“This Man receiveth sinners” (Luke 15:2).
Though uttered in revilement, few statements so precisely encapsulate the focus of our Lord’s mission to earth as this murmur from His adversaries. The tender Shepherd crossing crags and steeps in pursuit of a single straying lamb, the waiting Father scanning the horizon for a first glimpse of the returning prodigal, the pitying Savior speaking hope to the trembling adulteress thrown at His feet—all serve to inspire and promise peace to the guilt-ravaged heart. Even as a child, I was moved to tears by the Kings Heralds’ rendition of an old song few likely remember now, titled, “That One Lost Sheep.” Though—to my recollection—I only heard the song on a record player, the lyrics have never left me:
Safe were the ninety and nine in the fold
Safe while the night was stormy and cold.
“But,” said the Shepherd, when He’d countered them o’er,
“One sheep is missing; there should be one more.”
The Shepherd went out to search for His sheep
Alone through the night on the rocky steep
He sought till He found him
With love bands He bound him.
And I was that one lost sheep.
Today, our Lord’s quest for the lost is still controversial. There are still those, to all our shame, who—like the older brother in the prodigal son story—would treat the penitent transgressor with contempt merely because of a sinful, embarrassing past. But others, perhaps many more in this age of self-accommodation, seem to profoundly misunderstand our Lord’s practice of receiving sinners. Such persons invest our Lord with the garb of postmodernism, mistaking the principled love shown by the God of Scripture for an unfettered, feeling-based acceptance of others’ choices within the fellowship of faith, undefined and undisturbed by the objective clarity of God’s Word.
The Jesus who declared, “If ye love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15), who concluded His Sermon on the Mount with the admonition, “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father, which is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), is rapidly being lost in the fog of contemporary notions of “inclusiveness.” Many descriptions of Jesus being heard in Christian discussions today bear little if any resemblance to the Christ of the Bible. The Messiah who came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21) has morphed in many minds into the Grand Accommodator, a fictive pseudo-savior who gathers all—regardless of faith or lifestyle—into his welcoming embrace.
For this new gospel of unconditional affirmation, loving the sinner while hating the sin doesn’t work anymore. This is especially true, so the theory goes, if the sin in question is held to be an integral part of a person’s identity. In this worldview, choices of faith and lifestyle are not separate from the one making the choices. “People are more important than issues,” we are told ad nauseum—a revelation which apparently eluded the millions in past ages, and even now, who have given their lives rather than compromise objective truth.
“Forget religion; just follow Jesus,” some tell us. But assuming they are talking about the Jesus of Scripture—a shaky assumption at best—it would do well to review what in fact Scripture says about the way Jesus received sinners, and the way He did not. Did our Lord, as His postmodern disciples allege, proclaim a message of unconditional acceptance—exalting “love” (whatever that is) over objective notions of truth and purity? Would the Christ of Scripture, were He among us today, include in the church’s fellowship those who choose the fulfillment of personal feelings over faithfulness to the written Word?
It is time we reclaimed the Biblical Jesus. Let us, for a moment, consider the following points which emerge from the Gospel account of our Lord’s earthly ministry:
1. Jesus made a clear distinction between the commandments of God and the commandments of men.
This distinction is under fierce attack today, even within the church. But Jesus was very clear as to the sacredness of the former, as well as the fallibility—and danger—of the latter. While He was clear that obedience to His own and His Father’s commandments was essential to salvation (Matt. 7:21-23; 19:16-17; Luke 10:25-28; John 14:15), He was equally clear that religious requirements invented by human beings have no weight so far as salvation and the conscience are concerned. This is why He denounced so strongly the Pharisees’ attempt to add their own traditions to God’s commandments (Matt. 15:1-6), and why He declared so plainly, “In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9; Mark 7:7).
Jesus was thus quite unambiguous in recognizing that not all religious requirements are the same. They are not all the product of human opinion, cultural taboos, or pious formulation by the overzealous. Some are, to be sure, and these can carry no weight with the truly consecrated (Matt. 15:1-9). But the teachings of our Lord offer no doubt whatsoever that other requirements come from God Himself, and that obedience to these requirements—through heaven’s power—is very much the condition for receiving eternal life (Matt. 7:21-23; 19:16-26; Luke 10:25-28).
This distinction on our Lord’s part also underscores the Biblical teaching that God’s Word is self-explanatory and intended for understanding by the simplest of persons (Isa. 28:9-10; Matt. 11:25; II Peter 1:20-21; I Cor. 2:12-14). Reading our Lord’s statements, there is no reason to accept the popular notion of certain ones that “interpretation” invariably clouds the perception of human beings when it comes to distinguishing God’s will from the opinions of fallible mortals. Jesus’ teaching, like that of the rest of Scripture, is clear that God’s written counsel is self-interpreting and transcendent to the human experience, not subject to it.
2. A principal difference between Jesus and His Pharisaical critics was the latter’s refusal to forgive the past and forsaken sins of sinners.
A most misleading characterization of the conflict between Christ and the Pharisees has conveyed the impression that while the Pharisees excluded people from their faith community because of beliefs they scorned or practices they called sinful, Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom embraced everyone, irrespective of doctrine or behavior.
Such a view of Christ’s teachings would have come as quite a surprise to the rich young ruler, who turned away from Christ because he considered the price of discipleship too painful (Matt. 19:21-22). (Not much “inclusiveness” or “user-friendliness” here, that’s for sure!) And while Jesus was clear that love among His followers would distinguish them as His disciples (John 13:35), He was equally clear that “if ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
So what in fact was the difference between the way Jesus treated sinners, and the way the Pharisees and others of like mind treated them? Very simple. The difference lay in Jesus’ willingness—in harmony with the Old Testament (II Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7)—to forgive sins confessed and forsaken by the transgressor (Luke 19:8-9). The Pharisees and those who thought as they did, by contrast, seemed to have little concern for the question of whether a sinner was penitent or not. The prodigal son story illustrates this point well. The prodigal wasn’t coming home to ask his father for more money, or for permission to bring his new, riotous friends over for Saturday-night carousing! Rather, he was fully sorry for having wasted his life and the resources his father had so graciously given him (Luke 15:18-19,21). Sadly, unlike the father, the prodigal’s older brother would neither forgive nor forget the past (verses 25-30). In this respect, as Ellen White notes, the older brother represents the Pharisees who treated even repentant sinners with contempt rather than compassion (1).
The attempt by some to equate the older brother in this parable with believers who seek to uphold standards of faith and practice with regard to church membership and discipline, are missing a key point of the parable. The prodigal was repentant. He wasn’t returning home seeking accommodation or acceptance for his failings. He had left his life of sin, and was willing even to accept a servant’s place if he could only return to the home he had once thought restrictive and confining. These were the sinners Christ willingly received. Not a single verse of Scripture, not a single statement in the Spirit of Prophecy, implies that sinners openly clinging to sinful practices were welcomed among Jesus’ followers or taught by Jesus that their acceptance with God was unconnected with doctrinal beliefs or lifestyle choices. Some will bring up the example of Judas, of course, but we must remember that the sins indulged by the future betrayer were secret in nature, unknown to any but the Lord Himself (2). Open sinners receiving open-ended acceptance by Jesus into the fellowship of faith and salvation are notably absent from the inspired record.
3. The Jesus of the Gospels is the Yahweh of the Old Testament.
Many prefer not to remember the New Testament affirmation that Christ was in fact the One who guided the children of Israel through their wilderness wanderings (I Cor. 10:1-6), and was thus the One responsible as much for the punishment of apostates and pagan tribes as for the gracious and tender guidance of His people through their troubles. Ellen White observes that it was Christ Himself, for example, who gave the warning to Israel against the use of alcoholic beverages (Prov. 20:1) (3). In describing the abuse and mockery Jesus suffered before the Sanhedrin at His trial, Ellen White informs us how it had been Christ Himself who had given the command in the Old Testament to slay 185,000 Assyrian soldiers outside Jerusalem (4). And it will be that same Jesus—moreover, the same Jesus who blessed children on His knee and forgave the woman caught in adultery—who one day will smite the nations of earth with the sword of vengeance at His second coming (Rev. 19:15).
4. By postmodern standards, the Jesus of Scripture is exceedingly narrow-minded.
Many conveniently forget our Lord’s declaration regarding the way to heaven: “Narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:14). This surely doesn’t sound very “broad-minded,” especially as Jesus states here that “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that find it” (verse 13). Ellen White declares of this broad way: “There is room for every man’s opinion and doctrines, space to follow his inclinations, to do whatever his self-love may dictate” (5).
In His final words to His followers, recorded by the Gospel of Mark, Jesus declared, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). This doesn’t sound like anything a promoter of postmodern “inclusiveness” would find agreeable.
In a recent article in a prominent church publication, an Adventist professor spoke of an exercise he had conducted in a college class, seeking to determine which issues in the contemporary church his students considered “peripheral” and which “central.” Different standards and doctrinal tenets, including a number of our Fundamental Beliefs as a church, were successively declared by those present to be more or less “central” to one’s faith and spirituality. “Finally,” the author says, “I uttered the word ‘Jesus’” (6).
“Everyone moved to the center in a tight clot. We looked into each other’s eyes, recognized our common, priceless value, placed our arms around each other, and prayed.
“It was a holy moment” (7).
I’m afraid I must disagree. There is nothing “holy” about separating Biblical doctrines and standards from the Savior who embodies and represents them. There is nothing “holy” about conveying the impression that one can have “Jesus” while marginalizing any of the precepts of that Word whose content Jesus declared to be fully essential to our salvation (Matt. 4:4). The “Jesus” here contrived is not the Jesus of the Bible, but a fabricated, postmodern counterfeit.
Were Jesus to walk among us today, it is most presumptuous to assume He would welcome all to church fellowship regardless of doctrinal convictions, worship preferences, or lifestyle choices. Indeed, Christ declared that “they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Doctrinally indifferent, morally accommodating spirituality is certainly not the message Jesus delivered when He came to this earth two thousand years ago. It is not the message of either the Old or the New Testament. Yes, Jesus willingly and lovingly received penitent sinners into His circle of followers. And He continues to do so today, for which we can praise His name! But to all He presented—and still presents—the full gospel of Scripture, not the half-gospel embraced by so much of popular, contemporary Christianity. To the woman taken in adultery He gave this full gospel in one short verse: “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).
It is time Seventh-day Adventists reclaimed the Biblical Jesus.
- Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 209-210.
- ----The Desire of Ages, pp. 718-720.
- Ibid, p. 149.
- Ibid, p. 700.
- ----Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, p. 138.
- Chris Blake, “In Christ There is Neither Conservative Nor Liberal,” Adventist Review, Jan. 16, 2014, p. 18.