Gospel Coalition Editor Responds to Columnist's Criticism Over 'Jesus, Friend of Sinners' Comment

Joe Carter, editor at The Gospel Coalition, has responded to criticism by Jonathan Merritt, a columnist, as a media debate carries on over whether Jesus' friendship with sinners had any pre-conditions or did He hang out with only those who were or would later be repentant.

Last week, megachurch Pastor Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries in Atlanta, Ga., responded to an article by Merritt, a columnist with Religion News Service, where Carter and others were criticized for their Calvinist views. "Got to go with @JonathanMerritt on this one," Stanley tweeted.

In his article, Merritt quoted Carter, also director of communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as writing, "Didn't [Jesus] only welcome those seeking forgiveness?" and said that Carter agreed with the statement: "The sinners Jesus partied with were already followers."

The columnist, who said he consulted theologians including Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, went on to say that if believers only build relational bridges with those who are open to converting, they will find it increasingly difficult to exist in a pluralistic, post-Christian culture. "This type of thinking can degrade the very essence of relationship by forcing us to see people more as projects than friends," Merritt wrote.

In his blog post on the website of The Gospel Coalition, Carter says he is responding because he realizes that "even noted Evangelical pastors [like Stanley] could be confused about this issue."

"In our rush to defend Jesus and make Him more palatable to our culture we can unwittingly lead people to accept soul-destroying beliefs," Carter writes, warning that an incorrect version of the claim "Jesus is a friend of sinners" can lead people to embrace universalism.

Merritt "quoted me selectively and out of context and misrepresented my actual beliefs," Carter says, adding, "I contacted Merritt and asked him to make an update and correction. He adamantly refused."

"The posts by [Kevin] DeYoung [from The Gospel Coalition] and I were written to address whether Jesus would attend any and every kind of gathering of sinners. Merritt misrepresented us by saying we think Christians should only talk to soon-to-be Christians," Carter says.

If Christ offers fellowship to all indiscriminately "without condition, no strings attached," then "we must follow that claim to all its logical conclusions, for Christ, for Christians, and even for the unrepentant unbeliever," Carter argues.

"Let's start with the implications for Jesus and his followers. If Jesus would fellowship 'indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached' then it means he would fellowship with any group of sinners while they engaged in any type of sin (that is what 'without condition' entails). That means not only that Jesus would act in such a manner (i.e., hanging out with any sinners while they are engaging in any type of sin), but that we should do so too."

Carter adds that this is a hard claim to support. "Would Jesus have sidled up to Paul during the stoning of Stephen and said, 'Let me help you with some of those coats.' Would Jesus have joined Roman soldiers in casting lots for the robe of a crucified man? Would Jesus have served lemonade at a lynching?"

Moreover, Carter goes on to argue, the logical implication of Merritt's views is that universalism is true.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, and His character is consistent, Carter explains. "If Jesus was willing to continuously fellowship with any and all unrepentant sinners – indiscriminately, without condition, no strings attached – then he will continue to do so in the future. If an unrepentant sinner was willing and able in AD 30 to fellowship with Jesus in Jerusalem as much as they wanted, then why will they not be able to do the same in the New Jerusalem? Why could they not, if they so chose, fellowship with Jesus forever without ever feeling the need to repent of their sins?"

In conclusion, Carter challenges Merritt and others who agreed with the columnist to explain how their view allows for a change in Jesus' fellowship of sinners upon His return to judge the living and the dead.

Merritt had concluded his article with these words: "A Jesus who loves us even if we don't love back? A Savior who pursues us even as we run away? A Christ who offers fellowship to all indiscriminately without condition, no strings attached? That would be a Jesus who is better than we've imagined, and that would be good news."