Did Jesus welcome unrepentant sinners?

I read an article this morning emphasizing a response to the Supreme Court decisions about marriage based on the grace of the gospel.

While I appreciated the tone and many of the reminders, a particular line from it troubled me. The author invited us to reflect on the way that, “Jesus first welcomed and received unrepentant sinners” before saying, “Go and sin no more.”

The word “unrepentant” is what concerns me.

The author rightly suggested that, “The love that is meant to mark us as Christians is meant to receive people in the generous and gracious way Jesus received people.”

This emphasis, however, could be a little misleading when it comes to unrepentant people — even in relation to the courts’ decision.

First, in keeping with the theme of the article, Jesus was often ran with the “wrong people” of society. Why do you think they labeled him “the friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19)? The self-righteous crowd shook their heads in disgust at the people he spent time with and used his associations to renounce him. Even at the end of his life, when he died for us on the cross, Isaiah foretold his final association — “He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

Secondly, Jesus also clearly and repeatedly jolted the self-righteous religious establishment with culturally scandalous statements and stories. Imagine their response when he said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). How could he tell a story that placed a tax collector in the temple and sent him home justified before God instead of the Pharisee? Wow! There is no softly and tenderly Jesus is calling in this – just bold truth to cut to the heart of our self-righteous ways!

Yet the unrepentant sinners of Jesus’ day were mostly the religious leaders. And we could hardly say that he warmly welcomed them. Broken sinners, yes; self-righteous, arrogant (“see and do things my way, or else” sinners), no. It’s important not to be confused on this matter so that we don’t melt everything into a non-Christ-like kind of “just accept everyone no matter what” approach.

When His disciples began to mimic the behavior of the religious leaders, asking about greatness in the kingdom, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:2). Yes, changes must be made because “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5). Without these changes, you will not even enter heaven. It is reserved for the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). 

Now I certainly agree with the author that, “To receive an ‘other’ as they are, without first mandating behavior changes, requires us to tolerate a bit of anxiety or discomfort. It demands that we release, or at least relax, our natural impulse to announce our opinions. To receive another as they are, and not as we wish them to be, is to agree with the apostle Paul’s conviction that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance.”

But many of those who argue for gay marriage mirror the intolerant religious leaders of Jesus’ day more than the broken and contrite ones to whom the kingdom is open. They are not the “sinners” who seek grace but act more like the self-righteous who condemn and ostracize any one who disagrees.

Many of those promoting gay marriage have become some of the most intolerant people in our country. They operate with a “see things my way, or else” approach. If you hope to show them kindness it will only be accepted if it comes with full endorsement and celebration of what they want. The slightest disagreement with them wins one labels like “hate-monger, bigot, racist, homophobic, etc…

Many don’t realize that anger and bitterness underlies much of the homosexual lifestyle, not because of society but because of personal histories of those who choose to live it. This is one reason that gay relationships are notorious for domestic problems. 

I hope this balanced perspective leads to deeper discussions on our calling as Christ followers — especially in a context of responsible citizenship in a democratic form of government. 

Steve Cornell

3 thoughts on “Did Jesus welcome unrepentant sinners?

  1. Matthew Kernisky says:

    Pastor Cornell, I have read many of your letters over the years. I grew up in the Lancaster area, and my family still lives there, so I return as much as I can. I now live in Manhattan,and it’s not a far trip. I still love Lancaster- I always will.
    I grew up Lutheran, and I have a great respect for the Christian faith and all of it’s followers. This is why I have to reluctantly respond to you. I have no doubt that you know the Bible very well. Sadly, not every one who calls themselves a “Christian” does. I think men like you know this. And I think that men like you have a way of manipulating the Bible to go along with whatever it is you have a problem with.
    I’m a gay man. Not as if that would be a surprise to you. However, the surprise is for any of your readers who probably don’t know too many openly homosexual people. We, with a few exceptions for extremists (they do exist in every group), are not intolerant of those who don’t believe in our “lifestyle”. (By the way, we are an extremely diverse group of people who differ greatly in race, nationality, gender, religion, creed, you name it….and, yes, even morals. So, to reduce us to one idea of “lifestyle” is both ignorant and extremely offensive.) -We just don’t care that they don’t believe in our “lifestyle”s. We decline to debate it’s morality. This is not because we are intentionally “condemning” or “ostracizing” them, but because it’s just simply none of anyone’s business. They can believe what they want, but they will no longer dictate, by law, who we, as consenting adults, can and cannot marry. What makes some so called “Christians” bigots, is that they repeatedly try to prevent us from having the same rights as the rest of society. They compare us with things like pedophilia and beastiality. (We are consenting adult human beings who also pay taxes.) Then, when we, or our hetersexual supporters try to defend ourselves, they bring up the Bible and try to use it as a shield, as if they are completely innocent of casting stones. They make judgements on us without even knowing us, or basing those judgements on any facts. They pretend as though they are offering kindness…but they only see things from their own perspective. Their rhetoric causes gay youth to feel like there is something wrong with them. Often times, leading to suicide.
    If you’d like to know why there is so much “anger” and “bitterness” associated with the “gay lifestyle”..I’ll tell you this- It is a generalization. These are not feelings that everyone in the gay community feels. And, I can only speak of my own feelings of anger and bitterness…
    When you’re afraid to go to school in the morning because you will be beaten for exhibiting “gay tendencies”, it makes you bitter. When a couple in your New York City community is walking down the street, and they are jumped and beaten, nearly to death, by a group of men who yell homophobic slurs at them because they were holding hands, it makes you angry. When pastors and “Christians” then call hate crime laws an overreach…as if it these crimes don’t happen….it makes you angry and bitter. It can make you angry and bitter when people make an incredibly ignorant statement like the following, and I quote….

    “Many don’t realize that anger and bitterness much of the homosexual lifestyle, not because of society but because of personal histories of those who choose to live it. This is one reason that gay relationships are notorious for domestic problems.” -Steve Cornell

    On what basis can someone make that statement? How many gay relationships do know, Pastor Cornell? I know many. And those I know are every bit as happy or yes, in some cases, miserable, as anyone else’s. The point is that they are the same. Your quote is an incredibly irresponsible thing for a pastor to say. You made it up. And then, you speak with judgement, of people’s lifestyles without knowing anything about them. That is what makes someone a bigot.
    I, personally, have only been angry and bitter at those who seek to harm us…be it physically, verbally, or by the law. But, I am learning to let go of those feelings, because I have so much love in my life, and I do not need anyone else’s approval.
    We, homosexuals, have families and friends. We have love and commitment. We have compassion and joy and all of the things heterosexuals have. We also love heterosexual marriage and bless it at every wedding we attend. We only seek to have our country recognize that we are just as important. If that comes across as pride, then we are damn proud, Pastor Cornell. And you should be flattered that we look to the current institution of marriage for guidance. Mimicry, as they say, is the highest form of flattery.
    I don’t intent or even care to change your mind, Pastor Cornell. I’m also reluctant to reply to people like you, because you seem to enjoy pointing out how “angry and bitter” we are. I only hope that your followers can see a different perspective from someone who is a part of the group that you regularly slander. I also hope that anyone in your flock who may be like me can know that God loves them, and there is a better world out here for them.
    You should think about the things you are saying, and who is listening.

    -Matthew Kernisky

    • I appreciate you taking time to write and explain your thoughts. You’ll notice that I rarely use the Bible when I write on this subject because my arguments for public engagement are not based in religion but in logic and in principles of democracy and freedom. I have counseled enough people who struggle with same-sex desire and read widely enough on the subject to avoid throwing out careless statements.

      In a study from 2004, “the dissolution rate of homosexual couples was more than three times that of heterosexual married couples, and the dissolution rate of lesbian couples was more than four-fold that of heterosexual married couples” (JMF). According to the National Institute of Justice: “Same-sex cohabitants reported significantly more intimate partner violence than did opposite-sex cohabitants–39% of lesbian cohabitants reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked by a cohabitating partner at some time in their lifetimes, compared to 21% of heterosexual women. Among men, the comparable figures are 23.1% and 7.4%” (July, 2000).

      These facts are largely hidden from public view when gay marriage is debated. But those who live in the gay community know full well the painful truth of these statistics. And this goes to the heart of my pastoral concern about the gay marriage debate. Opposing gay marriage is not about hating people who desperately want to love. This accusation (like many others) is a manipulative diversion. It’s about helping people be free from lifestyles that are harmful and not what the Creator planned.

      Sadly, it must be acknowledged that many in the homosexual lifestyle came from horrible heterosexual homes where hate not love was dominate. I grieve to see all of this but must choose to look beyond the masks that cover the pain. This is my duty as a human and even more so as a pastor.

      On a political level, let’s not forget that there is no ban anywhere in the US forbidding same-sex relationships. These relationships are legal in every state. But why should an entire nation change the longstanding definition of marriage for the 2 percent who demand it?

      This is not about race or gender or civil rights discrimination. Such false comparisons are offensive and are easily disproven. This is about the kind of sex one prefers. There is simply no scientific evidence for an inborn condition making people gay. I am not suggesting that the tendencies or temptations are not real but these should not be used to define one’s person in a way comparable with race or gender.

      If someone asked me if I chose my heterosexuality, I am not sure what they could mean by the question or what answering such a question would accomplish. I think the question is designed to trace the origins of sexual orientation, but even if I was born genetically preconditioned to be sexually attracted to women, it wouldn’t instantly mean that this attraction was always right. It might be but it could also be wrong.

      Answering source questions will not necessarily lead to moral assessments. Morality has to do with right and wrong. Source questions are admittedly more complex than many admit. Sources for desires and actions can include genetic, cultural, experiential and social contributors. But sources cannot necessarily force me to behave in a certain way unless I can prove some mental incapacity. Sources could exert strong influence but I must exercise my will in relation to those influences. Respect for human dignity demands this position. This means, among other things, that I must look elsewhere for deciding matters of right and wrong when it comes to sexuality.

      If an adulterous woman, for example, complained that her adultery (i.e. her wrongful heterosexual behavior) was because of her distant and uncaring husband, we might be sympathetic toward her situation, but we cannot endorse her behavior (at least, I cannot).

      Sadly, the issue of gay marriage is not about people who just want to be left alone to love one another. This has become a divisive campaign of intolerance toward anyone who dares to see things differently from those who choose a gay lifestyle.

      I enter this debate as a sinner who needs the grace and forgiveness of God as much, and in many cases, even more than others. Life is a battle and I am just one more person trying to live for God in it. I know more than ever that I need a redeemer and an advocate with God and Jesus Christ is the one I have placed my trust in as my savior.

      God created humans as sexual beings with the intent of marriage and procreation. Marriage was originally designed by God to be an exclusive, permanent, one flesh relationship of companionship based on a covenant of commitment between one man and one woman.

      But because humans are fallen beings, we have not done a good job fulfilling God’s design for marriage and sexuality. And, being the candid and real book that it is, the Bible does not hide the ways that God’s servants distorted and disobeyed his original intention for marriage and sexuality. There are glaring examples even among the so-called heroes of the faith of sexual unfaithfulness, polygamy, and other violations of God’s design. This is why laws were needed to regulate sexual behavior and punish deviant sexual conduct.

  2. Thank you for this article. It is an increasingly daily struggle for all of us to show love to homosexuals while not accepting their unrepentance. It’s difficult to show true love – the kind of love that is not satisfied with leaving well enough alone, but attempts daily to bring others closer to Christ. That kind of love is difficult and is often confused with hate and intolerance. And it’s not helped by those who really ARE showing hate.

    Loving someone means not letting them die in sin. So thank you for speaking hard truth.

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