If you must go to one extreme or the other- either loving sinners or making a positive impression on church people– you should probably err in favor of loving sinners too much. The church people will eventually get over it. The sinners never will.
That thought struck me as I was working through Luke 15 which concludes with the parable of the prodigal son. As the chapter begins, Christ is confronted by religious leaders who resent all the notorious sinners who seem attracted to the Lord. The Pharisees and others are convinced he shouldn’t even be seen with these reprobates; much less eat with them. Christ answers their accusations with three consecutive stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. All three are valuable. All three are at risk. And a big celebration in Heaven ensues when each of the three is restored.
Jesus saw himself as a holy shepherd rather than a holy warrior. When we imagine our mission in terms of holy wars and crusades, it tends to make lost people feel like enemies who must be conquered. The whole point of Christ’s words in Luke 15 is that lost people are God’s creations and his treasures, not his enemies. We can hate the ideas of the world (Revelation 2:6) but we can’t hate the people of the world. We are warned that must never love the things of this world, but we absolutely have to love the people. Otherwise, we will never reach them with the Gospel.
Here in the United States, the saints need to learn a hard lesson which Christians in hostile regions of the world mastered generations ago. We must be counter cultural, not anti-cultural. Anti-cultural people go around mad at the world because they hate the vulgar movies, they decry the angry song lyrics, they are appalled by the sexual immorality, and they are enraged that it’s politically incorrect to use the term Christmas. Jesus was never anti-cultural even though he strongly opposed many of the fashionable ideas of his day. He wanted to influence sinners, not arrest them. Counter cultural means I am working to change the culture, to subvert it. Jesus looked for loving ways to illustrate truth, embody faith, and swim against the cultural tides. But he never launched culture wars or urged his followers to take our country back. We are here for souls, not political victories.
Christ emphasizes that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents and returns to God than over 99 who don’t need to repent. Of course God loves the 99 safely in the fold. They are members of his family, people his son died for, but they are safe and secure. The sheep who have strayed are the ones who are at risk. If something doesn’t change, they will never be found.
Some of God’s people need to fall in love with the family business once again. The grace of God produces magnificent saints. But first, some saints have to love some sinners. Lift up the Cross!