Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.
These words by Wilbur Chapman in 1910 (hear the music and sing along with the lyrics here) highlight a popular theme in hymnody. For example, check out the Youtube video of Petra’s rendition of “Jesus, Friend of Sinners“.
Jesus had an amazing ability to be a friend to the people whom everyone else labeled as hopeless cases or notorious sinners. It so characterized his life and ministry that his critics tried to use it against him. Jesus says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘ But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Matthew 11:19)
The Pharisees complained bitterly to Jesus’ disciples, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2) They could not fathom how Jesus could associate with people who to them were blatantly disobedient to God.
Jesus had a different take on things, obviously. When confronted directly by the Pharisees about his fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31) Jesus saw himself as a doctor with a cure and saw sinners as desperately sick and in need of healing. And he was making house calls!
Incredibly, Jesus never shied away from holding people accountable for confessing their sin and walking in obedience. Yet sinners who knew they were being disobedient and wanted to do better never felt condemned by Jesus. When he was at a dinner party with a Pharisee, a woman “who had lived a sinful life” came in and began washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, kissing his feet and perfuming them (Luke 7:36-50). Gratitude was her response to Jesus’ challenge and invitation to have a relationship with His Father.
When Jesus invited Matthew the tax collector to become his disciple and follow him, Matthew was able to gather a large crowd of fellow sinners to come to a dinner with Jesus as the guest of honor. They loved him! They couldn’t get enough of him.
In a day when our Evangelical culture encourages moratoriums on Disney, screaming at pregnant women as they enter abortion clinics, ragging on political opponents, and attempting to shut down the ACLU with Christmas cards, it seems we have much to learn yet from Jesus about being friends of sinners. How did he uphold the righteousness of God and genuinely enjoy being with sinners at the same time? How were they able to feel his love for them and not feel condemned even as he offered them God’s forgiveness?
There is a peace that calms our fears
There is a love stronger than death
There is a hope that goes beyond the grave
There is a friend who won’t let go
There is a heart that beats for you
There is one name by which we are saved
His name is Jesus, friend of sinners
Friend of mine