Friendship: The Friend of Sinners

We are approaching the time of year when many American families will rewatch the 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie tells the story of George Bailey, a self-sacrificing father and husband whose life begins to unravel on a fateful Christmas Eve. Viewers who persist through some fast-and-loose Hollywood theology about how people get into heaven and how angels get their wings are rewarded with a restorative ending to the film, punctuated by the maxim “No man is a failure who has friends.”



How close to the truth—and how subtly misleading. My focus in The Outlook this year has been on recovering a high biblical view of friendship as an antidote to a shallow “me-and-Jesus” kind of Christianity. Friendship is a precious and often underappreciated gift from our heavenly Father. Our love for friends and their love for us allow us to gain a richer understanding of the love of God. Speaking and receiving words of encouragement and exhortation can energize our pursuit of holiness. Friendships can strengthen our identity as believers and establish our faith more securely. And yet friendship is never guaranteed.

“You Are My Friends”

Earlier in this series, I mentioned the frequency of the theme of betrayal in the Psalms. David and other biblical writers poured out their hearts to God about the isolation and abandonment they experienced from those who claimed to be friends. Job’s companions heaped affliction upon him in the guise of friendly advice. We know—either secondhand or firsthand—that Christian friendships can grow cold, turn sour, or suddenly transform into manipulation, abuse, or violence. Even if we are spared such drastic scenarios, friends can move away, grow old, or die. Or we may be withheld from the joys of deep Christian friendship, finding ourselves “amid the thronging worshipers” and yet lacking a true friend. The truth is that many, if not most, of us will encounter seasons of loneliness and solitude in our pilgrim journey. In such seasons, we need a better moral than the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. If our lives are not to be failures, we need not just friendships, but one Friendship in particular—the love of our great Friend and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13–14, English Standard Version). These two simple sentences unravel any earthly conception of friendship and transport us into the realm of a relationship that can barely be described. It seems fitting and necessary to close this series on Christian friendship with a look at the friendship of Christ himself.

“You Shall Never Wash My Feet”

Let me back up to nuance my earlier critique of “me-and-Jesus” theology. Certainly, the gospel is more than friendship with Jesus. But it is also not less. To be sure, there is something lacking about a kind of Christianity that is summed up in gospel songs like “In the Garden.” But perhaps we Reformed believers can become so wary of overemphasizing a personal relationship with the Lord that we underemphasize it instead. And when we neglect this doctrine of union with Christ, we open floodgates of moralism and self-righteousness.

May I put this in more personal terms? As someone raised in a faithful and theologically conservative church, I find it natural to acknowledge Christ as my Creator, Redeemer, and King. I readily confess that God is my heavenly Father. I believe in his omniscience, his omnipotence, and his omnipresence. I commit myself to his providence and trust his wisdom. I am assured that Christ’s death on Calvary atoned for my sins and that his resurrection and ascension guarantee, in the words of the catechism, that he will “take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.”1 And yet, deep within my soul, I am somehow still revulsed by Jesus’s words in John 15. I am incredulous, even scandalized, at the thought that the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word that made all things, calls me his friend.

My offense is not because of something strange about Jesus’ words, as though he is replacing theological rigor with sentimental goo. No, my offense runs deeper. His friendship conveys a degree of divine humility and love that exceeds the bounds of my comprehension. It suggests that he might really know me—might know the deepest and darkest corners of my heart—and yet continue to love me despite that knowledge. Friendship with Jesus offends me because it suggests a level of knowledge and intimacy with the Son of God that I am not prepared to accept.

In such moments, it is not that I am too humble to call Jesus my friend. I am too proud. To call him my Lord and Redeemer affords some safe distance, like the comforting space I feel when I smile and say hello to the pastor on Sunday morning on the way out the door. To call Jesus my friend means that he might visit me at my house, that he might knock on my door at a time when I am not expecting him, that he might see through my ruse of religiosity and into the rotting emptiness of my spirit. For it is in the context of my profound spiritual bankruptcy that Christ comes to me and declares himself my friend. I must admit myself to be a puny and pathetic creature whom Jesus loves, whom he has forgiven, whom he is sanctifying, and for whom he is even now preparing a place to live with him forever (John 14:2–3).

Until we experience some measure of fleshly offense at Christ’s humble friendship, we are evading the core of the gospel. No amount of theological knowledge can compensate for the childlike faith necessary to accept this truth. When that faith wavers, either we may forget that Christ’s friendship with us exposes our uncleanness or, in a show of self-abasement, we may seek to reject his cleansing friendship altogether. Peter, at the Last Supper, illustrates both extremes, and Jesus mercifully points him back to the center. First, the instinctive reaction: “You shall never wash my feet!” and the Lord’s reply, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Then, the pious overreaction: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” and Jesus’ loving response: You are already clean (John 13:8–10). It takes great faith to allow the Son of God to wash our feet. But we must, if we are to experience the blessings of this divine friendship. And we need to know three things: this friendship originates in Christ’s character and finished work, it produces reciprocal love and affection in our own lives, and it overflows in blessings for the entire church.

“As a Man Speaks to His Friend”

Friendship originates in God, in the closest bond possible: the trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son.2 In light of such a holy, steadfast, and eternal relationship, we have no hope of enjoying friendship with God apart from the finished work of Christ. Note the if in Jesus’ words: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Not everyone will be accounted a friend of Christ on that last great day. Some will hear the devastating words, “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). His friendship is only for those who are united to him by faith, who share in his life through his righteous sacrifice on the cross. Our friendship with the Father is auxiliary to his paramount love for his Son; we are not accepted in ourselves, but “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6, King James Version).

Nevertheless, God does not offer his friendship begrudgingly, as though it were merely a parenthetical clause in the legal statement of our justification. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, the Lord earnestly pursues his desire to redeem his people and to dwell with them—from his first engagement with Adam and Eve after the Fall to the closing words of Malachi. Psalm 25:14 says, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (English Standard Version). Abraham and Moses were described as friends of God (Isa. 41:8; Ex. 33:11). The bride in the Song of Solomon calls her messianic groom “my beloved and . . . my friend” (Song 5:16). The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ announced the fulfillment of the Lord’s eternal plan to preach peace to his elect and grant them access to his throne (Eph. 2:11–22). Jesus Christ gladly identifies himself as a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). Friendship is in his nature.

An old hymn states, “I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole/Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee!”3 Marvelously, the friendship of Christ awakens our formerly dead hearts to love him in return. In the beautiful language of the Canons of Dort, “by this grace of God [the elect] do believe with the heart and love their Savior.”4 Or, in even simpler language, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The more we come to know the friendship of Christ, the more we will realize that our love grows in response to his.

Finally, note that this love toward Christ our Friend naturally overflows in love toward our fellow believers. Think about the apostle John, who repeatedly referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20). These passages seem off-putting, even pretentious, if we think John is asserting superiority to the other disciples in his closeness to the Savior. But think of this: that personal relationship between John and Jesus, whatever its qualities may have been, has benefited every single reader of the New Testament. John’s intimate awareness of the friendship of the Savior laid the foundation for his beautiful descriptions of God’s love in his Gospel, his three letters, and the book of Revelation. Far from hoarding the friendship of Christ, John publicized this love—to the profit of the whole church.

In short, we see that a thorough understanding of friendship with Christ points in exactly the opposite direction from “me-and-Jesus” caricatures of the faith. Friendship with Christ is the joint that binds me to the vine, uniting me not only to Jesus but to all his other disciples. And the specific fruit that Jesus identifies as the evidence that we are united with him is our love for one another (John 15:17; 1 John 5:2).

Friendship with Christ is the anchor that holds us fast throughout the changing tides of human relationships. It is the foundation that empowers us to savor whatever earthly friendships we encounter as his additional blessings to us. It is the bedrock that keeps us from faltering in seasons of loneliness and discouragement. And it is the one guaranteed relationship of the Christian life—the one friendship which will only go on increasing in joy and intimacy, not just in this life but forever.

What language shall I borrow

to thank thee, dearest Friend,

for this, thy dying sorrow,

thy pity without end?

Oh, make me thine forever,

and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never

outlive my love to thee.5

Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA

1 Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 19, Q&A 52.

2 Phil Urie, “The Greatest of Friendships: Developing Friendship with God,” The Outlook 61, no. 5 (November/December 2011).

3 Trinity Psalter Hymnal #427. The author of the hymn is unknown.

4 Canons of Dort III/IV, Article 13.

5 Trinity Psalter Hymnal #336, by Bernard of Clairvaux (1091–1153), translated into German by Paul Gerhardt in 1656 and from there into English by James W. Alexander in 1830.