“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.—Isaiah 55:1
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood…”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.—Revelation 22:14-17
There are churches out there that are unwilling to tell people that they have sin in their lives. In the name of love, they preach that everyone is fine just the way they are, and no one needs to repent of anything, just to accept the unconditional love of God. This, of course, makes churches like ours seem narrow-minded, intolerant, and unloving. These churches have even developed a clever phrase that communicates how gracious they are, and how ungracious we are: “All are welcome.”
“All are welcome” means “If you come here, you will not be challenged, just affirmed. You are much more welcome here than you would be at one of those mean churches that call you a sinner.”
When I first started hearing this phrase, I bristled at how unfair it is. Because the truth is that everyone is welcome in a church like ours. They are welcome to attend, welcome to listen and observe, even welcome to worship. They are welcome to struggle and stumble. Hopefully, they will meet some gracious and mature believers in Jesus Christ who will treat them with kindness and dignity, at whatever point they happen to be in their spiritual journey.
What they are not welcome to do is live in denial of reality. People are not welcome to take God’s place as judge and decide for themselves that they have no need of repentance. They are not welcome to celebrate things they should be ashamed of. They are not welcome to make light of the cross, or the One who hung upon it, or the reason He hung there, because ultimately the church belongs to Him and not to us.
The truth is that “welcome” is a word that can mean different things. It’s not enough to use the word by itself; we need to explain what we mean by it. Depending on which parts of the Bible you read, you might say that God is very welcoming. He is constantly inviting people to draw nearer to Him, to receive the free gift of His love and mercy, as He did through His prophet in Isaiah 55 (see above). In Matthew 11, Jesus invited weary and burdened people to come to Him and receive rest. And at the very end of the Bible, those who are thirsty are invited to come and take the free gift of the water of life. Truly, all are welcome.
But just a few verses earlier in Revelation 22, there is a description of the City of God, and the statement that only those who have washed their robes may go through the gates and enter the city. It specifically mentions people who are outside the gates, those who have refused to repent of their sins and live in the truth. If you refuse to listen to God when he tells you that you are unworthy to enter His holy presence, if you refuse to accept that your sin was paid for by Christ on the cross, if you refuse to let Him wash you clean, then you are not welcome to spend eternity with Him.
So the truth is more complicated than the simple statement “All are welcome.” The invitation is open to all, but it comes with certain requirements. You may come, but not if you reject the Son of God. You may come, but not if you continue to cling to your sin. And of course this is not as appealing as “you’re just fine, come as you are and never change.” So the church that teaches what the Bible teaches ends up looking legalistic, and the permissive church gets to pat itself on the back for being more loving.
But is it? If a person walked into a hospital with a bullet lodged in their abdomen, would it be enough to “welcome” them? No, they need help. Their wound needs treatment, probably surgery, not just affirmation. Real love helps and heals, and help and healing involve calling things what they are. Sometimes loving someone means saying “that thing is killing you and it needs to be removed.”
So the question for each of us is this: would you walk through the doors of a church if the sign out front said, “That thing is killing you and it needs to be removed.”? Are we willing to undergo spiritual surgery in order to experience the fullness of what God has for us? Or would we just prefer to be affirmed and “welcomed?”
But again, I don’t want to give up. I don’t think the word “welcome” belongs only to permissive churches that compromise the truth. Because all are welcome at Community Church. All are welcome to come and repent of their sin. No exceptions. All are welcome to surrender their lives to Christ and obey Him as their Lord. We will never prevent anyone from doing that. All are welcome to be washed clean by His blood and made worthy to enter His holy presence. All are welcome to be transformed into the new creation God wants them to be. The invitation is for everyone. It comes to us from the God who loves us far more than we can imagine, and who loves us far too much to leave us as we are.