Christians are the enemies of sinners. The Church’s reputation is that we are a group dedicated to telling others what rules to obey so God won’t BBQ them for all eternity.

This is one of the reasons that a New Reformation must come. We Christians are called to be the people who bear witness to the inclusion of humanity in the life the Son shares with the Father and the Spirit.

Here’s three ideas on how we can start getting the gospel right:

1. Define holiness in terms of the Triune Life. Holiness is not just doing what’s right and not doing what’s wrong. God is holy because the relational love of the Father, Son and Spirit for each other is whole, healthy and functional. Our holiness is not our good behavior. Our holiness is a gift to us from the Son. A gift he shares with us by establishing a relationship with us that includes us in the whole and healthy relationship he has with the Father and the Spirit.

2. Define atonement incarnationally. Whatever humanity lacked in holiness because of the fall we have been given because of the incarnation. Wherever God is, that place is holy. God the Son is now in humanity, sharing with us his right relationship with his Father, and therefore humanity is holy: we are reconciled and made one with God (Rom 5:18.) Atonement is not the result of us doing the right thing, it’s the result of Jesus sharing himself with us.

3. Define our message in terms of the gospel. Our message is the adoption of humanity into the life of the Father, Son and Spirit. Our message is not a morality lecture. It’s time for the church to stop obsessing about morality and start talking about Jesus.



  1. I appreciate what you say Jonathan about defining holiness relationally rather than legally. I had a short talk a while back on this very topic with Jerry Bridges of Navigators.

    If you look at Jerry’s writings over the last several decades you will note he has written a great deal about pursuing holiness. Years ago he approached it as the disciplined life that leads to holiness. But when I spoke with him he said to me “that doesn’t work”!

    He has come to see that it is holiness by grace, not works. What he has come to experience is what you have defined theologically. I beileve that the Spirit is doing some major theological surgery in the body of Christ and this issue is a key aspect of his transforming work.

    May God help us hear what the Spirit says to the church!


  2. Thanks for the info! I’m going to check out of some of Jerry’s stuff. It is really interesting to see how the Spirit is leading different parts of the body in very similar directions.

  3. I am very glad to hear this conversation going on about Jerry Bridges as I have read his stuff over the years since I first ran into him at Promise Keepers! I always liked his writings and found it clear and practical, however, impossible as he says (apart from Grace!)

    I would like to think he has helped me to come and see God’s grace more clearly, as I had to give up on many of the things he suggested and cry out for grace!! I DID always feel and sense a genuine heart of sharing in God’s love and wanting to experience God’s best in Jerry’s writings! I have appreciated his personhood since hearing of him.

    Yes, the Holy Spirit is up to something HUGE and Breathtaking in our times in performing this radical Gospel surgery upon His Body! Praise be to the Triune God!!!


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