“Jesus was inclusive!”
Man, I hear that a lot these days, both in conversation, and also on various blogs and social media sites.
It’s usually aimed at Christians who express concern about various issues that we sincerely feel contradict scripture (the most recent being the gay marriage debate). The playing of the ‘inclusivity card’ usually goes something like this:
“Who are you to question my lifestyle or the lifestyle of others? Jesus didn’t judge people. He was totally inclusive and He loved people whoever they were! You need to be more inclusive like Jesus”
The difficulty with this phrase, of course, is that while it is true, it is not the full picture. Having heard the phrase one time too many this week I have decided to write about the claim that Jesus was inclusive, and I essentially have 2 points to make:
1. Jesus was radically inclusive
There can be no question that Jesus was inclusive. Indeed His ministry was marked by radical inclusivity. Take, for example, His disciples. He picked the unlikely, the unlearned, the unruly, the unpopular and the socially unacceptable. He welcomed women and children with open arms, defended the cause of the poor and the marginalised, served the outcasts, gave grace to the promiscuous and touched the untouchable. So extreme was His inclusivity that the religious elite soon started to take exception to the ‘unacceptable’ company He was keeping:
“Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11 v 19)
Jesus even died inviting a criminal to join Him in heaven!
Furthermore, the inclusive nature of Jesus’ life and ministry was clear in His teaching too:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4 v 18-19)
“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5 v 32)
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11 v 28)
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6 v 37)
“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19 v 14)
These are just a few glimpses into the kind of inclusivity that Jesus offered to the messed-up, the down-trodden, the over-looked and the under-dog. So with all of this in mind, is there any reason to think that Jesus would be anything other than welcoming and inclusive towards those come to Him?
Well, as I’ve considered this I have come to the conclusion that while Jesus was radically inclusive, He was also unapologetically exclusive.
2. Jesus was unapologetically exclusive
Such is the amazing grace that Jesus exemplified that I do not believe that He would have turned anyone away who came to Him. However (and this, I feel, is where the confusion lies) His offer was certainly “Come as you are” but NEVER “stay as you are!” The very first recorded word in the very first recorded sermon of Jesus is a hugely significant one: “Repent!” (Matthew 4 v 17). The word ‘repent’ means to turn. To turn to God and therefore, by necessity, to turn away from our broken, sinful ways. It is both disobedient and impossible to authentically turn to a holy God whilst refusing to reject the very sin that He came to save us from. Therefore, while Jesus calls us to follow Him, it must be on His terms, not ours.
Take, for example, the rich young ruler in Mark 10. When Jesus informed him that the cost of discipleship was to sell ALL of his possessions, the young man went away sad. What always strikes me about this story is that Jesus didn’t chase after the guy begging him to reconsider or implying He had been misunderstood. No, Jesus let Him go. He alone sets the terms for discipleship. Is He inclusive? Yes. But is unapologetically exclusive? Absolutely!
I find John 6 fascinating for similar reasons. This chapter sees Jesus’ followership rise from 12 to 5,012 (approx) and then fall back to 12 again all in a single chapter. In these verses we see the radical inclusivity of Christ (He feeds EVERYONE who comes to Him, no exceptions!) But as His teaching started to strike nerves and offend people, John tells us that “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (v66) Again, Jesus lets them go. He hasn’t sent them away, but neither has He altered the terms of discipleship.
The woman caught in adultery in John 8 provides us with a compelling case study in the true nature of the exclusive inclusivity of Jesus. After courageously standing up for her and dismissing a vicious lynch mob who wanted her put to death for adultery, Jesus gave her an incredible promise: “Neither do I condemn you…” But also a clear command: “…go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8 v 11)
This is exclusive inclusivity. There is grace for all, but it is not cheap.
Authentic Christianity comes at a cost.
Jesus gave everything for us. Therefore He has every right to demand everything from us:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8 v 34-38)
Read those words again. Does that sound unconditionally inclusive to you? From where I’m sitting, it actually sounds unapologetically exclusive to me. And what about these words:
“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9 v 57-62)
Finally, consider what are perhaps the most famously exclusive words that Jesus ever uttered:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14 v 6)
Jesus was clear – there is only ONE way to be saved – and that is through Him. No other religion, no other worldview, no other options on the table. It literally is Jesus or jack!
We are ALL invited to follow Jesus but He sets the agenda. If we are unwilling to lay down our rights, to turn away from our sin, to forfeit our ambitions or allow Him to be Lord, then we can have no part with Him. He really is that exclusive!
So where does that leave us regarding the claim that Jesus was inclusive?
Here’s where I land on this. I believe that as followers of Jesus we have absolutely no right to withhold from anyone the invitation to come to Jesus. Rather, we must follow the example of our Saviour who put His comfort, His reputation and even His very life on the line to offer grace, forgiveness and salvation to ALL – the lowest, the least, the addicted and afflicted, the down-trodden, the destitute, the religious and the wretched! Jesus welcomes ALL, and so should we! Let me just put this way – it is both ungodly and outrageous when Christians start playing the role of the moral police regarding those outside the church. We are not commanded to be calling ‘foul’ every time we encounter sin, rather we are commissioned to commend Christ and compel sinners to come to Him for mercy. Let me put it even more strongly than that – if you are more concerned about where someone has been putting their penis than you are about where they stand before Jesus – there is a serious gospel disconnect somewhere!
When it comes to the call to repentance and the offer of salvation – we should be as radically inclusive as Jesus was.
…while we are called to extend the open arms of the gospel to whoever would turn and trust Christ, we must remember that Jesus calls us to come as we are, but not to stay as we are. If we are to take seriously the call to make disciples, not merely accrue converts, we must take seriously the issue of repentance. If we are unwilling to give everything and stop at nothing for the sake of Christ, desiring cheap grace above costly commitment, then we are not fit to be called disciples of Jesus. As Christians we should be passionate about holiness. We should not be content to turn a blind-eye to sin, either in our own lives or in the lives of our church family, but rather “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4 v 15) we should courageously and compassionately challenge it. My fear is that many of us would rather not create waves, cause offence or be criticised for not being as inclusive as Jesus was. But just as excluding others is not Christ-like, neither is settling for a life that is anything less than exclusively all about Jesus.
When it comes to the life of repentance and the process of sanctification – we should be as unapologetically exclusive as Jesus was.
Jesus was exclusively inclusive.
We should be too!